Even now, all these years later, there remains an air of luxury around the Neo Geo. These were once premium machines, with premium price-tags to boot - as a kid I'd look wistfully at the shelves that contained those gloriously oversized AES clamshell cases with their muscular artwork, wondering if there would ever be a time when I'd be able to sample the pleasures within. They played premium games, too, from the style and swagger of The King of Fighters series through to the impeccably detailed and winningly characterful pixel work of Metal Slug.
And now there's a new attempt to distill some of that luxury into something a little more diminutive and a lot more affordable, following on from 2013's Neo Geo X, a handheld developed by licensee Tommo that fell a little short as well as falling foul of SNK Playmore itself. This time out, with the SNK name in the midst of something of a resurgence, it's taken on the duties itself with the Neo Geo Mini, a beautifully proportioned and fully functioning arcade cabinet that sits in the palm of your hand, giving you access to some 40 games from the Neo Geo back catalogue.
It really is beautiful too. I've spent the past week with the International Edition of the Neo Geo Mini that's due out towards the end of October, and it's an arrestingly gorgeous piece of hardware. Indeed, even before you get to the machine itself the packaging captures some of that 90s exuberance, brimming with colour and attitude and finished off with a neat neon strip that lights the joystick when turned on, the finished product looking like a still printed out from Saved By The Bell's credit sequence. Judged by its box alone, the Neo Geo Mini feels like it stays true to the brand's premium heritage.
That same exuberance is evident in the cabinet, even if the International edition is more muted than its pre-existing brethren; here the control panel is a simple black and grey, the cabinet above it a bluish-grey with just enough space above the screen for you to place one of the marquee stickers included in the package. It all helps give the Neo Geo Mini that same swagger that was synonymous with the SNK name back in the 90s, and a look at the 3.5 inch LCD screen only helps bolster those initial good impressions, offering up decent viewing angles and all proving a neat fit for the 320x224 resolution of the Neo Geo catalogue.
Beyond that the hardware begins to disappoint, though. While you wouldn't expect Sanwa-style components on the control panel, what is there falls short of the standard you might expect given the price-tag - the buttons are soft and offer little tangible feedback, while more criminally the stick lacks the microswitches common in older hardware and that are essential for precision inputs. What's here feels more like an analogue stick that's been called to work for digital duty, and it's an awkward fit. Whether you're playing a fighting game or attempting to waltz through one of the shooters, there's always the nagging feeling that something isn't quite right.
The problem isn't remedied by the optional controllers that can be plumbed into the Neo Geo Mini. They're decent enough replicas of Neo Geo controllers, with big, bold and beautifully coloured buttons and carrying a decent amount of weight, but the sticks are equally floaty and simply not up to the task of 2D gaming. It's a small shame how one oversight can have such a major impact on the experience as a whole.
Unfortunately it's not the only mark against the Neo Geo Mini, which boasts a whole collection of compromises. This is a handheld device but sadly there's no battery, so you'll have to use the included USB-C cable to hook up to a power source. It's a device that you can hook up to a TV, but to do so you'll need to supply your own HDMI cable - and a mini-HDMI cable to boot, which you're unlikely to have lying around your house but which SNK are more than happy to provide you separately at a price.
And even then, when you're playing on a TV, you'll be met with an experience that's slim on options and that doesn't go out of its way to preserve each games' splendour. There are two image options, one of which provides an aggressive smoothing filter while the other presents images in a more smeared fashion, with no ability to simulate scanlines and little else besides.
The entire front-end is just about functional with nothing by way of frills, a selection of save states available (while saving within games is a feature that doesn't seem to be supported) and with all games being set to their MVS modes and no ability to switch to their AES siblings. It's worth noting, too, that these look to be the slightly neutered versions of many of the games, the red blood in Metal Slug replaced by sprays of white mist. Given the proximity of SNK 40th Anniversary, Digital Eclipse's deep and richly featured exploration of the company's more distant past, the threadbare approach on the Neo Geo Mini can feel like something of a missed opportunity.
Still, the emulation is up to scratch (even down to the crippling slowdown in Metal Slug 2, a situation remedied by the remake/reimagining that was Metal Slug X which also makes an appearance here), and it really is a fine selection of games. There's a heavy emphasis on fighting, as well there might be given the quality and depth of SNK's 90s output in the genre, and within the various The King of Fighters editions and Samurai Shodowns there's room for a few fighting curios - Kizuna Encounter, for example, which now carries a punishing price tag and which was one of Hidetaka 'Swery' Suehiro's very first projects, makes a welcome appearance, and is a brilliantly overstated futuristic tag brawler.
And elsewhere, amidst the many Metal Slugs - you can never really have too much Metal Slug - there's an abundance of riches and treasures waiting to be rediscovered. Crossed Swords is an offbeat treat, a close-quarters combat game with a broad-shouldered appeal, while Ghost Pilots is a pleasingly brutal shooter that takes its place alongside more regularly celebrated titles such as Blazing Star and Last Resort. There are omissions, of course - some understandable, such as third-party efforts such as Windjammers and Puzzle Bobble which are doubtless tied up in licencing deals - but this is a varied and frequently excellent selection, the International Edition of the Neo Geo Mini having a much broader catalogue than its existing sibling.
It all makes the Neo Geo Mini a great way of delving into a rich part of SNK's past, packaged up in a neat form factor that has more than a share of that old bawdy style. It is imperfect, though, the myriad flaws - the poor experience when playing on a TV, the lacklustre components used for the controls and the fact you'll have to purchase and carry around a fair bit of extra kit if you want to enjoy every facet of the device - leave a substantial dint in its overall appeal. The Neo Geo Mini channels the spirit of 90s SNK, but it falls short of the luxury you might expect of the brand.