The Best of Both Worlds : The Story of Neo-Geo
Updated: Apr 21, 2019
For operators and owners of arcade machines, there is a risk with buying a new game for a location. Will the game make enough money to pay back the initial investment? Arcade games are expensive when brand new costing thousands of dollars. The time frame players have an interest in pumping quarters into a game can also be fleeting. Players are always looking for the newest and best bang for their buck, or quarter. If a game ends up being a turkey players will quickly move onto a new game. A game that is losing it's profitability can be converted into another game via a conversion kit. These kits often can come from either the original manufacture of the game or a third party company. If a game stops collecting a decent amount of money it is useless to the operator. These conversion kits can help extend the life of some of the original investment of the game. But these kits can also be expensive. Converting games can also be time consuming endeavor if done correctly. Boards must be changed, control panels installed (or modified), cabinets painted, and artwork applied. Some cabinets are so unique in design or function compared to other arcade games that they cannot be converted or converted easily. This means if the game ends up being a dud, the operator can be out some serious money.
On the flip side of all of this is the home system player. Home systems have traditionally been underpowered compared to arcade units. But thanks to lesser proceeding power and memory then their arcade cousins, they are affordable to the masses to own. This translates into home releases that are often somewhat underwhelming compared to the original arcade versions of the game. One only has to look at home arcade conversions like the disappointing Atari 2600 conversion of the classic Pac-Man. Or others like the NES version of Double Dragon fail to come even close to the arcade experience. Home controllers can be cheap as well. Failing to recreate that authentic arcade mojo that is truly special to a gamer. In 1990 SNK decided it would attempt to solve all of these issues with the revolutionary Neo Geo arcade system. Making it easy and affordable for operators to change games using the same cabinet. Eliminating the need for difficult or time consuming conversion kits. At the same time offering exact versions of the same arcade hits available to the home user (who would have to have deep pockets for the pleasure of doing so) for the first time ever.
In 1978 Eikichi Kawasaki would start the SNK company in Osaka, Japan to break into the blistering new video game arcade market. SNK actually is the abbreviation of “Shin Nihon Kikaku” in Japanese, or translated means “New Japan Project”. The arcade market was exploding thanks to early hits like Space Invaders from Tatio. SNK would release several early but somewhat forgettable arcade games in the late 70’s and early 80’s. Most early SNK arcade games would be released in the US by other companies such as Centauri. By the mid 80’s SNK came into it's own with some solid games. SNK produced several now classic run and run style games such as Ikari Warriors, Victory Road, and POW. SNK would also find success being an early developer of games for the Nintendo NES home system. This included the very popular Baseball Stars game. Almost everyone I knew who had an NES growing up had a copy of Baseball Stars.
As SNK approached the 90’s a new project developed to rectify several key challenges operators had with arcade games. Instead of having to convert a game with expensive and time consuming kit, the game should easily be changed like in a home system. A generic but quality built 4 button per player universal two player control panel would never have to be changed. New games would come in a cartridge the size of a VHS cassette and simply be inserted in one of the empty slots of the motherboard. Small mylar game descriptions fit into the main top marquee to announce which game were playing on this Neo Geo almost like mini movie posters at a movie theatre box office. A new game could be installed in the system and ready to play in less than 5 minutes. The Neo Geo could easily change games with a minimal amount of fuss or technical know how. It could even house 2-6 arcade titles in one machine. These factors could be a huge boom to arcade owners. Allowing a player to play several different games with minimal floor space, and quick change over to the latest games meant more profits for arcade owners.
The Neo Geo was not the first attempt by an arcade manufacture to develop a system that would be easy to change titles or even play multiple games in the same cabinet. Atari would experiment with "Showcase" cabinets in the 1970's in which generic cabinets could house any game for use in public spaces not traditionally housing arcade games. In 1980 Data East would release the DECO arcade system, that would allow operators to change the game program in the cabinet via a program on cassette tape. The cassette player was attached to the CPU inside the machine. Operators were concerned with the load times and possible reliability issues of the cassette mechanism. The system was slightly more popular in Japan than elsewhere but could hardly be called a success. Although several games would be re-released onto more traditional CPU systems including the classic games Burger Time and Bump 'n' Jump.
Sega marketed a system call Convert-a-Cab for easy switching of game titles in a generic cabinet. Kits for new games came with new control panels, art, and electronics. In 1984 Nintendo developed the VS. arcade system, which utilized kits to easily switch the CPU, marquee, and other items of a standard cabinet quick and affordable. The system was available as both a retrofit for older games (Such as Donkey Kong or Popeye) or as a new dedicated cabinet (also as two connected cabinets, or a double sided cocktail). It proved very popular producing arcade versions of games that would be even more popular on Nintendo's home NES system like Super Mario Bros. or Castlevania.
Nintendo would also try to merge the home market with the arcade machine. In 1986 thanks to the success of Nintendo's home NES system, Nintendo released the innovative Playchoice arcade system. This was essentially an arcade version of the home system. The Playhouse housed slots for up to 10 NES games. A quarter would give the player a set amount of time to play. The player also had the ability to switch games until the timer was expired. The system allowed arcade players to “Test Drive” NES titles that they might be interested in purchasing for home use of their own. The technological limitations of the NES home system where apparent when compared to other dedicated arcade games even for 1986. (Games for the Playchoice although the same as their NES counterparts, were not directly comparable with each other) But the system was a success for Nintendo helped move even more home systems and NES cartridges for the company. Nintendo would also release an arcade version for it’s follow up home system Super Nintendo called “The Nintendo Super System”. However it wasn’t nearly as successful and few games were released for the arcade system.
The Neo Geo in it’s lifetime was available in a large variety of cabinet styles and sizes. The most common styles in the US would be the standard upright cabinets with slots for either one, two, four, or even six game cartridges to be installed at any given time. A smaller mini cabinet was also available, and a cabaret style 2 game slot cabinet often referred to as the “Goldie”. Worldwide the shear amount of variations (both legit manufactured versions from SNK and bootleg versions from unauthorized manufactures) can be a bit awe inspiring. The Neo Geo arcade unit uses the JAMMA wiring standard found in many arcade games, but it is not directly compatible with normal JAMMA boards from other arcade games.
Processing power came from a standard but powerful 68000 CPU with a Z80. The Neo Geo sported 64KB of RAM, 68KB for video RAM, and a max of 380 sprites on the screen at once. The Neo Geo was no processing slouch, it was a powerful machine compared to other arcade systems of the age. It could also display 4,000 colors on the screen at once out of an available palette of 64,000. The system was designed to handle two dimensional graphics with speed and slickness. Most of the hardware was designed by the Alpha Denshi corporation of Japan. Alpha Denshi would develop many games for the Neo Geo for the lifespan of the system.
The arcade system quickly was a big hit with operators and arcade patrons. Operators loved the ease of game switching, multiple games per cabinet, and the quality of the games being offered. Players loved the variety of games, including the more Japanese style games that had been rarer to find in American arcades up until this point. Neo Geo built a great reputation with gamers quickly. SNK would sell the arcade units from 1990 through 1997, and sell new game cartridges all the way up until 2004. This makes the Neo Geo the longest supported arcade game format in arcade history. A truly remarkable achievement when most arcade games outlive their stay in a year at the most.
Officially 148 different game cartridges would be released for the system, some of them being exclusive to the Japanese market. Over it’s lifespan the Neo Geo produced many breakout hits and cult game favorites. Games included (but aren’t limited to) the excellent run and gun series Metal Slug, puzzle favorite Bust-A-Move, tWindjammers, or innovative shooters like Viewpoint. Thanks to the planning of a 4 button per player layout of the control panel, one on one fighting games could be designed. This helped SNK take advantage of the popularity of games like Capcom’s Street Fighter. Many fighting series such as Fatal Fury, King of Fighters, and Samurai Showdown made the Neo Geo home. Many excellent sports games also appeared including Baseballs Stars, Neo Turf Masters (Golf), and a plethora of other sports. Even trivia, horse racing, and mahjong games made their way to the system.
But cornering the arcade market with innovation wasn’t enough for SNK. In 1990 SNK also released a home version of the Neo Geo known as the Neo Geo AES. The home version offered exact releases of the arcade versions of the Neo Geo games. The home version shared the same powerful hardware that devised the arcade unit. The Neo Geo AES was a stunning achievement for home gaming. Never had a home system or a home computer had the power needed to run exactly the same version as the arcade game counterpart. No longer did home users need to compromise quality for the convince of playing in the comfort of the home. Of course there was a price for this luxury.
The Neo Geo home system would debut with a price of $649. Adjusted for inflation that is almost 1300 in 2018 dollars. Cartridges weren’t cheap either, home game cartridges would sell from $150 to $399 dollars or more. I actually worked for a computer software store in the early 90’s that carried Neo Geo. Over the two and half years working there I can only remember selling a handful of games. Even by comparison of other tragically expensive game systems (NEC’s Turbo Express come to mind) it was a very slow seller. Home systems also traditionally had genres of games that the Neo Geo did not. These styles of games simply didn’t translate for arcade use, which was really Neo Geo’s bread and butter. Popular role playing games like Nintendo’s Zelda series or Sega Master System’s Phantasy Star just didn’t exist on the Neo Geo. These kind of long play value games were sorely missing form it’s game library for a home system.
As game systems progressed through the 1990’s with polygon technology newer systems emerged. Systems such as the Sega Saturn, Atari Jaguar. or the first Sony Playstation made the Neo Geo look quant by 1994. 2-D sprite based games where on the out, the home market wanted 3-D polygon based games like Tomb Raider or Nintendo 64’s Goldeneye. SNK would try to regroup by releasing the Neo Geo CD home system in 1994. The US market wouldn’t get a release of the system until the beginning of 1996. Neo Geo CD changed the game format from expensive cartridges to cheaper to sell CD based games. Long loading times thanks to a now archaic 1x CD-Rom drive (The original Playstation used a similar one) didn’t help matters compared to the zero loading time of the original cartridge based system. This was all too little too late for the home market as the Sony Playstation was winning fans and dominating the sales charts.
By the late 90’s Neo Geo was showing its age. SNK would try to make lighting strike twice (or a third time?) with the new Hyper Neo Geo 64 arcade hardware system. This was a driest response to the Neo Geo hardware not being able to render 3D polygons. Despite some initial hype around the system, including a planned home version of it like the original Neo Geo it was not a success. Only seven games would be released for the system with none of them being stand out arcade hits.
SNK would also release two portable systems known as Neo Geo Pocket and Neo Geo Pocket Color. These systems do not share any of the original hardware with previous Neo Geo systems. Although there is a cult following for these portable systems, they were considered to be unsuccessful in the marketplace.
Neo Geo refused to stay quiet even well after it’s technology would be considered vintage. Some classic Neo Geo games made there way to newer home game systems. Fans of the games could play them via downloaded arcade emulators for home computers. In 2012 the handheld Neo Geo X would be released. This handheld color portable allows for classic arcade Neo Geo games to be played own the go. It has twenty game built in with additional games available via memory cards. They system also made available a docking station to mimic the look of the original Neo Geo AES home system. This would allow the games to be played on a television and use a traditional joystick as well. In 2018 SNK announced a new Mini tabletop Neo Geo. The system plays the games on it’s own 3.5 inch LCD screen or allows the owner to connect it to a television via an HDMI cable.
The legacy of the Neo Geo arcade system is however truly something spectacular despite the ambitious failures of SNK’s home systems. For an unprecedented 14 years SNK developed arcade games for the Neo Geo MVS. It has gained the admiration of fans of both classic home and arcade games. Not only thanks to a generous library of excellent titles, but it’s attempt to finally breach the gap of home systems and arcade experiences. Today an arcade Neo Geo is both an affordable and easy way to get into the hobby. I paid a meter $375 dollars in 2018 for my 2 slot MVS system. There is an active collector market for used Neo Geo cartridges thanks to the internet. Several companies and hobbies make decent multi-game cartridges (some are of better quality than others) to turn your Neo Geo into a jukebox of video game hits. No system before or since has done quite what the Neo Geo did, and for a time it really was the best of both worlds.