Feature: Neo Geo Station

I can scarcely remember the last time a bit of gaming news excited me this much. One Wednesday, I checked the PlayStation Network to see if the week’s update had brought us anything interesting. As usual, it was mostly a bunch of rubbish I couldn’t care less about, but just as I was about to exit the store, I noticed a small trailer bearing the logo of the old Neo Geo system. Intrigued, I downloaded it and couldn’t believe what I saw: the new Neo Geo Station service for PS3 and PSP, which would bring us all of SNK’s classic titles once again.

SNK, in case any of you young whippersnappers don’t know, is a legendary games developer from the ‘90s whose day has mostly come and gone. They’re still around, in the form of SNK Playmore, but they’re not what they used to be. Back in their heyday, they focused their efforts mainly on the Neo Geo system, where they were known for their plethora of excellent and groundbreaking fighting games. They had a few good platformers, scrolling fighters, sports games and shooters too – most notably the insanely over-animated Metal Slug series.

Now, unless you were lucky enough to actually own a Neo Geo console back in the day, most of these games, at least the early ones, probably eluded you. The Neo Geo’s jaw-dropping 2D trickery was difficult to reproduce on other machines, even in the 32-bit generation, meaning ports of their early games to other machines were often severely compromised, tragically flawed, or just impossible. The only way to really get the full Neo Geo experience was to own a Neo Geo, which was a pricy bit of hardware and was never available here.

That’s why the new Neo Geo Station is such good news. For an old school gamer like myself, who laments missing out on the early King of Fighters, Samurai Shodown and Fatal Fury games, or just for anyone who is interested, it’s the perfect opportunity. Basically, it’s an emulated Neo Geo console for your PS3 or PSP, complete with online play for the PS3, and ad-hoc for PSP. There are a few nifty extras included too. For instance, you can record replays, assign the buttons however you want, turn graphics filters on and off and even switch between the Japanese and English versions of each game. The reason you’d want to do the last one is because, back in the ‘90s, violence and nudity were usually censored in the English versions, which meant no blood or extreme death scenes in Samurai Shodown and no bouncing boobs on Mai in the King of Fighters – just as an example. Now you can switch between the Japanese and English versions of these early games to see clearly what we missed out on.

The first wave of early SNK games is currently available, and they range in price from R85 to R65 a pop. Some of them are even free if you’re a PlayStation Plus member. Unfortunately, the PS3 and PSP versions of each game are two entirely different things, so you can’t buy it once and put it on your PS3 and PSP like you can with PlayStation classics. You have to buy them separately – probably due to the different resolutions and network functionalities of the two machines. Some of the highlights of this first batch include:

Samurai Shodown

This is probably the game that brought SNK to the attention of Westerners back in the day. Naturally, it was labelled as “Street Fighter with weapons”, but nothing could be further from the truth.  Even today, the Samurai Shodown series is completely unique as far as 2D fighters go. Back then, 2D fighters were starting to become very technique-focused, flashy and combo-centric. Samurai Shodown went the opposite direction entirely, focusing more on landing singular, incredibly damaging strikes – to the point where it’s entirely possible to end a battle with two strikes under the right circumstances. The game also allowed players to run, back-dash and build-up rage to make their attacks more powerful – something Street Fighter wouldn’t gain for years. It also allowed combatants to be disarmed, meaning they had to fight bare-handed until they could retrieve their weapons. SNK’s graphics techniques were at their strongest here too, with large, colourful warriors slashing eachother with stylish slowdowns while the camera zoomed in and out. A true classic if there ever was one.

The King of Fighters ‘94

The first instalment in what would become SNK’s flagship product is a far cry from what the series is today – but is still pretty good in its own right. The first ever team-based fighter, it allowed players to pick teams of three warriors to take on the world. Unfortunately, in this game, the teams are pre-made, and you can’t change them – you’ll have to wait for KOF ’95 for that. Still, it’s a testament to SNK’s dedication to the evolution of the versus fighting genre.

The Art of Fighting

Valued more for its contributions to the fighting genre than its actual gameplay, this is another true classic. The now mandatory Super Move game mechanic can be traced directly back to The Art of Fighting. Taunting and super-charging are also owed to this particular fighter. Another impressive feature that didn’t catch on, unfortunately, is the way the characters become visibly bloodied and bruised as they fight – not even Street Fighter IV has this feature! Oh well, sometimes ideas, as good as they are, are just more trouble to implement than they’re worth, but hats off to SNK for trying.

Metal Slug

Every machine needed a crazy shooting game to complement its roster. The Super NES had Contra, the MegaDrive had Gunstar Heroes, and the Neo Geo had Metal Slug. Of the three, Metal Slug is without doubt the best. Its non-stop blasting action is good enough in its own right, but what really set it apart from the rest is the unbelievable graphics and ridiculous amounts of animation the game featured. There’s always something cool or funny to look at, and it’s clear that Metal Slug was a labour of love for the developers like few games have ever been.