Viva La Neo Geo! Hands-On with SNK’s Reborn Classic Console

Neo Geo X

There are few products in gaming that get a second chance at life the way that the Neo Geo has, thanks to a partnership between SNK Playmore and electronics manufacturer Tommo.

Some gaming consoles thrive and go on to live long and fruitful lives, perpetually connected to television sets for a decade at a time. Others flounder under the weight of lofty expectations and are hastily forgotten. It’s feast or famine in the console manufacturing world (just ask Sega), and once a machine is pronounced dead, it stays dead.

That is, until the Neo Geo X arrived after a year of speculation. Announced last fall as a portable unit pre-loaded with a handful of old Neo Geo games, it was quickly dismissed as vaporware, much like the Infinium Labs Phantom of a decade ago. But not only did SNK deliver on their promise, they actually made the end product a million times cooler than the simple portable machine that was initially introduced. The addition of a docking station modeled after the original console and authentic recreation of the original 1991 system’s arcade-style joystick made the unit something I absolutely need to have, rather than something I merely wanted.

I’ve spent a ridiculous amount of time with this reincarnated classic console, and I can confidently say that the Neo Geo X is one of the coolest, and most enjoyable retro-centric gaming products ever released.

Neo Geo X

At a retail price of $199, the Neo Geo X is certainly an investment. This is definitely is not for the casual gamer; the Neo Geo X is reaching out to a niche market.

I never owned the original Neo Geo console (few did), but it’s always intrigued me. When it originally released in the early 90s, the system commanded a colossal $699 at retail and games for the system were priced at over $100.

Needless to say, it was a hard sell to gamers, especially considering one could obtain a Sega Genesis with a copy of Sonic The Hedgehog for under $200.

Still, the system still accumulated a modest following due to its flawless arcade ports that were more in line with the desires of older, more hardcore gamers. These weren’t the kinda-sorta “well, it’s close enough” versions of arcade games that we’d seen on consoles in the past. No, the Neo Geo had exact replicas of games being played in arcades. This allowed the Neo Geo to, at the very least, survive until 1996.

Despite it’s relatively small install base, it is still highly-regarded in gaming circles and a much sought after device among retro collectors.

Neo Geo X

Unboxing the Neo Geo X is an exhilarating experience. It almost felt like going back to Christmas 1991 and being one of the few lucky kids to wake up to a Neo Geo under the Christmas tree.

There are two boxes inside the main package; the first one I opened contained the system’s controller. The joystick is a 1:1 replica of the original, bearing no differences to the original aside from that its connector is now of the USB variety. The click-clack of the digital joystick as it is jostles about is a real joy; it brought me right back to the pizza parlors I spent many a quarter at as a kid. The four arcade pads are conducive to the rapid-fire quickness required for the system’s twitch-style arcade games, but they can be a little too sensitive and will often trigger accidentally. This is a minor complaint however, as it is easy to alter your form to compensate for it.

All in all, the controller is extremely impressive. It’s not cheaply constructed as I had expected it would be, and it’s built to endure extreme punishment. I don’t much care for the quasi-vertical placement of the button pads, but seeing as this was implemented to maintain a perfect likeness to the original, I can live with it.

Unfortunately, the system only ships with one controller, but SNK has promised that standalone joysticks will soon be available for purchase. Let’s hope they stay true to their word, because every single game on the system would be better enjoyed with human accompaniment.

Metal Slug 3

After admiring the joystick for a good fifteen minutes (not lying), I popped open the box containing the console.

The portable unit is the system’s backbone; all of the processing is done inside the sleek little black handheld machine. It connects to the docking station in a sort of crude way, as it must be gently pressed into place in order to protect the adapters from breaking. I assumed the connection would be similar to the 3DS’s drop-and-click docking method, and this is my only real criticism of the Neo Geo X. I’m hesitant to ever remove the handheld from the system’s innards out of fear of ripping the connectors out with it. It seems to hold up as long as adequate care is taken, but I would highly advise against ever leaving the portable in the docking station when transporting the system due to how brittle the connectors seem to be.

Thankfully, the rest of the dock seems pretty sturdy, so I don’t foresee any major problems with the system’s durability. Since I don’t have an original Neo Geo to compare it to, I can’t comment on exactly how faithful the dock recreates its form factor, but from the pictures I’ve seen online, it comes damn close. It even touts the same “MAX 330 MEGA PRO GEAR SPEC” technology, whatever that is, on its topside (perhaps SNK’s own take on Blast Processing?).

There are onboard composite and HDMI video outputs (cables included!) and two USB slots for controller input. Despite the fact that the basic design is over twenty years old, it’s as slick-looking as ever and fits right in with my aesthetically pleasing Xbox 360 and Toshiba Blu-Ray player.

So how does the handheld system play its own? Extremely well, I am pleased to say.

Its 4.3-inch LCD screen is where its games look best, and the Neo Geo’s boomy stereo sound is represented very well on its portable counterpart. The button pads are laid out in a more conventional diamond-shaped pattern that I find better suited to gameplay than the inline fashion seen on the arcade joystick.

The only disadvantage the handheld has, and one I believe that could have been easily corrected, is its slippery plastic thumbstick. I’m not quite sure why a rubber coating wasn’t added to ensure maximum control for players. Thankfully, the plastic is lightly textured, so it usually isn’t a problem. The thumbstick even reproduces the same clicks and clacks of its larger brother, which is a really nice touch.

There are four shoulder buttons added on to the handheld; their only apparent purpose being to change the display’s aspect ratio. I’m not really sure why else they exist, but hey, they’re there. It even has its own video outputs in case you want to play on a television screen but want to use the handheld’s gamepad-style controls. It’s actually a really useful feature, and it’s how I prefer to play many of titles included on the system.

Overall, it’s an incredibly cool idea to be able to play a game on your television and then pop open the system and take the game with you on the go. While its execution isn’t exactly ideal, it still works very well and is a great way to infuse some originality into aged hardware.

Neo Geo X

So the hardware passes the test, but how about the games?

Pre-loaded on the system are 20 Neo Geo originals, plus a separate card loaded with the punctuationally incorrect Ninja Master’s as a bonus for early adopters who pick up the Neo Geo X Gold package.

Since the system is best known for its fighting titles, it would make sense that over half of its modern namesake’s library would be comprised of games of the same type. Present, of course, are staples of SNK’s anthology: King of Fighters ’95, Fatal Fury Special, and Art of Fighting 2. Lesser known fighters such as 3 Count Bout and World Heroes Perfect are also quite fun, containing hours of highly enjoyable arcade pugilism.

Admittedly, I am awful at these games so most of my time was spent playing the system’s sports and action titles. I am a longtime fan of the classic Baseball Stars 2, so I was glad to see the title make the cut. It plays just as well as every other version of the game I own, and it’s nice to finally play it on an arcade-worthy joystick.

I feel the selection of shoot-em-ups, however, is quite underwhelming, especially since the ones included (Alpha Mission II and Last Resort) are not the genre’s best showings on the Neo Geo. There’s also a fun little Streets of Rage clone titled Mutation Nation (I don’t use the term “clone” loosely; the game basically is Streets of Rage). Plus, the Shinobi-style Magician Lord will charm those looking to scratch that rigorously tough side-scrolling platforming itch.

Magician Lord

The cream of this crop are, without question, the wartime action shooter NAM-1975 and the crown jewel of the Neo Geo library, Metal Slug. I’ve spent an embarrassing amount of time with these two titles alone since getting the system just a few days ago.

Metal Slug shows off the impressive the Neo Geo’s capabilities admirably with its colorful sprites, smooth animations, and dynamically impressive soundtrack. There is simply no better showcase of the Neo Geo’s hardware than this classic run-and-gun shooter. What it accomplishes in technical ability is only surpassed by its unquestionable sense of pure fun.

Overall, the Neo Geo X comes bundled with enough gaming goodness to appease your retro appetite for quite some time. SNK’s initial offering of titles is more than adequate for the time being, but here’s hoping that it won’t be long before more classics are made available.

Neo Geo X

Without question, The Neo Geo X is one of the coolest pieces of gaming hardware I own. I honestly hadn’t been as excited for a console to launch since the Nintendo GameCube in 2001 (I was a huge Nintendo fanboy at the time).

I’m glad to say that after a year of anticipation, SNK and Tommo delivered everything they promised and more. The Neo Geo offers and unprecedented level of access to a part of gaming history that most of us missed the first time around, seeing as most of us lacked a thousand bucks to spend on the original machine and a solid library of games. It took over twenty years, but now we finally get to experience what Neo Geo enthusiasts have been praising all along.

If you are at all on the fence about purchasing a Neo Geo X, it’s probably not for you. But for hardcore retro enthusiasts, nothing could make a better addition to your collection. The 90s is considered by many to be the pinnacle of gaming’s rapid evolution, and even though the Neo Geo may have gone largely unnoticed at the time, it’s easy to see why those who did own the original console continue to sing its praises today.

The Neo Geo X accomplishes exactly what it set out to do: provide the same addictive, arcade-faithful action as the original, but within a unique and innovative new package. After two decades, SNK’s proud console has, at last, truly arrived.

Welcome to the family, Neo Geo. It’s good to finally make your acquaintance.

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