Monday, July 28, 2014

The 50 Greatest Neo Geo Games of All Time! (Part Two: #040-#031)

Part two 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.) In Guantanamo, prisoners should be forced to play “The Legend of Success Joe” ten hours a day.  This, I believe we can all agree upon, is punishment enough.

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 40:
Metal Slug (1996)

Ah, the first “Metal Slug” game. Obviously, it wasn’t the best in the series, but for a first-go-around, it was mighty damn impressive.

Yeah, compared to later installments, the first game in the franchise seems a bit standard, but at the time, it definitely stood out from the crowd. The gameplay, more or less, was your basic run and gun experience, but unlike the countless “Contra” clones released since the late 1980s, “Metal Slug” actually had a bit of personality, and most importantly, humor. With its nonstop action, gargantuan mechanical enemies and even a few rides of your own to jack, “Metal Slug” was a nigh perfect satire of the action game genre as a whole.

The game looked great, with some extraordinarily detailed character sprites. But where the game really shined, of course, was in its gameplay, which was just sheer arcade blastin’ joy. Yeah, you could say that the game is a bit too short, and that the final boss battle is something of a letdown, but overall? This is a dandy two-player experience, and as the starting point of one of the most-beloved 2D franchises ever, it certainly deserves its props.

Number 39:
Bust-A-Move (1994)

In the 1990s, fighting games, cartoony sports titles and gimmicky shooters ruled the arcades. In addition to harking back to a Young MC standard, Bust-A-Move was definitely a breath of fresh air, providing “Mortal Kombat”-obsessed coin-op enthusiasts a decisively old-school break from the norm.

Known as “”Puzzle Bobble” in Japan, “Bust-A-Move” was a fairly inventive puzzle game that, in some respects, could be considered a combination of “Tetris” and “Puyo Puyo.” The object of the title is simple: manning a battle station as a very familiar looking chibi dinosaur, you shoot differently hued marbles into the playing field. Like “Columns,” if you line up enough similarly colored marbles, they evaporate from the playing field, and once all the marbles have vanished, you proceed to the next round, where you do the same dance all over again, only this time it’s a bit faster and more difficult.

It’s a very standard sounding game, but I think that’s ultimately what gave the game its contemporary appeal and staying power. It’s easily accessible and extremely addictive, and man, is it ever fun shooting marbles against the walls of the playing space and watching them change trajectory. Also worth noting: the super-fun two player mode, which depending on the competitiveness of the players, often leads to showdowns that are more intense than a “Street Fighter II” tournament bout!

Number 38:
Prehistoric Isle II (1999)

What do you get when you combine “R-Type” with “Rampage?” If you said “a real goddamn mess,” you’d be correct. But when that pell-mell mixture of destruction and hot shoot ‘em up action is as nice as it is in “Prehistoric Isle II,” how could you possibly complain about the odd goulash?

As a sequel to the super obscure “Prehistoric Isle in 1930,” this game ups the ante and places you inside a fighter helicopter equipped with an impossible amount of firepower to save modern civilization from a whole slew of Triassic period beasts, who through some weird plot mechanic, have found themselves in the mid-1990s. So, yes, this game pretty much IS an unofficial “Dinosaurs Attack!” game, which is just about the most awesome thing to never be turned into a proper licensed title.

As a game, the title is very solid, if not a bit outmoded. Having come out right at the tail end of the 1990s, the graphics are a bit underwhelming, and some of the pseudo 3D elements do look particularly bad. That said, the game overcomes its visual deficits by providing a really, really fun (if not way too short) SHMUP experience, with all sorts of neat dino gimmicks. My favorite? Shooting the brontosaurus until it decomposes into a pile of bones, “Evil Dead” style. Although, for the life of me, I have NO earthly clue what that final boss is supposed to be, to this very day…

Number 37:
Nightmare in the Dark (2000)

Old schoolers may remember the  puzzler “Snow Bros.,” which in addition to being a mighty fine coin-op release, was also ported to the NES, Genesis and Game Boy in the early 1990s. “Nightmare in the Dark,” essentially, has the same premise, but it manages to outdo its obvious inspiration in just about every category.

For starters, the graphics in the game are really, really good, as is the music. As a huge horror fan, I definitely dug the spooky aesthetics in this one, which has you taking on the role of a robe-cloaked graveyard dweller who torches zombies, mummies and gargoyles into gigantic fireballs. And if that wasn’t enough for you, the game also has some downright kick-ass boss fights, including a particularly memorable showdown with one of the hairiest Frankenstein monsters in video game history!

While in some ways a fairly formulaic game, its hard to not enjoy the kooky, Halloween ride that is “Nightmare in the Dark.” It’s probably one of the easier games on the countdown, but it certainly has enough character of its own to keep you playing until the final level. It may not exactly top “Bubble Bobble 2,” but then again, “Bubble Bobble 2” didn’t have flaming zombies in it, did it?

Number 36:
Robo Army (1991)

Despite having what is quite possibly the most generically nondescript title in the history of video gaming, “Robo Army” is anything but your average side-scrolling beat ‘em up. Sure, you may spend a majority of the game going left-to-right, beating the hell out of the same enemies over and over again, but there’s more than one tweak to the tried and true genre formula going on in this one.

For starters, how many “Final Fight” type games have you played that allow you to temporarily transform into a futuristic dune buggy and jump on top of enemies? Well, “Robo Army” gives you just such an option, along with all sorts of neat-o “cyber ball” attacks that you definitely WON’T be seeing in “Streets of Rage” or “Rival Turf.”

In terms of both character and level design, this game deserves major props. The sprites in the game are very detailed and rather original; I especially dug the robotic gorilla boss at the end of the first stage, although the mechanical spiders and the purple baseball-cap sporting cop (with guard robo-cougar!) later on were also very cool. There’s even a rope descending stage at one point, which is handled WAY better than in “Battletoads.” With great graphics, tons of unusual gameplay add-ons and really, really solid beat ‘em up action, “Robo Army” is definitely a hidden Neo Geo gem worth checking out.

Number 35:
Andro Dunos (1992)

The Neo Geo is probably best known for its extensive fighting and run and gun library, and for good reason. A lot of people, however, tend to overlook the staggering number of great shoot ‘em ups on the system, and “Andro Dunos” is definitely one of the console’s best, unheralded SHMUPS.

From Visco Games, “Andro Dunos” is your standard horizontally scrolling shooter. You pilot a spaceship, you collect power-ups and you blow up a LOT of enemy crafts. It may not win any points for originality, but it definitely makes up for its commonality with some hot and heavy gameplay.

I’m not sure if the game is supposed to be a satire of the genre or what, but it sure does seem to nail just about every SHMUP trope you can think of. The game includes both a “Lightening Force” like underwater level as well as a “Salamander” style organic stage, and the final level bares more than a passing resemblance to the “R-Type” series. Alas, as derivative as the game may be, the core gameplay is just so intense and satisfying that its hard to really complain about anything “Andro Dunos” provides you. It’s straight up, old school, no frills shoot ‘em up fun, and for that, it deserves some recognition.

Number 34:
Magician Lord (1990)

Despite being an MVS and AES launch title, “Magician Lord” actually holds up pretty well today. A fairly straightforward action platform, the title plays like a combination of “Ghosts N Goblins” and Sega’s “Shinobi” games…albeit, way easier than the former and arguably with more fluid controls than the latter.

To begin, the level design in this one is great, with each stage looking and feeling completely different from the last. The boss fights, for the most part, follow the same pattern, but the enemy aesthetics are so neat, you probably wouldn’t even notice (or be bothered by) the redundancy.

If you ever wanted a game that looked like “Actraiser” but played more like “Super Mario Bros.,” then “Magician Lord” is definitely for you. The levels are filled to the brim with fun platforming spots, and there are ample power-ups scattered about. The game itself is rather short, and hardcore genre fans can probably tear through it in under an hour, but for what it is, “Magician Lord” is a rock solid offering. Early ‘90s side scrolling fans should definitely give this one a try.

Number 33:
Aero Fighters 2 (1994)

There were a ton of great SHMUPS on the Neo Geo, and “Aero Fighters 2” (also known as “Sonic Wings 2”) is certainly one of the weirder genre games to hit U.S. coin-ops in the 1990s. For starters, this is a rare SHMUP that contains a character select screen, and among your potential avatars are a ninja, a baby dressed up in Erwin Rommel duds and even a dolphin!

With such a zany cast, you’d think the game would fall into the “cute ‘em up” genre. Surprisingly, the aesthetics and core gameplay of “Aero Fighters 2” is catered for the hardcore, with intense techno-military-themed action spanning dozens of levels. The graphics may not be the best in the world, but each stage looks distinct and vibrant. And the boss fights, as expected, are downright awesome.

The final stage -- set inside a chapel, complete with stained glass windows -- is really one of the most inventive SHMUP levels of the decade. With specific character endings and a “hidden” boss or two, the replay value on this one is very high -- and for Engrish aficionados, I bet you can’t wait to “fry to the rainforest.”

Number 32:
Last Resort (1992)

No, it’s not a Papa Roach-themed maze game, like that one Journey coin-op from way back when. Instead, “Last Resort” on the Neo Geo is a side scrolling horizontal shooter that places an emphasis on hot and heavy, bullet dodging action. Casual gamers need not apply here!

Admittedly, the visuals in “Last Resort” are quite weak, but this one is ALL about the gameplay. Trust me, your right thumb will be calloused by the time you make it to the game’s final boss -- if you enjoy tough-as-nails blast-a-thons, then you will undoubtedly dig this title.

Two things really struck me about this one. First, the tempo of this game is ridiculously fast, and the challenge curve is WAY the hell on up there. Secondly, I really liked the game’s little satellite gimmick; your ship comes equipped with this robotic orb thingy that has all sorts of functions, from serving as a much-needed rearview blaster to a bomb-placing mechanism -- which is MUCH needed for the game’s grand finale. Without giving away too much, all I can say is that even ace SHMUP pilots probably spent a good ten bucks or so in quarters grinding their way through the last challenge in “Last Resort”…

Number 31:
Baseball Stars 2 (1992)

Hey, remember “Baseball Stars” on the NES? It was arguably the best sports game of its type on the 8-bit console, and to this day, many retro game fans tend to forget that SNK was its developer. Even fewer are aware that SNK carried the series over to its Neo Geo consoles, and even fewer than that probably realize just how awesome “Baseball Stars 2” was.

Incidentally, there WAS a “Baseball Stars 2” released on the NES, but it wasn’t developed by SNK. And of course, the official Neo Geo release kicks the shit out of it anyway, with impressive graphics, super fun arcade game play and audio that -- at the time, anyway -- was among the best to ever grace a video game.

The presentation here is just phenomenal. The screen showcases both the batter and the pitcher in window boxes, and every base hit includes a mini-window of the hitter hauling ass from base to base. And the zoom in effects (especially the foul ball animations) put Mode 7 to shame. Even the mascot gets in on the action when you bop a homer! With great batting, pitching and fielding controls, it’s really hard to think of a better arcade baseball game from the era…or really, any arcade baseball games, for that matter.


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