A history of videogame hardware: Neo-Geo

Year: January 1990 Manufacturer: SNK Original Cost: $649

It is the Rolls-Royce of video game systems, a status symbol, a console whose games started at $250 a piece in 1990, and whose rarest titles today can cost upward of $1,000 on the collector’s market. An anomaly, the Neo-Geo was the first home games system to identically match the specifications of its arcade counterpart, an achievement that came with a slogan (‘Pro Gear Spec’) and price tag to match. Sleek, with a thin, black body and two huge robust, arcade-style joysticks, the Neo-Geo remains as desirable today, its library of 130-odd games as sharp and captivating as they ever were.

Shin Nihon Kikaku (‘New Japan Project’) began operations on 22 July 1978, releasing its debut, Maikon Kit, a Breakout clone, before making its name with shoot ‘em ups such as 1981’s Vanguard and 1985’s Arian Mission. In 1986 the company formally changed its name to SNK Corporation and signed a third-party licence deal allowing it to develop games for Nintendo’s home systems. While working as a Nintendo licensee proved lucrative thanks to hits such as the Famicom’s Ikari Warriors and the Game Boy’s Funny Field, SNK’s management wanted to return to the company’s arcade roots in order to reinvigorate an industry flagging in the face of Nintendo’s success in the home.

The idea was inspired: manufacture an arcade board that used interchangeable cartridges, much like those employed by the home consoles of the time. Prior to this, arcade operators were required to physically replace fragile PCBs with new ones or, worse still, buy a brand-new dedicated machine. Based on SNK’s new system, dubbed the Multi Videogame System (MVS), all operators needed to do to change the game in their arcade was to buy a new cartridge and slot it in. In an unprecedented move, SNK then

took the exact inner workings of its MVS technology and housed it in plastic casing, ready to release as ahome console. Initially, the company marketed the systems as rental-only machines, thinking the high manufacturing cost of each unit meant the console would be too expensive to sell at retail. But after two months, after a torrent of requests, SNK opted to sell the Advanced Entertainment System in shops, positioning it as a deluxe console that rendered the term ‘arcade conversion’ obsolete.

Word of this magical system that could translate the arcade experience pixel-for- pixel spread quickly, especially in Japan where the thought of owning arcade- perfect games in the tight space of a Tokyo bedsit seemed too good to be true.

The company soon became synonymous with the fighting game genre, its King of Fighters series establishing itself as Street Fighter’s main rival in arcades. This emphasis was primarily thanks to Takashi Nishiyama, who had worked on the original Street Fighter at Capcom before SNK poached him. Nishiyama was the jewel in SNK’s development staff, launching its flagship series, Samurai Shodown, The King of Fighters and Metal Slug.

But the system’s exclusive prices worked against it in the long run. Few parents would pay $600 for a console and $250 per game for their child when they could buy Super Nintendo, a suite of games and still have enough change left over for a holiday. Then, by the mid-1990s, games were popping into 3D, and Yu Suzuki’s Virtua Fighter series had made SNK’s exquisite 2D sprite work appear antiquated. But while fashions shifted, SNK doggedly continued to develop games, releasing some of the company’s finest work such as Metal Slug 3, Last Blade 2 and Garou: Mark of the Wolves, well into the Sony PlayStation era.

On 22 October 2001 SNK finally collapsed, filing for bankruptcy and placing its intellectual property rights up for sale. Later that year SNK’s founder, Eikichi Kawasaki, purchased SNK’s rights through Playmore, a company he set up in anticipation of the company’s collapse.