From this mid-August until mid-October, we’ll be releasing an SNK-themed retrospective per week as part of our tribute to SNK’s 40th anniversary. This is in conjunction with the folks at Retro DNA & Versus City.
When you think the arcades and the 90s, what do you remember? Street Fighter? The King of Fighters? Strikers 1941? Metal Slug? Yes. Yes to all of them.
If you live in Asia and you remotely remember any fighting game or 2D shoot-em-up with that distinct “Japanese” or otherworldly charm, you basically have touched a game published and developed by SNK. These guys were the pioneers in bringing big and challenging experiences in the arcade.
With over 50+ games in its Neo Geo console library, it’s hard for people back in the 90s not to touch a game made by the publisher. And to coincide with the recent launch of the Neo Geo Mini this year, it’s high time we look back and figure out which SNK game is still remarkable up to this day.
Just two major rules:
- One game per franchise. Otherwise, this list will be filled with Samurai Shodowns and The King of Fighters entries.
- The games on this list should be exclusive to Neo Geo platforms and the Neo Geo arcade cabinets during their heyday, and also have the SNK stamp on it. When you think of these landmark games, you think “SNK” and/or “Neo Geo”.
These are the essential Neo Geo and SNK games you need to play to get the grasp of its long lineage and history. Some of these entries are either ported recently in the past year or so, or on the upcoming Neo Geo Mini. You have no excuse not to play these gems.
Platforms: Arcade, Neo Geo, Neo Geo Mini
Let’s start off with what SNK knows best: making fun games involving fisticuffs. Sengoku 3 is the company’s answer to the beat-em-up genre, and it’s a very bold and impactful answer. Your task is to stop the undead samurai-slash-ninja menace the only way a 90s style beat-em-up can: by beating the crap out of everything you see. You get to pick between 4 different characters -2 are unlockable- with different ninja skills and attacks.
You get multiple pathways that lead you to bonus areas or even alternate routes with tougher challenges. You also get to chain enemies with combos to keep them occupied and in the air, enabling you to kill them without fear of retaliation. The controls for this game are spot-on. It’s simplistic, sure, but it definitely ups the ante in terms of production values and gameplay.
Metal Slug 3
Platforms: Arcade, Neo Geo, PS2, PS3, PSP, Neo Geo Mini
The Metal Slug series has always been the staple diet for side-scrolling shooter fans. But among all of the various entries from the first flawed-but-well-meaning game to the later entries featuring the motherf***ing Ikari warriors Ralf and Clark, we will have to go with the third game.
Why? Because Metal Slug 3 takes the trappings of the past games and upped it with formidable space aliens, creative levels and bombastic setpieces with a ton of explosions. There are only 5 stages, but darn it if these stages are big and multi-layered.
You get to pilot unique Slugs -the mechanical armaments you get to use to kick butt temporarily- like the Elephant, Ostrich, LV Armor, the Driller, and the Astro Slug. Each of them is powerful but have their own quirks and control schemes; you need to master them to at least stay alive as long as possible.
While parts 1 and 2 take it to the ground and through a world tour, Metal Slug 3 goes far and beyond without bogging it down with unnecessary Metal Slugs and repeat villains. No other Metal Slug, or even other run-and-gun shooters apart from Contra, can capture the lunacy of the series and the frenetic action it offers.
Platforms: Neo Geo, Neo Geo Mini
One of SNK’s earlier shmups, and arguably one of the better ones. Blazing Star is brightly-coloured and is a frenetic shooter that offers a lot of action to shmup fans. You have a boatload of ships to choose from with different shots and playstyles to suit your needs.
The pre-rendered 3D/2D graphical mash-up is subjective, but we feel that it looks appropriately cheery given the space opera theme. And of course, the action and set pieces are what you expect from a publisher of this calibre: non-stop action coupled with a lovely soundtrack. Oh yeah, get down with this disco-esque piece and a chime-filled opening stage theme.
Platforms: Neo Geo
Isometric shooters are few and far between, and none of them looked as gorgeous and as retro as SNK’s Viewpoint. The game has an isometric viewpoint and lovely graphics, but it’s not just style over substance here. The methodical approach of this game means that you have to start using every corner of the planescape to place your lone ship away from harm. Positioning matters: you have to keep the screen clear of enemies lest you get swarmed as well as keep firing at the big boss on display.
Still, the game is quite a technical marvel though it’s overshadowed by the likes of Blazing Star and Metal Slug. Play Viewpoint just to see how and why SNK was a juggernaut at the time: because it relishes on thinking and doing big.
World Heroes Perfect
Platforms: Neo Geo
If you want straight-up fighting game insanity, you can’t go wrong with this simple-yet-fun fighting game. Your roster consists of an effeminate Russian priest, salaryman moonlighting as a red-clad ninja, a football player, a pirate, and a very offensive African tribal stereotype.
The fighting game mechanics are nothing special, but the sheer enthusiasm of its presentation and its fluid controls help make this one a spectacle of its era.
Plus, you don’t get to see Super Moves as suggestive as this.
The Last Blade 2
Platforms: Arcade, Neo Geo, Dreamcast
While the Samurai Shodown series took a break in 2000, along came the Last Blade series. Set in Japan’s Bakumatsu era where the samurai age is dying out in favour of Western gentrification, the Last Blade games take the Samurai Shodown mechanic and made it more aggressive and more combo-oriented.
Between the two games, Last Blade 2 is clearly the more animated and more developed fighting game. With a parry system relegated to an additional button press, a plethora of options to either play defensively or offensively, and a rich aesthetic and score, Last Blade 2 is a classy fighting game that also is a work of art, paying tribute to the era it represents in video game form in the best way possible.
Real Bout Fatal Fury 2: The Newcomers
Platforms: Neo Geo, Neo Geo CD
Fatal Fury’s fighting and plane-switching mechanics are honestly archaic, but they’re made more viable and more refined in the Real Bout series. But which ones are the best? We’ll pick the one with the bigger roster and the more refined fighting mechanic: Real Bout Fatal Fury 2.
The plane-switching is now relegated to an evasive mechanic, which is great if you play defensive or just like to throw an opponent a curveball to their button-mashing shenanigans. The game also features a large cast and fan-favourites.
Garou: Mark of the Wolves
Platforms: Arcade, Neo Geo, Dreamcast
At the time when Street Fighter III made headway in the arcades, SNK released its counterpart featuring new characters with ties to past Fatal Fury characters.
We added this to our list despite the previous Fatal Fury entry because it’s a completely different game from its cousin. It’s still a 1v1 fighting game, but its Just Defense and TOP mechanics -new defence and offence options that work during specific moments- make it stand out from the rest and adds in more strategies to make the fights exciting & cerebral.
Unlike SFIII where you need to take a risk parrying by pressing forward, you just have to worry about blocking at the right time via the Just Defense system. Whether you hold back sooner or later, at the very least you’re still on the defensive instead of exposing yourself to counters and extra damage.
Plus, the game’s animation and music are top-notch, rivaling that of its Capcom counterpart Street Fighter III in many aspects.
The King of Fighters ’98
Platforms: Neo Geo, Arcade, PS3, Xbox 360, PC, and many more
There are way too many King of Fighter games, but which one deserves your utmost attention? Which of all the entries capture the spirit of the 3-on-3 fight-fest while still retaining its classic vision of an SNK all-star fighting party?
We choose the updated version of The King of Fighters ’98 because it refined the Extra/Advanced fighting styles mechanic that was introduced in KOF ’97, it buffed up the roster to extreme amounts, and it added even more life and flair in its backdrops and music.
This is the only KOF game you need to grasp the series’ legacy and perfected fighting game mechanics. All other KOFs owe their strengths to this iteration of the game.
To put things into perspective, during the SNK World Tour early this year, there were only two KOF games up for competition: KOF XIV and KOF ’98. That’s how prestigious KOF 98 was, and still is up to this day.
Platform: Neo Geo Pocket
We should never count out SNK’s handheld wonder. It died too soon, but at least it had a good number of gems, like this turn-based mecha strategy game. Here’s the catch: instead of controlling a squad of mechs or soldiers, you control one mech and issue 5 or more commands and actions during its turn.
Basically, you have to queue up your actions and anticipate what your opponents will do since they only have 1-2 actions per turn. You have to anticipate how your opponents react and plan around it, and that’s what makes this gem fun because you get that huge satisfaction when you outwit the AI with uncanny precognition.
The game’s graphics are also packed with as much detail as you can possibly cram in a Neo Geo Pocket cartridge. You can tell that this game is designed with a lot of passion and love for JRPGs in mind; after all, these are the same developers who produced the Shadow Hearts and Koudelka series.
SNK vs Capcom: Match of the Millenium
Platform: Neo Geo Pocket
Arguably the best fighting crossover on SNK’s pocket pal, this fighting game features 26 of SNK and Capcom’s finest fighters, different play options including 2-fighter tag teams or 3-fighter queue teams, and 3 different playstyles (Capcom, SNK, or Neutral style). Fighting game fans of either faction will also find a lot to love from its fanservice to its nods to other arcade titles. A number of fighters here have special intros with their rivals; that’s a lot of attention to detail.
Also if you linked the Neo Geo Pocket with a Dreamcast running Capcom vs. SNK, you get access to an extra fighter from each faction. This title help bridges the gap between different consoles just to give players what they want: the merging & clashing between two popular fighting game stables ala WWE Raw and Smackdown.
SNK vs Capcom: Card Fighters’ Clash
Platform: Neo Geo Pocket
This is the last Neo Geo Pocket entry, we swear! Before games like Hearthstone and Shadowverse invaded mobile phones and PCs, gamers had to get their digital card fix from rare titles like this next SNK vs Capcom mashup. Here, players fight each other using 50-card decks featuring characters and actions from SNK and Capcom games. The first player whose life total reaches zero loses.
Players can use Union Attacks and Action cards to combine character attacks and use special abilities as long as the player has SP points. There are ton of character cards you can use and build your deck with; take a gander here. Talk about a game being ahead of its time!
Platform: Arcade, Neo Geo, PS4
Do you want a fighting game mixed in with a futuristic sport involving frisbees? Boy, do we have a game for you!
Windjammers is a 2D frisbee-tossing game set in the far future. Your objective is to score the most points for yourself; you do this by throwing the frisbee into your opponent’s goal…Oh wait, we’ve talked about this before; check out our glowing review of the game here.
Twinkle Star Sprites
Platform: Arcades, Neo Geo, Sega Saturn, Dreamcast, PS2, PC
It’s easy to find a versus puzzle game, but a versus shooter with puzzle elements? That’s rare to find in the 90s. Luckily we have SNK to scratch that specific itch in the form of the cute-em-up 2D shmup Twinkle Star Sprites. Playing on a two-player split screen, your objective is to kill your opponent by summoning fireballs and special bullets on your opponent’s screen.
How do you do this? By shooting enemies on your screen and creating chain explosions out of them. We’ve also talked about this magical versus shooter on this here past feature.
Samurai Shodown V Special
Platform: Arcades, Neo Geo, PC, Neo Geo Mini
No other weapon-based combat game does it quite like the subversive Samurai Shodown series. But there can only be one, and the fully-balanced and tweaked version of the 5th mothership game is the best one yet.
Samurai Shodown II comes close, but Samurai Shodown V Special is played more often and has more-realized mechanics fine-tuned from past iterations of the game. With a cast of 28 warriors with various playstyles -including the game’s previous bosses- and a revamped fighting mechanic that is a bit harder to learn compared to the other fighting games on this list, this game is tailored for its more hardcore crowd.
That doesn’t mean that you should avoid it if you are new to the Samurai Shodown franchise. You can still play it as a regular fighting game but its nuances and its focus on patience and landing the game-killing blow mean that it isn’t like any other fighting game out there. Simply put, no other 2D weapons-based fighting game is as challenging and as deep.
We are aware that 15 is not a big enough number to encapsulate the best of what SNK has to offer. If you have other game picks, let us know!