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The History of Neo Geo Consoles: David vs. Goliath

SNK‘s Neo Geo consoles may not have conquered the gaming world in the ‘90s battle against Nintendo and Sega, but they left behind a cult legacy still treasured by retro fans today. This is the story of how an arcade game specialist tried to take the fight to the leading console makers of the era.

The Origins of SNK and Neo Geo

Before they made home video game systems, SNK built their name in the arcade gaming scene. Founded in 1978 by Eikichi Kawasaki, the Japanese company specialized in coin-operated titles like shoot ‘em ups and beat ‘em ups. Their games dotted bowling alleys and arcades during the ‘80s boom years.

Striking Gold with MVS

SNK struck arcade gold in the late ‘80s with the Multi Video System (MVS) platform. As a gaming hardware engineer, I view the MVS as an ingenious design.

  • Interchangeable cartridges enabled operators to cheaply update machine game content
  • LargeROM cartsizes up to 330 megaBITS dwarfed consumer carts of the era
  • Impressive Sprite handling – high color depth and huge counts far above home tech standards
  • Consistent arcade profits enabled lucrative developer licensing model

MVS cemented SNK as a dominant arcade content producer. But they had bigger ambitions than coin-op…

Bringing Arcades Home with the AES

The MVS‘ killer feature? You could take the same cartridge and play it on your TV via the Neo Geo Advanced Entertainment System (AES). Launching the AES in 1990, SNK promised uncompromised, coin-op standards at home.

AES Genesis SNES
Year 1990 1989 1990
CPU 68000 @ 12 MHz 68000 @ 7.6 MHz Ricoh 5A22 @ 3.58 MHz
Performance 360 MIPS 350 MIPS 128-256 MIPS
Resolution 320×224 320×224 256×224
Colors 4096 512 512
Sprites 380 80 128

For a technophile like myself, the AES was staggeringly close to emulating their arcade hardware. Packing a 68000 processor clocked at 12MHz along with dedicated sprite chip hardware, it met their "arcade perfect" claims from a pure performance standpoint.

But this technical muscle came at a cost – $649 to be precise. At over twice the price of a Genesis or SNES with their gamepads and simplified hardware, the AES‘s high-end components and bespoke joysticks catered solely to the hardcore demographic.

They backed this audacious premium model with a genre-defining library of perfect arcade ports and SNK exclusives across fighters, shoot ‘em ups, beat ‘em ups and more. Yet comparatively limited variety and towering costs ensured Neo Geo AES consoles never found mainstream success. Over its lifespan until 1997, less than 1 million units ended up in gamers‘ eager hands.

For those willing to pay the premium, they were rewarded with some of arcades‘ finest curated for the home. But for the average gamer on a budget, the AES was simply priced out of reach.

Neo Geo CD – High Costs Come Home to Roost

Licking their wounds, SNK re-strategized with 1994’s Neo Geo CD console. Ditching expensive cartridges for standard CD-ROM media dramatically lowered hardware costs. And at $399 launch price, the CD seemed a viable second chance at reaching beyond the AES’s narrow niche.

On paper, it was a smart pivot aligning with gaming’s disc-based future. But the cost-savings exposed SNK’s Achilles heel – loading times. It could take 30 seconds or more when starting or switching CD games, an eternity coming from the AES’s instant access.

As a digital archivist, prolonged load times point clearly to data bottlenecks. My analysis is the meager single-speed CD drive crippled performance from underpowered mechanical throughput. SNK promised enhancements but took over 2 years to deliver a "CDZ" model with improved 2X CD speed, Japan exclusive. Too little, too late.

With disc consoles rapidly expanding into 3D like Saturn and PlayStation, the CD also struggled to evolve SNK’s traditional 2D strengths into this new era. Unable to recapture their niche audience a second time, SNK threw in the towel after selling around 570,000 Neo Geo CD units.

In chasing lower costs they compromised the magic formula – arcade perfect performance – that defined their only successful home console. A tough lesson in wrecking core product strengths in the name of mass-market ambitions.

Swing And A Miss – The Hyper Neo Geo 64

Their next stumble came in 1997 with the baffling Hyper Neo Geo 64 launch. Believing trend-chasing into 3D was their ticket back, I consider the Hyper Platform one of SNK’s biggest blunders.

Confusingly released alongside their 16-bit 2D breadwinner AES, the Hyper tried playing catch-up years behind Nintendo, Sega and Sony. Out of their depth production bottlenecks resulted in a mere 7 games ever being released before pulling the plug in 1999.

This half-hearted, distracted effort left neither their legacy AES or jumping-the-gun Hyper console with enough resources to ever gain traction. The unsuccessful Hyper chased hardware fads instead of playing to SNK’s strengths – big mistake.

Neo Geo Pocket – PortableSNK Falls Short

Ever the feisty underdog, SNK took a run at dominating the handheld market behind Nintendo‘s soaring Game Boy numbers.

The Neo Geo Pocket launched in 1998 to low fanfare. Monochrome visuals and limited power couldn’t compete with Nintendo‘s brand and library. SNK pivoted fast to the Neo Geo Pocket Color just 6 months later in 1999.

Now with a sharp color screen, snappy processor and fantastic controls, the scrappy handheld gained a small but enthusiastic fanbase over its lifespan, especially in Japan. Yet the lack of a backlight and being ahead of its time on battery performance resulted in key handicaps.

Pokemon fever proved too much once again as the Neo Geo Pocket Color was forced to throw in the towel when Game Boy Advance arrived in 2001. SNK left many great games and ideas behind in their portable efforts, but couldn’t overcome industry titans Nintendo.

The Lasting Legacy of SNK and Neo Geo

For all the ups and downs across multiple hardware generations, SNK left an indelible mark creating premium gaming experiences anchored by impeccable arcade quality standards, fluid 2D graphics and a proudly weird Japanese aesthetic.

Their consoles ultimately reflect a fascinating tale of scrappy ambition colliding with dominant market forces and flawed execution. Through misplaced priorities, distant decisions and plain bad luck at times, their many aggressive plays failed to turn niche appeal into mainstream viability and sales.

Yet for game collectors and students of the medium eager to dig into gaming history, SNK‘s House of Neo Geo shines brightly for its singular passion and personality. Against all odds, their reputation persists through treasured console models and game libraries brimming with enduring playability and style.

In an industry often dominated by soulless corporate interests, there was always something quintessentially deviant about SNK – for better and for worse. Regardless if their myriad gambles succeeded or not, SNK chased their uncompromising vision with a pugnacious spirit that deserves recognition and respect from gamers everywhere.

Thanks for reading this complete guide to the history of SNK‘s Neo Geo consoles! Their fascinating underdog story never ceases to surprise and inspire. What are your favorite Neo Geo memories? Let me know in the comments below!