SNK 40th Anniversary Collection reaffirms Switch's status as a classic gaming juggernaut

It's a work in progress, but great all the same.

Fair warning: I am not capable of writing a fully objective review of the SNK 40th Anniversary Collection. Its producer, Frank Cifaldi, is both a friend and an erstwhile host of the podcast at the heart of this website. On top of that, SNK's collection is the first game built from the ground-up with our Flip Grip peripheral (which should be arriving for Kickstarter backers in about a month) in mind. I am somewhat biased here.

That said, this collection has turned out to be everything I'd hoped it could be. Cifaldi has talked about creating "Criterion Collection" equivalents for games with developer Digital Eclipse, but this is the first of their projects to properly realize that ambition. The Mega Man Legacy Collection and Disney Afternoon Collection Digital Eclipse produced for Capcom were good, but they felt a bit anemic. Not so the SNK Collection. Even in its incomplete, pre-launch state, it's a fantastic slice of video game history that cuts across titles both legendary and obscure, presenting a number of rarely seen works in an ideal form. This is, in all respects, what a classic games compilation should be.

So what's missing here? Well, publisher NIS America has indicated that the SNK collection will be receiving a day-one patch that allows two-player Joy Con-only play with the dual-stick "loop lever" games like T.N.K. III and Ikari Warriors. Also, the current reviewable release is missing the numerous (free) downloadable titles that will be coming along after launch. And there are evidently some minor bugs to be sorted out, though I've yet to encounter any of these myself.

Outside of these minor infractions, however, the SNK 40th Anniversary Collection is spectacular.

Even before the DLC titles arrive, this anthology presents a fantastic selection of games. The included titles run the gamut from familiar to esoteric, influential to forgotten. There are a handful of selections here I've always wanted to play but never before had access to. The entire set has been something of a revelation in that regard. 

Psycho Soldier — you'd better hide if you are bad
Psycho Soldier — you'd better hide if you are bad

I had forgotten just how advanced Vanguard was for its time, for example; the game rarely comes up in retrospectives of the shooter genre, but it basically out-performed Konami's contemporary classic Scramble in every respect, with eight-directional scrolling, four-way fire, sampled voices, and something akin to boss battles. It also represents the first example I can name of the ability to continue a game in progress—all the way down to implementing what would eventually become an arcade standard by cutting off the continue feature altogether after a certain point. 

Or take something like Psycho Soldier: A game that has earned a fair amount of infamy due to featuring future King of Fighters star Athena Asamiya and a full-length vocal track. It's not a great game; it's basically a complete knockoff of Capcom's SonSon in terms of gameplay. But it does hold an important place in the medium's history, so it's great to have it represented here.

Yet alongside these titles you have oddities like Prehistoric Isle (a cumbersome shooter featuring biplanes blasting dinosaurs) and Street Smart (an awkward pre-Street Fighter II one-on-one fighter). You also get a single console-only title, action RPG Crystalis, which feels like a complete oddity in SNK's catalog. These games aren't always great, but they often feel like embryonic versions of works that would release to considerable acclaim on Neo*Geo. In other words, SNK 40th Anniversary Collection doesn't concern itself overmuch with hot, attention-grabbing titles and instead attempts to reproduce some lesser-known but quietly significant titles from the dustbin of history, all with excellent fidelity. You rarely see publishers take that approach, and it's a refreshing change of pace.

The museum mode features historical perspectives on every pre-Neo*Geo release by SNK, even the ones you've never heard of.

The collection also includes what is arguably the first convincing rendition of Ikari Warriors, as well as SNK's other loop lever titles that made use of Ikari's oddball control scheme. (By complete coincidence, tomorrow's NES Works episode will explore the NES conversion of Ikari and will detail just how inadequate that particular home conversion was.) In short, the dual-input joystick mechanism SNK designed for several of its arcade games simply couldn't be reproduced on D-pad, but this collection does a great job of recapturing their feel by way of dual-stick controls. It's pretty rare to come by a working loop lever arcade cabinet these days, so Digital Eclipse's decision to include the entire library of those arcade works in this collection represents a meaningful act of game preservation.

Ikari Warriors offers a case-in-point example of what makes this SNK collection so good, actually. Besides showing off the excellent arcade game to great effect, it also includes the aforementioned awful NES port. Sadly, the collection doesn't include conversions to any other platforms besides NES for any of these games (so no Atari 2600 Vanguard or ZX Spectrum Psycho Soldier for you), so it's not as complete as it could be. However, most if not all of those other conversions were produced by other companies, and the status of their current publishing rights would probably have been a nightmare to untangle. So their omission is certainly understandable. Both U.S. and Japanese versions of games are included, and many games include a jukebox option.

Ikari also benefits greatly from the built-in rewind feature. It's a pretty tough (often unfairly so) game, and being able to step back a few seconds from a cheap shot doesn't really feel like cheating when the game itself feels like it's always kind of cheating itself. A lot of the titles here are crazy hard in the way of so many classic arcade games (including all the loop lever games, Prehistoric Isle, and Athena). You don't have to use the rewind option, of course, but it's nice to have it available for when you get tired of wading through a name entry screen in order to continue.

Do you like... to watch?
Do you like... to watch?

On top of including both arcade and NES versions where available, each title in the collection also includes a "watch" feature so you can simply see a complete playthrough of that game. These demos are interactive, in a sense: You can jump in at any time and play from the current point in the demo. It's an interesting feature I've never seen before in other collections. And for those who enjoy the passive approach, there's also a museum mode that offers brief but entertaining looks at every pre-Neo*Geo game in SNK's library, including dozens of titles not included in this compilation.

And, not for nothing, Ikari Warriors is one of several games on this set that works brilliantly with the Flip Grip. A significant percentage of the SNK releases here appeared on vertical monitors originally, and playing them "sideways" in handheld mode definitely offers maximal use of the available screen real estate. My one quibble about the screen orientation option is that it's global rather than being set per-game as in Namco Museum, so you have to exit back out to the main menu to change the orientation if you go from a vertical to horizontal title (or vice-versa). That's a small complaint, though; SNK 40th Anniversary Collection contains a high percentage of games designed to be played vertically, and the system can orient the entire interface 90º to accommodate that format. (It also rotates 270º for added flexibility with other vertical play solutions.) Vertical rotation for vertical arcade games is something I feel pretty strongly about regardless of the horse I have in that particular race, and this package delivers.

Ikari Warriors is pretty brutal no matter how you play it. Also, the screen frame isn't mandatory—SNK 40th Anniversary Collection offers graphical options that fill more of the screen, but I prefer true-pixel resolution.
Ikari Warriors is pretty brutal no matter how you play it. Also, the screen frame isn't mandatory—SNK 40th Anniversary Collection offers graphical options that fill more of the screen, but I prefer true-pixel resolution.

Containing a broad range of games from a major developer's lesser-known era, a comprehensive museum, ample bonus content, and a wealth of display and play options for each—plus fixes and additional games to come following launch—SNK 40th Anniversary Collection is the sort of compilation that makes classic game appreciation easy. You won't enjoy all the games here, but they've all been presented with equal attention to detail regardless. If you enjoy vintage games and own a Switch, there's honestly no reason not to pick up this anthology. It's top-flight work, and I'd love to see more publishers to commission similar treatment for the more esoteric portions of their back catalogs.