Biggest, Baddest, Best: Jon's Top 10 NEO GEO Games
Join Jon as he shares his personal top 10 NEO GEO games!
If you grew up during the dawn of video games, and think back to your local arcade, certain names might come to mind: Distinguished developers like Capcom, Namco, Konami, and good old SEGA. Often overlooked, but never overshadowed, there was SNK and their 24-bit multi-cart carrying monster, the NEO GEO. Launched way back in 1990, this board was a beast capable of running games with 24-bits of power; cutting edge graphics, killer sound, and a life span of nearly 2 decades. You stick around in the golden age of gaming for 20 years, you’re bound to have some solid gold classics. These are the top 10 NEO GEO games, presented in no particular order, brought to you by me, and the fine folks at Quit The Build.
King of Fighters 98
Starting off right with the genre that was born and thrived in the arcades of its time, the king of fighters was SNK’s answer to the fighting game boom… Along with fatal fury, Art of Fighting, Samurai Showdown, and a smattering others. Each one of these franchises held a novel gameplay mechanic; whether it was weapons, plane switching, or having sprites scale. For King of Fighters, they went with teams of three spanning across SNK’s various franchises in an ultimate slugfest to determine who’s the best. SNK didn’t settle for one game, they made this a yearly installment starting in 1994 up until 2003, where they dropped the EA Sports business model and moved on to numeric sequels. Each game introduced new mechanics, new moves, new characters, and more. Not only that, they introduced insane storylines of blood oaths of revenge, brainwashing, and curses of ancient gods.
Of all that I can pick from on the NEO GEO hardware, I have to give it to KOF 98. Bringing back characters that were previously killed off in older entries, this is a dream match that serves up fan service, and offers game play modes that cater to how you play. Choose from Extra or Advanced mode, so whether you prefer to rush people down with hard hitting combos, or making your opponent miss with dodge rolls and defensive tactics, you can hold your own. Not only that, this game had EX variants of characters with different move sets, Orochi variants, new teams and so much more. This firmly set the standard for how SNK fighters are made, and wasn’t surpassed until another entry, coming up later on this list.
Metal Slug X
Another entry in a genre that needs no introduction, Metal Slug debuted in 1996 with an over the top art style and unrivaled action. Starting off with a simple handgun, your arsenal expands with the flamethrower, shotgun, rocket launcher, heavy machine gun, and of course, the titular Metal Slug. Add in two-player cooperative play, insane screen-filling boss battles, and you and a buddy will blow away entire armies of invading troops as you call shotgun in the seat of your own one-man-army tank. Years later when it was time for a sequel, SNK delivered with Metal Slug 2. Everything was bigger, badder, better, except for one thing: the unforgivable slowdown. In the arcade, this thing chugged when anything got too hectic on screen. It’s hard to appreciate all of these insane boss battles and over the top weapons while you’re looking at it at 10 frames per second.
Back then, there were no patches, no way to fix an already released game. So what did they do? They put out Metal Slug X. This release in 1999 revised and revitalized the original with smoother gameplay, even more over the top weapons and boss fights, delivering the pinnacle of side scrolling shooter game in arcades. Who could forget rolling into battle on a Vulcan cannon mounted camel, being turned into a mummy, surviving sewer mutants, or blasting UFOs out of the sky with your Super Shotgun? To this day this remains my most replayed video game to date. I’ve owned it across several consoles, and always drop in a few quarters when I see it at the arcade. My high score is over 3.3 million points. What’s yours?
While on the subject of shooters, not only did the NEO GEO dominate scrolling shooters with Metal Slug, they also dominated the top down shooter genre with Shock Troopers. Released in 1997, Shock Troopers took the ball from Ikari Warriors, and ran with it. You choose from an eccentric cast of characters and work solo or as a team to save the professor’s daughter from The Bloody Scorpions: A terrorist group holding the daughter of a genius scientist that develops a super soldier serum, which if left in the wrong hands could spell disaster. Now you know I had to write that exactly like the crazy 90s action movie it sounded like, because that’s exactly what this game is. You can choose multiple paths to get to your objective, each one taking you through the jungle, over the mountains, even into the sky. Along the way you’ll power up with crazy weapons, fight insane bosses, and ride in an assortment of vehicles. Each character also has their own unique special weapon, ranging from grenades, a bazooka, exploding arrows, and more — You definitely want to play on Team Battle for this one, gotta pay respects to Big Mama. While there is a sequel, the original definitely does it best.
Waku Waku 7
This will probably be the curveball for a lot of you reading. I already introduced you to the pinnacle of NEO GEO era fighting games with KOF 98, what the hell is this Waku Waku 7 business? Well, in the same way, I can appreciate King of Fighters for its dedication to serious fighting, I can just as much appreciate this game for being an absolute goofball of a fun time. Developed by Sunsoft in 1996, and taking not-so-subtle inspiration from Dragon Ball, your goal is to obtain the 7 Waku Waku balls. Whoever does this will have their greatest wish granted. Where its plot may lack, the characters and solid fighting game chops pick up the slack. Where else can you play as a kindergartener that pilots a giant purple rabbit? After discovering this game in my emulating days, I can’t tell you the number of incredible matches my friends and I had. Learning each character, learning their instant-kill special move, and earning each of their insane endings. While this game might be overlooked, its humor and pure charm shine through making it an absolute gem.
Stepping away from shooter and slugfests, we’re stepping onto the beach with Windjammers. Data East takes this beach toy into a competitive arena, and has its six characters battle it out for ultimate frisbee supremacy. This game is nothing more than a supercharged version of Pong, but the intricacies and nuances of this game is where it really shines. Pick a character, learn their special moves, master the art of the joystick flick and dominate your opponent in 1-on-1 frisbee fights. This is a pick for the list for its total uniqueness, there is nothing else on the console like it. Shame we never got a home port to the Genesis or Super Nintendo, because I’d be playing it to this day. This game rightfully built its reputation as a cult classic, prompting Limited run games to release the first physical copies since its release back in 1994. Whether you can find a copy out there in the wild, or decide to pony up for the digital release, get some friends and host your own furious frisbee tournament today.
Baseball Stars 2
It isn’t the same much anymore, but back in the day sports games came in two varieties: you had your simulations, and then of course you had my personal favorite, the over-the-top action arcade experience. When a video game only cost a quarter, it was hard to really get invested with rosters or player stats, trades, or any of that stuff. When you were a kid, what’s the most fun part about a game like baseball? Hitting dingers, and sliding headfirst in the home plate. Luckily, Baseball Stars 2 offers just that. You pick your team, each with their own signature statistics, and step up to the plate. A solid baseball experience through and through, whether your pitching or hitting, the game gives you plenty of tools to make your way around the bases. One of my personal favorites has to be the power of the bat. Pair of this with your beefiest batter, and you’ll hit it out of the park every single time.
As exciting as that is, on the pitcher's mound, you’re not unarmed. Fastballs, curveballs, and a deadly sinker are at your disposal to make your opponent snap their bat right in half. And if you get cocky and decide to force a walk by striking the batter, they can strike you right back — The animation of the pitcher getting clocked in the face is always hilarious. If you can’t get enough of America’s pastime this season, boot this up and have a great time at the ballpark.
You don’t get a sequel nearly 10 years later, and not have it be good. Sengoku was at the beginning of the NEO GEO’s life with a beat’em up centered around ancient samurai warriors traveling through time. In 2001, Noise Factory brought the series back with a sequel set in present day Japan, doubling down on ninja powers, ninja weapons, and of course, solid ninja beat’em up action. Choose from seven characters, each with their own unique weapon and move set, and clean up the streets of Tokyo in style. The NEO GEO acts as a time capsule for so many genres of games, and seeing the evolution from games like Mutation Nation to this is staggering. A smooth combo system, additional super moves, weapons, dash attacks, and even an emergency escape maneuver showcases the innovations that a decade of development can bring to old school gameplay. Now if only we could get another sequel, 20 years later.
There is no genre more synonymous with early gaming than the space shooter. Space Invaders shook the world with its intuitive and addictive gameplay, taking the industry by storm, and setting off a race to space. Countless copycats came out to capitalize on the classic formula; most of them solid, legendary games in their own right. What I’m saying here is that if you are going to make a shooter set in space, you need to do everything to set it apart.
Then in 1998, AICOM blessed the world with Blazing Star, a shooter unlike any other. Wholly immersed in a 90’s anime aesthetic, you pick your pilot and blow away swaths of enemies as you power up, collect bonuses, and battle behemoth bosses. I can’t talk about this game without talking about the graphics. Remember, this console was released back in 1990, and somehow it was capable of graphics like these. Backgrounds pop with a 3D perspective, pre-rendered assets roll, shake and smoothly glide across the screen with a level of detail that still blows me away. How the developers managed to pull this off so seamlessly is astonishing to me. It takes the bullet hell trappings of Cave’s Dopachi, and stuffs it into the shell of Konami’s Gradius to deliver high intensity shoot’em up action polished to a mirror shine. There’s nothing better out there on the NEO GEO.
Neo Turf Masters
If you thought you’d get out of this list without one more surprise, this one steps up to the tee and rockets a drive down the fairway. On the surface, this seems like your run-of-the-mill golf game. When you play it, it feels like a run-of-the-mill golf game. There’s four distinct courses, every club imaginable, and a selection of characters with different stats, strengths and weaknesses. How do you make golf not boring? Give it awesome music, amazing graphics, killer sound effects, and hand over development duties to Nazca — the team that made a little franchise called Metal Slug. Normally, the conversation would just end there, but this is also on the list for personal reasons. Back when the Nintendo Wii was selling like crazy, a lot of developers released their old video games onto amazing compilations. One such collection was the SNK Arcade Classics, Vol. 1 released for the PlayStation 2 and Nintendo Wii. I played this game with my father to death. In between marathons of Mario Kart, we’d occasionally pop this in, slip into our cleats, and hit the golf course. Sometimes the thing that makes a game fun is the person you play it with. For me, that’s Neo Turf Masters.
Garou: Mark of the Wolves
We started with a fighting game, we’re going to end with a fighting game. One of the single best fighting games released on any console ever. While King of Fighters might have more games to its name, the most iconic fighting franchise in SNK’s history has to be Fatal Fury. For nearly a decade of design reworks, a soft reboot and then some, in 1999 they reworked the entire game from the ground up and delivered Garou: Mark of the wolves. As many fighting franchises floundered or flourished in the late 90s as the trend took gaming into the third dimension, SNK stuck to their guns with its marquee franchise by delivering a solid, sturdy, badass video game.
I can’t talk about this game without getting excited. The brand new cast of original characters, and the return and redesign of their most iconic character Terry Bogard. The Tactical Offense Position or T.O.P. system which unlocks new moves at a predetermined level of your life meter, the Just Defend feature which gives the franchise its first taste of a true parry system. Every time I see this game in motion, I have the same look of disbelief I had seeing Blazing Star for the first time. It took eight sequels across 10 years, while still being made for 10 year old hardware, and they’re still able to make a game as gorgeous as this.
It’s impossible to talk about this game without also talking about the innovations from previous games that still pay off here. Fatal Fury isn’t just a fighting game, it tells you a story, expanding on characters, storylines, providing a narrative in a genre that was thought of as having a little to no narrative. You cared about these characters, their story, what became of them, so when you see Rock all grown up in this game, it hits you. Or when Geese finally dies and stays dead, thank God he didn’t come back again in this one. This gets the official Jon “Play It” endorsement; all of these games do, but this one especially. This game is available on nearly every digital store; PC, Xbox, PlayStation, Switch, wherever. Buy a copy, get into versus mode, grab a friend, crank the handicap all the way up, and throw down all night long. And last but not least, if this doesn’t get you excited, SNK just announced Garou 2. I have no words. Only unbridled anticipation.
Those are the Top 10 NEO GEO games. Do you agree? Disagree? Sound off in the comments, or @ me on twitter (@GamesWithJandJ).
About the Author:
Jon Anderson is a gamer, illustrator, graphic designer, video and sound editor, broadcaster, photographer, videographer, voice actor, and even a 2D artist for a brief time in the gaming industry. He's brought his eclectic skillset to the Games with Jon & James Podcast!