SNK, the Osaka-based company that's been enjoying something of a revival in the past two years, has over time become synonymous with the Neo Geo hardware and software that was such a muscular presence throughout the 90s. Understandably so, too; so many of these games remain a high watermark for 2D action and pixel art, and they've gained a cult following ever since. Metal Slug, The King of Fighters series and The Last Blade have enjoyed re-release upon re-release (I doubt there's a modern console that isn't host to a version of Metal Slug 3, and rightly so too - it's an essential text), while I myself have an MVS unit sitting proudly in the candy cabinet I call my own.
The SNK 40th Anniversary Collection, you might think, would be an excuse to wade in nostalgia and rake over old memories, a chance to sift through the differences between the seemingly infinite spins on The King of Fighters, or to dig deep into the beauty of Garou: Mark of the Wolves. It's not - and understandably so, given the countless options that exist to enjoy those games - and is instead something else entirely. This is a concise, exquisitely presented tour through SNK's pre-Neo Geo history.
Here are some 13 games taken from between 1981 and 1990 (with another 11 due as free downloadable content within a month), and I'll admit that, to an enthusiast rather than an expert like myself, a lot of these are entirely new. It makes playing through SNK 40th Anniversary Collection something of an education - not a stuffy history lesson, mind, and more like visiting an expertly curated museum exhibition, where every artefact on display is playable. This is like a boutique spin on the Barbican's 2002 Game On exhibition, but one you can carry around on your person wherever you may be.
And so each game is backed up by selections of artwork, manuals and other various ephemera. There's a 74-chapter 'SNK Complete Works: 1978-1990' that affords you looks at original hardware and assorted trivia. It's gorgeously presented - thanks to the efforts of Digital Eclipse, the developers behind this who've previously put in sterling work on Capcom's games with the Street Fighter and Mega Man collections - and is almost worth the price of entry alone. There's so much, of such beauty and curious insight, that the SNK 40th Anniversary Collection feels like a digital art book that's pretty much essential for anyone with a passing interest in gaming history.
Oh, and the games themselves? They're splendid, and often elevated by Digital Eclipse's presentation of them. The feature-set afforded makes them easier to enjoy, for sure - there's the standard assortment of filters to help ease the pixel art onto more modern screens, while a rewind ability helps dull some of the sharp edges. Even better is the option to watch an expert playthrough of any particular game and jump in to take control at any point, a smart substitute for a tutorial that works superbly well.
Some games work better than others, of course - time hasn't been kind to the likes of fighters P.O.W or Street Smart - but others are outstanding. Psycho Soldier is worth a playthrough for its fully vocalised soundtrack alone (and you get both Japanese and US versions of the track here - every game is playable in their numerous regional variants, as well as in their arcade and console versions), while Prehistoric Isle is a robust horizontal shooter that's been a complete revelation to me. Elsewhere there are some of the staples you probably already know - all three Ikari Warriors games are included, a twin-stick set-up mimicking the original hardware's novel rotary stick when it comes to the arcade versions.
The SNK 40th Anniversary Collection isn't really about getting reacquainted with familiar old games, though. It's about the thrill of discovery, of learning about an often overlooked part of a well-known company's history and being guided through it all by learned sorts whose enthusiasm for the subject matter is infectious. Don't be disappointed, in other words, that this isn't a collection of Neo Geo hits - the SNK 40th Anniversary Collection is something far more vital than that.
SNK 40th Anniversary Collection comes to Nintendo Switch on November 13th