Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The 50 Greatest Neo Geo Games of All Time! (Part Three: #30-#21)

Part three 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.) Yes, an SNK versus Data East crossover fighter would have been awesome. Considering the two companies chummy relationship, how comes that shit never happened, anyway?

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 30:
Samurai Shodown (1993)

In an arcade market glutted with piss poor “Street Fighter II” clones and “Mortal Kombat” imitators, “Samurai Shodown” was definitely a breath of fresh air. With its unique weapons-based combat system, the game was one of the most innovative of the 1990s -- and of course, the cornerstone of one of the most important fighting game series of all-time.

The graphics and audio in “Samurai Shodown” (known as “Samurai Spirits” in Japan) were downright fantastic, and the visual effects -- such as the camera zooms -- really set the game apart form its genre contemporaries. With rock solid gameplay and character sprites that remain impressive to this day, it’s easy to see why this game made so many waves when originally released.

The vibrant backgrounds put pretty much every other fighting game from the era to shame, and the combatants all played differently from one another. Instead of relying upon fatality gimmicks and secret characters, “Samurai Shodown” was a fighting game that reveled in being simply a great fighting game. It’s an outstanding game, through and through, and to know it is to fucking love it.

Number 29:
The Super Spy (1990)

There were a ton of offbeat offerings on the Neo Geo, and even among the weirdest games on the platform, “The Super Spy” stands out as one of the zaniest.

The appeal of “The Super Spy,” which was one of the very first Neo-Geo releases, is that it’s technically a first person shooter. And, uh, a first person stabber like “Sword of the Berserk” on the Dreamcast. And also, a first person puncher a’la the Xbox cult classic “Breakdown.” So its, in essence, “Final Fight,” as seen through the eyes of Haggar and company!

To be fair, the game does have some downsides -- probably the most important one being a lack of blocking of any kind.  While the backgrounds are repetitive and the core combat system is incredibly simplistic, there’s just so much weirdness going on here that it’s impossible to tear your eyes from the screen and your hands from the joysticks. Trust me; by the time you take an Uzi to a ninja attacking you with a stun gun and a lead pipe and you nearly get head butted to death by a Yakuza boss, you’ll know you’re playing something mighty damn memorable.

Number 28:
Aero Fighters 3 (1995)

The third and best installment in the beloved “Sonic Wings” franchise, this is a damn solid SHMUP with plenty of character and some downright brutal bullet hell gameplay.

The wacky characters (this time, there are eight selectable) are out in full force again, and each pilot plays very differently, with their own unique, chargeable attacks. With 18 stages in all (with 8 being “choose your own adventure” branching path levels), there is definitely a lot of stuff to blow up in this one. And, as always, the gameplay here is just astoundingly challenging; unless you have the skills of that autistic kid from “The Wizard,” you’re likely to be jamming quarter after quarter into the machine just to make it to the third stage!

Two things really make “Aero Fighters 3” stand out. For one thing, there’s all sorts of neat secrets hidden throughout the game, including two secret bosses who hold the key to two secret endings. And then, there’s the super satisfying co-op play; try tag-teaming with your buddies and you’re sure to be in store for some good times…and perhaps some frustrating ones, depending on your own knack for demanding shoot ‘em ups.

Number 27:
Super Sidekicks  3: The Next Glory (1995)

There were quite  a few soccer games on the Neo Geo, but I personally think this one was the best. In fact, the footy engine was so solid that three years after the game was originally released, SNK re-released the title as “Neo Geo Cup ‘98” with hardly any changes at all!

The game plays like a more arcadey version of Konami’s “International Superstar Soccer.” The character sprites are very large, and the controls are smooth and intuitive. A score-fest through and through, you’ll have to break out plenty of dirty hits to jar the ball loose from your adversaries; it’s not quite the futbol version of “Blitz,” but it’s definitely a game that  nonetheless takes a shining to red card-baiting mayhem

While the game, structurally, plays very similar to the second game in the series, there are definitely some palpable improvements. For one, there’s WAY more teams on the roster, with 64 squads in total. While the game lacks FIFA licensing, some of the players do indeed bare a pretty fair resemblance to soccer stars from the era…come on “Klinger,” you ain’t foolin’ nobody. Ultimately, this is just a super fast, super enjoyable, offense-heavy sports game; in short, it’s precisely the type of game that made arcades, and SNK in particular, so damned awesome back in the ‘90s.

Number 26:
Over Top (1996)

When you think “Neo Geo,” you probably think of several different genres. Fighting games, shoot ‘em ups, arcade sports titles. One genre that may not immediately spring to mind is racing, which is a shame, because there actually were quite a few awesome racers on the platform.

“Over Top,” in my opinion, trumps games like “Thrash Rally” due to its unique combination of isometric, “RC Pro-Am” gameplay and Sega-esque, time trial based gameplay. It may not be the best hybrid of “Rock N Roll Racing” and “Outrun,” imaginable, but its still a really fun and inventive experience, nonetheless.

The levels are all very well detailed, and the tracks are pretty enjoyable -- if not just a tad too easy. You’ll be tearing through cobblestone streets one minute and then hauling ass through forested lands the next, with some neat weather changes, and even a day and night system, thrown in to the mix. To be fair, most of the cars handle the exact same (whether you are commandeering a motorcycle, a Ferrari wannabe or a standard sedan), but there are plenty of cool touches throughout the game. And because the developers of the game wanted to give you your money’s worth: the C button turns on the headlights, and the D button honks your horn.

Number 25:
Neo Bomberman (1997)

There were two “Bomberman” games released on the Neo Geo, including a “Puyo Puyo” variation called “Panic Bomber.” That said, I’d vouch for “Neo Bomberman” as the system’s absolute best “Bomberman” experience -- even if it isn’t exactly on par with franchise classics like “Bomberman ‘94” and “Saturn Bomberman.”

This title is very much your classical “Bomberman “ game. You commandeer a tiny terrorist who drops explosives at strategic points on a playing board. The object is to wipe out all of the enemies onscreen, proceed to a special checkpoint, and continue onward to the next mission. The big appeal in this one, I suppose, are the somewhat 2.5D visuals. It also seems that the enemy AI has been ratcheted up, so don’t expect your foes to mindlessly waltz into death traps like they do in some other installments in the series.

The single player campaign is fun -- if not admittedly unspectacular -- but the battle mode MORE than makes up for whatever shortcomings the solo mission has. There are very few experiences in gaming as fun as multiplayer “Bomberman,” and this arcade release is certainly no exception -- especially when you and a pal are duking it out alongside three AI adversaries. And hey, did I mention there’s a co-op story mode, too?

Number 24:
Metal Slug X (1999)

Goddamn, is it ever hard to dislike the “Metal Slug” games. Sure, the game may play identically to the second game in the series (this is actually a beefed up re-release of “Metal Slug 2”), but the “Contra”-on-crack gameplay -- in addition to the game’s hilariously un-P.C. humor -- makes it an absolute hoot and a half to play through.

This time around, you’ll find yourself gunning down paramilitary troops in unnamed Arabian countries, popping caps in mummified rats in Egypt, fighting a jumbo jet that throws tanks at you (while you’re riding on a speeding train, no less) and blasting through the city streets (and sewers) of what appears to be mainland China before finally going toe-to-toe with an armada of squid-aliens and their miniature UFOs. By the way, the animation and music is absolutely stellar, and the gameplay is about as satisfying as you’ll find in any run and gun title from the late ‘90s.

If I have to tell you all of this is awesome, I believe you have already failed at life, my friend.

Number 23:
Strikers 1945 Plus (1999)

Imagine the most hardcore version of “1943” imaginable, and you pretty much have this kick-ass SHMUP from Psikyo  -- a company, it is probably worth noting, was also responsible for the Dreamcast cult classic “Cannon Spike” and several X-Rated mahjong games.

Conceptually, “Strikers” is your pretty standard vertically scrolling shooter. It’s actually a remake of the second game in the series, and it TOTALLY blows away its forerunner in every category. The graphics are great, the soundtrack is understated yet enjoyable and the gameplay is just goddamn bananas. Not only is this one of the most accessible bullet hell games out there, its probably one of the of the few to be palatable for the genre hardcore AND wimpolas who can’t get past the first stage in “Gradius.”

The boss fights are incredible, the challenge level is WAY the hell on up there and each stage looks vibrant and diverse. It doesn’t deviate too much from the genre formula, and that’s ultimately what makes this one such an awesome experience; its all about sheer SHMUP gameplay, and that kind of old school gaming rarely gets better than it does in this super-underrated late ‘90s classic.

Number 22:
Ninja Master’s (1996)

Picture "Samuai Shodown,” but without the weapons. Well, that’s half of “Ninja Master’s,” the super-underrated SNK fighting gem that excels at both hand-to-hand an armed 2D combat.

The big selling point for “Ninja Master’s” is its really ingenious combat system. Each character has a weapon he or she may sheath, and each character has some nifty melee attacks. The thing is, you can only use one or the other, and wouldn’t you know it, to really make the most of the game you have to constantly switch between the two combat systems. It’s a really clever gimmick that makes the game way more strategic and cerebral than most button mashers from the timeframe; I seriously wonder why more games from the timeframe didn’t use the same hook.

Graphically, “Ninja Master’s” looks pretty good, although I’d say the character sprites and designs in “Samurai Shodown” and “King of Fighters” definitely bests this one. The backgrounds are also a bit too static, and the music is far from the best on the Neo Geo. All of that said, this off-the-beaten-path fighter is one of the more nuanced you’ll find on the system, and for those of you looking for a brawler that requires a bit of grey matter, you should definitely try to track this one down.

Number 21:
Windjammers (1994)

Leave it to Data East to make an air hockey video game that’s not only nuanced, but insanely fun and addictive. Yes, “Windjammers” is really nothing more than a high-speed, super-intense virtualization of the analog hobby, but holy shit, is it ever enjoyable.

You get your typical cast of international stereotypes to choose from, and about a half dozen or so different playing fields. The graphics are really good, and the music is rather nice. But all of that is secondary to the game’s true selling point, which is sublimely engaging gameplay.

Each player has their own goal: the top and bottom most sections of the net are worth three points, while the middle section is worth five points. A net separates the two combatants, who have the ability to chunk the Frisbee up against the walls of the playing field -- the physics in this one are really, really impressive, considering the timeframe. And of course, this being a video game and all, players can charge up and unleash some “Shaolin Soccer” shit once their power meter is full. It may sound like nothing more than a fanciful “Pong” variation, but trust me -- this game is WELL worth going out of your way to experience.


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