Hardware Review: Neo Geo X

Neo-Geo-X-ReviewNot too long ago the arcade powerhouse of the nineties, SNK, decided it was about time to revive their coin-op history. With countless classics such as Metal Slug, King of Fighters and Fatal Fury still heavily praised by gamers today, the Neo Geo X was born - a handheld Neo Geo system with built-in games and the ability to output the action to any display. But how does this revival hold up to the original from a retro gamer's perspective?

In order to understand a little more about what’s on offer here, we need to head back in time to 1990. It was at this point that SNK decided to create their very own arcade hardware, the Neo Geo MVS, whilst also offering a direct home equivalent, the Neo Geo AES. SNK’s thinking behind this was to put the likes of the Sega Mega Drive and Super Nintendo to shame by offering direct ports of arcade hits, without any compromises. Their goal was successfully achieved, however, it did come at a cost. With near identical hardware being used to the arcades at home, the price of Neo Geo AES conversions of coin-op hits were anywhere between two to five times the cost of Mega Drive and Super Nintendo game - something which back then would have been an astronomical purchase.

As a result of this pricey alternative to home console gaming, the Neo Geo became a relatively obscure system even in its day with a much smaller following of wealthy gamers. SNK seemed to honour these investors though and managed to keep pumping out both arcade titles and home console conversions until 2004, with the final release being Samurai Shodown V Special. The Neo Geo MVS hardware was then phased out for its more powerful successor, the Hyper Neo Geo 64.

As of today, the elusiveness of Neo Geo hardware and software has spawned a generation of after-market SNK gamers and die-hard fanatics battling it out to secure their gaming fix. While the Neo Geo console itself can be had for around £200 on a good day, software such as the original Metal Slug can be seen fetching considerable sums, whilst extremely rare titles such as the European release of Kizuna Encounter may require a second mortgage.

This is where manufacturer Tommo have stepped in. After acquiring the Neo Geo license from SNK Playmore, Tommo have created a much more affordable alternative to enjoying SNK’s back catalogue. Arriving with 20 games built in, is the Neo Geo X a worthy investment when compared to the original (and pricey) hardware?

Neo Geo X Review

RetroCollect was kindly provided a Neo Geo X to review as of recent thanks to Funstock.co.uk, a distributor of various gaming hardware and accessories, catering to retro gamers.

Upon its arrival we were eagerly anticipating what this system could do, however, before we even got to testing, we spent quite some time admiring the packaging. Very much like the original Neo Geo, the Neo Geo X’s presentation is in a league of its own and gives off a feeling of quality. Upon opening the box this feeling remained as each compartment of the packaging within was carefully arranged and presented, so much so we were left with the ‘new-console’ feeling many of us may remember from Christmas day memories.

Aside from the actual console, within the box was the handheld docking station, a USB Neo Geo arcade stick, power and TV leads, along with the limited edition bonus game card containing Ninja Master's: Haō Ninpō Chō. Upon a quick glance over the aesthetics, it would appear Tommo have stuck incredibly close to the look and feel of the original hardware, to the point where the docking station and replica arcade stick could almost be mistaken for the real deal. Impressed, we dug out our Neo Geo AES and took several comparison shots to compare the two.

Neo-Geo-X-Size-Comparison-To-AES

Neo-Geo-X-Arcade-Stick-Size-Comparison-To-AES

Needless to say the finesse of 1990 is still present in the modern hardware and accessories. The USB arcade stick still provides the authentic clicking sound the AES equivalent was known for, and the docking station itself, although smaller than the AES, still feels incredibly authentic. The only true difference here is how games are loaded onto the system. Unlike the Neo Geo AES which took cartridges larger than VHS tapes, the Neo Geo X loads games both from internal memory and the on-board SD card slot. Without these hulking cartridges in sight, the cartridge slot on the Neo Geo X’s docking station understandably remains closed, leaving minuscule SD cards to store the countless titles within.

Once disconnected from the docking station, the handheld console itself, a widescreen unit boasting another clicky arcade stick and fourteen buttons, was surprisingly pleasing to hold. All the original buttons are present here in a slightly different arrangement to the arcade stick - a layout more reminiscent of the Neo Geo CD control pad. Either side of the screen resides the all important start button and an opposing menu button for returning to the list of games. Buttons on the bottom of the console are present for controlling the brightness and volume of the on-screen action, whilst the top edge of the console features shoulder buttons, along with a HDMI out port, AV out socket and a slot for a USB connection. The most unusual aspect, however, to this handheld was the reverse side of it. Unlike any other handheld available, the Neo Geo X features a soft ridged back which provided a fantastic level of grip and control.

But enough about eye candy and the slick curves of this aftermarket product. The most important aspect to the Neo Geo X is how well it plays the games it was designed to run. As we previously mentioned, SNK’s arcade output over the years has gained an incredible reputation for its quality, so if anything, Tommo had to get this spot on to even warrant a purchase from any retro gamer.

Upon booting the system up the iconic introduction from the arcades is played out, replicating the white to black screen transition with the Neo Geo logo morphing into place. Not too long after, the system’s menu boots up,presenting the available games in a similar style to ‘cover flow’ which music lovers and iPod owners will be used to. From here we have access to the twenty games pre-loaded into the system:

  1. 3 Count Bout
  2. Alpha Mission II
  3. Art of Fighting
  4. Baseball Stars 2
  5. Cyber-Lip
  6. Fatal Fury
  7. Fatal Fury Special
  8. The King of Fighters '95
  9. King of the Monsters
  10. Last Resort
  11. League Bowling
  12. Magician Lord
  13. Metal Slug
  14. Mutation Nation
  15. NAM-1975
  16. Puzzled
  17. Real Bout Fatal Fury Special
  18. Samurai Shodown II
  19. Super Sidekicks
  20. World Heroes Perfect

Needless to say we head straight to Metal Slug and hit the A button. After a short pause of around 5 seconds, the Neo Geo logo is once again present on screen and the game has begun.

The first thing we noticed once the game loaded was the rather troubling stretched screen display. Instead of sticking to the same aspect ratio of the original hardware, by default the system was making full use of the widescreen display, thus making a bit of a mess of the once crisp visuals. Whilst this was quickly rectified by pressing L1 - returning the visuals back to a 4:3 viewport - the screen itself left us slightly disappointed. Being RGB and pixel perfect enthusiasts, we were saddened to note that the fantastic graphics of these arcade classics were being anti-aliased. This is something we can only assume is down to the display within. Given that the Neo Geo’s original output was that of 320×224 and the handheld’s resolution sits at a larger 480 × 272, the game’s visuals have been stretched out to fill the screen rather than being pixel perfect and smaller.

Neo-Geo-X-Handheld

Nevertheless, whilst investigating the visuals, Metal Slug appeared to be running in an identical manner to the original offering. The attract demo was running seamlessly, the audio was as we remember, and not too long after we dived into the bullet-happy-carnage.

Mission 1 START! After just mere seconds into the action, the Neo Geo X was taking each and every command from our frantic fingers with ease. The controls felt natural and just like every other Neo Geo product to date, each and every button was incredibly responsive. The clicky stick used here felt similar to the one found on the Neo Geo Pocket, and needless to say, we were content. Before we knew it had reached mission 2 unscathed, a testament to both our ability and the controls.

Impressed by the emulation of Metal Slug, we hit the menu button, quit out, and then began navigating through the other games. At this point we tested King of Fighters ‘95, Magican Lord and NAM-1975, all of which held up exactly as we remembered with next to no issues present. This positive side to the emulation will no doubt be down to the fact that secretly within the linux based operating system, the Neo Geo X is running FB Alpha - an emulator which first started life back in 2000 and has since provided an incredibly stable solution for enjoying our arcade hits elsewhere. While we cannot comment or confirm that FB Alpha has been officially provided for use within the Neo Geo X, we’re pleased regardless of its inclusion. A definite step in the right direction for retro gaming handheld rereleases.

At this point in time, the handheld had clearly won us over - aside from its anti-aliasing issue - so we decided to take a look at the TV out side of things. With the Neo Geo X connected into the docking station and the power cable wedged in place, we were left with a choice of HDMI or composite cables. As the neo Geo X has been released in a time where HDMI is the standard for displays, we decided to focus on seeing how well the system performed on a flashy flat screen TV. It’s worth noting at this point that we’re by no means experts on modern displays (especially given our monitor of choice is usually a Sony Trinitron PVM or similar old CRT displays, something needed to get our aforementioned RGB pixel perfect fix).

After fumbling with the TV remote and finally finding the right AV channel, the Neo Geo X was proudly displaying on the 56” flat screen display we had access to. Unfortunately though, this was the start of several problems for us and possibly the last time we would be using the TV out functionality of the console.

Outputting at 480p, the menu’s visuals were presented with jagged edges and a lack of fidelity. Although this was rectified to some extent once a game had been selected, it was incredibly difficult to shake the feeling that you were playing Neo Geo classics on something unofficial. While the use of older consoles on modern displays often present this exact problem too, the difference here is that the Neo Geo X was designed to be used via HDMI (unlike the dated analog output of consoles from decades ago). While this may be a dealbreaker for some, we pressed on and looked towards making the most of an incredibly large display and a Neo Geo arcade stick.

As you’d expect the USB arcade stick felt incredibly similar to the Neo Geo’s AES arcade stick. The familiar clicking sounds were present, each button’s weight felt identical and appeared to be just as responsive. That said, something just wasn’t quite right. Given we’d consider ourselves to be seasoned Neo Geo gamers, we found ourselves falling victim to the many stray bullets in Metal Slug and the weak punches thrown in King of Fighters. The arcade stick felt fine though and there didn’t seem to be any issues with it at all. Had we lost our arcade gaming abilities since placing the handheld into the dock? We pondered several possibilities until it hit us. When using the docking station there was a slight delay on the HDMI output between what was happening on-screen and the buttons we were pressing. Although we’re talking a mere fraction of a second, it was more than enough to cause a problem. Take for example the second stage of Metal Slug where you must vertically traverse snowy mountains and leap over vast chasms. As these jumps require the utmost precision, our timely presses were unfortunately out of sync with the action - and Marco was soon lying in a snowy heap below gripping tightly to the credit we just wasted.

While we weren’t planning on using the composite cable originally, the HDMI issues had us unpacking the lead in a timely manner. This did in turn address the HDMI lag issue we experienced, but it in turn it left us with one more concern. As you’d expect from composite cables, the Neo Geo X’s output on our CRT was rather blurry. For such detailed games offering deliciously crisp pixel art, the Neo Geo X should have done SNK’s classics justice by providing RGB output instead. This is, however, very much a matter of opinion and only noticable should you be using RGB output on a regular basis with other consoles, but something worth mentioning nonetheless. In the end, we packed away the TV cables and opted to use the Neo Geo X as a handheld system instead.

Our final investigations also pointed us in the direction of one more bonus feature. While it is incredibly unlikely we’ll ever use it, the Neo Geo X also makes most of a common trait in emulation, the ability to fast forward through gameplay. Upon pressing the R2 button, we could cycle between 1.3 and 1.5 speed enhancements, both of which blazing through the gameplay and increasing the audio’s pitch. Looking over the games included, we were unable to think of a single moment in any of these titles where such speed would be needed, but the feature is present for those who may want to utilise it.

Conclusion

If anything the Neo Geo X to us feels like a missed opportunity by Tommo. Given how prolific SNK’s history is and how desirable Neo Geo software is, Tommo could have spent a little more time with the hardware to ensure that the array of included games were done justice visually. This point can be further expanded upon by noting that, generally speaking, Neo Geo purchases are never cheap. Most gamers and collectors would have no doubt been willing to spend a little more, had it guaranteed a perfect HDMI output and pixel perfect display on the handheld. Luckily enough the system is updateable via the game cards which are slowly being released over time, leaving hope that the HDMI delay and other slight niggles may be addressed in the near future.

Having said that, for those who are yet to own a Neo Geo console, the Neo Geo X is a good entry level system to SNK’s world. Given that the £174.99 system includes twenty games, it’s by far one of the cheapest ways to enjoy Neo Geo titles officially. To further emphasise this point, to purchase a Neo Geo AES and all of the 20 games included with the handheld, a quick search on eBay at the time of writing suggests you’d need to spend a massive £2200+ to acquire a similar setup.

As for us, we’ll be using the Neo Geo X as a quick fire portable system, allowing us to get stuck in to SNK’s back catalogue as and when we want to, wherever we are.

Buy the Neo Geo X

Link: NeoGeo X - Gold Limited Edition at FunStock

Link: NeoGeo X - Gold Limited Edition with Neo Geo X MEGA Pack


Last Updated ( 07 September 2013 )  

Cauterize

Better known as Adam offline, Cauterize is one of RetroCollect's final bosses with an unhealthy addiction to pixels. When he's not out searching the web for the latest retro gaming news or creating content for RetroCollect, he'll will most likely be found working on his Sensible Soccer skills.

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Comments 

(Link to this comment) Kirby228 2014-01-29 11:06
If you haven't got one yet you should! I tend to use my handheld device more than the actual console but it is still great fun. There is also this jailbreak device that you can pre-order from XPLODER, lets you play non-neo geo games like NES, SEGA Master System, GBA games etc. If you played it when you were younger you will absolutely adore it.
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