Monday, April 6, 2015

Total Exposure: SNK Arcade Classics Vol 1 for PSP

Next to Nintendo's Playchoice-10, the Neo-Geo was the most successful arcade jukebox in gaming history. Designed with the most advanced technology the late 1980s had to offer, SNK's supercharged system had an unprecedented fourteen year lifespan, outlasting not only its 16-bit contemporaries but later consoles like the Nintendo 64, the Saturn, and even the Dreamcast.

Wait, isn't a hot dog just a dressed
up weenie...?
It wasn't just the future-proof hardware that carried the Neo-Geo into the 21st century, but the quality of its software as well. SNK was fiercely competitive with its rival Capcom through the 1990s, producing classics like Samurai Shodown, Metal Slug, and Shock Troopers that delivered the rich sound and stunning graphics expected from the arcade experience. Even in 2015, after decades of heightened expectations, these games are still as entertaining as they were when you first dropped a coin into them as a teenager.

The timelessness of the Neo-Geo's best games (and the obscene price of the system...) meant that a classic collection on modern hardware was inevitable. This brings us to SNK Arcade Classics Volume 1 for the PSP. The thought of shrinking all these great games down to a convenient travel size is a tempting one, but there are just two problems. The first is that the interface in SNK Arcade Classics is bloated, ugly, and dog-slow. Most of the content- even one of the games!- has to be unlocked with tedious achievements, and the software is walled off by layers of menus and access time. I've had more luck playing the games on MVSPSP, a homebrew emulator for the PSP, and would suggest going that route if you've hacked your system.

Two, not everything on the Neo-Geo was great, which you'll discover when you read these reviews. The quality of the system's library is higher than that of the Super NES or Genesis, because arcade games are held to higher standards, but there's still a lot of detritus on the Neo-Geo- and in this collection specifically- that doesn't stand the test of time. Hell, a lot of these games weren't even that great when they were first released! This list will help you get the most out of SNK's collection by separating the cream from the crap.


His game sucks, but Ryo throws
one hell of a kegger.
Gigantic, vibrantly colored fighters! A camera that zooms in to catch every brutal detail! Faces that realistically bruise and swell after taking damage! Thrilling cut scenes that rush you to each new battle! Over twenty years after its debut, The Art of Fighting still looks fantastic. As for the gameplay... boy, The Art of Fighting sure looks great, doesn't it?

Look, I'll give it to you straight. For all its visual luster, The Art of Fighting sucks as a game, and sucks hard. You're given a whopping selection of two characters, Ryo Sakazaki and his much too similar friend Robert Garcia. There's only one punch and kick, with a third button assigned to ambiguous "heavy attacks" and a fourth used for taunts. Damage is weirdly arbitrary, with some attacks shaving a couple of pixels from your health bar and others draining a third of it. Combos are all but impossible, aside from rapid-fire strikes like Ryo's Zanretsuken where the computer does all the work for you. The whole affair is clumsy, unsatisfying, and hugely frustrating, the perfect example of SNK's irksome habit of putting style above substance in its early fighting games.


I'm pretty sure I sent Pikachu into orbit
with one of those bats...
Baseball Stars was an NES obsession when I was a kid. You could build your own teams, improve your players' stats, and even trade them off to your rivals or fire them from the league if they weren't pulling their weight. The Neo-Geo version has... absolutely none of these features. It's understandable, of course... that deep customization just wouldn't fly in an arcade setting. Sure, there was technically a Neo-Geo home console, but which of your friends were rich enough and crazy enough to own one?

Baseball Stars 2 swaps the hands-on approach to the sport for a high-energy presentation that makes real baseball look like the World Boggle Championships. Athletes with impossibly thick arms step up to the plate, shown chewing tobacco in a cutaway shot as they wait for the pitch. Players lean against their bats for support when beaned with a pitch, and snap them in half after striking out. You might be tempted to break a few things yourself after a couple of innings, because Baseball Stars 2 is viciously hard. The computer opponent catches pop flies and tags out your players with ruthless efficiency, something to keep in mind if you've got a short temper or high blood pressure.


"Oh, my car! Er, my piano!"
You want to talk about getting burned? Ask the unlucky players who bought a copy of this dreck for $200, only to get thirty minutes of game and two minutes of entertainment for their money. There was no shortage of side-scrolling beat 'em ups available when Burning Fight was released in 1991, and you would be hard-pressed to find one more contrived and less thrilling than this. Of special note are the lead characters, an instantly forgettable, dreadfully animated trio who don't deserve to be generic thugs in Final Fight or Streets of Rage, let alone headline their own game.

One wonders why this collection didn't feature ADK's Ninja Combat instead. It's not, you know, good, but at least it's fairly original and runs at a faster clip than your usual Final Fight clone. Brightly colored shinobi Joe and Hayabusa choke the screen with throwing stars and recruit defeated mini-bosses in some of the most hilariously overacted cut scenes this side of a TurboDuo. "My name is KAGEROW! I was testing your POWAHH!" There's more amusement in those two lines than in all 54 megs of Burning Fight.


This old guy shouldn't be too tough to... uh oh.
The first of many, many, maaaany versus fighting games on the Neo-Geo, Fatal Fury laid the foundation for the long-running South Town series while easing players into a dauntingly complex genre. There's just one punch and kick, with a third button used for throws. Don't know how to use special moves? The computer will give you a helpful demonstration after every match. Having trouble finishing off that towering pro wrestler? Grab a friend and gang up on the poor sap in a two on one fight! Even the bonus stages are simplified, with the player hammering a button to beat virtual arm wrestlers.

Fatal Fury brings some refreshing twists to one on one fighters... believe me, this isn't the carbon copy of Street Fighter II that World Heroes was. Unfortunately, the years have not been kind to this game. The technique is appallingly limited, switching between the foreground and background seems to happen at random, and like The Art of Fighting, the game often makes its story a higher priority than the action, resulting in overly frequent cut scenes and weirdly stilted battles. (Knock the pole from Billy Kane's hand and you won't be able to hit him again until a goon tosses him another one. Okay, that's fair!) Fatal Fury is a fine way to familiarize yourself with fighting games, but by the time you launch Geese Howard out the window of his thirty story high rise, you won't want to stick around for the encore.


What is this, a fighting game
or a Russ Meyer film?
A crossover fighting game? What a fantastic idea! Eventually. I was as excited as anyone to play The King of Fighters '94 when it first hit arcades twenty years ago, but this game has serious problems which wouldn't be addressed until later entries in the series. Want to bring together your favorite stars from SNK's past? Forget it... the teams are pre-built, and typically come with three much too similar characters or waste a slot on dead weight. You'll also have to contend with computer opponents who love to step out of the way of your projectiles, mindbogglingly counter-intuitive super moves, and an obnoxious "chack" noise every time you hit a blocking enemy, which is distressingly often. No wonder one of the characters is named Heavy D!

Every King of Fighters game released since is better than this one, but since this is all you're getting out of this collection, you'll have to make do with sloppy thirteenths. KOF '94 does offer some amusement, though, whether it's hearing a thinly disguised Faith No More song in the Brazil stage, finding Guile's petrified remains in the villain's trophy room, or just the knowledge that at some point in the distant past, you were young enough and dumb enough to think this game was awesome.


Geez. My PSP is NEVER gonna survive this.
And you thought Wrestlemania was big! King of the Monsters expands the scope of sports entertainment, with towering kaiju using Japanese cities as their wrestling rings. Grab a suspiciously familiar gorilla, fling him into the power lines that serve as ropes, and drive his head into a nearby baseball stadium with a devastating suplex! Oh yeah, brother, he's gonna feel that one in the morning!

King of the Monsters is a big, big game designed especially for the high-octane Neo-Geo hardware. It would be hard to imagine a lesser console handling all this chaos, and indeed, later ports to the Sega Genesis and Super NES seem a little wimpy by comparison. However you play it, the game won't hold your attention for long due to a limited selection of attacks and gameplay that favors button mashing over skill. For the first five minutes, though, it's a hell of a rush to stomp buildings into powder as an oversized scarab named, ahem, Beetle Mania.


When he says "I'll be back," he means it.
Don't expect much rest and relaxation here. Last Resort is a white-knuckle shooter, very much in the R-Type vein but with artwork that leans toward the gritty and mechanical. If it tells you anything, the boss in the first stage is the mangled torso of the Terminator, rather than a Gigerian monstrosity ripped from the Alien movies. You're also given more flexibility with your satellite... you can orbit it around your ship to catch stray bullets, then launch it in any one of eight directions by holding down the fire button.

Beyond that, this is a very familiar experience, enhanced with all the luxuries 1990's most advanced arcade hardware can provide. Pilots are launched from the flaming wreckage of their ships, sirens blare in the background as you fly over a crumbling city highway, and your satellite leaves behind a trail of glowing crescents as it rams into its next target. It may not be the classic that R-Type or Gradius were, but where style is concerned, Last Resort can hang with the very best in the genre.


Seven different forms, all with the
same goofy walking animation.
Remember how amazed you were with the freakishly alien landscapes and five layer deep parallax scrolling of the Amiga computer title Shadow of the Beast? Remember how disappointed you were when you came to the bitter realization that the game wasn't anywhere near as impressive as the graphics? Prepare to experience deja vu all over again with Magician Lord.

This Neo-Geo launch title replaces the sprawling level design of Shadow of the Beast with more linear stages better suited to an arcade game, but you'll still notice similarities in the meticulously detailed, wildly original backgrounds... along with the way the lead character constantly dies at the hands of the game's overly abundant monsters. Your wizard can change into six alternate forms by grabbing crystal balls, but don't expect to get much use out of them unless you've got the mad skills to survive the legions of bullet-spitting monsters. Do expect a great deal of swearing until you get that good.


Metal Slug ranks among the best
the Neo-Geo has to offer.
Dazzlingly detailed, magnificently scored, and more intense than stubbing your toe on a honey badger, Metal Slug is the game that defined the Neo-Geo experience. Yet it was far from the first, released halfway through the system's lifespan. It wasn't even the first Neo-Geo game to borrow liberally from Konami's Contra series... although the lackluster launch title Cyber-Lip was quickly forgotten and best left that way. (Here's the big twist at the end... you and the second player are actually the villains. There, now you don't have to play it.)

Metal Slug, on the other hand... now that's a keeper. Imagine if you will a side-scrolling shooter that takes place during World War II, except the villain is Saddam Hussein instead of Hitler and all his soldiers are the biggest bunch of morons you could ever hope to meet. You'll meet dozens of scruffy P.O.W.s on your mission, who restock your supply of grenades and replace your wimpy handgun with such weapons of mass destruction as the rocket launcher and the shotgun, which reduces General Mordern's troops to a spray of red mist. Survive long enough and you may even find the Metal Slug, a surprisingly acrobatic tank which can double as a battering ram in times of distress. This game is one for the ages... it was fantastic in 1996, it's terrific nearly twenty years later, and it will be cherished by the archaeologists who find it in the rubble of our civilization two thousand years later.


The speedlines are how you know it's
a Japanese golf game.
Funny thing... I thought this golf game had been released much closer to the Neo-Geo's 1990 debut. But nope, it hit arcades in 1996, the same time as Nazca's more popular Metal Slug. And just like that classic shooter, Neo Turf Masters has all the earmarks of a Nazca release, from the bombastic music to a cast of characters stricken with severe prognathism. I mean, just look at these guys! I've seen smaller chins in a Rankin-Bass Christmas special.

Anyway, Neo Turf Masters is your typical golf game, with exciting cinematic cutaways (watch helplessly as your ball stops just short of the hole!) and brisk play mechanics specially designed to keep players moving and arcade owners swimming in quarters. If you don't make a shot in eight seconds, you'll be given a one stroke penalty. Bogey too many holes and your game will end before you can play the later ones. You'll also earn the derision of the chirpy announcer, Ellis LaPorte, who wisely stays hidden from view so you can't wrap a golf club around her neck. Some day, LaPorte, you'll get yours...


Sorry babe, gotta split!
After two years of cashing in on the popularity of Street Fighter II, SNK finally brings something new to the table with Samurai Shodown. It would be easy to dismiss this at first glance as just another Street Fighter clone, but the gameplay is altogether different; a tense stand-off where players wait for an elusive opening in their opponent's defense and drive a sword into it. There are no twenty hit combos here... three or four clean blows is all it takes to end a round. It may even end your rival's life at the end of the match, if your last strike is especially accurate.

Samurai Shodown isn't just a thrilling series of sword fights enhanced with SNK's typically brilliant graphics and sound. It's also an authentic Japanese experience, with taiko drums thundering in the background and characters inspired by Japan's feudal era. There really is a race of indigenous Japanese called the Ainu, and there really was a man named Amakusa Shiro Tokisada who was feared throughout the country. Of course, that was mostly because he was spreading unwanted Western beliefs... the dark sorcery was creative license on the part of the developers.


Wild horses (and everything else) could
drag me away from this one.
Oy gevalt, not another one of THESE! Sengoku is yet another generic beat 'em up, which tries to hide its flaws behind a rice paper wall of ancient Japanese iconography. The schizophrenic action is split between fighting the undead in abandoned cities and heavenly arenas. After their defeat, most enemies are squashed flat, for no other reason than the Neo-Geo can. (SNK's programmers were really fond of this special effect, making the Mode 7 in Super NES launch titles look tastefully restrained by comparison.) However, a few of the bad guys will change sides and fight for you, sometimes making the game worse in the process. With friends like these, who needs hundreds of the same enemies?

Locking swords with samurai zombies was a promising idea in need of a better game... which is why SNK took two more cracks at it. The second Sengoku smooths out some of the rough patches in the original (with a slight visual downgrade), while the third starts from scratch with a sleek combo-heavy brawler closer in spirit to Final Fight. You'd be smart to play either of the sequels instead, even if you have to find a real Neo-Geo to do it.


Welcome to Shock Troopers, where the
soldiers die both painfully and often.
From the makers of Shinoken comes... wait, don't run from the room screaming! This is good, honest! Every game system needs an overhead view shooter with a military theme, and Saurus delivers a doozy with Shock Troopers. It brings to mind classics like Capcom's MERCS, but throws in some welcome strategy by letting you roll out of harm's way and knife nearby soldiers for bonus items. There's plenty of variety in the levels, with your mercenary marching through ankle-deep swamps and racing across the highway on a motorcycle, and you'll find attention to detail in everything from the villagers who run from the ensuing carnage to enemy soldiers who writhe on the floor in agony after they've been gunned down. Shock Troopers' only major malfunctions are occasional frame rate dips and an intensely off-putting electronica soundtrack... everything else about this title is golden. It's just a pity Saurus dropped the ball with the sequel, with its doughy rendered characters and a triple helping of slowdown.


"Aww, do I gotta play this?"

"Yes, yes you do."

"You stink! I'm never talking to you again!"

"Go to your room."

(angry muttering is heard as loud footsteps trail up the stairs)
Me, when I found out I had to play this.

Well, I said I was gonna write about all the games on this collection, so here I go! Super Sidekicks 3 is a soccer game, as you may have guessed from the title and my lack of enthusiasm. It's got tiny but well animated players, plenty of teams from around the world, and tight, responsive control... not to mention a guy who has very little interest in playing it trying to pad out this review to an acceptable size. I was utterly hopeless at Super Sidekicks 3, frequently losing the ball to the sidelines, but I've seen players on YouTube who were able to dominate the game, firing ball after ball into the other team's goal box with little effort. I suspect you're not going to have much trouble winning this game if you have any interest in playing it. As for me, I think I'll stick with Metal Slug and Samurai Shodown.


The long arm of the law.
(Yeah, I was really reaching with that pun.)
And now for something completely different! After dozens of intense shooters and fighters, SNK shifts into first gear with the charming, if insubstantial, Top Hunter. This platformer puts you in the shoes of two bionic heroes, who use their stretchy arms to grab bumbling soldiers and slam them to the ground. SNK's favorite gimmick, dual plane playfields, are a key part of the gameplay, with Roddy and Cathy jumping between the foreground and background to reach handy items. Time ups are the most important of these... the Time and Super Time icons add precious seconds to the clock, giving you just enough time to reach the boss at the end of each stage.

Top Hunter looks marvelous, with each stage boasting its own distinct design and all of them bursting with bright colors. The gameplay may not appeal to everyone, though... the terrain doesn't present much of a challenge, and most of the dimwitted enemies can be dispatched with just a couple of hits. But really, challenge is hardly in short supply in the Neo-Geo library. If you want a game that will put its boot on your throat and press down until you black out, play Pulstar instead. If you're not up for that kind of punishment, Top Hunter is the way to go.


This is without question the Street Fighter-iest of the many fighting games released for the Neo-Geo, with precious little done to disguise its roots. Sure, the talents of Dhalsim are spread across two different characters (Rasputin gets his mysticism and fireballs, while Go-Go-Gadget Nazi Brocken gets his extending arms), and the cast borrows as heavily from historical figures as it does Capcom's World Warriors, but this is essentially store brand Street Fighter II. It even nicks from the original Street Fighter, with the strength of your button taps determining the power of your hero's punches and kicks. This control scheme was rather pointless on the four button Neo-Geo, but would get a lot of mileage on a later SNK game system, the Neo-Geo Pocket.

Now you got burned!
I'm rambling, aren't I? Okay, let's get down to brass tacks. Like several of the other games in this collection, World Heroes suffers in comparison to later entries in the series, with less technique and a smaller selection of characters. On the other hand, Alpha Denshi's demented sense of humor and repeated pokes of the hornet's nest that is US copyright law is a guilty pleasure right up there with devouring a family sized bag of cheese puffs. Where else can you see Joan of Arc respond to her opponent's chauvinist taunts by making them a knuckle sandwich? Or watch ninjas from Japan's feudal period carve a tribute to Arnold Schwarzenegger out of solid rock with their bare hands? Or fling Hulk Hogan into active landmines and electrified fences? (Yes, Hulk Hogan is apparently considered a historical figure now. Maybe if Isaac Newton had hit the gym, he could have been in one of these games, too.)


  1. That compilation definitely sounds like a very mixed bag in regards to quality, though IMO all of those 90s games look far more appealing than SNK's 80s output, which just looked like several different brands of kusoge from what I'd seen in the PSN shop on PSP.

    1. It is, regrettably. Lots of great Neo-Geo games were left off this collection, and lots of lousy ones were included for the sake of variety, as well as misplaced nostalgia. I'm sure I thought The Art of Fighting was magnificent in 1992, but believe me, it hasn't held up.