The Games That Defined the Neo-Geo
Presented by Dylan, Daito_Kid, Beak and Racketboy
SNK’s Neo-Geo platform is a vintage marvel that many of us have never had the priveledge of owning in our homes. For those of us that grew up in the early 90s, it was the console that only the really rich kids had (and I didn’t know any). However, many of us have had the opportunity to experience the Neo-Geo arcade cabinets (MVS) or in ports or compliations on other consoles.
While most console manufacturers moved onto new machines every few years, SNK continued to support the Neo-Geo with new games for 14 years (from 1990 to 2004). Because of the continued improvement in the games over more than a decade, the Neo-Geo has a nice lineup of 2D games to keep retro fans busy (especially if you enjoy fighting games).
Since not everyone can afford real Neo-Geo games (not to mention the hardware), the eBay and Amazon links below each game entry will show you all the releases of a certain series for a diverse number of platforms — hope you find this guide useful! Also: If you’re looking for some lesser-known titles that are excellent as well, check out our Hidden Gems of the Neo-Geo.
The King of Fighters Series
One of the Neo Geo’s most popular and ubiquitous franchises, King of Fighters quickly secured an enormous presence in the fighting genre. Borrowing from previous titles created by SNK, King of Fighters was originally a crossover fighting game using characters from games such as Fatal Fury and Art of Fighting; ultimately it would end up eclipsing all of these titles.
When King of Fighters debuted in 1994, it was quickly set apart for its unique gameplay mechanics. Foremost it featured a team battle system, which allowed players to select teams of fighters rather than just individual fighters. This replaced the “two out of three” system usually seen in fighters at the time. This added a depth to the matches which hadn’t been seen in any like game before, and many fighting games to this day feature some variation on the concept.
The sheer number of other mechanics in The King of Fighters series is incredible. Earlier entries featured methods of dodging opponents’ attacks, either with a quick period of invincibility or with a rolling dodge that avoided the enemy attack and changed the character’s position. In the earlier games, each character had a meter that slowly charged, and once it was full, the respective character would power up, rewarding players who could make their fighters last (this would later be known as “Extra” mode). Starting with King of Fighters ’97, in addition to Extra mode there was an option for “Advance” mode, which filled up the player’s super gauge as they attacked their opponent. These modifiers allowed multiple styles of play, though Advance mode would become the norm in later games. The purpose of these gauges was to allow players to use either Super special moves or enter MAX mode, which buffed the character’s attack and defense temporarily.
Finally, the last mechanic that would show up would be the striker system, which allowed characters to be called into the fight to assist with one of their attacks. These characters could not be used as standalone fighters when selected as strikers. This would see multiple incarnations: some games had you select characters specifically to be strikers, some allowed you to select up to 4 characters and then let you use up to 3 of them as strikers. Judging by the exhaustive list of varying gameplay mechanics, it can be seen that King of Fighters has an incredible diversity of play within its own series.
King of Fighters also holds a massive cast, widely praised for both its size and the quality of its individual characters. A good example of this would be King of Fighters ’98 Dream Match, the final version of the game featuring a whopping 45 different characters, many with alternate modes to choose from. If there was one element these games didn’t lack, it was a deep and diverse group of characters.
SNK capitalized on the success of the series, and released yearly entries from 1994 to 2003. Since then development on new entries has slowed. The large number of games available in the series adds some noticeable variation between titles, with personal favorites varying wildly among gamers. It’s worth noting that King of Fighters ’98 is a majority favorite, loved for its solid mechanics and positively enormous roster.
Always changing yet solidly interesting game mechanics as well as a massive selection of different characters helped make playing King of Fighters a deep experience. While the series’ popularity has dwindled in past years, the quality of these games is still top notch and any fan of fighting games owes it to themselves to give it a shot.
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Samurai Shodown Series
While many games still hadn’t bothered to distance themselves from the basic gameplay elements Street Fighter II had set forth, Samurai Shodown distinguished itself with great success from many of the bread and butter fighters of the time (and even from other fighters produced on the Neo Geo). This series reinvented a lot of the conventions found in common fighters, with a unique battle system and a pronounced emphasis on tactical play.
The most apparent feature in Samurai Shodown is its weapon based fighting system. While this series didn’t invent the weapon based fighter, it was one of the first to use that concept with great success. Samurai Shodown deemphasized combos and encouraged quick, strong blows. Additionally it featured the concept of blocking at the last possible instant to stun your opponent, allowing a counterattack. This system of countering would be seen in later fighters as well.
Additionally, each character had a POW meter that filled up as they received damage. Once full, it drastically increased the strength of their attacks. This could also be used to perform super moves, which could break the opponent’s weapon if they connected and left them defenseless for a brief period; weapon breaking or disarming was a common ability in the series. One of the more bizarre elements in the first few games was a delivery man who would run across the background on occasion, throwing items that would either hurt or heal the players.
These features created a very deep technical element to the gameplay, giving it a much different pace and flow from other games at the time. While most fighters were combo-oriented, Samurai Shodown slowed things down a notch and made the individual attacks more important, making the player plan their moves much more carefully; missing a strong attack was practically suicide. This gives a tactical element to the series that stood out in terms of strategy from other games at the time. It also made Samurai Shodown one of the most intense fighters ever created: a single big mistake could just about lose an entire round.
The cast is another strong point for the series, which, while not remarkably large, had diverse and interesting character designs. Particularly, there were characters which actually had separate animals onscreen which could be commanded to attack their opponents. Per the usual many different locations have representative fighters from places like Japan, Europe, America, and even Hell.
Samurai Shodown II is largely considered the best in the series, with later entries getting less attention. When a lot of people think Neo Geo, it’s what comes to mind. In spite of this, Samurai Shodown IV and Samurai Shodown V Special still remain popular among fans.
This series had an enormous impact on the fighting game genre, and for good reason. With many considering the best and most unique fighter of its time, Samurai Shodown is a truly excellent model of a divergent and well made fighter.
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Metal Slug Series
A series well known for its quirky personality, excellent artwork, and intuitive fast paced action, Metal Slug is perhaps the epitome of the run ‘n gun genre. The games were simple but challenging; the mechanics were easy to grab a hold of but never dull. Metal Slug became one of the most universally popular franchises the Neo Geo had to offer.
The gameplay in Metal Slug is known for its simple controls and blistering speed, as well as its excellent co-operative play. Throughout the game you have access to a large repertoire of weapons, anything from a heavy machine gun to a rocket launcher to a laser gun. This, combined with a large presence of enemies on the screen at most times, created an atmosphere of pure mayhem while you blast your way through successive waves of enemies. The pulse-quickening pace of these games is excellent, and there’s never a dull moment to be experienced.
There are numerous other interesting modifiers to the gameplay, most notably hopping into various vehicles (known as slugs) and powering through your opposition. While originally this was restricted to tanks, the slug family branched out to include everything from submarines to airplanes. Some entries even allow for the player to transform into different “modes”, which altered their properties. A good example of this would be “zombie mode” in Metal Slug 3, which slows the player’s movement to a crawl but changes their grenades into a screen filling special attack.
One of the most loved aspects of Metal Slug is its absolutely gorgeous hand drawn sprites. All of the art in these games is highly stylized and all of the animation is extremely fluid. This greatly helps contribute to the excellent atmosphere and personality these games possess, giving them a very distinctive charm. Often the humor in Metal Slug is conveyed through these visual gags, like alarming enemy soldiers by catching them off guard or your character popping like a balloon when killed in fat mode. Another time that the art and creativity in this game really shines is against bosses, with each battle on a more epic scale than the next. You can expect to go up against giant robots, huge alien monsters, military war machines, you name it.
Metal Slug 3 is generally the most popular in the series, but for the most part all of the games have received high praise with the exception of 4 (it’s worth noting that 4 wasn’t handled by the same developers as previous entries and was outsourced to a Korean developer). Overall, the Metal Slug experience can be easily had from nearly any entry in the series.
All in all, Metal Slug is an experience unlike anything else out there. Excelling in nearly all departments, these games lack few qualities. Many a player will find themselves drawn in by not only the great personality of the series, but the great gameplay as well.
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Fatal Fury Series
SNK’s first foray into the fighting genre, Fatal Fury was released at about the same time as Street Fighter II. It was often panned as a Street Fighter clone, though this stigma was not deserved. While most of SNK’s series tended to decay in their more recent iterations, Fatal Fury started off sluggishly and then gained momentum. With each game the series progressed, the final result of this evolution was what is considered by many fighting fans as the greatest fighter of all time: Garou: Mark of the Wolves.
Fatal Fury has generally in some form or another included a multiple plane battle system, which has served as the gimmick for the series (though was dropped by the end). In this battle system, characters could jump between planes in the foreground and background to dodge enemy attacks. This element became more important starting with Fatal Fury 2.
The variance in gameplay between the Fatal Fury games is at times significant. Fatal Fury 2 and Fatal Fury Special expanded greatly on the original Fatal Fury and Special become one of the more popular entries in the series. Fatal Fury 3 was rebuilt from the ground up and felt completely different from earlier entries, and wasn’t very well received. Real Bout Fatal Fury and its iterations are generally praised for their more fluid and all around better feeling game engine, and are also among the most popular. Garou: Mark of the Wolves came last, and is by far considered the greatest entry in the series.
Fatal Fury Special is generally praised as the first really good entry in the series. This game is also the most comparable to Street Fighter II. It could almost be imagined that if SNK made Street Fighter II it would have come out as Fatal Fury 2/Special. This is likely not coincidence, so, while the gameplay is much like most fighters at the time, it’s a very solid version of the early post Street Fighter II fighter. However, the game does feel more reaction oriented than Street Fighter II, and has different pacing. Fatal Fury wasn’t really setting itself apart yet at this time, but it was building a reputation as a competitive fighter.
Real Bout Fatal Fury and its iterations became another big success in the series. The most notable changes made to Real Bout were the increased pace of the game as well as a very open combo system. This allowed the game to feel faster and more fluidic than its predecessors. By this point in the series the character roster was also much more developed, allowing for a greater number of fighters to choose from, not to mention the EX versions of characters. While the first version had 3 planes, starting with Real Bout Special, that was reduced to 2, which greatly improved the pace of the game. Overall, these entries were a lot easier to get into and had more depth than their predecessors.
The final entry in the Fatal Fury series culminated perfectly with Garou: Mark of the Wolves. The first thing to note for this Fatal Fury game is that it dropped the multiple plane system present in all of the earlier entries. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of this game is its incredibly deep mechanics; the number of technical maneuvers and attack modifiers is incredible. One of the more prevalent elements is the TOP (Tactical Offensive Positioning) system. This system is activated at a point that you set on your health where, once that point is reached, you gain access to special abilities and attributes. In all, this game’s incredible roster and positively beautiful, fluid graphics make this perhaps one of the greatest fighters ever made.
Fatal Fury is all over the place in terms of how the games feel, play, and look. The number of varied experiences this series has to offer is impressive; if you don’t like one there’s always the possibility you’ll like the next. While Garou: Mark of the Wolves now receives the most attention, the series has some other high quality titles that shouldn’t be overlooked.
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The Last Blade
The other contender for “greatest fighter ever made by SNK”, Last Blade and Last Blade 2 are, at the very least, criminally underappreciated. Last Blade was another weapon-based fighter, but is much different than SNK’s other weapon-based fighting series Samurai Shodown. Though one may expect them to play similarly, they are very different feeling games. These games are oozing with style and quality, from the combat system all the way up to the artwork.
The gameplay in Last Blade, like many of SNK’s fighting games in the late 90’s, is very technical. Unlike a lot of SNK’s fighters however, Last Blade had an emphasis on chain combos. Due to the way this system worked, nearly all of the characters had good combos, making nearly all of them useful and contributing to a very well balanced roster. In fact, this series is often cited as one of the most balanced fighters ever created.
Another interesting element is what’s known as the “sword gauge”, an option that modifies how your character plays. This system has 2 options: speed and power. Speed allows your character to combo easily and enter into a custom combo mode, but scales down your attack strength. Power greatly increases the strength of your attacks and lets you use super desperation moves, but in turn minimizes your ability to combo. This means that you can either play the game with an emphasis on well-timed powerful attacks, or on rapid quick hits and sustained momentum.
Another fantastic quality in Last Blade is the artwork. The characters are all well designed and have very fluid movements, and the amount of visual detail in the backgrounds is astounding. Very few games at the time could match the graphical quality of this title, and even games that came out on the Neo Geo later had a hard time trying to match it. The stage designs are some of the best you’ll ever see, the most frequently cited example being the stage in which the characters fight inside of a burning building. The atmosphere in this game is excellent as well. The game is set in Japan, but you can see the Western influence moving through the country side as an era comes to an end, tinged with a very melancholic, almost twilight feeling.
Last Blade is deep, but still accessible. The visual appeal and somewhat melancholic atmosphere are brilliant and engaging. The gameplay is smooth and accommodates multiple styles of play, without sparing a very well balanced roster. Don’t let this game’s lack of mainstream presence fool you: it’s not a contender for “greatest SNK fighter of all time” for no reason.
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Art of Fighting Series
SNK’s second foray into the fighting genre, Art of Fighting is extremely relevant despite receiving less attention than other series. Art of Fighting is notably divergent when compared to the general feel of SNK fighters; like the early Fatal Fury games, it’s very comparable to Street Fighter II. It’s worth noting that Art of Fighting is set as a prequel to Fatal Fury, and lent a good number of its characters to King of Fighters.
The first thing most people would notice about this series is the very large, detailed sprites. At any time the characters take up a large part of the screen. To counter this, SNK incorporated a zooming camera, so that the fighters could distance themselves. This feature would later be included in other SNK games, like Samurai Showdown. The graphics in this game were very impressive for 1992, being virtually unparalleled on the fighting scene. The characters in the game even took visible damage as the fight went on, accruing cuts and bruises as they took damage. While Art of Fighting may not have been the deepest fighter of its time, it was certainly the best looking.
The actual combat in Art of Fighting also includes features that would be seen in future SNK titles, most notably the use of “Desperation Supers”. Art of Fighting had a very simple layout, one button for a punch and a kick, and one for a fierce attack. This game did not incorporate combos in any way. There was also a Ki meter at the bottom of the screen, which could be used to pull of supers or Desperation Supers if the player’s health was low enough. This meter drained with every special used, and refilled slowly. This is one of the earliest examples of a game punishing a player for spamming, a concept that would become popular with players and seen in various forms as the genre developed.
While there were interesting battle features in Art of Fighting, the quality of the controls varies from game to game. In the original Art of Fighting were somewhat stiff and awkward, a huge penalty in any fighting game. Fortunately, this was much improved in Art of Fighting 2, as well as 3. The series saw much development in between releases, but it never managed to get as big as other SNK franchises.
Art of Fighting is an interesting series if for no reason other than getting to see the early development of the SNK fighter. Unfortunately, it was somewhat thrown to the wayside in the wake of other fighters. Art of Fighting is a very relevant series, because it is a series in which you can see SNK experimenting with some features that would become staples in their other fighters. Art of Fighting also contributed to King of Fighters roster, and as King of Fighters was originally made as a crossover series Art of Fighting is jointly responsible in the existence of that massive series.
While these games have definitely aged and feel somewhat primitive, Art of Fighting 2 and 3 can still hold their own as solid fighters. But perhaps the biggest impact that the series had was on future SNK games: Art of Fighting helped shape the type of fighting games SNK would be releasing in their heyday, which is certainly an accomplishment in itself.
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One of the Neo Geo’s few but good offerings in the puzzle genre, Puzzle Bobble (known as Bust-A-Move in the US) is easily the most prominent game of the genre. Puzzle Bobble was developed by Taito and based on the Bubble Bobble series of games. Like most good Puzzle Games, Puzzle Bobble is both simple and engaging.
This game has a relatively basic structure: each stage begins with a series of colored bubbles on the top of the screen. The player controls a mechanism that fires the same colored bubbles, and if they connect with two or more of the same color on the ceiling those bubbles disappear, as well as any bubbles “hanging” from the bottom of them. As time passes, the ceiling gets closer and closer to the player. If any of the colored bubbles pass a certain point on the bottom of the screen, the player loses. There was also a two player mode, in which the players tried to pop their bubbles faster to send more to their opponent’s side–the victor being the one who stays alive.
Puzzle Bobble is accessible in a way the other Neo Geo games, and a lot of games in general, are not; it’s the sort of game that you’re perfectly prepared to play just by watching the brief intro that tells you how it works. While SNK’s fighters were excellent, a fighter isn’t usually the sort of thing you can just hop into and excel at. And while Puzzle Bobble was no walk in the park at later levels, there was always the appeal of how intuitive its gameplay is. This helped give the game an appeal that differed from the Neo Geo’s other offerings, and helped round it its library with titles from other genres.
Like the series it’s based off of, Puzzle Bobble has a very cutesy atmosphere to it. While this won’t appeal to all gamers, it’s not overdone to the point of being a detriment to the game. In fact, it can often be contrasted amusingly with the stressful situations that are happening on the screen as the player nears a loss.
Puzzle Bobble is one of the Neo Geo’s more diverse offerings, and an excellent puzzle game both for the system and for puzzle games as a whole. Its basic design has been mimicked often, and most players would understand or recognize the game just by a simple screen shot. As one of the games that showed the Neo Geo had more to offer than just fighters, Puzzle Bobble is an excellent puzzle game that’s worth looking into.
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World Heroes Series
Another early fighter on the Neo Geo, World Heroes feels a whole lot like Street Fighter. Despite this, the series developed nicely over time and became a good fighter in its own right. Like many Neo Geo fighters at the time, there were twists thrown into the gameplay to help make it stand out.
One of the most noteworthy elements to this series’ earlier titles is their “death match” mode. In this mode, there were various obstacles added to the stage while the players fought on it. This could be things like fire, spikes, mines, etc. This element was popular among a lot of the series’ fans, and its removal in later titles was somewhat controversial. This is also one of the earliest examples of stage hazards in a fighting game, something that would be seen through various incarnations in future games.
The control and feel of the games was rather clunky at first, but developed nicely by the series’ end. While the early entries in the series are forgettable, World Heroes Perfect is the ideal realization of its potential. This particular entry in the series threw out most of the stuff that until then had made it feel like a 3rd rate fighter, and reworked the game engine. Also included were desperation supers and a “hero meter”, which charged as the player performed combos and could also be used for powered up versions of special attacks. This led to much faster, deeper gameplay than World Heroes had possessed in the past, with this entry standing head and shoulders above the rest.
World Heroes was written off as a Street Fighter clone pretty quickly. There was certainly truth to this, but like other Neo Geo games that felt like Street Fighter, World Heroes had a unique twist to it. The death matches would help differentiate it somewhat, but by the creation of World Heroes Perfect it was much more recognizable as its own game. Unfortunately, its slow takeoff meant that it didn’t get much attention by the time Perfect was released, cutting its potential short.
World Heroes had a pretty rocky start, like a lot of The Neo Geo’s early fighters. It’s a shame, because the series finally hit its stride right as its time was up. While it’s not the most diverse or exemplary entry in the Neo Geo fighting library, there’s something here that’s worth checking out. Once again, this is especially true for World Heroes Perfect.
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One of the earliest titles to grace the Neo Geo was the original Sengoku, released in December of 1991. Then two sequels followed: Sengoku 2, and Sengoku 3 or 2001, if you’re in Japan. All of the titles feature the option of one or two player cooperative play, in classic beat-em-up style fighting, but with a twist. The twist was that, once you defeat certain bosses, you can transform to different shapes, such as a fighter, a samurai, and a wolf. Each of the transformations are much powerful than your human form, but the transformation is quick and only lasts sixty seconds.
On top of the transformations, orbs also can be collected which power your character and when combined with your transformed self. A whole new level of fury can be unleashed from mirroring yourself to fight twice the amount of enemies, releasing lighting from the sky, and creating powerful blasts.
Each of these has their perks, and it’s best to use certain transformations for other bosses. As the game series progresses, the fighting systems have become more in depth, with the original Sengoku being a button mash fest, while the sequel Sengoku 2 adds blocking and takes advantage of all four buttons of the Neo-Geo controller, allowing for a more tactful approach when playing, instead of the button mashing seen in the first installment. The third game in the series adds a combo system that allows you to fill up a combo meter that can be used to do special moves.
The games are known for their long levels. The first two games level design is non-linear, while in Sengoku 3, the choice for which path to take is yours. Some can reach up to ten minutes as you fight on Earth, and Heaven, against demons from the Sengoku period of Japan. This is fairly consistent throughout the three games; the story is non-linear throughout the series, and loosely connected between the first two. The third, however, is somewhere in right field, since none of the characters from the first two game make an appearance and a different development studio took over the process. The game’s price tends to increase as you go further in the series; the first is the cheapest, and the third is the most expensive, but the second is the most sought after.
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Need More Neo-Geo Classics? Check out our guide to the Hidden Gems of the Neo-Geo