A never-before-seen Hyper Neo Geo 64 Samurai Shodown 64 prototype was found sitting under a tree in a Californian field recently.
It had been sitting there for 20 years, retro video game collectors believe.
Samurai Shodown 64 is a December 1997 fighting game released for the Hyper Neo Geo 64, the arcade system created by SNK as the successor to the Neo Geo MVS.
The Hyper Neo Geo 64 was meant to herald SNK's emergence into the new era of 3D gaming that emerged in the mid-'90s, but it failed to find an audience and reached the end of its life just two years later in 1999 with only seven games under its belt.
Samurai Shodown 64, known as Samurai Spirits in Japan, is one of those seven games. It was SNK's first 3D fighting game, following in the footsteps of 3D fighting game big hitters such as Tekken and Soulcalibur.
Now, a prototype version of Samurai Shodown 64 dated early 1997 has been found - the first Hyper Neo Geo 64 development hardware ever seen - and it has made its way into the hands of Anthony Bacon, a video game collector from Chicago.
This prototype was found by Sacramento-based pinball machine repair specialist Craig Weiss under a tree in a field in California. He had received a call from a client to repair a pinball machine, which was in a particularly bad way. Curious as to its origin, he asked his client who they had obtained the pinball machine from. She said she bought it from a woman whose husband had owned a pinball and arcade machine repair and vendor company that went out of business in the late '90s.
Weiss visited the woman to see if there was anything worth potentially buying and restoring - and it was in her field that he saw six pallets of unknown origin sitting under a collapsed tree. It turns out her husband had bought auction lots from an ex-SNK employee in China. These lots contained warehouse materials SNK USA had shipped back after its US offices closed in early 2000.
Weiss asked if it would be okay for him to sift through the pallets and potentially make an offer to buy some of the contents. He was told fine - the woman said she was thinking about calling a junk service company to have it all removed. Inside the pallets Weiss discovered the mysterious Hyper Neo Geo 64 Samurai Shodown 64 prototype - and set about finding someone who could make sense of it. Weiss came across Anthony Bacon, and the cartridge exchanged hands.
We've featured Bacon's finds a couple of times on Eurogamer - perhaps most notably when he unearthed a playable file for original, cancelled D2 - the 3DO M2 game thought lost to history.
This Hyper Neo Geo 64 Samurai Shodown 64 prototype is remarkable for a few reasons: no-one's ever seen it before, no-one's ever seen any sort of Hyper NeoGeo 64 prototype hardware before, and the story of how it was found suggests it shouldn't have survived all these years.
In an interview with Eurogamer, Bacon, who runs a YouTube channel called Video Game Esoterica, reveals the story behind this unlikely find, discusses how this prototype differs from the retail version, and sets out his plan to make it available for all to download and play. The videos in this article, by Video Game Esoterica, and on the story behind the Samurai Shodown 64 prototype and are well worth a watch.
What is notable about this Hyper Neo Geo 64 Samurai Shodown 64 prototype?
Anthony Bacon: Nothing has ever shown up from the development process from SNK with this hardware. So just to start off the top, no-one's ever seen it before, no-one knew it existed. And the SNK being so huge and it being so big in the collector's market, the last time a Neo Geo AES MVS prototype was found, it was this massive deal. And there's probably been like, a dozen or so of those found. And for the Hyper Neo Geo being a little bit more niche of a platform, but still being SNK.
The fact that this even found me in the first place is shocking, that I have this board sitting in my office right now that no-one ever knew existed. And then, once you find out where this thing came from and the fact that it survived - it was sitting out in a field, on a pallet, under a tree for 20 years in California.
The fact it still works, let alone exists, was a confluence of happenstance. That I have it and it isn't rusted away and sitting in a landfill somewhere - because the person that owned it was a week away from calling scrap service to come throw these pallets into the landfill.
How did you come to own it?
Anthony Bacon: I did a series on the Hyper Neo Geo 64 for YouTube going over all seven games, because I've collected the full set. I worked with a hardware engineer out of Greece to break down how all the different technology worked in the board, because SNK had made a completely bespoke custom chipset to run the hardware. The only thing shared between the Hyper Neo Geo 64 and anything else is that it uses the same CPU as the Nintendo 64. But I did a series of 10 videos talking about the history of the platform, the technology, the games and how innovative it was, even if it wasn't as successful as the AES MVS.
When Craig found this board in California, he started asking around wondering who would know about the Hyper NeoGeo 64. He wanted to talk to somebody who would have the best information about what it was. So he actually contacted me and said, I have this PCB, this game cartridge. It doesn't look like anything I've ever seen before. But I don't know much about this. He was an arcade and pinball repair guy, but didn't know anything about the Hyper Neo Geo.
So he contacted me and said, is this a common item? Is this something rare? And I said to him, no, I've never seen this before. No-one's ever seen this before. Whatever it is, it is a one of a kind item. A lot of times I find things. This is one of the first times that someone has found me with a particular piece of hardware that they wanted to know more about.
What's the story of how it was found?
Anthony Bacon: Craig got a phone call to repair a pinball machine that a woman had purchased from another third-party. And when he went into her home to repair the pinball machine, he saw that the condition of it was pretty rough. He normally didn't see people selling pinball machines in that bad of a condition.
So he enquired with the person who had contracted him to repair it, where she had gotten it from. He got a phone number for another woman, who he had called and left a voicemail for. She returned the call and found out her husband ran this company in California, Video Connection, and it did pinball repair and vending, and arcade machine and vending in the 80s to the end of the 90s, until he finally closed up shop.
But the story is he was buying auction lots from an ex-SNK employee in China after SNK USA had shipped back all of their warehouse materials when they closed the US offices in winter to spring of 2000. So this guy from California, who owned Video Connection, purchased six pallets of new old stock [new old stock refers to aged stock of merchandise that was never sold to a customer, but still new in original packaging] SNK marquees, PCBs, motherboards, games, documentation, the whole gambit of it.
So when Craig spoke to this woman, he asked if she'd be willing to let him look through it and potentially make some offers on buying some things. And the woman in California whose husband owned Video Connection said, you know, that would be great because I was thinking about calling the junk service to have it all removed.
He then realised when he got there, that this hardware wasn't in a house. It wasn't in a shed or even under a tent. It was sitting in pallets at the edge of a five acre property wrapped in palletized plastic wrap with tarps over it. And two of the pallets had trees from storms fall on top of them. So all of this hardware was sitting out in a field in California for about 20 years, going through rain, snow... everything you could possibly imagine going on outdoors - it was happening to these pallets.
Craig was digging through a lot of paper materials like cardboard marquees for arcade monitors - that was all ruined. But he found about 15 new old stock Hyper Neo Geo motherboards, 3000 Samurai Shodown 64 plasticized marquees, and a bunch of different games.
And in one of those palettes was this Hyper Neo Geo 64 cartridge, but it had this large black metal case on it. It was twice as tall as a normal case. When you open it up, it has 30 different ROM riser boards - they look like RAM sticks - all slotted in together. He realised whatever he had found - and this was the only thing in this entire pallet lot he saw that was different - was somehow unique and should probably be looked at by somebody who knew what they were doing, because he didn't want to just sell it to somebody who would tuck it away in a closet, add it to their collection and it would never see the light of day again. So he got in touch with me.
But this prototype has been sitting in a field in California under a tree for - I mean I don't know if the tree has been there for 20 years of course - but it's been outdoors. And it had rust on it. Shockingly, I was able to clean it up, and the rust wasn't that bad because it [the cart] was in the middle of the pallet. I popped it on my Hyper Neo Geo motherboard after thoroughly inspecting it, turned it on and it was the AOU spring 1997 prototype build of Samurai Shodown 64. [The AOU Amusement Expo was an annual event held in Tokyo until 2012.]
It's completely different. Different heads-up display, different intro, different camera system, very different from the finalised game, and it just happened to fall into my lap. It was the first time any prototype from that system had been found. And just the story about how close it got to going to the scrapyard seemed pretty intriguing. Because normally I find a prototype that's been sitting in somebody's house for 15 years, they knew what they had, but they didn't do anything with it.
How did you react when you received it?
Anthony Bacon: It was shocking. It was hilarious. Because when I first put on my retail Samurai Shodown 64 cartridge, which is in pristine condition, it took two tries to boot! My retail one that's clean didn't turn on the first time. And this prototype that had been sitting out in a field for 20 years - first shot! I did it on camera, because I'm like, this thing might just... it might start smoking. Something bad might happen. So if something bad happens, I may as well record it for posterity. And the damn thing just turns on, which I'm happy about, but I was just laughing to myself being like, the cartridge in the field for 20 years works fine, and the cartridge in my closet that's cleaned and maintained, of course, like any game cartridge took a cleaning to get working.
How did it survive?
Anthony Bacon: The way that the shell for this prototype clamped down, it just kept the water from getting into the important parts. It seems like a miracle. And I'm glad it happened! But even I was surprised. I expected to have to work on this thing for three, four months, but no, it works like it's brand new.
It's changed hands a few times, then?
Anthony Bacon: I'm the third person to own it outside of SNK. But I'm the first person probably to recognise that it was something wholly different than what you would expect to see. Not only did it go from the US to China, it probably originated in Japan, and was sent over here for location tests, so it's bounced all around the world. It's been in a bunch of different people's hands, and now it is on my workbench.
What's your plan for it?
Anthony Bacon: I will be dumping it and sharing it with people, but it's gonna be a mess. It's 96 different ROM chips. I'm happy it's a prototype. I'm not happy with the amount of work it's going to take to actually dump this. A Super Nintendo cartridge would be two chips and you're done. This is 96 individual ROM chips that I have to now access, dump and release as a completed ROM. It's going to be the largest ROM dump I've ever done by a multitude of probably 20.
How much did it cost you?
Anthony Bacon: $300. Totally reasonable for the Hyper Neo Geo stuff. It's actually not expensive stuff. A top end game would cost you $500. There was a company in the UK [CEX] in the mid-2000s that was liquidating all of SNK's old stock, and you used to be able to buy a Hyper Neo Geo motherboard with a game for £50 pounds. I have seen a few photos of them selling Hyper Neo Geo motherboards and games next to a Super Nintendo from the mid-2000s. Somebody in the UK got hold of thousands of these boards and motherboards and was selling them back then.
Hyper Neo Geo stuff compared to normal Neo Geo stuff is quite cheap. It's still not free or a giveaway by any means. But when you talk about Neo Geo, you talk about a prototype being $20k, $30k, $40k. And if it's a retail game it's in the $20k to $30k range. The Hyper Neo Geo is affordable compared to what the Neo Geo is.
What's your take on this prototype's rarity?
Anthony Bacon: The best I can say is the one photograph I have - and I've got a bunch of old resources from magazine previews when they showed this at the AOU show in 1997 - they had from the photos either four or five cabinets, all playing a prototype of Samurai Shodown 64. So I can say there's at least an instance where five of them were on play at once.
The PCB is engraved 00001. So this is number one. There's a label on the outside of it that says 91. But I'm going by the PCB printing of 1. This may have been the 91st test version... it's hard to say. But the PCB is engraved at the edge as number one. And I can prove with photos that at least four other ones existed. But in those years, they might location test the machine at five or 10 of the biggest arcades in Japan to see how they went and get feedback.
If they do survive, it's probably in the single digits. But no-one has even seen a photograph of the Hyper Neo Geo development kit - a computer it was made on. If you go on Google Images, if you search any single way via Google, there is no instance of this ever showing up. So, if there is another one out there, nobody knows about it. This is the first time it's ever been seen, photographed, talked about. I can't say that there's not another one sitting somewhere. But I would highly presume this is a one-of-a kind item, never seen before, and probably won't ever be seen as a duplicate again.
How does it play?
Anthony Bacon: I like the Hyper Neo Geo 64 games, and I think Samurai Shodown 64 is a great game. I actually, weirdly prefer the prototype. Because what they did in the retail release is they pulled the camera back, because it's in full 3D, like Tekken, where you can rotate around the characters. And the camera in the prototype is closer in to the characters. So I actually think it plays better, in my opinion. I wish they hadn't changed so much of the game.
And some things like the dual system - you can end up having to button mash as both characters, like get their weapons locked up - that occurs way more often in the prototype than on the retail cartridge. On the retail cart, that might happen once every 10 or 15 matches. On the prototype, it's like maybe a 50/50 shot if it'll happen. So some of those more interesting gameplay mechanics occur more in the prototype, which I actually prefer. If I was going to go play one version now, I would play the prototype because I like it better.
The only difference is there's no ending, there's no final boss. There's no mid-boss. After the eighth stage the game just says GAME OVER and restarts itself. So it's definitely not done. And there's a lot of fundamental differences. But I would actually play the prototype over the retail version, if I was going to walk into my office right now and put one on.