Review: Neo Geo Mini (International Version)

The Neo Geo arcade cabinets were the stuff of legend in the early ’90s – and now you can enjoy many of their games in the comfort of your own home at a very reasonable price. They featured graphics far beyond anything a 16-bit console of the time could handle. The overwhelming majority of SNK-developed games for the cabinets featured lush sprites with an unbelievably high level of detail. In this modern era of 16-bit homages and remakes, the high-fidelity sprite art of the Neo Geo has generally aged gracefully. Outside of graphical prowess, the cabinets were also well-known for featuring multiple games on a single cabinet – offering up a great value for both players and arcade owners. Owners could use a single cabinet’s space for four games, while players had a lot more variety to choose from within that cabinet. You could have $5 in quarters handy and on a single cabinet, play a fighting game, a beat-em-up, a soccer game, enjoy some golf and even a platformer or puzzle game.

While the Neo Geo arcade cabinets were known for being fighting game-centric, there was a deceptive amount of variety in their lineup. The Neo Geo arcade cabinets were cartridge-based, making a move to a home console a logical one — and an expensive one! The console itself was $600 and the games were $200 – with a few scattered games being a bit cheaper and Magician Lord being a pack-in. For many years, the Neo Geo was a luxury item and while ports allowed players to enjoy a relative handful of classics, they were cut down in terms of content in ways that would probably shock players today used to parity amongst all versions of a game whenever possible.

Fortunately for those who loved the arcade cabinets and couldn’t afford the hardware, things like compilations allowed the library to gain a new level of exposure. The Wii’s virtual console also helped out quite a bit and helped set the stage for the first Neo Geo microconsole in the Neo Geo X. This device was portable and featured a good screen alongside a dock shaped like the NG home console and an arcade stick, but suffered from poor emulation and other quirks. The device could only be used with composite or HDMI inputs, with the former featuring ungodly-bad video quality and reversed sound channels that could at least be corrected by switching the red and white stereo wires around. The HDMI input was crisp, but didn’t solve the sound channel problems and poor emulation led to screen tearing and a highly-flawed way to play the game. The device did feature microswitches in the control stick and the arcade stick that came with it was well-made too, so it wasn’t without merit.

It wasn’t a product that SNK was comfortable with, however, and they terminated the deal with Tommo — the company behind the NGX and opted to find another solution. The new solution involved making a mini arcade unit with controller ports and a mini-HDMI output. The game lineup for the international version we’re covering is impressive – and diverse. Many of its games – like the King of Fighters, Samurai Shodown, Metal Slug, and Fatal Fury games have been released elsewhere in massive compilations. Others, like World Heroes Perfect have been re-released, but they’re fairly low-key releases that haven’t gotten much fanfare. This collection also brings in games that have really fallen through the cracks of time – like Blue’s Journey and Crossed Swords.

The mini cabinet setup takes some getting used to, but the small stick actually works fairly well. For shooters like Metal Slug where being able to aim in every direction is important, it works nicely and while the stick isn’t clicky like the arcade cabinet’s, it is accurate. For fighting games, you can still get a perfect grip over the top of it – making the King of Fighter, Fatal Fury and Samurai Shodown games play better here than on any compilation so far. Shoot-em-ups work shockingly well with a joystick and it’s a small area that I hadn’t considered when playing this after getting so used to play them with d-pads over the years. Playing Blazing Star was a joy and having snappier hand movements to move the ship around allowed me to play better than with a regular d-pad.

The buttons feel nice, although their layout has been changed around compared to the original Neo Geo arcade layout. This doesn’t hurt the games in any major way – and the new layout feels a bit more modern for those used to playing NG games on the Xbox One or PS3. The mini cabinet’s screen is a bit small, but quite sharp. Text appears clear and colors are accurate. Fast motion isn’t an issue for it, and for games like Metal Slug with a lot going on at once, this is a must as a blurry picture would make the games unplayable. Unlike the Neo Geo X’s 16:9 screen, the mini uses a 4:3 display and games don’t have any kind of stretching or pixel warping that we noticed.

Outputting to a TV is possible, but a more costly endeavor. A mini HDMI cable is needed and you also need a USB-capable Neo Geo Mini controller, which we received in a pair with both white and black color options. Up to two controllers can be attached to the device and they work well. Like the mini cabinet, the control stick lacks any microswitches and uses the revamped button layout. The former didn’t wind up being an issue at all in-game because the responsiveness of the stick is still high. One nice thing about the stick being clicky is that it did make it a bit easier to use your ears alongside your sense of touch to tell where you were during elaborate circular fighting game motions — so that not being present here hurts a bit in theory.

You do have a notch on the stick’s front to feel that allows you to do that just in a different way. The microswitches within the Neo Geo CD controllers that these were modeled after did have issues, so it does make sense to get rid of them to improve durability – but it does still hurt the authentic feel of the device. Fortunately, the controllers are well-made and the buttons feel better here than on the cabinet — no doubt due to the less-cramped nature of everything on a wider controller than the much smaller cabinet. The only regular issue with the controller is how far apart the start and select buttons because while they work fine for regular menus, pressing both at once to bring up things like save states and screen adjustments is troublesome.

The device does default to 16:9, but switching it to 4:3 is easy enough and looks good. I didn’t notice any screen tearing and the games that I could compare to a more modern-day release, like Magician Lord, looked reasonably crisp. The image softer than it was on something like a PS3 release of Magician Lord and it does hurt the presentation a bit. Things are sharper here than on the SNK collections on the PS2, but not by a lot. It’s nice to get a lot of games in one go, but the visual emulation could be improved.  Compared to Arcade Archives releases of things like 3 Count Bout, you also don’t get online play — so there are still advantages to going with some individual releases on a game-to-game basis. Sound emulation is spot-on for the game selection – which is important given how awful it has been before.

Overall, the Neo Geo Mini is a great pickup for a specific audience. For the mini cabinet only, you have to make sure you’re going to use it in portable mode and be comfortable with the smaller screen. Those wanting a complete experience will have to spend more to get the extra controllers, but are rewarded with a far more versatile experience that enables more playtime for the money. As a compilation, this is one of the best ones ever released in terms of not only game quality, but also in giving games a chance to shine that otherwise wouldn’t.