Neo Geo: The 30-year shock

A personal history with SNK's legendary system

Neo Geo made me cool. Okay, it didn't. It is not possible to make me cool. But it did something to me. I vividly remember my first encounter with Neo Geo, walking into my local specialist gaming shop Gametron Exchange (RIP) and seeing the intro to Fatal Fury 3 on repeat as part of an ongoing display. The thrashing synthesised guitar and Geese's big boots slamming onto his desk astonished me, so impressed was I with the fidelity and sheer impact of this system I knew to be very much in the realm of the wealthy hobbyist. Neo Geo was mysterious, unattainable.

I'd play the excellent Metal Slug and its sequel on multi-board arcade machines in the local Laser Quest, thrilling at the brilliant hand-crafted animations and wondering exactly what kind of white fluid those terrorists were spewing up as I filleted them with the heavy machine gun. I sometimes got issues of Electronic Gaming Monthly handed down to me, and I'd see coverage of King of Fighters '95 and be fascinated at the mere idea of a crossover fighting game. In the same magazines I'd see Mai Shiranui winning a "sexiest gaming female" award and wonder who on earth this character was. Fleeting sightings of Robo Army and Super Sidekicks at the bowling alley, coverage of King of the Monsters for Mega Drive and SNES. The Neo Geo was always at the fringe of my experience, and to this day I've never touched one. Just seen them in those big boxes. Sold them to people vastly richer than me, while working my then-dream job at the aforementioned Gametron.

But it was in this role that I discovered Neo Geo. The shop specialised in retro gaming and imports, and the then-contemporary PlayStation 2 was a haven for SNK fans. It was always something loaded up; Garou: Mark of the Wolves one weekend would be replaced with King of Fighters: Maximum Impact 2 the next. I quickly developed a taste for this developer, suggestible to not only the genuinely brilliant games, but that beautiful feel of playing something normal people weren't.

I fell for the Neo Geo Pocket Colour and its brilliant, sadly undersold library. Stocked up on the PlayStation 2 ports of almost every King of Fighters, from The Orochi Saga all the way to XI (which I scoured stores in a roughly hundred-mile radius before I found a copy of - the same day I found a copy of Bubsy 3D, oddly). I'd eagerly snaffle every remotely SNK-related release to hit any of the systems I owned. SNK Arcade Classics on PSP to bash my head against Magician Lord, the likes of the thrilling Metal Slug Anthology on the Wii (with its complete inability to provide halfway-decent controls). SNK Battle Coliseum. KoF Sky Stage. Everything. And every version of KoF '98 I can get my paws on, natch.

Me and my best friend have been playing KoF '98 for something like twenty years now, indeed. Old faithful. Iori Yagami, Athena Asamiya and a wild card. That's my team. I usually lose now that he's learned to counter all of Athena's moves, but it's still fun to play. SNK's devotion to its own history also makes their stuff rewarding for afficionados. Even comparatively crappy games like SNK Heroines: Tag Team Frenzy has a tantalising connection an obscure corner of their history; the fantastic Pocket Colour title SNK Gals Fighters.

And it's a happy birthday I wish the Neo Geo, in honour of all that joy it's given me over the years. Thank you making me feel just a tiny little bit cooler. I've still got that PS2 pad that's just a Neo Geo CD controller. Lovely clicky thing. Like, increasingly, my joints.