So here it is! I’ve been excited about this since its announcement, and on October 15, 2018, the Neo Geo Mini was released in the US. Seriously, as soon as SNK showed their little 40th anniversary surprise, I declared, in no uncertain terms, “I’m buying that.”
Also, the hilarious irony of a console whose advertising slogan was “Bigger – Badder – Better” and bragged about the “Meg” size of their cartridges being reduced to a tiny unit the size of a Coleco tabletop game is not lost on me.
It seemed like forever, waiting to find out when the International version would be released. The Japanese version went on sale in the summer and pre-orders apparently sold out within hours. Even though the lineup of games on the Japanese edition included a few that I would love to have seen on the International console (I’m lookin’ at you, Twinkle Star Sprites), I wasn’t prepared to pay the inflated prices for the import unit at the time. Besides, if SNK was going to release official new hardware in the US for the first time in almost 20 years, I really wanted to support it.
A little context: I’m a big Neo Geo fan. I got into the system when it came out, around 1990. The local arcades all had MVS machines and a local video game rental shop had an AES that I borrowed many times, so I was lucky enough to play it when it was new. I got my own AES in 1998 for a steal of a deal, and started collecting as many games as I could afford. In the late ’90s and early 2000s, many of the early games — my favorites, actually — were fairly affordable, in the $30-$75 range. So between ebay, some video stores that were clearing out older inventory, and the odd game shop that wound up with a Neo game or two on the shelf, I managed to cobble together a little over a dozen titles that I absolutely love.
When the Neo Geo Pocket Color was released in the US, I was on top of it. I bought it brand new and was purchasing new games for it during the short window of time that the console was on the market. I even imported a few, such as Rockman Battle & Fighters, Big Bang Pro Wrestling, and Cotton.
Then, as my collection of arcade machines grew, I also obtained a cabinet with a 1-slot MVS and several games for it, so I was able to experience titles like Blazing Star and The Last Blade without shelling out ridiculous amounts for the AES versions.
The one SNK console I do not own is a Neo Geo CD (or the later model, the CDZ); even though I’d like one for the collection, the notoriously excruciating loading times have always kept me away. Nor do I have the Neo Geo X, the first attempt at a handheld/console hybrid, which was actually manufactured by Tommo, under license from SNK.
So I’ll never be one of those big-spender Neo Geo collectors with thousands of dollars to throw at a single game, but I’m happy with what I have. That’s why, when the Neo Geo Mini was unveiled, I said “yeah, I can do that!” I even waited up until 2am on September 12, because preorders in the US were beginning at midnight, Pacific time (which is 2am here in the Central time zone). After a few fits and starts, the preorder link on Amazon went live for real, and I nabbed one within seconds. As it turned out, they were widely available for preorder up until the release date, and now that they’re out, they are still easy to get. Hey, I didn’t know, I thought it was gonna sell out like the Japanese one.
And here it is. So with my little personal Neo Geo history out of the way, let’s get into this thing. Warning: It’s pretty long. I have a lot to say, and I’m still not going to cover every little detail.
Now chances are, you’ve seen everybody else’s reviews, unboxings, and videos on this unit. And frankly, many of them have not been too positive. While I was not about to let those reviewers influence my opinion, I admit they were helpful in knowing what to expect. Despite all the alleged shortcomings that I was forewarned of, I was still very much looking forward to getting my hands on the console and taking it for a spin myself.
I also had a couple ideas for experiments that I have not seen anybody else do, and I’m going to talk about those here as well. As you know if you’ve read my posts on the Atari Flashback Portable or the Hyperkin Retron HD, I like to put my hardware to the test in as many ways as I can think of. So let’s get to it!
Packaging and Hardware Appearance
First off, I love the packaging. I love the colors and the simplicity; I also have a thing for packaging that doesn’t actually show the product on the front. Something about that actually makes it look higher-end, I’m not sure why. Like a box of expensive chocolates, or perfume, or some luxury product that only has a brand name on the front, I dunno. It’s just appealing to me. It kind of recalls the old packaging for the AES accessories, where it didn’t have any pictures on it.
So, with the unit freed from its cardboard housing, my first observation is that it feels sturdier than it looked in videos and photos I’d seen. I was afraid it would feel cheap, but the plastic is pretty heavy-duty and has the subtlest amount of texture to it. The Neo Geo logos on the blue hood are screen-printed on, not labels. As you may know, the Mini is modeled after the Neo Geo 19 arcade cabinet; the Japanese Mini was a little closer replica with its red and white control panel and an adhesive overlay mimicking the graphics on the arcade original. The International Mini’s control panel is black, with a more angled industrial design. I like both versions, actually — I appreciate the Japanese version’s nod to its inspiration as well as the sleeker look of the International version.
The console comes with a little packet of stickers: one Neo Geo round logo, a tiny SNK logo, and two “marquee” labels. There are quite a few variations of the marquee labels, and in addition to the two included with the unit, you can buy “blind” packets of them for around 8 bucks, and trade with your friends (I guess) until you get the one with which you decide you’ll adorn your Mini.
Personally, I was thinking of taking it a step further, and designing my own marquee for the unit, and printing it off on adhesive stock. I haven’t decided yet, so for now mine remains blank.
Performance as a Standalone
Switching on the unit, the first thing I noticed is that the screen looks great! I haven’t found the exact resolution listed anywhere yet, but the original Neo Geo hardware’s resolution was 320×224, and the Mini’s screen looks to be 1:1 pixel accurate, so I’m guessing that ‘s what it is. Even at only 3.5 inches, the glory of the Neo Geo’s graphics shines through.
Right about here, it’s worth noting that although the Neo Geo Mini is made to look like an arcade machine, all the games on it are the AES versions, not the MVS versions. Therefore, most of them have title screen menus in-game, and the option to select various difficulty levels. It also means limited credits to continue your game with, but not only do the games allow you to save/load to the “memory card” (it’s set up as though there’s a Neo Geo memory card inserted), but the Mini unit itself can save a snapshot of your exact progress. So unless it’s one of those cruel games that doesn’t allow you to continue at the last boss (like Nam 1975, although that game is sadly not included), you should still be able to beat any game you want.
All right, let’s get to the first point of contention for most people: the control panel. No, the joystick does not have microswitches. It’s not “clicky.” But to me, it feels really good. I think it’s just springy enough. It does move a bit far in each direction, like it could use a little bit more restriction, but your movement does register well before the stick is pushed all the way to the edge; I thought about maybe fitting a rubber washer around it to modify the movement a bit. I don’t know quite why everybody is hung up on the lack of click; granted, after having used the Neo Geo AES stick, the Neo Geo CD pad, and the Neo Geo Pocket stick, all of which are “clicky,” I can understand how everyone expected the Mini to follow suit. Well, it’s not clicky, but then again, neither is your PS4 or Switch pad that you’re playing arcade classics with. The Mini’s stick feels great when playing shmups, and when I checked out Samurai Shodown, it actually felt buttery smooth and super easy to pull off Haohmaru’s Senpuuretsuzan (quarter-circle) and Kogetsuzan (forward, quarter-circle) maneuvers. It actually reminds me quite a bit of playing the Vectrex, but the NGM’s stick is easier to grip and feels better. So to me, the stick is just fine, and I don’t miss the microswitches at all.
Another cool touch is the glowing blue ring around the stick on the International version; the Japanese version doesn’t have this, but instead has a plain small LED under the screen to indicate power-on. I think the International version wins in the style department.
As for the button placement, it was confusing to me when I first saw it; I understand that it was out of necessity, as there wasn’t enough room to put the arcade-style or AES-style layout on the control panel. I thought it would maybe make more sense to transpose the B and C buttons. As it turns out, the layout works much better than I expected, and some of the games, such as Samurai Shodown V and many of the Metal Slug games, do let you reconfigure the input, so you can arrange it however you wish for those games.
Of course I must mention that the Mini is USB powered and must be plugged in at all times, and doesn’t come with a wall plug. You need a 5-volt USB AC adapter. But trust me, if you have a smartphone charger, you already have a 5-volt USB AC adapter. I’ve used my Samsung phone plug for my Mini, as well as the adapter that came with my Hyperkin Retron HD.
I have also already seen people using rechargeable USB power bricks to run their Mini, being the first minor “mod” to solve the issues people have with the console.
The speakers are tiny, and therefore cannot reproduce much (or any) bass output, but they sound serviceable and remind me of the Nintendo DS in their wide stereo spread. The unit does have a headphone jack, which I tested with both a cheaper $20 set of Sony headphones and a nicer $70 set of Koss over-the-ear cans. The sound was clear and the stereo effects much more apparent, and while there was a bit more low-end present, there still wasn’t a lot.
All that said, I do love playing it in standalone mode. Many people have said that they wouldn’t be able to stand playing it for long periods of time, or that the Neo Geo Mini might make a nice display unit for their shelf but is not usable as a gaming device; I totally disagree, and have already spent enough time playing it to have finished a couple games.
Performance as a TV Console
Here’s where things get even more controversial, and where I am going to attempt something I have not seen anyone else do yet.
The Neo Geo Mini can, of course, be played on your HDTV via an HDMI connection. You’ll need a *mini* HDMI cable (not a regular HDMI cable), which can be a little challenging to pluck off the shelf at your local Best Buy or Target. SNK sells Neo Geo-branded mini HDMI cables for use with the Mini, but they’re a bit expensive; most people seem to be grabbing an Amazon Basics cable, which is what I did. It’ll run you about 8 bucks.
First, I wouldn’t even bother setting the NGM to 16:9 mode on an HDTV; it’s just stretched and silly looking. Play it in 4:3, the way it’s supposed to be. Much has been said already about the Mini’s “image optimization” mode while played on a TV, which just kind of blurs the graphics, and generally looks bad. I do agree. Turning off the image optimization gives a more accurate picture, but is still not perfect. Most reviewers seem to want a perfectly sharp output from the Mini, and it’s not happening. While I do agree that that would be ideal, I personally think the way it looks on an HDTV is okay. While it’s not as razor-sharp as, say, RetroPie emulation on a Raspberry Pi would be, you can still see each pixel, and honestly, when you’re sitting five to six feet or farther from your TV, you can’t tell me that it looks like total shit.
Perfect? No. Absolute garbage? I would say definitely not. In fact, I was playing Last Blade 2 on my HDTV, and still drooling over what a stunningly beautiful and stylish game it is, slight blur or not.
So here’s the other experiment I tried: I got myself an HDMI-to-composite convertor. That is, HDMI in, A/V composite out, so that I could hook the Neo Geo Mini up to — you guessed it — a CRT. Not only that, I could compare it back-to-back with an original Neo Geo AES. This little convertor cost about 11 bucks on Amazon and I’ve been using it with my Raspberry Pi. There are more expensive gadgets that do the same thing, but for my purposes, this was just fine.
My findings were interesting. The convertor works like a charm, and the Mini looked pretty darn good on a CRT.
In this case, the NGM’s output should actually be set to 16:9, and it will naturally fill the 4:3 screen. The blurriness isn’t immediately visible and it’ll feel like you’re playing the real deal…as long as you don’t have the real deal handy.
But since I do have do have the real deal handy, let’s take a look at the Neo Geo Mini, output to a CRT, and compare it to an original Neo Geo AES console. Both units are hooked up to the same TV, running at the same time, through a composite switchbox so that I can flip back and forth between them with the touch of a button. I used Magician Lord to compare, as it’s one of the games I own for the AES that’s included on the Mini. Check out the results below.
As you can see, the original hardware is still sharper. However, as I said, if you didn’t have original hardware handy to compare them side-by-side Bill Plympton-style, you might be pretty happy with the way the Mini looks when run through a convertor to your CRT.
All in all, I am satisfied with the output and again, will be happy to play NGM games on my TVs. It’s not that I don’t appreciate squeezing high performance out of my consoles (I definitely do), or that I wouldn’t love it if it was much sharper and pixel-perfect (I definitely would). I dunno, maybe it’s because I grew up the hard way, playing Atari 2600 on channel 3 and just hoping that no television broadcast interference, late-afternoon sunspots, or my mom running the vacuum cleaner would make my game static-y, but the Mini looks good enough for me.
One last point to mention: The sound, when run through a TV, is perfect. Perhaps a bit quieter than the original AES, but clear and accurate.
The Control Pad
Now we get to the control pad. I will admit that this is my one actual disappointment in this whole package. It’s not even that the pad isn’t clicky, or that the buttons are in a little different layout than the Mini itself. Really, my problem is that the directional pad moves really far in each direction, and it doesn’t have enough texture to it so my thumb slips right off as I try to move. If it had more of a rubberized, textured covering, like the analog sticks on a Dual Shock, it would probably be much better; perhaps I’ll try cutting out a little circle of grip tape and sticking it to the pad, and see if that helps.
If SNK continues to put out accessories for the Mini, what I would really love to see is an AES-style joystick. I would think that’d be a no-brainer and if it worked well, I’d be happy to shell out another 50 bucks for one. However, as you may be able to tell by this point, I’m all about finding a workaround…
Enter Brook, the accessory manufacturer for the fightstick community. They currently make a wide range of convertors and adapters that allow one to use almost any controller on almost any console, and guess what? This November, they are releasing a PS4-to-Neo Geo Mini convertor.
Yes, you can use your DualShock pad on the Mini, or even — oh yeah, here it comes — YOUR CLICKY-ASS FIGHTSTICK. THERE, YOU CAN CLICK THE LIVING SHIT OUT OF YOUR JOYSTICK ALL YOU WANT WHILE YOU PLAY YOUR NEO GEO MINI, ARE YOU HAPPY NOW?!
I am looking forward to checking out this new convertor, and I will update this article further (or write another one) when I get a chance to do so.
UPDATE: As of November, the Mayflash F500 — which is actually my current arcade stick of choice — has updated firmware which makes it compatible with the Neo Geo Mini. The only convertor necessary is a USB-to-USB-C convertor, which you can get from Amazon Basics for about six bucks.
Final verdict? I love the Neo Geo Mini. No, it’s not perfect; yes, there are things I would love to see improved. But I think there are so many great things about it. I love seeing SNK — which, remember, is not nearly as big a company as Nintendo or Sony — putting out a little new hardware, and making it available worldwide. Good for them!! I’m happy to see them back!! And we get 40 Neo Geo games in a standalone unit, with its own screen and controls, for just over $100.
Let’s think about the value of that; the NES Classic has 30 games that originally retailed for $25-$40 each. Averaged out to $32.50 per game, that’s a $975 value (not including the price of the NES control deck itself) for a price of $60. That’s pretty good! The SNES Classic gives you 21 games, which retailed for $50-$60; at an average price of $55 per game and again not including the cost of the system, that’s $1,155 worth of games for the unit’s price of $80. That’s pretty good too! But the Neo Geo Mini includes 40 games that originally sold for $200-$300 apiece; let’s call that an average of $250 per game, not considering the $650 price tag of the console, and that’s TEN THOUSAND DOLLARS’ worth of games for the Mini’s US retail price of $109. And let’s not even discuss what the AES versions of those games are going for nowadays; an original, authentic copy of Metal Slug will cost you 5 grand by itself. So put in those terms, arguments against the Mini’s price point are pretty weak. And yeah, you can get some of those on your Switch right now for $7.99 each. 40 of those would cost you $320, so the Mini is still a better deal, right?
Well, whatever. I can’t make you like it, and nobody’s going to convince me to dislike it. I’d rather be on the fanboy side than the hater side. If it was really a piece of junk, I’d tell you. But I wanted to present a more positive side of the Neo Geo Mini, because I really, truly appreciate SNK putting this unit out as a celebration of the company’s 40th anniversary, and I’m proud to have added it to my collection.
And dammit, I think it’s fun. Remember fun?
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some more Blazing Star to play.