Before I get into the glaring, gigantic problems with the Neo Geo Mini, I would first like to state how wonderful it is that it even exists at all. Forget the Xbox One X. SNK’s Neo Geo was the true luxury console: it cost $650 all the way back in 1990, and games sold for between $150 to $300 each. It was developed with the aim of bringing high-end arcade games into the home without compromise, and it was technically far ahead of contemporaries like the SNES and Genesis.
With this history, it’s worth stepping back and appreciating the Neo Geo Mini in context. Here’s an all-in-one system designed like a mini arcade cabinet with 40 classic games on board, all for less than the price of a single Neo Geo cartridge. The very least I can say for it is that if I were given the choice between an iPhone or a Neo Geo Mini for the express purpose of traveling back through time and shocking myself in the mid-’90s, I’m not sure I’d pick the iPhone.
The selection of games is not going to be for everyone, but then neither is SNK’s history in general. Twenty-five of the 40 games are 2D fighters, including all 10 King of Fighters titles that ran on Neo Geo arcade hardware, three Samurai Shodown games, the first Art of Fighting, and four Fatal Fury games, including the eternal classic Garou: Mark of the Wolves. Elsewhere, you’ll find side-scrolling shooters like Metal Slug 1 through 3, along with shmups like Blazing Star and Twinkle Star Sprites. It’s an amazing collection of hardcore arcade action games featuring some of the greatest pixel art and animation in the medium.
Unfortunately, the Neo Geo Mini isn’t really a great way to play any of them.
It starts with the stick. For some reason, SNK has gone with an analog stick without a gate or microswitches, meaning there’s no feedback on the direction you’re pressing. It just moves smoothly in 360 degrees like you’d expect from a modern console controller. That’s great if you’re controlling a character in a 3D game, sure, but it’s not what you want for any 2D game where precise input is critical, and that applies to the vast majority of the Neo Geo back catalog. It’s particularly disappointing because SNK got this so right two decades ago with the gorgeously clicky micro-stick on the Neo Geo Pocket.
Otherwise, the industrial design of the Mini is cute and mostly successful. The 3.5-inch 4:3 screen isn’t going to deliver amazing viewing angles or contrast, but it looks fine head-on and, critically, it displays everything in a crisp, native resolution, which is essential for the art of these games. (The 2012 Neo Geo X handheld came with a terrible 16:9 display.) There’s a pleasingly substantial power button on the back as well as three USB-C ports — two for controllers, one for power. The back panel also houses a Mini HDMI port and a headphone jack.
You should forget about using the Neo Geo Mini on your TV, however. Even if you can be bothered to track down a relatively uncommon Mini HDMI to HDMI cable, the video output and scaling looks terrible and blurry, with no option to render proper pixels like on the NES and SNES Classic Editions. You’d also want to pick up a controller or two (also sold separately and sold out everywhere in Japan) because I can’t imagine using the built-in arcade-style controls would work out in many living room environments.
The final complaint I have with the Neo Geo Mini is that even though it’s a self-contained system, SNK omitted a battery so you have to play it tethered to a USB cable. It doesn’t draw a lot of power — you can run it off a portable battery pack — but that just makes the decision even weirder. Including an internal battery, even one small enough for just a couple of hours’ play time, would have made the Neo Geo Mini so much more usable as a standalone device. Given the issues it has and the quick-fire nature of most SNK arcade games, I’m not likely to sit down with it for extended play sessions, so it’s annoying to have to hook up cables every time.
Or you can do what I’ve done, which is give it a little home on my desk where I can’t see the cable and where I can fire it up for a quick round of Ninja Commando whenever the mood strikes me. The Neo Geo Mini isn’t a great console, but it’s an incredible desk ornament. More importantly, it’s a useful entry point to one of the all-time essential yet less widely appreciated systems in video game history. And if its gadgety appeal opens the Neo Geo library up to more people, that can only be a good thing.
You’ll probably just want to rebuy the best games on the Switch, is all.
The Neo Geo Mini is out now in Japan for 12,240 yen (~$110). An international edition with a slightly different design and selection of games apparently goes on sale next week, but pricing information isn’t yet available.
Photography by Sam Byford / The Verge