SNK's Neo Geo is famous with gamers the world over, which is surprising when you consider that in terms of pure units sold, it barely registers on the scale. The SNES and Mega Drive – the Neo Geo's contemporary rivals – outsold it by a considerable margin, yet the system still managed to attract a loyal fanbase which delighted in the fact that the system was almost unobtainable; this sense of being a member of an elite club was all part of its intrinsic allure.
The Neo Geo is actually two different standards which share the same software – the arcade version was called the Multi Video System (MVS) and the home console was known as the Advanced Entertainment System (AES). Games for the AES variant cost hundreds of pounds (or dollars, depending on where you're reading this) thanks to their arcade parentage, and consequently only a select few ever had the opportunity to own the "Rolls Royce" of games consoles during its heyday, while everyone else had to put up with inferior ports to the 16-bitters of the period.
The passage of time has allowed those same individuals to finally fulfil their dream and purchase SNK's legendary system; after all, adult life brings with it gainful employment and disposable income. However, unlike collecting the toys you were cruelly denied as a child, Neo Geo ownership hasn't really gotten all that easier as the decades have rolled by. In fact, some AES titles are even more expensive now than they were back in the '90s, a paradoxical situation when you consider that the home versions were supposed to be cheaper than the arcade-based MVS carts, the latter of which were aimed at amusement center owners who could afford a larger outlay as they had the chance to make a return on their considerable investment. The opposite is in fact true these days, with the AES version of Metal Slug being one of the most pricey games money can buy, while the MVS edition is so common it is practically worthless in comparison.
Because of this we've seen a rise in the number of consolized MVS systems hitting the market. The reasoning is simple – MVS software is plentiful and, by and large, cheaper than AES, and many titles never made it onto the home variant of the console. While the two formats are identical in technical terms (as are the games), SNK made them physically incompatible with one another to prevent arcade owners of snapping up the cheaper AES versions and slapping them inside a cabinet. For that reason, those who want the cachet of owning the sleek AES console yet crave the lower pricing of the MVS market have been rather stuck – although as ever, technology has found a way.
SNK on a budget...
It actually found a way quite some time ago, too. We covered the MVS MagicKey converter way back in 2012, a device which allows AES users to run MVS carts on their console. The way it works is pretty straightforward – because the actual code on the cartridge can run on both MVS and AES hardware, all the converter does is form a bridge between the connectors and the cartridge slot.
Why are we covering Magic Key in 2016, then? Well, all this talk regarding the steep cost of Neo Geo ownership brings up another issue. Collecting MVS carts may be less financially crippling that AES, but it still isn't cheap when compared to other retro formats – and prices are rising all the time. To counter this we've seen the arrival of the Neo Geo MVS multi-cart, which houses practically every game for the system on a single cartridge. If you're looking to get an instant Neo Geo collection and don't mind leaving your morals at the door, then this is the ideal purchase – but up until recently, the catch was that it wouldn't work with the MVS MagicKey and therefore was only an option for MVS collectors.
Thankfully the MagicKey has been updated this year to ensure it works with these shady yet near-essential cartsThankfully the MagicKey has been updated this year to ensure it works with these shady yet near-essential carts, and we decided to put this claim to the test. Initially it's quite a confusing process linking these two items together; inserting the cartridge into the MagicKey and then popping it inside the AES cartridge slot doesn't yield any results. To get it to work you have to hold down the button on the adapter itself when you boot up the system, and then hold it down again and press the reset button once you've made your game selection.
The MagicKey has been updated to ensure it works with shady, yet near-essential X-in-1 Multi Cartridges
To load another game from the multicart, you have to totally power down the console and repeat the process. This whole procedure isn't explained because there are no instructions with the MagicKey. We spent a good 20 minutes thinking our unit was defective before a handy forum post revealed what we needed to do. Once these minor issues were overcome, we were blown away by the performance. Every game we tested on the multi-cart runs perfectly, and of course there's no issue whatsoever running legit MVS carts with the converter.
Given the purist mentality of the Neo Geo sector there will be many collectors who look down on such devices with scorn; for some, being part of SNK's club means selling a kidney to secure that elusive game while ignoring the fact that it can be downloaded on your PS Vita for a couple of quid. Handing over all of your hard-earned cash is part of the appeal for some, but for everyone else this is a far more sensible route into the world of Neo Geo. It gives you the experience of playing these games on the original hardware but removes the massive barrier to entry: cost. Sure, you're missing out on those lovely clamshell AES boxes, the attractive cover artwork and the satisfaction that comes from finally obtaining that super-expensive copy of Mark of the Wolves, but at least you'll still have the clothes on your back and all of your vital organs.
Thanks to ic2005 for supplying the MVS MagicKey used in this review.
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