There he lay, a vast red-golden dragon, fast asleep; a thrumming came from his jaws and nostrils, and wisps of smoke, but his fires were low in slumber. Beneath him, under all his limbs and his huge coiled tail, and about him on all sides stretching away across the unseen floors, lay countless piles of precious things, gold wrought and unwrought, gems and jewels, and silver red-stained in the ruddy light.
-J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, or There And Back Again
I am a fan of collections, compilations, and bundles that bring together classics and obscurer hidden gems from the ancient eras in one place on modern platforms. This is a stretch for me to insert my self-centered self (I’ve been told I have the charisma of a cult leader) into the shoes of others, but many people haven’t kept their past consoles, for whatever reason, and by dispensing of them, whole eons in gaming terms have been nigh forever lost, like so many pillars of Ozymandias rotting in the sands of pawnshops everywhere. Collections, however, allow the “old school” to become new all over again, welcoming younger audiences who were either far too young or were not even yet born in the 80’s or 90’s to make the classics their own in neat, affordable packages.
However, there’s are pitfalls to collections. One of them is the risk of coming off as being yet another example of a developer or publisher milking a franchise, rather than investing in resurrecting it entirely with a new entry. Suggesting that collections are milking popular games to death likely already created images in your head of certain franchises which just can’t catch a break. Just some months ago, I would’ve volunteered to say “Mega Man” right off the bat. Or, how many times do we really need to see Altered Beast in a collection again?
What makes the SNK 40th Anniversary Collection so special then is that it’s got the guts to avoid repackaging the frequently over-packaged. Instead, it takes a trip down, way down, memory lane back to the 80’s, skipping the evergreen 90’s, to return to the golden age of arcades. Not a whole lot of these games remain all that mainstream, so many decades later.
The SNK 40th celebrates the Shin Nihon Kikaku (“New Japan Project”) Corporation’s earliest hits. Founded on July 22, 1978, with their first game, Ozma Wars, coming in 1979, SNK would rise to fame as the producers of the Neo Geo line of hardware, as well as series such as Metal Slug, the King of Fighters, and Samurai Showdown. However, the SNK 40th eschews SNK’s ever-present Neo Geo era titles and decides to take things back even further in time.
Going as far as 1981, there is a troupe of titles included which the typical player today might never have played before. That is the nucleus for the significance of collections and the SNK 40th has that value in spades. I’ve been playing video games since the late 80’s and there are more than a few titles I got to play here for the first time ever. For those interested in retro gaming and preserving games, there’s no better feeling than personally and experientially discovering them. Give us new-old games, what we’ve never seen before, as in my previous review of the Capcom Beat ‘Em Up Bundle.
The SNK 40th includes a “curated selection” of 5 run and guns, 4 shooters, 2 platformers, 1 beat ’em up, 1 fighter, and 1 action RPG, a diverse assortment of chocolates without even one that tastes like toothpaste.
Alpha Mission is a classic vertical-scrolling shooter first released in 1985, which means it’s just as old as me! It has a pretty complex upgrade system, the mannerisms of which aren’t immediately obvious in the first few playthroughs, and it also features a dual-weapon system with main guns that hit airborne foes and air-to-ground missiles that target enemies beneath you. A home console version from ’86, SNK’s first ever home release, is also available with some notable differences: systems for armor selection and a secret boss rush level.
Athena has got to be one of the earliest female protagonists in video games and she’s a mascot-like character featured here in her eponymous game from 1986. It’s a side-scroller where the heroine must venture through various worlds crawling with enemies and hidden items. As you progress through multiple branching baths, Athena can add armor sets and weapons to her ever-expanding arsenal until she becomes Ultimate Athena. The NES version of the game is also included from 1987, though then-hardware limitations guaranteed a far trimmer presentation. I have had a lot of fun playing the arcade version, by and far the most enjoyable game I hadn’t yet played.
Crystalis is the title that singlehandedly makes the SNK 40th worth picking up! Known as God Slayer: Sonata of the Far Away Sky in Japan, Crystalis appeared on the NES in 1990, a sci-fantasy action RPG with a lot of pace and scope which takes inspiration from Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and Castle in the Sky, as well as The Legend of Zelda. That pretty much sold Crystalis for me, since I’m a fan of those influences, but if that’s not enough for you then just consider what it’s like to enjoy an action RPG from the bygone days, if you’re a fan of the modern hack and slashes. This is one of my favorite NES games!
Guerrilla War from 1987 is the first of many run and guns on this collection, and its fairly typical of what you can come to expect: jungle warfare, multi-directional gunfire from a top-down perspective, two-player co-op. The home console version includes unlimited continues, so this is one of the easier titles to complete (good luck with the others) and there are new stages to explore, though the graphics are demade, slightly. The Japanese name for the game is Guevara and in Japan the two playable characters are identified as Che Guevara and Fidel Castro.
1986’s Ikari Warriors is the start of a trilogy of Ikari games, though this first game functions as a sequel to TNK III, which also appears in this collection. Ralph Jones and Clark Steel, two bad dudes inspired by all the gusto and machoism of 80’s action films in the West, must blast their way through regiments of enemy soldiers in thick jungle warfare. Ikari Warriors is yet another two-player co-op run and gun but it happens to be the first co-op game SNK ever developed, which shows in its slower pace. The console version adds a whole new level.
Ikari Warriors II: Victory Road from 1986 lavishes much more spit and polish onto its predecessor with its synthetic voice work and its inclusion of fantasy weapons and alien menaces. I guess guerrilla fighting in the jungles wasn’t enough to carry a sequel on its own. When I first played Victory Road, I hadn’t yet beaten Ikari Warriors and my immediate thought was “What the heck happened? Aliens?” The home version from ’88 adds in-game currency and a hint of a storyline.
Visually, 1989’s Ikari III: the Rescue is leaps and bounds ahead of its prequels. It has a much more robust and realistic appeal. The conclusion of the Ikari trio of games puts players behind fists and kicks rather than relying upon guns. It’s the home version from 1990 which isn’t quite up to snuff with the arcade version’s graphics.
Iron Tank: Invasion of Normandy, aka Great Tank, is a top-down shooter from 1988 that appeared exclusively on the NES. It’s essentially a differentiated home version of TNK III, though as far as I can tell, this is the only other home release it’s ever seen. Infiltrate the German fortress mounted inside your own tank, giving you a feeling of battlefield superiority that’s easy to over-estimate.
P.O.W. from 1988 is unique in this collection as it’s a side-scrolling beat ’em up (or brawler) where you play as a prisoner of war escaping from your captors and beating them with your fists of freedom. The two-player co-op is missing from the home port, sadly, though the NES game added new armaments and gear, as well as a new last boss. Of all the games here, P.O.W. is one of the best looking.
You want to talk wacky? Like, really wacky? 1989’s Prehistoric Isle puts you and a friend in the cockpits of two planes tasked with blasting an entire island full of dinosaurs, cavemen, and mutants. Morph into submarines for the underwater sequences, somehow. Take to the skies with your ally drones and try not to get eaten by literally everything on the island. This was an arcade exclusive so I hadn’t ever played it before, or even heard of it, and it’s a lot of fun with a buddy in co-op.
Psycho Soldier from 1987 is a quasi-sequel to Athena, taking place years later in a modern rather than a high fantasy setting. Athena Asamiya and Sei Kensou are schoolgirls forced to use their magic powers in this automatic scrolling platformer, which at times feels a lot like a shooter. Probably, this is the most distinctly Japanese game in the collection.
SNK would build its fame on the backs of its fighting games but it all started here in 1989 with Street Smart, an extremely simplified tournament fighter with added foreground and background depth for maneuverability. Oddly, this fighter includes co-op gameplay, though the winner must still be the last man standing. We’ve all been spoiled by great fighting games from Capcom and SNK over the years, so this one may seem that much more rudimentary to many players.
TNK III is to SNK what (somewhat proverbially) Final Fantasy was to Square. At the verge of bankruptcy, TNK III was to be SNK’s final game. Instead, it helped SNK survive and eventually thrive as the foundation for many, many more games to come. TNK III additionally formed the basis for SNK’S Loop Lever mechanism with its own rotary knob, a control device that gave players a different feel for controlling the tank. I’ve never seen one before (I don’t think) but even playing the game in this collection, it has a very different kind of button layout.
Vanguard is the final game included in the base game. Hailing from 1981, it’s one of the earliest titles in the collection, and it’s a scrolling shooter with multi-directional weapons that allow you to fire along a y- and x-axis. The scrolling is also multi-directional as you careen down a neon chasm in your ship horizontally, vertically, diagonally. This is a game that feels quinessentially “retro”… just look at that gorgeous marquee art.
Beyond the initial set of games, the SNK 40th Collection will boast two free DLC bundles. The Free-LC will unlock Chopper, Fantasy, Munch Mobile, Sasuke vs Commander, and Time Soldiers in the first bundle and Beast Busters, Bermuda Triangle, Ozma Wars, Paddle Mania, and SAR: Search and Rescue in the second. That nearly doubles the number of games included, which I think is really impressive!
Sometimes you’ll find a retro compilation only includes a handful of games but SNK really went all out. Here’s hoping they continue to swell the ranks of this collection; it could become a goldmine, an arcade packed all on your TV.
Undoubtedly, if literal time travel were real, it would probably make us nauseous skipping back and forth across the temporal timeline. By analogy, going back to the hazy golden age of arcades won’t please every player. In fact, it will most certainly make some sick. Not everyone can stomach retro games, for a variety of reasons.
However, for those at the extreme end of the retro gaming spectrum that pine for “the good ol’ days before it was about “mah graphixx””, there’s a lot to love here. Even for the mildly curious, there’s enough diversity of gameplay here to entertain with all the passing interest of inserting a metaphorical quarter into the machine and getting a few minutes of entertainment out of it. For those looking for deep storytelling, gravitas, or realism, well, you’d better know what you’re getting before you pick up this collection.
Covering almost a full decade, you’ll find a range of graphical styles and qualities in this collection, not all of which is entirely pretty. Some of the muddier, drabber jungle warfare games can be particularly boring, though there are much lighter and brighter options for those that need a little more eye candy: crisply rendered pixel dinosaurs, aliens, floating sky castles, etc. That said, the connective tissue between the games, the graphics particular to the exterior menus for this collection are all clean and well-organized, and thereby easy to navigate.
Beyond the typical TV and monitor graphics filters, as well as the wallpaper art I always turn off right away, the SNK 40th includes the ability to display the screen in landscape or tilt it into portrait display, which is great for handheld gameplay on the Switch. This is highly appropriate for verticle scrolling shooters like Alpha Mission or the Ikari games.
The exterior menus come with their own gentle, rhythmic music but that doesn’t account for much of the actual gameplay time. This will of course be occupied by the retro games themselves, several of which have all the warbling energy of a carnival, though not much in the way of melody. The older games are certainly the bigger offenders to the eardrums here but as you progress through the years, you’ll encounter better and better soundtracks. Crystalis is pretty great.
The collection features multiple versions of almost every game: arcade or console, US or JP release. I don’t know that that’s a particular draw for anyone out there, but it’s neat to have access to all of that history and variance. Some games do only include a single version, though; Crystalis and Iron Tank were originally released on the NES, so those are the only versions you’ll get here, excepting regional differences.
Because some of these games originally used bizarre and innovative control devices in the arcades, not all of the games play as intuitively as you’d expect. However, I do think SNK did a good job in translating arcade control schemes to home console controllers what with single stick modes and other remapping features. There are also helpful in-game control maps just in case you need them, as well.
Save states are becoming staple gameplay features for retro game collections, given how tough some of these games can be. The SNK 40th takes some cues from a compilation I enjoyed last year, The Disney Afternoon Collection, with its inclusion of a rewind feature. This lets you handily back up the action in case you made a mistake, though be forewarned that it’s not indefinite and relying on it too heavily can get you trapped. As they used to say: “Save often!”
All in all, there’s plenty here to usher new players sweetly back in time.
Though you can adjust the difficulty level and number of starting lives for the games, playing them on their easiest modes is still incredibly difficult. These games kicked my butt! With many of them, I had to make liberal use of the rewind feature to bail me out. Plenty of them include one-hit death systems or, as in the case of Athena, there’s just so much going on in so much unexplored space that it’s easy to find yourself surprised or overwhelmed. If these games are automatically set to “easy”, I’d hate to see them on “hard”.
There’s something magical about classic arcade games that beckon to you to try just one more time to see if you can get any further or beat that high score. However, a modern touch occurs with the inclusion of achievements, though these are limited almost entirely to just beating the games themselves. They’re there for the trophy hunter, but for me, all I want to do is just beat the games, anyway.
I’ve been told on good authority that this collection’s “watch” feature is an industry first, and really, I hadn’t encountered it in any other collection before it. Basically, you can choose to start a new game in watch mode which will begin a computer-operated perfect run through the game. You can navigate forward or backward in time through this cpu run and jump into the action whenever you want. So, if there’s a boss you just can’t beat, you can get daddy computer to beat it for you, and then jump in on the next level. That’s pretty cool! It’s something I’d be delighted to see again in future collections.
The Museum walks you through the history of the SNK Corporation from 1978 to 1990, complete with images, promotional art, magazine clips, photographs, and explanatory text that reads like a history book for many more games than those included in the collection. For history buffs such as myself, this stuff is gold. More importantly, though, it represents something which I think all retro collections should do: include interactive history menus, interviews, bonuses, museums… something extra beyond the games themselves which can help set these games into their proper social, cultural, and historical contexts. Nothing is more important for the reviewer of retro games but understanding where these games came from and how they too played a part in the evolution of gaming gives them additional value for the modern player, who may look at them as little more than merely old and therefore irrelevant.
My Personal Grade: 6/10
I grew up in the arcades. I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for classic arcade games. This collection hit me right in the feels and it felt great. I was looking forward to playing it since the start of the year. Athena, Prehistoric Isle, Vanguard, and Crystalis are my favorites, though I haven’t had the chance to complete all the other games in this compendium. I’ll readily admit that not every title included is all that fun to play, Street Smart and Ikari Warriors among them.
Totaling 24 games once all the free DLC is released, the SNK 40th Anniversary Collection is going to be a retro gaming beast. If you’re at all a fan of collections of classics, you can’t miss this one. Or, let me put it this way: the SNK 40th will have more games than the PS1 Classic and it doesn’t include a bunch that you’ve already played a billion times, anyway. And it doesn’t have Mr. Driller, or the equivalent.
Aggregated Score: 7.0
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Categories: Game Review