As an anthology of games from SNK's simpler days, the 40th Anniversary Collection offers a variety of classics that are more fun than you might expect given their age. The simple-looking Vanguard (1981) may not give off a rousing first impression, for example, but play it a bit and you begin to discover that its dynamic scrolling system and proclivity for handing out invincibility power-ups make it more than a predictable space shooter. This and many other entries show a glimpse of a company developing its prowess for making arcade games, and it's fascinating to take it all in. This is in large part thanks to the great attention to detail and comprehensive research that went into cataloging and smartly presenting an unsung but important part of gaming history. What's more impressive, and less obvious, is the work that was required to make every game in the collection playable at all.
The full extent of developer Digital Eclipse's efforts is difficult to know from the sidelines, but it's recognized among gaming historians that the team holds itself to a very high standard and often succeeds at meeting it. Beyond programming emulators, it also helps track down relics–original arcade motherboards–when the source code has been confirmed lost by SNK, in addition to scanning and restoring marketing materials that tell the story around the games at the time. Regular maintenance can keep old arcade boards alive, but with dwindling numbers of working units in the hands of private collectors, there's a feeling of "now or never" when it comes to preservation. The SNK 40th Collection is a treasure trove of classics that heeds the call.
At launch, there are 14 games to play: Alpha Mission, Athena, Crystalis, Guerilla War, Ikari Warriors, Ikari Warriors 2: Victory Road, Ikari III: The Rescue, Iron Tank: Invasion of Normandy, P.O.W., Prehistoric Isle, Psycho Soldier, Street Smart, TNK III, and Vanguard. For some of these games where there was an NES home port of the arcade original, you get both versions to compare and contrast. It's a great lens with which to examine the mindset of the day, where everyone wanted to bring the arcade experience home and people were willing to accept compromised graphics and gameplay to get there.
A perfect example of this is Ikari Warriors, one of a few proto-twin-stick shooters in the collection. As evident by the included console port, when the game made the transition to the NES, you could only shoot in the direction you were moving, rather than independently, as you would in the arcade game. Now that the collection is on Switch with two analog sticks to handle the controls, we are that much closer to having the true Ikari Warriors arcade experience at home. The game actually used a single arcade stick that had an added rotation function, but short of releasing a new peripheral to exactly replicate the stick, Digital Eclipse has gone as far as possible to achieve what consumers wanted when Ikari Warriors was on everyone's radar.
While there are a lot of solid games on hand, there are no doubt going to be games that are more interesting in theory than in practice. Given this, it's nice to see that each game–minus some NES ports–has an autoplay option. This will not only make it easy for you to examine a game with ease but also gives you the chance to tag in when a game gets good. Disengaging autopilot and taking the wheel isn't the smartest way to learn how to play any game, but if you find yourself up against a difficult section, you can also trigger the rewind button to fix mistakes and undo accidental deaths.
The 40th Anniversary Collection gives you a lot to play and many ways to tailor the experience to your whims, including settings that come in handy while playing vertically oriented games. From a technical and experiential standpoint, it's an all-around great collection. And if everything goes according to plan, Digital Eclipse has 11 more games scheduled to arrive before the end of the year via free patches and DLC.
In the meantime, if you exhaust interest in playing what's around, there are a lot of special features to explore. Scans include assorted marketing sheets and advertisements but even go so far as to include independent fan zines from the '80s and arcade game guides. For a more in-depth peek into the past, every game released by SNK between 1978 and 1990 gets a neatly animated history lesson, complete with screenshots and interesting anecdotes that help tell the overall story of SNK's formative years. And if you want to just zone out to some nostalgic music, there are soundtracks for 12 of the games in the collection ready from the start.
Digital Eclipse proves once again that it's the right team for the job of both preserving and resurrecting classic video games. For SNK and its fans, the team has elevated some of the company's most important milestones. It's responsible for more than just Neo Geo games, and though not every game that came before is worth replaying on its own today, the addition of supplemental materials and revitalizing modern gaming conveniences make them feel more interesting than they have in years, and in some cases, decades.