The Neo Geo gets its own classic mini revival, but can its collection of 90s classics hold up against modern distractions?
The Neo Geo was a 90s phenomenon, not least because of its insanely high cost and (at the time) overwhelming power and graphical sparkle. The home consoles had exactly the same hardware as the arcade cabinets, so for the first time ever you could enjoy truly arcade quality games from the comfort of your sitting room. The downside was that cartridges cost up to £150 each, at a time when most home console titles were in the £30 to £40 range. It made Neo Geo into something of a legend.
There have been other forays into repackaging this greatness for a 21st century audience, most notably the handheld Neo Geo X, which worked as a standalone unit but could also be plugged into a plastic Neo Geo lookalike console and connected to your TV. Along with its excellent joystick, it made for a compelling recreation of being in an arcade, and even if several of its 20 games werent up to much there were classics amongst them and the ability to buy more.
Neo Geo Mini is a different proposition in that despite its diminutive dimensions (it stands about 16cm tall) its not a true handheld device and comes without a battery. To play you need to connect its USB cable to a mains outlet or computer, effectively barring its use as a portable. That may sound like a poor decision but actually trying to fumble about with it on your lap is a hiding to frustration. Its far more playable on a nice flat tabletop, especially when gameplay gets hectic – which it does very quickly in most games.
There are other design features that are a lot less easy to explain, most notably that its either extremely loud or excessively quiet. On its five-point volume scale it leaps from near-inaudible to awkwardly loud, leaving a gap where a happy medium might have been preferred in most domestic settings. You can always plug in headphones, but the problem persists, with the volume either way too soft or close to deafening.
It also comes with a USB cable but no power supply. Unless youve been living the life of an Amish person or ascetic monk, its practically certain youll have a spare USB brick or iPhone charger knocking about. But for this price it feels stingy not to have one in the box. Youll also discover that although you can connect Neo Geo Mini to your TV, to do so youll need a mini-to-regular HDMI cable and plug-in joypads – both sold separately. Not to mention, in the unlikely event that you purchase all these items, it will become apparent that while games look lovely on the systems ultra-bright 3.5 inch screen, they look a bit fuzzy stretched to TV size.
So youre left with a tiny arcade cabinet on which to play the systems 40 games. Its responsive and well-designed joystick lacks the clicky microswitches of the original but it is perfectly functional. Alongside that are four buttons, which while slightly cramped together have a wonderfully loose feel, perfect for bashing them repeatedly in beat em-ups and shoot em-ups, the staples of Neo Geos back catalogue and the meat and potatoes of the Minis line-up.
Seventeen of its titles are one-on-one fighting games, which includes the superb Samurai Shodown II, a tactical, weapons-based fighter that helped inspire games like SoulCalibur. Theres also King Of Fighters 98, which many regard as the prolific series high watermark, and Garou: Mark Of The Wolves, a lesser known but more recent fighter that has considerably more ambitious graphics and animation than its early 90s forebears. For all those games, the absence of two-player mode is glaring, but even on your own theres a lot to explore, especially for genre aficionados.
Streets Of Rage fans get a look-in with a few scrolling beat em-ups: Mutation Nation, Sengoku 3, and Robo Army. They all benefit from the responsive joystick and buttons, but equally feel stultifying dull by todays standards. There are a couple of wild cards to distract from this, like Crossed Swords, a weird first person sword fighting simulator where enemies approach head-on, and Puzzled, which uses Tetris mechanics for its peculiar balloon-liberating gameplay; although neither is especially compelling.
Much better are the Metal Slug games, six of which make it onto the roster. Although these have two-player modes theyre single-player games at heart and their shooting, scrolling action plays out beautifully on the small screen. The best outings in the franchise, Metal Slug and Metal Slug X, are both here and work very well, complete with authentic, retro-style sprite slowdown when the action gets too intense.
Sports games are underrepresented, with undistinguished football kicker Super Sidekicks and American football game Football Frenzy failing to standout. Although at least they sit comfortably alongside the completely lacklustre Top Players Golf, which is just not as good as Neo Turf Masters – which sadly is not included. Theres also 3 Count Bout, a wrestling game thats every bit as dreadful as its modern counterparts.
That just leaves the side-scrolling shooters, the best of which is Blazing Star, a shmup that goes out of its way to dole out power-ups and rewarding collectibles to go with its screen-filling sprite explosions and bullet hell mayhem. As with all games on the system, you can save and restart from your previous highest level, a feature that makes the games challenges more approachable. But even with that theyre incredibly difficult by todays more molly-coddling standards. If you doubt that, try Last Resort, a great shooter but one so punishing right from the beginning youll wonder what makes its developers actually hate you.
In spite of the granite-like difficulty levels, Neo Geo Minis collection of games comes with memorable highlights that you can enjoy even without the bittersweet pang of nostalgia that comes from remembering them the first time around. Its also a handsome desk ornament whose solid construction suggests that it will remain so for many years to come. Yes, some of the titles are a bit rubbish, but many are excellent and when they come in such a fetching package its hard not to be seduced.
Neo Geo Mini
In Short: A neatly encapsulated, plastic-cased nostalgia trip for 90s gamers, including a sprinkling of classics in its somewhat mixed 40-title retro line-up.
Pros: Nicely made cabinet with a bright screen and responsive controls. Some excellent games including the timeless Metal Slug, Samurai Shodown II, and Blazing Star.
Cons: Single-player only unless you buy further accessories. Numerous filler titles and no battery, limiting the console to home use. Games look less impressive plugged into a TV.
Price: £129.99, extra controller £24.99
Release Date: 11th October 2018
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