The Neo Geo Mini comes up short
SNK's byte-sized arcade machine reveals that a mini Hot Dog is just a Weenie
Due to a coincidental convergence of availability dates, I happened to buy three medium-big-ticket items in one 48-hour span this past July: a Neo Geo Mini, a Super Nintendo Mini, and an action figure based on the manga JoJo's Bizarre Adventure: Steel Ball Run (more on that later). Even though the products and the companies behind them are so disparate, I couldn't help but contrast the two Mini consoles with each other as I spent time playing with them during these last weeks of summer.
It's not as far-fetched of a comparison as it sounds: technically speaking, the Neo Geo and the Super Nintendo were both part of the "fourth generation" of consoles and were originally released just a few months apart in 1990 in Japan. Both systems excelled at 2D sprite-based graphics which means both systems fell out of favor when 3D graphics became the rage a few years later. Yet as the Super Nintendo became a global hit, the Neo Geo never found mainstream success. I remember working at Software Etc in 1997 and while there were still customers looking for Super Nintendo games, the company was liquidating its leftover stock of Neo Geo cartridges. Games that once retailed for $200 were sold off for $5 each (to me, because I was the only person the company could find who wanted them).
Leap two decades ahead to today and both the Super Nintendo and Neo Geo are tiny plastic toys sitting in my bedroom. Each one is preloaded with excellent video games as well as not-so-excellent video games. And while the jury's still out, it looks like the Super Nintendo is a global hit again while the Neo Geo shows no sign of breaking out of its niche appeal.
(At this point I'm going to assume that readers of Retronauts are already well familiar with the details of the SNES Mini and focus on the Neo Geo Mini. I'm sure you understand)
My favorite thing about the Neo Geo Mini is how cute it is. Lest anyone forget, there already was an attempt to prepackage Neo Geo games in a shell that looked like a Neo Geo console. Instead, the Neo Geo Mini is an absolutely adorable tiny arcade cabinet, one that literally fits into the palm of my hand. It's colorful and it comes with a set of stickers for decorating it. Even the power button, which sits on the rear of the machine, is a round Neo Geo logo, a unnecessary bonus no one would have missed had it been just a regular switch.
Inside the tiny cabinet (and managed by a UI that closely resembles that of the SNES Mini) are 40 Neo Geo games, a hefty number that happens to match the anniversary SNK is celebrating in 2018. 40 games is significantly larger than either the NES or SNES mini libraries, and it's twice as many as the aforementioned Neo Geo X offered back in 2012. It's a good mix of games as well, though the list will vary depending on which version you buy. SNK previously announced the full lineup, noting that the Japanese mini will focus on fighting games and the international mini will focus on "action." I could nitpick the choices SNK made all day but the bottom line is in 2018 the company's past catalog is so accessible on so many different platforms that there's no point in complaining about your fav that didn't make the mini cut. If you love NAM-1975 or Magician Lord (as I do!), buy them a la carte for another console.
Speaking of "accessible," that's the first word that comes to mind when I start to find flaws with the Neo Geo Mini. It may come with 40 games but the hardware lacks key accessories as sold in its current form. Being a tiny arcade cabinet with a built-in screen, I understand the choice to package a second controller separately, but the Neo Geo Mini doesn't include an HDMI cable to connect to a TV. In fact, it doesn't even support a standard Type A HDMI cable that many consumers likely already own from previous game console or media player purchases. And while it does include a USB cable, it does not include an electrical adapter. At least in that case anyone with a smartphone should possess the necessary plug, but that still means the Neo Geo Mini cannot function as packaged.
(In stark contrast, the SNES Mini includes an HDMI cable, a USB cable, an adapter, and two controllers, all at a lower sticker price)
There's also the matter of accessibility clashing with the Neo Geo Mini's aesthetics. As I said, the tiny arcade cabinet is a delight to look at and I will keep mine forever, but the tiny joystick and buttons are not fun to play with. They are certainly functional, as I was able to execute complex special moves in The King of Fighters 98, Art of Fighting, and Fatal Fury Special without getting frustrated, but "functional" is not "comfortable." The four buttons on the mini cabinet are laid out in a rhombus formation, while the Neo Geo arcade & home joysticks I grew up on had the four buttons arranged in a line. The rhombus layout is not unorthodox (I've seen it in Japanese arcades before) but it's just one more factor in making the Neo Geo Mini feel cramped.
Before I ever got my hands on the real thing, I wrote that the Neo Geo Mini is "an impractical treat for fans that's more than a little ostentatious." Having bought one for myself I can confirm my suspicions were correct: everything is fun about the Neo Geo Mini except actually playing the games. When I got my SNES Mini, I was excited at the prospect of revisiting old favorites but also trying classic games like Final Fantasy III or Earthbound for the first time in (nearly) their original format. With the Neo Geo Mini, there's none of that excitement. Neo Geo games were bold and loud and attention-grabbing by design, and I loved them for it. Reducing that experience to a palm-sized knick-knack* robs Neo Geo games of what made them special.
Bringing it back to the start of my story, the third thing I bought alongside these mini consoles was an action figure of D4C, an entity from JoJo's Bizarre Adventure who can travel to realities alternate to our own. If I had the power of D4C (a wish I make every day of my life so eventually it has to come true, I don't make the rules), I would love to see the version of Earth where arcades never died and the Neo Geo became a household name. Would consoles have become the niche market in that scenario? Would Nintendo have taken the Sega route and started selling games on other platforms? Or would Nintendo have continued the PlayChoice-10 concept and focused its attention on multi-cart arcade cabinets, the way that SNK did with the Neo Geo?
The funny thing is that even in this parallel Earth where SNK and Nintendo switched places, I still think the Neo Geo Mini falls short of the SNES Mini. Nintendo's history of making toys has always shown in their play-first approach to games as well as the devices we use to play those games. SNK makes outstanding video games and has created many memorable characters but physical hardware never seemed to be the company's strong suit (see: every console SNK tried to launch*). I'm proud to own a Neo Geo Mini but it's not a product I can recommend to anyone as anything other than a conversation piece, whereas the SNES Mini is both fun to look at and play
*Lest either of these statements suggest otherwise, the author wishes to express his immediate and sincere interest in a Neo Geo Pocket Color Classic should such a product manifest itself.