Tagged: SNK Playmore

SNK NEO•GEO CD

The Neo-Geo CD was first introduced in 1994, four years after the release of the cartridge based Neo-Geo home console – the Advanced Entertainment System (or AES). The idea of the Neo-Geo CD was easy to understand – as awesome as the Neo-Geo AES cartridge hardware had been, the cost of the cartridges was always going to limit its contemporary user base.

In the UK, new AES releases would run anywhere between £200 – £300, and in the early 1990’s that was a huge amount of money to pay for any videogame. The story was the same in the USA and Japan where the AES had the bulk of its modest sales success. The cost was due in part to the use of ROM chips, which were expensive to produce back then, and the fact you were basically buying a full and proper arcade game for your home.

Samurai Spirits 2 pack

So, the concept of playing SNK’s eclectic range of Neo-Geo arcade games at the same price point of a PlayStation game was clearly going to be appealing to gamers – on paper at least. The hardware was still expensive, $399 / £399 (dearer than the PlayStation and Saturn), but now the games were priced at around £45 making Neo-Geo software on a par with the mainstream consoles of the day.

Contemporary writers have criticised SNK for releasing the Neo-Geo CD, and its price tag, in the same year as the Sega Saturn and Sony PlayStation, and despite the Neo-Geo’s impressive 2D handling ability, the hardware specs of SNK’s new console were no match for the new 32-Bit powerhouses.

Doubtless the intention never was to compete directly with either Sega or Sony’s new consoles, but to make the arcade experience of the Neo-Geo more accessible. Bearing in mind that many arcade games, especially beat’em-ups and shoot’em-ups, in the mid-late ‘90s were still using 2D graphics, the Neo-Geo was still well placed to serve. And besides, if you weren’t a fan of beat’em-ups why on earth were you buying a Neo-Geo home console anyway?!

Why the Neo-Geo CD hardware became such a ham-strung compromise may forever remain a mystery. The technology certainly was available at the time to make the data management on the console a whole lot more tolerable than it what it became. Implementing this may have led to increased hardware costs, but the machine was too expensive anyway, and both Sega and Sony had long since realised that you do not make money on the hardware – you make it on the games.

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The original MVS arcade hardware had been a huge international success for SNK, and by 1994 I am more than confident in saying that they had made their R&D costs back for developing the platform and then some.

While I do not know how much the Neo-Geo CD cost to develop, in the grand scheme of things I would wager very little. The hardware is still Neo-Geo, but instead of ROM cartridge as the delivery medium for the games it became CD-ROM. A major mistake was fitting a single-speed CD drive to the unit, and the late 1995 release of the Neo-Geo CDZ did little to improve things. Some hardware improvements saw loading times speed up, but there was still no progress in improving the way the system handled in-game data delivery of the King of Fighters series or others with large meg counts.

So, are the loading times so appalling that the Neo-Geo CD isn’t worth bothering with?

King_of_Fighters_95

No, far from it. Some of the earlier games load in one hit, making loading times moot, and many of the later games with relatively modest meg counts carry, fairly, unobtrusive loads between stages.

Sadly, some of the later releases are just not worth bothering with, as the loading times completely ruin the flow of the gameplay. These games are usually post ’96 releases with high meg counts. A good example would be Metal Slug 2 whereby there is at least one-mid level load per stage (excluding the first stage). It’s a real shame, as, from what I can see, it’s identical to the ROM cart versions, with the bonus of CD quality audio.

The King of Fighters ’95 through to ’99, inclusive, are almost unplayable as SNK intended. Each bout is broken up by loading the next character, and the loading on KoF ’99 is really excruciating due to the huge meg count. Single play is just about tolerable, but King of Fighters is not supposed to be pure 1-on-1 fighting, it’s all about the team play!

Some late games are not as bad as you would perhaps think. Real Bout Fatal Fury 2: The Newcomers is more than playable on Neo-Geo CD, with relatively quick loads between stages, making it, arguably, one of the best brawlers for the CD system.

Metal_Slug

The original Metal Slug is eminently playable, largely, due to the fact the game is under 200 Megs. There are loads between stages, but you get a nice map showing your progress, there is no in-level loading, and there are other exclusive bonuses such as the Combat School.

Bonus material like this, is definitely one of the Neo-Geo CD’s strongest assets. Besides the CD quality soundtracks many of the games carry, there are a number that have features not found anywhere else.

Big Tournament Golf has a full extra course, many of the King of Fighters games have art and character galleries, Ninja Masters has extra game modes, Voltage Fighter Gowcaizer has a vocal soundtrack not found in the AES/MVS version; and there are the Neo-Geo CD exclusive games as well.

Neo Driftout: New Technology, Ironclad, Puzzle Bobble, Futsal, Zintrick, and Samurai Spirits RPG are just some of the titles that only officially appeared on the CD unit as published by SNK for Neo-Geo home hardware. Some were never officially released on MVS either!

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With a catalogue of just under 100 titles to choose from, there is plenty for the Neo-Geo enthusiast to play, and with the exorbitant prices of AES cartridges on the used market nowadays, the Neo-Geo CD may well be the better buy for the casual fan to get involved with, if you don’t wish to get into MVS gaming.

Nevertheless, be aware, that in recent years, games collectors have started to move in on the potential of the Neo-Geo CD as a collector system. The system’s lacklustre showing at retail in the 1990s resulted in many titles only receiving very small print runs, making some games very hard to track down, and in certain cases making the games expensive to buy as well.

If there’s any solid advice I can give, it’s to stay clear of the titles published in English for the US and European markets. Print runs for these titles were ridiculously low and to pick up some of the games, complete, if you can find them, will run serious coinage. Most Japanese titles can be bought for comfortably under $100.00 US, including some of the more sought after titles if you have the patience, and look in the right places (i.e. not eBay). It’s certainly worth me mentioning that all Neo-Geo CD software is region free, but remember: PAL hardware will only run the games at 50hz (letterboxed) no matter its region.

Hardware prices are modest, a loose Neo-Geo CD top loading model (the most common unit) can be picked up for under £150.00 with hook ups and a controller. Only the CDZ is still holding value, especially if it’s boxed, largely due to its short, Japanese market only, production run. Expect to pay north of £250.00 for a CDZ – and the loading isn’t that much quicker, honestly.

Neogeologo

The Neo-Geo CD was one of many follies to be borne out of SNK during the 1990s; the Neo-Geo CDZ, Neo-Geo Hyper 64 and black-&-white Neo-Geo Pocket being the others. One cannot help but think that these hardware failures all contributed to weakening SNK financially, hastening its sale to Aruze, and thus the beginning of the end for the business in its original, and much loved, form.

The Neo-Geo CD could have been so much more, but remains another footnote of how SNK had the potential to really impress and entertain, but fumbled the opportunity by producing hardware that simply could not deliver the gameplay experience needed. Some observers have argued that CD technology for gaming was still in its infancy at the time, but I disagree. NEC had proven since 1988 that the CD-ROM format could deliver great games beyond ROM cartridge limitations; Sega’s Mega-CD (1991) had the potential (Final Fight CD / Sonic CD) to impress as well (it was just badly marketed and supported); and with Sony developing the PlayStation during the same period, its baffling to see SNK get the hardware delivery so wrong.

The Neo-Geo CD hardware was quietly abandoned in 1997, with the final official game being published in December 1999. Ironically the final game was one of the most unplayable on the system due to its high meg count and therefore ruinous loading – The King of Fighters ’99.

I’ve always had a soft-spot for the Neo-Geo CD, and it’s disappointing to hear some of the vitriol the system receives. SNK’s short sightedness with the hardware certainly is deserving of criticism, but the machine still has a place in any hard-core SNK fans heart, and is still worth checking out for those who don’t want to pay AES prices, and don’t want to suffer with emulation. I just hope that software prices do not begin to spiral too far out of most gamers reaches.

SNK Neo•Geo CD
Produced: 1994 – 1997
Models:
Neo•Geo CD (front loading limited edition launch unit) – Japan only.
Neo•Geo CD (top loading unit) – Japan / USA / Europe.
Neo•Geo CDZ – Japan only.

Please note that prices are based on UK perspective and do not including any shipping or import duty costs that may be applicable. Price estimates correct at time of publication.

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Stahlfeder

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During the mid-1990’s there were two shoot-em-up’s released which had, for reasons lost on my good self, a rather Germanic theme to them, and both were released exclusively for the Sony PlayStation.
One was produced by the highly respected, and influential Square Soft (they of Final Fantasy fame). This game was critically acclaimed, rather stunning, and, is this writers favourite all-time horizontal shoot-em-up – Einhander.
The other Teutonic release came from am obscure developer called Santos; and the game was the rather critically un-acclaimed, and equally as obscure, Stahlfeder:Tetsukou Hikuudan.

Released in 1995 for the Japanese market only, Stahlfeder is a vertically scrolling shoot-em-up with a style much borrowed from contemporaries such as Raiden, Strikers 1945 and the 194X series by Capcom. You take control of one of four different fighter planes, each with his/her own strengths and weaknesses as you set out to defeat the enemy before you over six stages.

As with most shoot-em-ups the plot device is pretty much superfluous, however, in this case it really needs to be unless you can read Japanese. There is no plot reference in-game and so only the actual manual advises of the plot over two very brief pages, and it is all in Japanese; and there is little to no additional information to be found on the web. Yes folks, Stahlfeder is that popular.

stahlfeder1

Gameplay is a rather straight forward affair, each ship has two shot types, a weak wide shot type and a more powerful concentrated shot, and a bomb. The three attacks are spread over three buttons on the controller, ship speed is dependant on the player ship selected, as is the strength of your shield. Hit box is quite large, so bullet grazing is not recommended, and every time you are hit you lose a chunk of your shield bar. Once the shield is totally depleted it’s game over. Along the way you can collect additional bomb stock, power-ups for your two main shot types and also energy pick-ups to replenish your shield.

Scoring is as basic as it gets. There are no extra points for destroying scenery, there is no milking to be had, no chaining and no medal systems or ranking to be concerned with. At the end of every stage you will be rewarded for the amount of remaining shield you have and the number of unused bombs left in stock; so technically I suppose you could hinder your scoring opportunities if you select one of the ships with a weaker shield. Collecting shield items when the bar is full only adds score, it does not increase your shield capacity.

Enemy attack patterns, are, for the most part, not particularly challenging. Basic attacks seem to be Toaplan and Seibu Kaihatsu influenced, and bosses can be generally defeated without any reliance on bomb stock with the probable exception of the final boss who throws out near impossible to navigate bullet patterns where you’ll need bomb stock to cancel them out. In fact the game recognises this strategy by allowing you to pick up a quite healthy supply of additional bombs just seconds prior to the final confrontation. There is no second loop.

stahlfeder2

One area where Stahlfeder did break new ground, at the time, was that in the options menu you can select the colour of the enemy bullets to suit. The rest of the options are a distinct let down though, with even the difficulty setting only affecting how many credit continues you have at your disposal and not the enemy attack patterns. So, if you’re gunning for the 1all, you’ll bounce this straight on to “normal” knowing that the game will be pretty much no more challenging than when set to “easy”. The “hard” difficulty setting ups the ante by making the enemies slightly more aggressive, removing the end  of stage shield top-up, and powering you down if you get hit; it also does reward with greater end-level bonuses though.

During the mid-1990’s there were many games that mixed sprite and polygon visuals, and Santos took this approach with Stahlfeder, using a combination of 2D and 3D. The player sprites are each well drawn, but lack detail, and the enemy craft is generally rather generic looking and does not differ much between stages. In the early years of the 32-Bit era, as developers got to grips with the new technology and shift from 2D to 3D games, many early PlayStation and Saturn games had rather crude 3D visuals, and as a result have aged rather badly. Stahlfeder is no exception. The 3D rendered bosses look rather basic in form and animation, the final boss in particular is very poor, and rather unimaginative, especially compared to some of the earlier boss encounters. The backgrounds are generally dull, uninspiring and lacking in any great detail.

Sound is par for the course for a shoot-em-up and the rock infused soundtrack has a few good tracks but does little to help drive the action along, and could be generally summed up as unremarkable.

That, ultimately, is the best word to describe Stahlfeder – unremarkable. The game is neither good, nor dreadfully bad, but it is rather bland, bordering on dull, and you’ve really got to want to play it to get anything out of it.

stahlfeder3

Santos will undoubtedly be an unfamiliar name to many, but they actually have a rather interesting history:
Founded by Takeshi Tozu, Santos also had on board Akio Inoue, who was the founder of Aicom, the developer best known for the classic Neo-Geo game Pulstar.  In late 1996, with funding from SNK, Aicom and Santos were merged to create Yumekobo, who are now best known for Blazing Star and Prehistoric Isle 2 on SNK’s Neo-Geo hardware. Sadly, when SNK collapsed in 2001, Yumekobo folded along with it and the team disbanded. With only a handful of dedicated Japanese shoot-em-up developers left by the turn of the Millennium, it would be interesting to find out what happened to some of the Yumekobo team, but as yet I’ve not had the time to see if any names crop up elsewhere.

Overall there is little for me to really enthusiastically recommend to anyone about Stahlfeder, there are so many better examples of the genre out there, not only on PlayStation, but on just about any system of the era you care to mention. During a time when shoot-em-ups were developing into much deeper affairs than just “point-your-ship’n’shoot”, Stahlfeder delivered a back-to-basics package so unremittingly dull that it would seal its fate as nothing more than an early PlayStation curio.

Stahlfeder: Tetsukou Hikuudan

Version tested: PlayStation (NTSC/J)
Also available on: n/a

Metal Slug X

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When discussing SNK’s powerful Neo-Geo hardware, several titles will inevitably crop up in the conversation – King of Fighters, Samurai Spirits and Metal Slug will undoubtedly be mentioned. Having had an AES console in the distant past I have become pretty familiar with the titles in these three series and many of the other games that appeared on the system during its run. I was never a particularly big fan of run-n-gun games of the Contra mould in the past, although I did enjoy Data East’s Midnight Resistance when it came out.  Yet, when I first started playing Metal Slug I fell in love with the detailed and well animated sprites, the cartoon style action and superb music and sound… oh yeah, and the gameplay was pretty good too!

As I recall it was around 1998 when I first got introduced to the Metal Slug series and became a keen follower of the series up when it pretty much went off the rails with Metal Slug 4 in 2002. I have devoted much time to the first three Metal Slug games over the years on AES, and other formats, but the one game in the set that has received the most love is Metal Slug X.

Metal Slug X  (MSX) was released in the early spring of 1999 on the MVS arcade hardware and a little later that year on the AES home console system (both in the USA and Japan).

For those not totally familiar with MSX, the gameplay is good, old-fashioned, run-n-gun. You have four characters to choose from at the start (although you can change character at any credit continue point), and then you battle your way through six action packed stages as you attempt to defeat series regular, the evil  General Morden and his allies. There are hostages to rescue, a variety of different weapons to collect, vehicles and animals (yes, you read that right) to utilise, and numerous different enemies to defeat. Even for its time it wasn’t a particularly original premise, but the sheer quality of the game is what sets it apart.

MSX is also a re-tooled version of Metal Slug 2 (originally released the previous year), and to the cynical, and/or those who do not know what they’re talking about, “is MS2 with the slowdown fixed”.  Yes, sadly, MS2 does suffer with slowdown. Not horrendous slowdown, nor even protracted slowdown, but there are a few points during the game where there are basically too many sprites on screen. From memory, there is an issue on Stage 1, an issue toward the latter part of Stage 4, and at the end of Stage 6 when you fight the end of game “boss”. Those three examples are not meant to be exhaustive, and MS2 is still an eminently playable romp even with the slowdown, but some people just do not like it because of this issue. MSX does a lot more than just address the slowdown, and while saying “it’s a totally different game to MS2” would be stretching it a bit (a lot actually), it is significantly reworked to warrant being praised as a release in its own right. I guess you could call it the “Director’s Cut” version of Metal Slug 2.

So what is it that I like so much about it? Well, aside from the classic Metal Slug gameplay, it is the sheer detail that has gone into this game. A lot of time has been spent adding tiny details in, that on a casual play through, you would just not notice, or perhaps think to notice. There are obvious differences between the 2 and X as well. Although the Stages are the same in setting, some are set at different times of the day, enemies can be more prolific in number or a different type entirely, and some of the bosses have been altered, and on some levels a mid-Stage boss is also included. Remixed music, new weapons, new Metal Slugs and a different end-credit sequence are also thrown into the blend.

There are a lot of, new, hidden, elements in MSX for scoring opportunities, especially in the first few levels, and if you like playing for score or you’re trying to rescue all the hostages, you need to find out where these items are, because many are well hidden. In fact it took me ages to find many of the hidden point collectables and hostages, and I’m still not certain I’ve found them all on every level now! The backgrounds and sprites are highly detailed, the sprites in particular have a number of different animations unique to each character. Clearly a lot of time, and love, has gone into crafting this game and to make it stand out from its predecessor, and I, for one, am highly appreciative of this work as you just do not see it often enough in sprite based video games of this kind. In many ways, it is sad, that after Metal Slug 3 was released, the later entries in the series seemed more of a cynical way of generating cash from the name of the franchise rather than building on the quality that was laid down here.

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Many of you will already know that on home cart Metal Slug X can cost an arm and a leg such is the collector demand for Metal Slug AES titles. The MVS cartridge can be picked up loose for reasonable money (complete kits will not be particularly cheap), and the game has been ported to several mainstream home consoles over the years including PSX, PS2, Xbox and more recently Nintendo’s Wii download service – Virtual Console.  Having been thoroughly disappointed with the emulation used in the Wii version of Metal Slug Anthology, I was very pleased to find that the Virtual Console port is spot on and plays great with the Wii Classic Controller. So, if you haven’t got the Monopoly money required to purchase the AES version, nor a home-Jamma set up needed for MVS, then I would highly recommend the VC port whole-heartedly.  Put simply Metal Slug X is run-n-gun at its finest and most enjoyable.

Metal Slug X
Version tested: Neo Geo AES
Also available on: Neo Geo MVS, Wii, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 2, PlayStation, PlayStation Portable, PC, iOS, Android

mon

Who needs PG Tips when you’ve got soup, fags, and Metal Slug X???!!!