The NEO•GEO AES (Advanced Entertainment System) released on April 26, 1990 and delivered on an incredible promise- it gave gamers the arcade experience at home. The AES games were the same software running on the NEO•GEO MVS (Multi Video System) cabinets found in arcades. In fact, the only real difference between most AES and MVS cartridges was the pinout system, which was changed so arcade owners couldn’t use the cheaper AES games in the cabinet machines.
The MVS was the most powerful arcade system on the market, so delivering the same experience at home via the AES console required hardware that eclipsed even most PCs of the time. As such the NEO•GEO AES launched at a price of $649.99 in the United States (over $1,200 in today’s money) and was a niche product that has a high-level of collectability today. Among its other innovations, players could save game states to memory cards that could be used both in the MVS cabinets and the AES home consoles.
Although mostly remembered for its fighting franchises like the King of Fighters series, the NEO•GEO AES had a diverse library of stunning games covering action titles like Shock Troopers all the way to sports games like the beloved WIndjammers. It even had titles for licensed IP like Eightman. Let’s take a look at the 10 best NEO•GEO AES games of all time!
The additional horsepower available to developers on the AES led to game designers taking winning game formulas and applying a “more is more” philosophy. Bigger character sprites, more colors, improved sound, and faster gameplay were driving conceptual reimaginings of beloved favorites. With titles like Cyber-Lip and the Metal Slug franchise dominating the action platformers on the NEO•GEO systems, developers weren’t shying away from riffing on Konami’s Contra.
Cyber-Lip is burned into the brain of anyone that was gaming in the 1990s. The first boss battle of the game was used in both print and television promotion of the NEO•GEO AES. Featuring a giant on-screen monster with the player hopping between vertical platforms to dodge attacks, Cyber-Lip takes what a player’s imagination backfills in Contra and puts it right up on the screen. The presentation is truly jaw-dropping in both color output and character design.
Cyber-Lip also added a “monkeybar” system, allowing (and sometimes requiring) players to grab overhead scaffolding to navigate obstacles and, of course, shoot some bad guys. This is one of many examples where a NEO•GEO game used concepts players were familiar with, added a small twist, and really perfected the style of gameplay.
9. AERO FIGHTERS 2
A huge amount of gaming prowess from the 1970s to the 1990s was derived from how fast a player could mash a button. An army of horizontal flying shooters were built around this simple mechanic with early titles like Centipede and Galaga giving birth to other legendary games like 1943: The Battle of Midway which allowed virtual pilots to move around the full height of the screen.
If you like 1943, you will LOVE Aero Fighters 2. The gameplay mechanics are all the same, but there’s a depth to the background that’s unmatched in the genre with weapon discharges and explosions bursting with color visually jumping off the screen. There’s almost a story in Aero Fighters 2 also, but really, who cares? This is an unabashed button-masher and we’re here for it!
8. TWINKLE STAR SPRITES
Playing Twinkle Star Sprites felt very different than other games of the time in both how it mixed genres and how it presented its content. If you dropped the game as a new IP today, most players would think it was a riff on a Candy Crush game or perhaps a nod to Marvel Puzzle Quest. It blows the mind that this 1996 game looks and feels so 2016. Perhaps the most jarring notion here is that despite the co-op casual packaging, there’s an unusually intense competitive shooter that frames out the gaming experience. If released today, in that respect, it might still be ahead of its time. This is a rare example of a game that actually reviews better as time goes on and is definitely worth a playthrough even if the style of game doesn’t usually appeal to you. Best of all- there’s definitely reason to bring a friend to play this one.
7. NEO TURF MASTERS
Neo Turf Masters might be the greatest golf title of all time. It’s good enough that 1990s teenagers were just as likely to pump quarters into this at an arcade as they were the latest Street Fighter title. Visually, the game has incredible color and quality character designs. The 3D style presentation and animated look of the characters have held up over time too. This game wouldn’t look out of place as an indie mobile game even today.
Neo Turf Masters has memorable sound design, too. There’s sleepy elevator music tracked throughout what otherwise positions itself as an action golf game. It’s a unique juxtaposition that really works. The voiceover work has a mix of Eastern and Western voice acting that blends terrifically giving the game a unique vibe. Again, there’s a juxtaposition between calm voice delivery of hole information offset by an announcer yelling “on the green!” or a golfer yelling “oh noooooo!” immediately thereafter.
The visuals and sound design of Neo Turf Masters is all present in support of an underlying geometry engine that works well and feels fast. The club selection combined with the power meter give the physics a real sense of weight that translates even to in-game events like the ball hitting a tree. Playing the game still feels fun and modern today.
6. BLAZING STAR
Blazing Star has a very familiar look and feel to players of the R-Type series of games. Like a lot of NEO•GEO titles, though, it takes the familiar and pushes into unique territory where everything feels cranked up to the proverbial 11. Blazing Star gameplay is fast, the depth of the environments are eye-catching, and sprites really pop due to great design and sharp color.
There are other games in the vertical space shooter genre on the NEO•GEO that are awesome games that would fit in perfectly on a Top 10 list such as this one. Pulstar immediately comes to mind. The graphical fidelity of Pulstar actually eclipses Blazing Star. However, there’s something about Blazing Star that’s just more fun. Perhaps it’s the slightly faster pace combined with voiceover that engages the player through each encounter. There’s definitely an urgency in Blazing Star that isn’t quite matched by its more polished contemporaries.
5. SAMURAI SHODOWN
Weapons. Weapons in a fighting game seems like a no-brainer today, in an age where we’ve played through the Soul Calibur franchise. Samurai Shodown was released five years before the first Sould Calibur outing, though, and despite the sudden appearance of swords, the game is still a traditional 2D fighter at its core. The soundtrack really rocks during gameplay keeping it in the vein of those games as well. There are better technical fighters on the NEO•GEO AES, The Art of Fighting comes to mind. The speed of gameplay with the infusion of the awesome weapon dynamics really sets Samurai Shodown apart from the competition, however. (So does the spelling of Shodown for those of us that are writing nerds.) Shodown really does feel like a 2D version of Soul Calibur, even down to some of the character stances and styles. This is, again, another game that feels like it inspired much of what was to come in the future.
4. MAGICIAN LORD
1990’s Magician Lord is awesome. You start out as a side-scrolling wizard that picks up powerups that allow you to become a fire-breathing demon or a bolo throwing ninja. The first level of the game allows the player to go through those transitions seamlessly. The melody of the music will stick in your head while you fry generic demons and traverse a 2D platformer with faux 3D textures. If that’s not enough, there’s also some poorly translated dialogue present, a staple of 90’s gaming, rendering the plot nearly meaningless. And that’s absolutely okay, it really adds to the charm of this game over time. This is the pinnacle of the NEO•GEO “more is more” philosophy. This title just spews cool character and weapon ideas at the player with only the thinnest justification for doing so in a plot thread that doesn’t have the slightest hint of North American influence. Are there better games on the NEO•GEO AES? Absolutely. But Magician Lord was fun when it came out and it’s still fun today. In fact, it could be argued its more fun today than it was in 1990. Where modern titles like Broforce have to cash in on action hero nostalgia to justify the player character incarnation, Magician Lord is perfectly happy to rage in like an eight-year-old playing pretend and saying “okay, now I’m not a wizard, I’m a ninja!” This is not the most beloved game of the 90s by any stretch, but it is possibly the most 1990s game ever.
3. THE KING OF FIGHTERS ’98: THE SLUGFEST
If The Slugfest subtitle of The King of Fighters ’98: The Slugfest doesn’t clue you in, this isn’t the SNK title you play for storyline. Like a lot of franchises (we’re looking at you The Fast and the Furious) this middle-entry of the King of Fighters gaming series foregoes a lot of storytelling. Instead, it offers players a HUGE list of characters to choose from in 3v3 fighting action. The ability to jump right in and choose 3 characters from such a massive list makes teambuilding fun and the urge to replay the game very, very high. On a NEO•GEO AES system defined by its fighters, and with a large library of genre titles to choose from, this is one of the definitive games on the platform. Characters, animations, colors, sound design – everything works here. It’s really fun solo and even better with friends. This is an excellent choice for a fighting game night and would fit well in a list with some Smash Brothers, Mortal Kombat, and Marvel vs. Capcom.
2. METAL SLUG 3
If you made a toplist of NEO•GEO AES games filled with only titles from the Metal Slug franchise, it would be pretty easy to justify. All the games in the franchise are fantastic. Metal Slug 3 is the definitive game in the franchise, though.
Like all its peers in the Metal Slug gallery, Metal Slug 3 is Contra on steroids. The music is instantly recognizable, the characters are well designed and have unique personality in their looks, and the addition of vehicles really put these games over-the-top. There’s a great mix of monster and human villains, there’s hostages to rescue, and grenades to throw. Metal Slug 3 even sports a cool exo-suit to hop into if you’ve got tank fatigue from these games.
So what makes this third entry in the series definitive? The answer is transformations. Early on in the second mission, the player runs a gauntlet in a zombie-themed area of the game. That alone is super cool. However, there’s a watershed moment in the franchise in this second mission when your character “dies.” The soldier immediately resurrects as a zombie and gets to fight on for a bit in that new character animation and fighting style. It’s totally unexpected the first time the player encounters it, and is a “wow” moment with the same sense of surprise and awe as viewers of the midcredits scene in the first episode of Amazon’s Invincible series experienced emotionally. It’s a truly welcome surprise that comes out of nowhere. As satisfying as that is, they then up the ante by doing it with mummies later in the game.
To be clear, all the Metal Slug games are worth playing. All of them. But if you’re only going to play one, then Metal Slug 3 is the right call. It has all the game mechanics of the series, no gameplay slowdowns that plague some other entries in the series, and it has the look, sound, and feel that defines the series overall.
1. GAROU: MARK OF THE WOLVES
Like comicbooks and television, gaming has some extraordinarily memorable character first appearances. These are often best and most fondly remembered when there’s some sort of element of intrigue around them. Characters like Marvel’s Cable, who clearly had some connection to the X-Men that went long unexplained and an arch-villain that shared his physical appearance, can stay fan favorites long past their actual narrative relevance. The 40-something crowd still remembers Speed Racer’s Racer X character or the first time they saw Proto Man in Mega Man 3.
Enter: Rock Howard. Players instantly know from his name that Rock Howard must be the offspring of Fatal Fury’s villain Geese Howard. The in-game character even shares some of that fighting style. But his core fighting style and special moves, bright blonde hair, attitude, and signature jacket are all clearly inspired by Fatal Fury’s central hero Terry Bogard.
Garou: Mark of the Wolves gives us that noteworthy character introduction that leaves us wanting for more. It’s also the most fluid fighter in the Fatal Fury/King of Fighters series on the NEO•GEO AES with fast action, no slowdowns, and responsive controls. There’s compelling storytelling within the context of this genre of game, and a focused list of diverse characters with unique attacks and specials. There’s a great mix of arenas to be found and an unobtrusive voiceover that brings that right level of intensity to the game. The slick animations paired with cutting-edge graphics of the time still hold up well today.
Mortal Kombat, Street Fighter II: Championship Edition, and Super Smash Bros. all exist. (Some of the SNK characters in Garou: Mark of the Wolves even feature in the Super Smash Bros. franchise.) You’d definitely be respected picking any of those as your favorite fighting game. That said, you’re not getting kicked out of the club if you suggest Garou: Mark of the Wolves is the best fighting game of all time. It’s certainly the best entry on a system that is literally defined by the genre.
Narrowing down the list of NEO•GEO AES titles to a top 10 is an extremely difficult exercise. There’s actually more great titles than even come to mind on first thought, and playthroughs of the games reveal that a large volume of titles held up over time and play well today. Literally everything about this system was ahead of its time and it gives the games an unusual longevity and feel of still being current that its contemporaries didn’t quite match. A lot of the games still feel fresh too, because the system was expensive and hard to source, so if you didn’t live close to an arcade in the 1990s, there might be some titles you’re unfamiliar with that are worth jumping into even today. This console definitely feels poised to capture the hearts of retro gamers and the collectability of it and the games may escalate at any time as these games are rediscovered on new systems.
What are your favorite NEO•GEO games? Let us know in the comments below!