SNK, or Shin Nihon Kikaku to give their full title, are famous for their Metal Slug series of games, which seem to have been released on every console ever invented. They aren’t a one trick pony either, as the King of Fighters series is still going strong as well.
What is probably less well known are the sheer amount of games that they released back in the early days of the arcades, in the lates ‘70s and ‘80s; back then that you couldn’t go into an arcade without almost tripping over SNK titles. From hugely popular shooters like Ikari Warriors to early side scrolling beat-em-ups like P.O.W, the range of games was breathtaking. To celebrate 40 years in the business, the imaginatively titled SNK 40th Anniversary Collection has been released on Xbox One, including 13 games at launch, with a further 11 promised as free DLC. There’s certainly no shortage of content included but can games from this period hold their own today? Is this a history lesson worth looking into?
First up and the presentation of the collection is absolutely top notch. Before even getting to the games, I checked out the “SNK Complete Works: 1978-1990” section – mainly to see what it was all about if I’m honest – and it is here where you’ll find a collection of trivia and screenshots about everything SNK ever released, from early cabinets to later software only releases. The amount of information here is mind boggling, including original manuals in Japanese, complete with wacky drawings to demonstrate what they are saying. Now, my Japanese reading level is basic (is there a level below basic?), but helpfully each slide has a caption taking you through what is being shown. To be frank, the level of care and attention put into this section of the collection is amazing, and I spent an informative hour or more just absorbing knowledge. It’s no exaggeration to say that if you are interested in retro games, this is almost worth the price of admission on its own, even if only to learn that Shin Nihon Kikaku means “New Japan Product”. Every day’s a school day!
Luckily, there’s more on offer here in the SNK 40th Anniversary Collection – and that means games. Lots of games. The list is decent in fact: Alpha Mission, Athena, Crystalis, Guerrilla War, Ikari Warriors 1, 2 and 3, Iron Tank, P.O.W., Prehistoric Isle, Psycho Soldier, Street Smart, TNKIII and finally Vanguard. Now, some of these were released on home consoles at the time of their original appearance, and if that’s the case, you can choose to play the original arcade version, or the home version when selecting the title you wish to play. Strangely, the Xbox achievements included are are only awarded for beating the arcade versions of games, so if you are a bit of a Gamerscore collector as well as a retro fan, that’s something to bear in mind. Again, the menus for choosing the games are well designed, showing you the game in action as you try to make your mind up which one to play. Oh, and couch co-op is fully included too, so if the original game supported two players, then you can relive that experience on the settee.
Having roped in my 8-year old co-tester, we settled down to play a few games. Now, as much as I was excited to check out the titles included in the 40th Anniversary Collection, I was equally interested to see what he made of these games, as he’s only been gaming a few years and obviously never witnessed them when they were at the bleeding edge of what was technically possible. It’s a testament to the design of the games in the days of yore that he picked up the controller and dived straight in; the gamer in him responding to the gameplay rather than being put off by the dated visuals.
And boy oh boy, what a plethora of games there is to play. From the side scrolling shooting of Prehistoric Isle – one of my personal highlights of the collections – to Ikari Warriors, and through Iron Tank, we blasted and fought our way through game after game. Even after all this time, the games still talk to me, they still stand up as fun to play and they are a hell of a lot cheaper to experience than when I used to have to go to the arcade with a pocket full of 10ps. Having infinite continues available does remove the challenge somewhat, as does a handy rewind feature that allows you to undo mistakes that you have made, but if you are sparing with continues then the games are just as hard as they used to be.
Even some of the stranger design choices are intact as well, like at the beginning of Athena, where the titular heroine jumps out of a window, somehow losing her dress on the way and is forced to fight in a bikini. Another highlight of the collection is Crystalis, a full blown RPG that I can’t imagine playing in the arcade, due to the amount of time you’d need to invest. I’ve spent hours wandering around and levelling my guy, but, at time of writing, I still don’t feel like I’m anywhere near the end. And out of the big list of titles available in this collection, one more that has really stuck with me is that of Street Smart; a kind of beat-em-up where the ultimate aim seems to be to fly around the world and seduce a lady in each country. Maybe girls in the 1980s liked men who punched other men?
So, the games are perfect conversions, the museum function is brilliantly designed, and the whole SNK 40th Anniversary Collection oozes quality. In a way I think it’s a shame that a lot of gamers will look at the primitive graphics and bleepy bloopy sound to dismiss this as another retro collection that can safely be ignored while waiting for the next Call of Duty or FIFA to rock up. Gamers of my vintage, who grew up with these staples, will be much more likely to give this collection a try, if only to take in a wonderful history of video games. Sure they don’t melt your face off with whizz bang graphics, but the humour and storytelling that can be achieved with a limited palette of pixels is amazing.
Oh, and the song from the closing credits of Psycho Soldier is still amazing to this day!