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History Lesson: Neo Geo

The bulky beast capable of emptying your wallet with a single game

Until 1989, it was a bad time to be an arcade machine. At the waning of a game's popularity, you'd simply be carted off or have your electronic guts torn out for a completely new set of internal gizmos, so specific were individual titles to their accompanying workings.

There had been experimentation in the past with single machines capable of playing a variety of titles. In 1986 Nintendo's PlayChoice-10 offered arcade gamers ten NES games, and Sega touted the Mega-Tech - a Master System equivalent - but these were little more than modified consoles disguised as arcade cabinets - conniving attempts at domestic gaming indoctrination among those with an affinity for coin slots.

Then came 1989, the year when SNK looked at the arcade/console divide and decided to bridge it with the Neo-Geo. An arcade-specific console of sorts, the Neo-Geo Multi Video System (MVS) introduced the console cartridge mentality into arcade cabinets. Sold on cartridges, up to six games could be loaded or unloaded into the core MVS unit that shipped to arcades - far easier than time-consuming cabinet guttings and, at $500 per cartridge, a lot cheaper.

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Neo Geo MVS flyer

Unlike the puny NES-powered PlayChoice-10, the Neo-Geo was a full-blooded rainbow-powered sprite-spewing beast. Sharing the same 16-Bit 68000 processor later employed by the Mega Drive, the MVS found real visual oomph in a custom video chipset that allowed for 4,096 colours and 380 individual sprites. Released two years later, the Mega Drive could only put out 64 colours and 80 individual sprites - explaining how there could be more detail in a POW beard flick in the Neo Geo's Metal Slug than in the entirety of Sega's Altered Beast.

With the arcade/console divide well and truly bridged, in 1990 SNK decided to seize the Neo Geo by its sleek black shanks and drag it across said metaphorical bridge, kicking and screaming into the home. And boy, did it kick. The techno-innards that so propelled it beyond console capabilities came at a bank balance-pummelling price.

The domesticated Neo-Geo was launched as the Advanced Entertainment System (AES) in 1990 for $650 (now equivalent to around £600), and games were $200 each. It was a bullish price for a bullish piece of hardware, one that revelled in number crunching power - a start-up screen boasted of 'The 100 Mega Shock' whenever a cartridge contained more than 100MB - while other home consoles tried their hardest to keep their cold technological edge hidden. Later cartridges could carry 716MB, and 'The 100 Mega Shock' was replaced with the even beefier 'Giga Power' start-up screen.

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The Neo Geo home console, the AES

Game cartridges were a data hodgepodge - each contained both MVS and AES versions of the game plus regional variations. Simple internal commands would inform the cartridge what form of the Neo-Geo it was dealing with. Despite having both versions of the game on the cartridge, the MVS and AES cartridges also came with different connector pin combinations to prevent wily arcade owners buying the cheaper home variations for their machines. The idea of data messily swirling around captures the general lack of finesse you wouldn't have seen with Nintendo or Sega.

Much closer to the 'traditional' home console was the Neo-Geo CD, released in 1994. Although carrying the far more reasonable $300 price tag, the system was blighted with slow loading times and a joypad instead of the satisfyingly hefty joystick - which made playing games designed for the stick (i.e. all of them) a chore.

Similarly, the 1997 Hyper-64, SNK's first and only 3D rendering arcade machine, was doomed by the company's lack of experience with 3D games, a market held by long time 3D-dabblers Namco and Sega. After the failed 3D venture, SNK wisely returned to the MVS/AES and the art of pushing 2D to its limits - explaining the extraordinary likes of The Last Blade and Garou: Mark of the Wolves, packing details and animation still unrivalled many years later.

Although SNK cancelled production of the AES in 1997, software continued being produced until October 19th 2004, with the last official title, Samurai Spirits Zero Special. In console terms it had a killer innings - 15 years is just one year short of the Atari 2600 record. It's a fact made all the more gawp-worthy by the sheer clumsiness of the machine in question. In this age of polished techno wizardry, the Neo-Geo stands as a testament to the power of blunt arcade thrills.

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