Tagged: Sony

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?

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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.

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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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Resident Evil 3: Nemesis

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A Happy New Year to you all, and I thought I would start the New Year with a fresh look at an old favourite of mine, Resident Evil 3: Nemesis. I actually spent a large chunk of my spare time over Christmas playing through the game (again), so that I could finally fully complete it – a feat that has taken me the modest period of a mere fifteen years…

Through the late-1990’s Resident Evil was fast becoming one of the most anticipated series on home-consoles. The zombie and mutant infested tales of Raccoon City’s legendary Special Tactics and Rescue Service’s fight against the corrupt Umbrella Corporation were gripping gamers everywhere. While recent entries from Capcom have divided opinion starkly among fans, between 1996 and 2000 four Resident Evil games were launched, and all were well received, firmly establishing the “survival horror” genre.

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RE3 is set around the events of Resident Evil 2, and sees you picking up control of S.T.A.R.S member Jill Valentine as she tries to escape the now zombie infested Raccoon City. The game essentially splits its story into two parts – action set before the events of RE2, and then action set immediately after RE2. However, throughout both segments you will encounter the infamous Nemesis – a bio-engineered assassin from Umbrella who will stop at nothing until all S.T.A.R.S members are eliminated.

Along the way you will meet up with Carlos, a member of Umbrella’s Biohazard Countermeasure Service – a team of ex-mercernaries Umbrella has assembled under the guise of an evacuation force for the remaining human survivors of Raccoon City. Not that you’ll come across many survivors. Zombies are now the primary inhabitants of Raccoon City’s streets; and you’ll also come across the familiar giant spiders, zombie dogs, Hunters, and the occasional new mutant.

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Controls are not immediately different to the previous two RE games, save for three exceptions. The first is the introduction of the “quick turn” feature. On the GameCube, simply flick the C-stick and Jill will perform a quick 180 degree turn, a move that is a god-send to improving the “tank” controls of the playable character(s). The second, more minor change, is that you now no longer have to press the action button to climb stairs – you do so automatically on approach. The third feature is a “dodge” manoeuvre, whereby pressing the R button just prior to attack will see you evade your attacker and allow you to ready for a counter attack.

The “quick turn” and climb features make the controls a lot smoother over the previous two games, however, the “dodge” feature can be a bit hit and miss, and I certainly wouldn’t rely on it to survive any given situation.

Another new element to the game is the ability to craft ammunition. Using various gun powders found around the game areas, you can create everything from regular bullets to explosive incendiary grenades and high-powered magnum ammo. Additional weapons do still need to be sought out, and you will only start the game with the standard hand gun. If you’re brave enough to take on Nemesis at the points he attacks you, and you put him down (temporarily though that will be), he will reward you with some pretty helpful weapon upgrades. Whereas ammunition conservation was very much the order of the day in previous outings, RE3 does all it can to insure you’ve got the tools to complete your mission.

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Graphically I don’t feel the game has aged too badly considering this title is sixteen years old now. The pre-rendered backgrounds do their job, and the character graphics are pretty good for a game developed for 32-Bit hardware. I’ve certainly experienced worse (I recently took a look back at Tomb Raider 2 on PSN, and the graphics are horrible). The animated cut scenes are showing their age somewhat, but given the original hardware specs the game was designed to run on, they’re still watchable.

The scripting is as cheesy as ever, but it wouldn’t be a proper Resident Evil game without a good dollop of cheese laden dialogue. Music is good, sets the atmosphere well, but is fairly unmemorable, while the sound effects do their job.

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Despite its relatively short length, (once you’re familiar with the game, it can be easily completed in under 4 hours), there is stacks of replay value. There are in-game extras to be unlocked when certain criteria are met, a challenging set of Mercenaries campaigns, and the game will rank you on your performance (based on completion time and in-game decisions taken); and there are multiple ways you can tackle in-game decisions and routes to completion. There’s also plenty of stuff hidden around the city to find if you’re inclined to look – it’ll certainly take a few play throughs before you find everything Capcom has thrown in. For fans of the series there are also eight different epilogue endings, each one giving a brief update on individual characters from the Resident Evil series helping to pre-empt the story lines for Code:Veronica and RE4.

I have been a big Resident Evil fan since the launch of the original on the Sony PlayStation, and while the first game and sequel always seem to be fondly remembered, there never seems to be much time given to the third instalment. Perhaps its release was slightly overshadowed by the (then) prospect of Resident Evil: Code: Veronica on Dreamcast, but for me it is a worthy edition to the series and still seriously good fun to play. For those who prefer their zombie action over the puzzle elements and slightly slower pace of the previous games, then Resident Evil 3: Nemesis is a real treat.

 

Resident Evil 3: Nemesis
Version tested: Nintendo GameCube
Also available on: Sony PlayStation, Sega Dreamcast, Sony PlayStation Network, Microsoft Windows

Welcome To Last Week… The Last Of Us: Left Behind

leftbeh

I would not usually plan to cover DLC within my blog entries, but for The Last Of Us: Left Behind, I will make an exception.

Many regular readers will no doubt have read my enthusiastic embrace of the original PlayStation 3 release from a few months back, and as you can imagine I was rather keen to download and play the additional one player content Naughty Dog released on February 14th. Left Behind is set up as something of a prequel to the main game, and while part of its story is set prior to the events of primary story, the bulk of this chapter actually plays out in a time frame set during the main story, albeit quite late on. One really needs to have completed The Last Of Us before embarking on following the story of Left Behind, and if you have yet to play main game, or have not yet completed it, you may wish to stop reading now as there are some minor spoilers ahead!

The Last Of Us: Left Behind is essentially split in to two stories, which flash backward and forward as you play through. One part of the story explains the events of how Ellie is propelled to prominence within the main story; and the second part tells the story of how Ellie cared for Joel in the immediate aftermath of his near fatal incident at the University of Colorado. The two halves of the game fall into two contrasting styles of play, but neither will be unfamiliar to those that have played the main game – the story strand focusing on Ellie and her friend Riley is a fairly pedestrian affair, whereas the strand focusing on Ellie’s care for Joel is very much action based.

As you play through, the game flips back and forth at intervals between the two settings, and although the two stories are not directly related for the purpose of the overall game, they help contrast the flow of the action with that of a more character driven experience. The action based scenario sees you trying to find a medical kit for Joel’s injuries while holed up in a shopping mall, avoiding Infected and Hunter’s who do not take kindly to your presence. Those of you who have played Ellie’s strand in the main game will be instantly familiar with the gameplay, and in essence, nothing is remarkably different. However, one interesting element is that in areas where there are both Infected and Hunter’s, you now have the opportunity to play one off against the other, or eliminate both as you see fit. Sending a pack of Clicker’s running into a team of Hunter’s is most satisfying, and the end result will lead to less work for yourself – handy when ammunition is at a premium, and bearing in mind that Ellie is not particularly strong with melee attacks.

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The other scenario showcases Naughty Dog’s story telling talents to the fore, carefully crafting out the relationship between Ellie and her best friend Riley and cleverly showcasing the life a young teenager would be expecting to lead in this dystopian future. While you control Ellie throughout, this strand is all about the dialogue and the interaction between the two friends. To go into more detail would probably ruin the story for those who have yet to experience it, but look out for the film references that perpetuate around the shopping mall.

This new mini-chapter in Joel and Ellie’s primary tale is certainly worth experiencing, and has all the production hallmarks of the main game. However, at approximately two-half hours gameplay (at the most), I felt that charging £11.99 for the privilege of admission to be veering into the unreasonable. Sadly, from a purely cynical point of view, I dare say Sony are riding on the coat-tails of the main game’s success and thus justify their premium for this DLC. Ultimately, I feel it is definitely worth downloading, I just do not feel that it is particularly good value for money given its length.

Left Behind is most likely the only additional extension to Joel & Ellie’s adventures, and so the waiting commences to hear if Naughty Dog decide to release a sequel on PlayStation 4 at some point in the future. Naughty Dog have proved they can produce quality sequels with the Uncharted series, and so I am confident that the sequel when it comes will not disappoint, but I am not expecting a release anytime soon!

The Last Of Us: Left Behind

Version Tested: PlayStation 3 (download only via PSN)
Also available on: N/A