Thursday, August 21, 2014

The 50 Greatest Neo Geo Games of All Time! (Part Four: #20-#11)

Part four 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.) You know, a "Ragnagard vs. Sengoku" crossover would've been something. And that something is "pure shit," that's what.

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 20:
Twinkle Star Sprites (1996)

Don’t let the cutesy visuals fool you -- this is a game that will kick your ass, and savagely. Not only is “Twinkle Star Sprites” one of the most inventive games on the Neo Geo, its easily one of the most intense as well.

The last game produced for the platform by developers ADK, “Twinkle Star Sprites” is a clever shoot ‘em up/competitive puzzle game hybrid. Like in “Puyo Puyo,” your ability to clear your own screen affects your adversary’s playing field, and vice-versa. The twist is, instead of solving block puzzles, you’re actually engaged in a SHMUP showdown, and believe you me, the vertically scrolling blasting can get hot and heavy, indeed.

This is actually a really strategic game, with enough technical nuance to put hardcore fighters like “Mark of the Wolves” to shame. The title includes a brilliant parrying system of sorts, which allows players to bat combo-linked fireball attacks back and forth -- trade enough times, and it actually summons an ungodly powerful boss creature to REALLY make things interesting. If you’re in search of an unorthodox multiplayer experience, then this is a truly innovative title you need to get your hands on ASAP.

Number 19:
Magical Drop III (1997)

Data East was easily the Neo Geo’s most valuable third party developer, and “Magical Drop III” isn’t just the venerable puzzle series’ best -- it’s without question the best game of its type to be found on the system.

Structurally, the “Magical Drop” games play quite a bit like “Bust-A-Move.” The difference, however, is two-fold. For starters, the game allows you to yank orbs from the playing field, instead of supplying you with balls from the get-go. This means you’ll find yourself constantly pulling down single bubbles and bursting similarly colored groupings -- it’s a game designed from the ground up to always have you on your toes.

The other variation, however, is what makes the “Magical Drop” series, and especially this superlative third outing, stand out so much -- the game’s tempo. Trust me, when I say the gameplay in this one is fast, I mean “Sonic commandeering a Indy car in Burnout 3” fast. Fierce multiplayer bouts have been known to lead to some minor carpal tunnel syndrome-like symptoms -- this, my friends, is about as hardcore as puzzle games can possibly get.

Number 18:
Top Hunter: Roddy & Cathy (1994)

There is just so much to love about this game that I don’t really know where to begin. Imagine, if you will, a magical combination of “Metal Slug,” “Bionic Commando,” “Shinobi” and “Rocket Knight Adventures.” Now, add to that some elements borrowed from “Mega Man,” “Ghosts N Goblins” and even a little bit of “Ristar,” and you have the core fundamentals behind “Top Hunter.”

“Top Hunter” is basically an early ‘90s arcade love-in, which actually predates some of the era’s most beloved 2D games. You get the mech suits from “Metal Slug,” the ability to hop in and out of the background like in “E-Swat,” and even pick up weird-ass props and use them to your own advantage like in “Double Dragon.” With stage design that rivals the best “Sonic” levels, not only is this a criminally underappreciated title you should’ve played years ago, it’s quite possibly one of the era’s most absurdly undervalued technical achievements, to boot.

This is really a fantastic platform/run and gun/side scrolling beat ’em up hybrid, with absolutely gorgeous character sprites and some of the era’s best animated backgrounds. With five absolutely gargantuan levels to choose from -- each filled with tons of sub-bosses and constantly changing game mechanics -- this is definitely one of the longer coin-op forays to make it to the Neo Geo. And did I tell you the game has some supremely awesome co-op play, as well?

Number 17:
World Heroes Perfect (1995)

A rather fitting title here: the game itself may not be perfect per se, but as far as “World Heroes” titles go, there’s none better than this mid ‘90s redux.

To be fair, the “World Heroes” franchise has always kind of been one of the redheaded stepchildren of the SNK fighting game family. With character designs and a globe hopping hook that strongly resembles another popular Clinton era brawler, a lot of coin-op enthusiasts tended to write the first two “World Heroes” games off, which is a real shame. This title is basically a hyper-polished re-release of “World Heroes 2,” with practically every character in the franchise included as a playable fighter. And yes, the game is pretty damn spectacular too, in case you were wondering.

The title plays a lot like “Street Fighter II” (shocking, I know), with really good backdrops, some pretty awesome animations and character sprites that are a lot more detailed than most genre games from the timeframe. The gameplay is rock solid, with every character looking -- and playing -- distinctively, from the sword-wielding Joan of Arc rip-off to the razor-gloved Jack the Ripper punk-rocker to the kinda’ racist Tiki warrior to the evil football player from hell to the two guys that play just like Ken and Ryu, right down to the palette swapped clothing. It’s a bit simplistic compared to the other heavy hitters on the Neo Geo, but there is no denying this one is a flat out great game in its own right.

Number 16:
SVC Chaos: SNK vs. Capcom (2003)

At some point, you’ve probably played one of the “Capcom vs. SNK” games before. Outside of a Neo Geo Pocket Color offering (which, by the way, is one of the greatest handheld games of all-time), this early 2000s offering is the sole SNK-produced crossover brawler to also feature “Street Fighter II” stalwarts.

With Playmore taking over the reins, “SVC Chaos” is a real hoot and a half to play. It’s so bizarre -- and of course, awesome -- to see characters like M. Bison and Balrog drawn up in the inimitable SNK style. And man, you haven’t seen “crazy” until you’ve seen a Hugo on Earthquake showdown in this game!

The animations are great, the gameplay is fantastic  (its basically running on the “King of Fighters 2002” engine) and the cast of characters is really tremendous. You could argue that there’s perhaps a bit of an over sampling of “Street Fighter” characters and an under serving of “Samurai Shodown” cast members, but overall, there’s hardly anything to complain about in this one at all. And be prepared for some downright astounding cameos, featuring such weirdoes as “The Art of Fighting’s” Serious Mr. Karate, the Mars People from “Metal Slug,” Mega Man’s Zero, and the ULTIMATE fighting game final boss -- the little red gargoyle asshole from “Ghosts N Goblins!”

Number 15:
Fatal Fury Special (1993)

With so many fighting games on the market, how do you make a game that stands out? While most developers turned towards sensational and gimmicky hooks (namely, through fatalities, semi-nudity and the occasional dinosaur-themed brawler), SNK knew what few others ever understood: you’ve got to have a deep, nuanced fighting system, and on top of that, a game with plenty of character.

SNK really took the “character” part to heart, with “Fatal Fury Special” a beefed up re-do of the already pretty damn great “Fatal Fury 2.” The game contains 15 characters, all of whom are aesthetically interesting and, much more importantly, diverse in fighting technique. All of the fighters in “Mortal Kombat” pretty much played alike, but in this game, there is a WORLD of difference between taking on Duck King, Geese Howard or Big Bear. Before “Virtua Fighter,” this game was pretty much the closest the fighting world got to a somewhat respectable simulation fighter (uh…just ignore the occasional fireball, though.)

So, let’s see: you have a ton of fighters, all with distinct move sets, who are beautifully animated, in conjunction with truly interesting backdrops and a combat system that’s among the absolute best in the genre. Skip the watered down console ports -- you need to experience this one the way it was intended, on actual Neo Geo hardware.

Number 14:
The King of Fighters ‘99 (1998)

Although the inclusion of “striker” characters is a rather controversial one, I think “KOF ‘99” is still one of the better entries in what may very well be SNK’s marquee franchise.

As with  the previous installments in the series, this game is anchored around three-on-three team battles. The cast for this one includes a who’s who of “Fatal Fury” and “Art of Fighting” standouts, as well as  few new additions. Alike “Insert Property vs. Capcom,” you get to build your own team from scratch, and as expected, the combat here is downright exquisite.

To me, this was this last truly great crossover fighter SNK released (not counting “SVC Chaos,” of course.) The animations were beautiful, the combat system was just about pitch perfect and even the backgrounds looked incredible (although I have to wonder what the hell is going on at the Chinese restaurant -- is that a silhouette of a man beating a cat to death?) From here, the series was just spinning in its wheels, in my humblest of opinions -- if you’re looking for “KOF” apex, I reckon this title right here is the peak of the mountain.

Number 13:
Spinmaster (1993)

Known as “Miracle Adventures” in Japan, this was Data East’s first game released for the Neo Geo, and it’s definitely one of the company’s best, as well. Playing similarly to “Joe and Mac,” with characters that appear to be culled from the forgotten Genesis gem “Dashin’ Desperadoes,” this game is a merger of underrated genre classics -- fittingly enough, becoming a much revered unsung platformer itself over the last few years.

The gameplay is very simplistic, yet satisfying. You travel from stage to stage -- which are all exquisitely animated -- and mow down wave after wave of henchmen, using all sorts of neat weapons: yo-yos, bombs, laser ninja stars and good old fashioned fireballs are all at your disposal. The character sprites are downright gorgeous, and the solid platforming gameplay -- highlighted by some excellently designed levels -- makes this one an absolute blast to play through, solo or with a buddy.

If you are a fan of intense platformer/run and gun hybrids a’la “Metal Slug” and “Gunstar Heroes,” you definitely owe it to yourself to give “Spinmaster” a try. Not only is it one of the genre’s greatest undiscovered offerings, it’s definitely one of the best games of its type, period.

Number 12:
Pulstar (1995)

Prior to this game, developer Aicom was probably best known for the "Zaxxon"-inspired “Viewpoint,” which I’d consider to be one of the more overrated titles to appear on the Neo Geo. That said, “Pulstar” is an absolutely marvelous game, and one of the best SHMUPS to come out during the mid-1990s.

The game is sort of a cross between “Einhander” and “R-Type.” The graphics are essentially 2.5D, with some really impressive graphical effects throughout. You have the ability to charge your shots for extra damage, and of course, there are TONS of upgrades for your warship. There are only four stages, but they are fairly long, and holy hell, do they look visually astounding. Each and every boss fight in “Pulstar” would probably qualify as an end-boss in any other genre game from the era.

The only thing holding this game back, in my opinion, is the length. Since it’s not exactly the toughest SHMUP out there, I found myself easily blasting through this one in under half an hour (which means, as an aside,  you can listen to “Pinkerton” all the way through during a speed run.) Granted, it’s one hell of half-hour while it lasts, but sadly, “Pulstar” just leaves you wanting more, in the worst possible way.

Number 11:
The Last Blade (1997)

At first glance, “The Last Blade” doesn’t seem all that different from “Samurai Shodown.” A feudal Japanese setting, huge, gorgeously animated sprites and, most apparently, characters wielding melee weapons? To the uninitiated, the game would appear to be an instance of SNK imitating itself.

Of course, “The Last Blade” is far from a “Samurai Shodown” rehash. Ultimately, the game plays more like a combination of “Fatal Fury” and “Virtua Fighter,” with the graphics and core combat system culled from SNK’s other sword-and-sandal ass kicker.

The gameplay really sets this one apart from its competitors. While most fighting games form the late 1990s were all about flashiness (see just about any “vs. Capcom” game for validation of this claim), “The Last Blade” is a refreshingly subdued title. The backgrounds are subtle, yet beautiful, and the underscored music is downright stellar. As stated earlier, it’s the combat system that makes this one a must-play; with a clever “speed vs. power” mechanic in place and a diverse array of brawlers (who all have their own range and weight weaknesses and strengths), this is easily one of the most cerebral fighting games of all-time.


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