Thursday, August 28, 2014

The 50 Greatest Neo Geo Games of All Time! (Part Five: #010-#01)

The final installment 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.) Hey, did you ever play that one "Double Dragon" game on the Neo Geo? If so, my apologies.

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 10:
Shock Troopers (1997)


I suppose in some ways, you could consider the sequel, “2nd Squad,” to be the superior offering: the semi-3D graphics are much improved, you can ride in vehicles ala “Metal Slug” and now, characters die in hilariously violent (yet bleakly comical) fashion. That said, as far as overall entertainment goes, “Shock Troopers” is a pretty damn hard game to top. At the end of the day, it very well could be the best bad game on the Neo Geo!

Granted, “Shock Troopers” may not exactly be a technical gem on par with “Samurai Shodown” or anything, but it’s certainly a whole hell of a lot of fun to play, regardless. Developed by Saurus -- the same folks who gave us the second “World Heroes” game and the sorta’ cult-classic “Irritating Stick” -- this game is your standard “Ikari Warriors” update, only with controls and gameplay that’s, you know, good.

This is the game “Smash TV” wished it could have been. The action is non-stop, the backdrops are diverse enough to keep you glued to the screen and the awesome team-based combat system -- which actually allots a bit of strategy alongside all of the explodey mayhem -- really makes this one a deeper experience than standard blast-a-thons like “Robotron” and “Total Chaos.” Am I ranking this game too high? Probably, but it’s just so enjoyable -- and weird as all hell -- that I think it deserves a spot in the top ten. I mean, shit, you can actually storm through a virtual middle east commandeering a rocket launcher-toting character named “Big Mama” -- how am I NOT supposed to fall in love with this game?

Number 9:
The Art of Fighting 3: The Path of the Warrior (1996)


“The Art of Fighting” series has always sorta’ been looked down upon as “Fatal Fury “ lite -- sometimes, it seems, even by SNK itself. While the franchise may not have ever reached the lofty heights of its genre cohorts, the “AOF” games were pretty good, with the third title definitely representing the franchise’s best.

Even for an SNK fighter, the cast of characters in this one is strange. Not only do you have a lawsuit-baiting main character named “Ryo,” but you also get to throw down with sword-wielding Persian princesses, muscular freak-o bodybuilder leviathans, a really, really fat dude carrying a backpack, some punk-rock chick that appears to be drag queen and not just one, but TWO separate avatars rocking dinner suits heading into mortal combat.

The visuals here are tremendous. The avatars are huge and well detailed, but the backdrops are definitely the game’s big aesthetic selling point -- some of the backgrounds are so beautiful, they almost appear lifted from a Disney film! Of course, no fighting game is worth a hill of beans without a decent combat system, and the more laid-back, combo-catering fighting mechanics in “AOF 3” are certainly a change of pace from the Neo Geo norm. It’s a big dumb button masher with a really convoluted, juvenile storyline -- but with that in mind, it’s probably the best big, dumb button masher with a really convoluted, juvenile storyline to be found on the console!

Number 8:
The King of Fighters '94 (1994)


It may not have seemed like it at the time, but "KOF '94" really was one of the most innovative fighting games of the decade. Would we have had all of those "Street Fighter vs (fill-in-the-blank)" and "Marvel vs. Capcom" titles had this mini revolution of a coin-op never been released? Seeing as how the core gameplay Capcom has made a mint of off is almost entirely swiped from "KOF," I'm not so sure we would've.

This, the first "KOF" offering, had a fairly simple, yet genius, hook. Combining characters from "Fatal Fury" and "the Art of Fighting," SNK made something of an all-star brawler, which in and of itself, was a pretty unique (and brilliant) concept. But where things REALLY got interesting is the combat system. Instead of doing best-of-three one-on-one battles, the "KOF" engine had players selecting three brawlers at once and taking on another trio in one long-assed endurance bout, "Survivor Series" style.

The gameplay plays more like "Art of Fighting" than "Fatal Fury" to me, which isn't really a negative. Granted, there are more complex and technically nuanced fighting games out there, but the novel gimmick of this one definitely makes up for whatever mechanical shortcomings the game presents. That, and you have to love the absolutely insane "national teams" herein, including England's all-girl ass kicker squad, Mexico's all-Japanese roster, Brazil's paramilitary-themed line-up and of course, Team USA -- which might just be one of the most unintentionally(?) racist depictions of urban America in all of video gaming -- apparently, New York consists mostly of burning trash cans and dudes running around in football helmets.

Number 7:
Real Bout Fatal Fury 2: The Newcomers (1998)


This game, for my money, is the single-most underrated fighting game on the Neo Geo. Yeah, there are certainly some genre games of the like on the system that are better, but what this game accomplishes on its own merits definitely puts its shoulder-to-shoulder with some of the absolute best brawlers on the console.

In "Real Bout 2," Terry Bogard, Duck King, Joe Higashi and all your returning favorites share the stage with obscure weirdos like Billy Kane and Bob Wilson. What makes the game particularly awesome is that it utilizes the same visual engine from "Real Bout Special" while reinstating the core fighting engine from the first "Real Bout" title. The end result is a game that looks as gorgeous (if not even better) then Capcom's late '90s fighters and plays as smoothly and technically as the best SNK offerings from the decade.

Okay, the stages may be recycled, but beyond that, I can't think of a single major negative for the title. It's a downright stellar, nuanced fighting game with super-smooth controls, a nice tempo and a combat system that puts just about every other fighting game from the timeframe -- safe a few notable offerings -- to shame. And to think: it's STILL not the best overall game in the entire series!

Number 6:
Garou: Mark of the Wolves (1999)


The poster for this one pretty much said it all: "Legends don't die ... they get better!"

Astute IIIA readers know I've already covered this one as part of my countdown of the top 100 Dreamcast games of all-time, so I figure I am allowed to plagiarize myself when recounting this game's inherent greatness: This game was one of the absolute best produced by SNK, and in many ways, one of the greatest technical fighting games in history. It's an astoundingly deep game with well-tuned, extremely-balanced characters and an extremely satisfying combat system - in addition to being beautiful and an audio delight, too...SNK made so many great moves with this one, starting with the "Tactical Offense Position" bar, which allows characters to unleash super-powerful projectile and grab-attacks - a variable that makes one-on-one matches very strategic and cerebral. Also brilliant is the inclusion of "defense" bonuses, which allows players to recover health by successfully blocking attacks - such a small addition that makes the game that much more competitive and riveting.

Really, what more needs to be said? It's the absolute best "Fatal Fury" game ever made, which by default, makes it the absolute best in a series that is universally recognized as one of the best fighting franchises ever designed. And, it bears repeating: how can anyone not cherish a game featuring a character known as "Khushnood Butt?"

Number 5:
Blazing Star (1998)


From my perspective, this is one of the most underrated SHMUPs in gaming history. Yeah, it's probably a bit controversial ranking this one ahead of its forerunner "Pulstar," but I still think this follow-up from Yumekobo (the same company as Aicom, really) outshines its much reverred predecessor in every way.

This is just an astoundingly fun game, with vibrant 2.5D visuals (think "Einhander," except better) and precisely the kind of super-enjoyable bullet-hell gameplay you'd expect. The game is actually a lot easier than you'd probably assume, which is the only real negative I can think of here; it's long, the stages are varied and oh my goodness, is the game just a hoot and a half to blast through!

I absolutely love the pell-mell nature of the title. The scaling and scrolling effects are terrific, and I love the power-up mechanics (basically, you can load up your laser attack, "R-Type" style, and turn it into a giant battering ram/shield combination ... trust me, it's every bit as awesome sounding as you'd imagine.) There's a ton of stuff to collect, the music is outstanding (it's the most rave-tastic SHMUP you'll probably ever experience) and the replay value is off the charts. What was I saying earlier about this being one of the most underrated side scrolling shooters out there? Well scratch that; it's one of the absolute best out there, too.

Number 4:
The King of Fighters '98 (1998)


The subtitle for this game was "The Slugfest," and boy, was that ever the appropriate moniker. "KOF '98" is pretty much considered the crown jewel of the venerable franchise, and for good reason: it's one of the most beautiful, finely-tuned fighting games out there, and easily one of the best offerings from the late 1990s in any genre.

Structurally, the game plays similarly to its predecessors. You pick three fighters from a huge roster of SNK all-stars, and then you engage in lengthy three-on-three marathon bouts until only one team stands. Retaining the "Advance" and "Extra" modes from "KOF '97," this iteration really feels like two separate games; without question, it's one of the deepest, most satisfying fighting games ever designed.

With outstanding visuals, one of the most impressive line-ups in any video game ever and a combat system that is so incomparably robust, it's not really surprising in the slightest that the game remains a favorite on the fighting game tournament circuit. This is a fighting game fan's fighting game, through and through -- if you haven't played it by now, you seriously need to rethink your commitment to the hobby of video gaming.

Number 3:
The Last Blade 2 (1998)


In my countdown of the top 100 Sega Dreamcast games of all-time, I said that "The Last Blade 2" might not be JUST the best SNK game ever, but quite possibly the best 2D fighter game in history. Well, as the final outcome of THIS countdown indicates, perhaps that little proclamation was a tad hasty. What isn't debatable an iota, however, is just how goddamn incredible this game is. If you will, let me quote my Sept 2012 self for a bit:

The weapons-based combat is smooth and technical, and playing defensively is every bit as fun as playing on offense. I really liked the slower tempo of the game, which made it feel more like “Fatal Fury” than “Guilty Gear” - a kinetic brawler, this may not be, but if you are in pursuit of a cerebral, rewarding and intellectual fighter, you’re probably not going to find a better title on ANY console ... the graphics - in particular, the sprite animations - are among the best you will see in a 2D game, and the title has one of the best scores in the history of the medium. Every character feels and plays differently, although the fighters are all expertly balanced. Pulling off combos isn’t too difficult, and the inclusion of “Super Desperation” moves - basically, fatality attacks - adds an element of unpredictability alongside the combat system’s strategic depth. All in all, “The Last Blade 2” is one of gaming’s greatest triumphs - and an oft-overlooked title that is long overdue for industry-wide celebration.

Needless to say, this is an absolutely stellar title that doesn't get anywhere near the love and adulation it truly deserves. It's certainly one of the best 2D fighting games out there, and it's without question one of the best SNK offerings ever.  And if you haven't played it, good god, do you need to find a way to, and pronto.

Number 2:
Metal Slug 3 (2000)


I would really need an entire article to truly put the sheer awesomeness of this game into words. Shit, for that matter, I'd probably need to double my current bandwidth to do "Metal Slug 3" the justice it deserves.

Do I begin with the outstanding visuals and world class animations, that put most late 1980s Don Bluth movies to shame? Or do I begin with the absolutely exquisite (and beautifully chaotic) run and gun gameplay? I could begin with the killer multiplayer, and the inventive levels, and the expertly designed stages (complete with branching paths), or the game's trademark humor -- which, at once, is both the most loving and caustic homage to "Contra" imaginable. Or maybe I could talk about the insane boss fights, complete with one of the hardest final battles in the history of gaming? I can only FATHOM the staggering number of quarters squandered on this game's beyond epic final level over the years -- my coin contributions alone probably put at least one SNK employee's child through college.

Ultimately, it's the small things, I reckon, that make "Metal Slug" the modern masterpiece it is. It's watching your avatar turn into a lumbering fatass after chowing down on one too many food pick-me-ups, and it's hearing the corny Ah-nold imitator yelp "rock-it lawn-chair" whenever you pick up the RPG. It's hitting the grenade button when you're all zombie-fied on level two and then puking voodoo death all over your foes, and it's discovering all of the hidden vehicles cleverly scattered throughout the game (my favorite? Definitely the elephant flamethrower!) Not only is "Metal Slug 3" the best in the series, its arguably the greatest parody in video game history, and quite possibly the single greatest run and gun title EVER. And if you think this game doesn't deserve to stand neck and neck with illustrious games like "Gunstar Heroes" and "Super Contra," clearly, you've never played it before.

And after reflecting on 49 of the absolute best titles the Neo Geo had to offer, we find ourselves staring down the absolute creme de la creme. With so many outstanding games available on the hardware, whittling the entire library down to just one defining title was undoubtedly a tough assignment. That said, considering the legacy of the system, and the top title's unmistakable impact on the video game art form as a whole, there was really only one game that could've wound up topping this countdown. Time to give the king its rightful crown, folks.

...and the number one Neo Geo game of all-time is...

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Number 1:
Samurai Shodown II (1994)


One could argue that there are better games on the Neo Geo than this one, but I don't think anyone would dare say there's a more iconic Neo Geo title than "Samurai Showdown II." It may not have "made" the system, per se, but it certainly showed off the power and finesse of the hardware, and gave arcade enthusiasts the world over arguably the best 2D fighting game from the era -- absolutely no small feat, obviously.

"Samurai Shodown" was a very, very good game, but its sequel improved upon it in virtually every possible way. The roster is more robust, the visuals are even better, and the sound is utterly terrific. But the thing that strikes me most about this game isn't just one component, it's how all of those components gel into an utterly remarkable holistic experience. Beyond being a great looking and great playing game, this is a game that was expertly crafted and designed. The presentation in "Samurai Shodown" is about as cinematic as it got back in the day -- and even now, it doesn't feel aged or hokey one bit.

The gameplay is just sublime. While most fighting games from the era tried to imitate "Street Fighter" or "Mortal Kombat," this game was one of the few to go its on way, making the game about pacing instead of blood, guts and hyper-fast fisticuffs. The combat system is so nuanced and rewarding, with so many nice, cerebral touches -- it is the first game in the genre to showcase parrying, after all. But as I was saying earlier, it's not one thing that makes this game so memorable all these years later. It's the visuals, and the subtle musical cues, and the weirdo dialogue, and the smooth animations, and the attention to the detail, and the almost chess-like fighting mechanics and tremendously designed characters, all boiled together into an undeniably scrumptious goulash of sheer technical awesomeness.

In short? It was everything that made the Neo Geo, and SNK, so incredible to begin with.

2 comments:

  1. Thank you. I found many games that I played as a child.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Fun read. It made me want to go set up a retro pi and revisit some of these titles. In fact, I think I will be doing that after work.

    ReplyDelete