SNK's dogged pursuit of old school gameplay values and 16-bit technology is something revered by the hardcore gamer, but only one company has stuck it out as long as SNK, which continues to carve its own niche in Japan and the US with 2D fighting games and run-and-gun platformers that most developers said goodbye to a decade or more ago. In 2001, the company was even forced to close its doors and say goodbye to its fans for good after filing for bankruptcy. Yet somehow SNK's name lived on, its assets changed hands and not only is it thriving once more, but has finally tied up European distribution of all the games we've missed out on over the past few years as well as the new ones coming down the pipe.
Fast-growing Ignition Software, headed up by Vijay Chadha, has - totally against the odds - snapped up the European distribution of all SNK titles, thanks to a combination of tenacious commitment and connections with SNK dating back to Chadha's involvement with his former firm Planet Distribution - the distributor of the fondly remembered Neo Geo Pocket Colour. As a hardcore gamer and energetic publishing front man, his signing of SNK for Europe firmly puts his young company on the map, and has raised eyebrows across the publishing community, with sources close to the SNK revealing that many of the biggest names in the entire business have been turned down along the way.
And with this deal now finalised and extended across more than a dozen titles, Eurogamer was granted a rare opportunity to speak to two of SNK's most senior execs; Yoshihito Koyama, the number three in the entire SNK organisation and director of overseas operations, and Shinya Morishita, the manager of SNK's overseas operations.
Initially SNK's line up will feature old favourites that many will be familiar with from the last few year's worth of Metal Slug and King Of Fighters titles, but looking to next year the firms will finally be unleashing 3D, home specific versions of both for launch simultaneously across the world (you read that correctly - Nintendo, Capcom, Konami, Square-Enix et al take note), as well as branching into new genres with completely new franchises - with Onimusha-style action fighting, and Tenchu-inspired stealth action titles apparently on the cards. TGS is said to be the launch pad for a slew of announcements, so tune in for a host of Euro-related SNK news over the coming months.
In the meantime read our full, in-depth interview that marks the first step of SNK's unlikely but entirely welcome re-introduction to the European audience...
Eurogamer: Why did you choose Ignition over any other publisher?
Yoshihito Koyama: So many other publishers approached us - I can't tell you the names [laughs]. [Ignition] have their own development teams, like Awesome Studios, so we are also a publisher for third party so we can understand each other much more quickly. We are not looking for just a publisher.
Eurogamer: Do you like the fact that Ignition is a small company and can really focus on your titles?
Yoshihito Koyama: Yes.
Shinya Morishita: Initially we had discussions and meetings with many publishers in Europe, but Ignition is very serious about our products and they have enough knowledge as well.
Eurogamer: Did Ignition approach SNK or did SNK approach Ignition?
Yoshihito Koyama: [Ignition] approached us.
Eurogamer: How long has SNK been looking for a European publisher?
Yoshihito Koyama: Since the last Tokyo Games Show in Japan, so since September 2003.
Eurogamer: Why did you decide after all this time to get into the European market - why didn't you do it, say, 10 years ago, 5 years ago?
Shinya Morishita: Our studios developed our games mainly for the arcade. This last few years we concentrated more to the consumer business.
Eurogamer: Which games will you be bringing out initially?
Yoshihito Koyama: Initially, Metal Slug 3 for the PS2, Xbox and also [Metal Slug Advance for] Game Boy Advance.
Eurogamer: How much will you be selling them for?
Yoshihito Koyama: Don't know. Best ask Ignition! We just license out!
Eurogamer: There's going to be quite a number of titles over the next six months?
Yoshihito Koyama: Yes - Metal Slug 3, 4 and 5, and King Of Fighters 2000, 2001, 2002, and 2003. And King Of Fighters: Maximum Impact.
Eurogamer: How many titles do you think you'll be releasing in Europe once you've got the first batch out of the way? How many in 2005?
Shinya Morishita: We're planning to have 10 titles
Eurogamer: So, the stuff we're familiar with in Japan and the US.
Yoshihito Koyama: That's right.
Eurogamer: Will there be any next-gen titles? Obviously at the moment you're releasing a lot of arcade conversions. Are there any non-arcade games coming up?
Yoshihito Koyama: Yeah, 3D titles, especially designed for consumer markets.
Eurogamer: Will they be full price, or will you be targeting them as budget releases (as the first batch is)?
Shinya Morishita: For the 3D games, yes, they will be full price.
Eurogamer: Will you be looking to extend you European presence to have your own office?
Shinya Morishita: We're not planning to set up our own office, no.
Eurogamer: You're quite happy to farm that out to Ignition?
Shinya Morishita: Yes.
Eurogamer: How long have you signed with Ignition for? Are there a finite number of titles that are involved in the deal or is it over a number of years?
Yoshihito Koyama: We still haven't decided how long, you know, so, erm... [laughs]... each game is, erm...
Shinya Morishita: Well, it depends...
Eurogamer: Are there any games that won't be coming to Europe, that you've decided are not suitable for this market?
Yoshihito Koyama: Of course we will release all the games in the US to the PAL market as well. It depends on the approval from Xbox and Sony.
Eurogamer: What are your commercial expectations?
Yoshihito Koyama: The European market is maybe 30 per cent of the whole market, so we think the US market is maybe 50 per cent, but the most important thing is to covert from NTSC to PAL. But with Sony you have to think about SCEA approval because they don't like 2D games, but SCEE, they accept 2D games for release, but SCEA say 'no, they must be 2 in 1', or something like this, so we must follow for the European release as well, you know, two in a package.
Eurogamer: But once you've got your existing 2D games out of the way, is that the end of 2D for SNK, or are you going to continue using that retro style?
Yoshihito Koyama: We will support both of them, 2D and 3D.
Eurogamer: It's interesting, because you're one of the only companies that stick with that very 16-bit look. Is there a specific reason why you've stick with 16-bit?
Yoshihito Koyama: 16-bit... that depends on the CPU, right, so the motherboard, the NVS specification is a 16-bit motherboard...
Eurogamer: So, historically it was because of the arcade hardware.
Yoshihito Koyama: That's right... The CPU engine for Sega Dreamcast.
Eurogamer: What arcade games have you got coming out in Japan now?
Shinya Morishita: We released our franchise titles, such as King Of Fighters and Metal Slug and Samurai Shodown.
Eurogamer: And what hardware is that running on?
Shinya Morishita: Sammy's hardware system.
Eurogamer: Is that something you're going to be sticking with for some time or have you got plans to ramp up to a more powerful technology?
Yoshihito Koyama: We haven't decided. At this moment we say no, but someone told me some rumours about a Neo Geo motherboard 2, or something, but at this moment we are not planning to continue to develop arcade pieces.
Eurogamer: Obviously you've dabbled in the console market in the past with the Neo Geo and Pocket Color. Have you got any aspirations to look into that market again at some point in the future, or are you going to stay purely a games publisher/arcade company?
Shinya Morishita: [Laughs] It's quite risky.
Yoshihito Koyama: The hardware business is risky. It's quite a tough market.
Eurogamer: Have you got any new franchises planned or are you just going to keep doing Metal Slug and King Of Fighters?
Shinya Morishita: We're trying to keep to a few titles, franchises, Metal Slug, King Of Fighters, and Samurai Shodown. Now we're trying to release the original software only for the consumer titles [in] 3D. We're trying to release maybe two of our new titles [in] 3D.
Yoshihito Koyama: We need to have something different... different categories of games such as sport or RPG, fighting adventure or something. We don't want to always do Metal Slug, King Of Fighters. We need to have something like Onimusha or Tenchu style of games.
Eurogamer: Have you got these games in development right now, are they going to come out next year?
Shinya Morishita: Yes, next year we maybe plan to release two or three [all new] titles.
Eurogamer: When will you announce those?
Shinya Morishita: Tokyo Games Show.
Eurogamer: What kind of lead times will there be between the Japanese release and the PAL release?
Shinya Morishita: We're trying to have simultaneous worldwide releases.
Yoshihito Koyama: With NTSC/PAL, Xbox is easiest to convert. The problem is with Sony PlayStation 2.
Eurogamer: Why is it a problem?
Yoshihito Koyama: It's the biggest problem, it takes a long time. Localisation for five different languages is okay, no problem, but this market must be 50Hz to 60Hz switchable, and the sprite is different, you know, we have to speed it up. But we will release at the same time...
Eurogamer: Is this all about a general expansion for SNK?
Yoshihito Koyama: After the bankruptcy of SNK in 2001 we got our own IP and we're very happy to be here, back to the European market. So many funds existed in the European market... very happy.
Eurogamer: Are you likely to keep your development based in Japan or are you looking to recruit new developers outside, maybe in Europe or the US?
Shinya Morishita: Well, at the moment the development is Japan based, but there is a possibility.
Yoshihito Koyama: This is a very good point. Ignition has Awesome Studios, Archer MacLean.
Eurogamer: You've got Xbox Live support - are you supporting PS2 Online too?
Shinya Morishita: Yes, but for the future titles.
Eurogamer: You've supported Nintendo on the GBA, with versions of Metal Slug and King Of Fighters, but not on GameCube. Are you considering these?
Shinya Morishita: I think maybe we can consider them for the US, because they have a big market.
Eurogamer: Are you planning what you're doing for the next gen already?
Shinya Morishita: We haven't decided yet.
Eurogamer: What's your take on why Xbox has failed in Japan?
Yoshihito Koyama: It's a totally different market. Xbox has terrible penetration in the Japanese market, if you're comparing with the States and Europe. In Japan, PlayStation is dominating the market, GameCube is some way behind and Xbox is nothing. It's expensive and big. Japan likes things very small.
Eurogamer: Are you looking towards the DS?
Shinya Morishita: Yes.
Eurogamer: Is that something for TGS?
Shinya Morishita: [Laughs] That's not certain yet.
Eurogamer: So you've not got anything for launch?
Yoshihito Koyama: There are so many discussions...
Eurogamer: Any PSP plans?
Shinya Morishita: PSP and also DS is something we will carefully consider. We want to see what happens in the market.
Yoshihito Koyama: No, we want to see what's going on...who's going to win and who's got the market share. We think about the PSP will be much quicker to [grow].
Ignition Entertainment will publish Metal Slug 3 on PS2 and Xbox and Metal Slug Advance on the GBA this October, with more games to follow running in to early 2005.