Thursday, July 17, 2014

The 50 Greatest Neo Geo Games of All Time! (Part One: #50-#41)

Part one of a five-part series celebrating the best SNK and pals had to offer! 

HEY! Looking for other installments in the series? They can be found at the links below:

PART ONE: Counting down games #050 to #041
PART TWO: Counting down games #040 to #031
PART THREE: Counting down games #030 to #021
PART FOUR: Counting down games #020 to #011
PART FIVE: Counting down games #010 to #001

The Neo Geo is one of the most beloved consoles of all-time, and pretty much the definition of a gamer’s system. Originally released in arcade board form, the Neo Geo Multi Video System (MVS) delivered some of the absolute best coin-op titles of the 1990s, via an ingenious cartridge set-up that allowed gamers to play four different titles on one machine. With its impressive hardware specs, it provided gamers with some of the era’s most dazzling graphics, and introduced players the world over to such acclaimed franchises as Samurai Shodown, Metal Slug and Fatal Fury, not to mention tons of less heralded, underappreciated gems such as The Last Blade, Pulstar and Top Hunter. Not content with dominating arcade parlors, SNK also released the system as a high-powered (and absurdly expensive) home console, known as the Advanced Entertainment System (AES) which LITERALLY brought the arcade experience into players’ living rooms.

For almost 15 years, SNK and other developers published titles for the AES and MVS, giving it one of the absolute longest life spans of any console in gaming history. To commemorate the tenth anniversary of the console’s official retirement, THE INTERNET IS IN AMERICA is rolling out a special, five-part series, counting down the 50 greatest games to ever grace the Neo Geo.

Before we continue, a few notes about the criteria for the list:

001.) Both MVS and AES releases are eligible for the countdown. Unless explicitly stated, the versions of the games referred to on this list are the MVS iterations.

002.) Only official games, produced during the console’s original lifespan, are eligible. Sorry, homebrew enthusiasts.

003.) SNK games from the era, which were not released on the MVS or AES, are ineligible for this countdown. In short, that means no Neo Geo CD or Hyper Neo Geo 64 games are in the running.

004.) Goddamn, was Mudman from “World Heroes” a freaky little bugger.

With the fine print out of the way, who is ready to hop right into the countdown? All aboard, just say “S-N-K…”

Number 50:
3 Count Bout (1993)

Known as “Fire Suplex” in Japan, “3 Count Bout” isn’t even close to being the best arcade wrestling game of the 1990s -- of course, any old schooler worth his or her quarters would be quick to tell you which particular game that would happen to be. Alas, even staring down stiff competition from titles like Capcom’s “Saturday Night Slam Masters,” this SNK fighter manages to have a charm of its own, and while it’s not exactly the most technically exhilarating product out there, it’s still a really enjoyable title.

The cast in the game is pretty hilarious, ranging from the all-American pastiche “Terry Rogers” to the eighteen-sizes-too-small-shirt bedecked Big Bomberder. And quite a few characters in the title bare more than just a passing resemblance to some popular WCW and WWF stars from the era -- with Gochack Bigbomb and Master Barnes standing out as the most brazen copycats.

Despite taking place primarily inside a wrestling ring, the title really plays more like a traditional brawler. You have the ability to exit the ring, and unlike most fighting games from the era, you actually do have the ability to move in more than two directions. The grappling action isn’t too impressive -- this thing is a button-mashing affair, through and through -- but the visuals and music are quite nice, and I really got a kick out of the parking lot death match mode. Hey, it’s pretty hard to hate on a game that lets you taser shock a Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat doppelganger while commandeering a figure known as “Blubber Man,” no?

Number 49:
Burning Fight (1991)

As one of the earliest Neo Geo offerings, “Burning Fight” hasn’t aged particularly well. The graphics are pretty disappointing, the music sounds warbled, and the controls are absurdly rudimentary…yet somehow, it still manages to be a surprisingly entertaining experience.

“Burning Fight” makes no apologies for its shameless copying of “Final Fight.” While Capcom’s venerable side scrolling beat ‘em up is definitely the superior arcade game, “Burning Fight” does manage to provide an enjoyable experience all its own, complete with destroyable environments, some really unusual projectile weapons and some pretty damn challenging boss fights. And on top of it all, its multiplayer mode is also fairly satisfying.

I guess you could call “Burning Fight” something of a guilty pleasure. It doesn’t do anything particularly well as a brawler, but the cheese factor here is more than enough to keep you pumping in the tokens. Whether you’re fist fighting the least intimidating-looking end-boss in video game history or receiving bizarre oral “favors” from random hobos, “Burning Fight” is the kind of weird-ass, early ‘90s throwdown that’s nearly impossible to dislike.

Number 48:
Ghost Pilots (1991)

As a SHMUP, “Ghost Pilots” was a rather formulaic title. In essence, it was just “1942,” albeit with beefed up visuals, but because of its numerous appearances on “Nick Arcade,” hardly any true gamer circa 1992 hadn’t given the game a try…or at the very least, heard about it.

While far from being the best looking side scrolling shoot ‘em up from the timeframe, “Ghost Pilots” did do quite a few things differently from its contemporaries. For one thing, it allowed players to choose their own courses from a centralized game hub on certain stages (with a ten second time limit imposed, of course), and with the inclusion of a bomb selection screen, the game did require just a smidge of strategy.

Really, “Ghost Pilots” was all about the twitch action, and as a no-frills SHMUP, it definitely delivered the goods. In addition to being one of the more challenging genre offerings from the early ‘90s, the game did have some pretty cool environmental effects working for it, including some nice cloud “particles” and a really awesome level set above a sprawling volcanic landscape. It may not have been anywhere close to being the best SHMUP of the decade -- or for that matter, one of the best SHMUPS produced by SNK during the same timeframe -- but if you’re looking for a hard-as-hell, straight-and-to-the-point vertically scrolling shooter, “Ghosts Pilots” is likely to scratch whatever’s itching you.

Number 47:
Aggressors of Dark Kombat (1994)

With the almost embarrassingly pun-tastic namesake, you’d figure “ADK” would be anything but a technically satisfying fighter. As it turns out, however, the title is actually quite fun and immersive, and really one of the more unique 2D fighting games from the pre-polygonal era.

The roster in “ADK” is your typical SNK goulash of ethnic stereotypes (including Fuuma from “World Heroes!”), but don’t think this is just another rehash. Alike a version of “Pit Fighter” that’s actually worth a damn, you have the ability to move almost 360 degrees around your environment, and similarly, the attendees in the background periodically enter the fray themselves. Thankfully, they are pretty easy to dispatch though, and even better, they tend to leave behind some horrific melee weapons for you to use on your authorized opponent.

The fighting system here is pretty simplistic, but the pared down combat actually feels pretty nice once you get used to the slower tempo and fairly lengthy one-on-one brawls. There may not be a lot of flash or pizzazz on display, but it’s an enjoyable genre offering nonetheless -- and hey, did I mention the game has a “crazy meter” mechanic that allows you dish out some of the wackiest “fatalities” in gaming history, as well?

Number 46:
King of the Monsters 2 (1992)

A huge fan of Toho’s rubber monster suit movies, I really, really wanted to like the first “King of the Monsters” game, but even a kaiju lover like me had to woefully admit that one had some pretty gaping flaws in its gameplay. For the follow-up -- given the hilariously self-congratulatory yet-still perplexingly non-descript subtitle “The Next Thing” -- SNK wisely tinkered with the game formula, turning this sequel into more of a side scrolling brawler than a standard fighting button masher.

Whereas you could choose from six different characters in the first game, this time around, you only have access to three playable avatars -- but since one of them is a lawsuit-baiting Captain America facsimile, it’s hard to make any real complaints here. The levels are much more diverse than in the first game, and the overall gameplay -- while still having some pretty hellacious monster boss fights -- is a lot quicker; a lot of times, genre-switch-ups don’t lead to the best of sequels, but in the case of “King of the Monsters 2,” the overall outcome is a much more fluid -- and enjoyable -- experience than its forerunner.

While characters like “Huge Frogger” and “Aqua Slug” probably won’t be guest starring in the next “Smash Bros.” title, “KOTM 2” is still a really fun, straight-and-to-the-point button masher, with a particularly enjoyable two player mode. Really, the only major downside to the game is its final boss --needless to say, “SNK Boss Syndrome” is out in full effect on this one…

Number 45:
Waku Waku 7(1996)

If you feel as if “Aggressors of Dark Kombat” is too subtle a parody of 1990s fighting games, then “Waku Waku 7” might be right up your alley. Simply put, this game is the “Austin Powers” of competitive beat ‘em ups, a sleek, tongue-in-cheek homage (or is it deconstrution?) of popular genre conventions and aesthetics.

Although the character roster is a bit shallow -- there’s only nine avatars overall, and on the home console version, you can only play as seven of them in the full story mode -- but what Sunsoft lacked in quantity, you could argue, they more than made up for with quality. Each character is a downright hilarious spoof of popular Japanese fighting game characters, ranging from your standard SNK sword-wielding protagonist all the way up to a goddamn Dominion Tank parody. Oh, and there’s also a punching bag, rocking the Ryu bandana. And a character seemingly based on My Neighbor Totoro. And an Indiana Jones doppelganger, for some reason.

Obviously, the fighting system here ain’t exactly “The Last Blade 2,” but its nonetheless very solid, and the inclusion of a chargeable special move system -- called Harahara motions -- definitely provide for some entertaining battles. One could argue that this game is more style than substance, but when the overall experience is this fun, who cares if the combat is about as nuanced as a game of Pong?

Number 44:
Street Hoop (1994)

While “NBA Jam” -- and to a much lesser extent, Konami’s unlicensed “Run and Gun” series -- defined 1990s arcade basketball games, Data East’s “Street Hoop” -- known in the States as “Street Slam” and also referenced as “Dunk Dream“ in Japan -- is actually a pretty fun little title, and probably worthy of a bit more attention than it currently receives.

If you’re playing the original Japanese version of the game, you get to pick from a series of national teams -- Taiwan, Italy, America, etc. -- while in the U.S. version, you get to play as three-man teams who appear to be color-coordinated expies of the timeframe’s most popular NBA franchises -- hence, all of the “Chicago” ballers are clad head-to-toe in red, with a certain Dennis Rodman look-a-like rocking a bright green baseball cap.

Yeah, it is over-the-top, and some of the attempts to replicate authentic “street” culture are downright embarrassing -- especially the game’s title track, which to the best of my knowledge, is the first video game to ever explicitly use the term “nigga” on a soundtrack. Even so, the game looks downright terrific, with smooth animations, detailed character sprites, and gameplay that’s fast, fluid and readily accessible to pretty much anybody who can operate a joystick.

Number 43:
Samurai Shodown IV: Amakusa’s Revenge (1996)

After the abject failure of the third “Samurai Shodown” game, the suits at SNK went back to the drawing board, and the end result was a much, much improved sequel that, while not as good as the series’ earlier entries, was still very playable.

I suppose the big attraction for part four -- both then and now -- were the inclusion of Mortal Kombat-style “fatality” strikes. Granted, they were really difficult to pull off -- you had to defeat your opponent, in under 40 seconds, with a full power bar and full health -- and yeah, most of them were just variations of dudes’ being sliced in half, but I guess it was a cool inclusion, nonetheless. There were also a ton of power moves, as well, and what may very well be the first “suicide” option in video gaming history; you can opt to “kill yourself” in mid round, as a means of immediately starting the NEXT round with a full attack meter. Weird, I know, but this IS Japan we’re talking about here.

Of course, the longlasting gameplay mechanic changes in “SS IV” involved the overhauled animations (the sprites in this one are large and beautiful) and the major fighting system tweaks; namely, the complete removal of blocking as a defense mechanism, which in turn, made bouts much, much faster, offense-oriented affairs. And personally, I really liked the whole “side-stepping” featuring, and really wished it was included in more 2D fighters. All in all, it’s far from being the best in the series, but as a standalone, mid-90s brawler? It’s mighty damned impressive, and mighty damned enjoyable, to boot.

Number 42:
Samurai Shodown V Special (2004)

Well, this was it folks; the absolute final Neo Geo release ever, having been released in the year of our lord 2004. While this 708 meg behemoth may not have been the best imaginable swan song for the console’s decade and a half long reign, it’s still one hell of a fighting game, and in many ways, a vast improvement to part IV.

First off, there are a ton of upgrades from “Samurai Shodown V,” including several new characters, new stages and a complete graphical overhaul. Greatly inspired by the “Guilty Gear” games, this one also included special one-hit, insta-death “overkill moves,” which are among the most difficult maneuvers to pull off in the annals of fighting game history. Of course, the fatalities from part 4 also return, but they are pretty much unchanged from the last game. Overall, the character balancing is quite good, and it’s a smooth, satisfying brawler, no matter how you slice it, dice it, or halve it.

One word of warning, though: the AES version of this game is absolute dog shit compared to the MVS version. In a last ditch attempt to water down the violence after an elementary school student stabbed one of her classmates, it seems as if SNK royally fucked up the in-game code for the home release, ultimately resulting in a super-rare cartridge recall. Eventually, a revamped version of the game DID manage to make its way to the AES, but standing side-by-side with the arcade original? The MVS iteration is clearly the superior offering here.

Number 41:
Mutation Nation (1991)

I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for side-scrolling beat ‘em ups, and this 1992 button masher manages to combine that childhood love with another of my chief adolescent obsessions: horror!

OK, so maybe this game wasn’t exactly “Night Slashers,” but it certainly had plenty of goopy monsters, cyberpunk stylings and all of the generic, wannabe “Double Dragon” ass-stomping you could want from an early ‘90s coin-op. That, and the character design in this one is just awesome; for a game that came out during Bush the First’s presidency, some of the bosses are just absurdly detailed, even if your actual avatar is a bit…well, uninspired.

This is a traditional beat ‘em up, with all of the usual tropes which means, yes, it has both the “moving truck” and “elevator” levels that were apparently legally required for all genre games back then to have. The real appeal here, of course, is the multiplayer, which is undeniably a hoot. Sucking down power orbs and Chun Li lightning kicking a lawsuit-baiting H.R. Giger monster, while music that sounds suspiciously like the club scene from “Robocop” plays in the background? It may not be the classiest gaming experience, but you mustn’t have a pulse if you can’t derive just a bit of enjoyment from “Mutation Nation.”


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