My memory of SNK’s Neo Geo is that of an ultra-premium gaming console that I desperately wanted but knew I’d never be able to afford. The pricing, both for the console and for the carts ($649.99 for the machine and $99-$300+ for each game) was outrageous, though when you considered the promise of bringing a bevy of arcade cabinets to your living room TV, it seemed slightly more reasonable. That was cold comfort for the ten year old version of myself drooling over photos and screenshots of it in comics and trade magazines, however, craving those huge, colorful, exotic characters and vibrant, animated backgrounds.
As with so many other products marketed towards nostalgic adults looking to experience a blissful moment of wish fulfilment, though, the Neo Geo Mini ultimately feels a bit hollow. It’s too late to ever live up to those adolescent fantasies, and too poorly designed to live up to modern standards of retro consoles and professional emulation.
For a roundup of all our favorite throwback consoles, check out our list of the best retro consoles.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not all bad news. The Neo Geo Mini is an adorable little package, and if you’re mostly looking for an attractive display piece for your shelf or desk, the Mini’s got charm to spare. It’s a lovely recreation of the top half of an SNK arcade cabinet, and while it feels sturdy and well made it’s still light enough to hold in your lap without being too unwieldy. The only marks against the physical presentation of the version that we received is that it’s less colorful and more bland looking than its Japanese counterpart - meaning that the buttons and their labels don’t stand out very well - and it doesn’t feature any of the bezel or side art that drew my gaze in the hot, smoky arcades of my youth.
Unfortunately, the Mini’s beauty is skin deep. While the games look crisp enough displayed on the unit’s tiny 3.5 inch screen, when displayed on a modern television they're blurry and unappealing. There is a menu option to swap between 4:3 and widescreen modes while you’re in TV mode, but no way to force the Mini to output square pixels and sharpen the image. This means you’re stuck with the rectangular pixels of the original Neo Geo and stretched and fuzzy output.
For more retro, here's our C64 Mini review
The controls represent another serious flaw, particularly if you don’t invest in the sold-separately $25 gamepads. The four face buttons and start and select are compressed into a little corridor on the right side of the chassis; accidentally hitting the wrong one while you’re trying to focus on gameplay on the little screen is virtually guaranteed. Also, there's no octagonal gate (or gate of any kind) on the analog stick, so while it rotates smoothly and feels reactive, it’s less than ideal for most of the games included with the Mini, which call for crisp eight-directional movement. It feels way too slippery and imprecise for the abundance of single-plane games on offer.
Speaking of the games, there’s a definite bias towards 2D fighting games. Of the 40 games packed into the Mini, 16 of them are fighters, SNK’s bread and butter genre and what the Neo Geo was largely known for (though I would’ve been happier had Windjammers or a Bomberman made the cut). If you’re not interested in dipping deep into the pool of King of Fighter’s history, or reliving the glory days of the Samurai Shodown franchise, the Neo Geo Mini is likely not for you. In general, the library of games draws heavily on series and sequels; as well as the ten King of Fighter titles and three Samurai Shodowns, there are a total of five Metal Slug games and a pair of games from The King of Monsters. If these are franchises you absolutely love, a deep dive into their history might be really appealing to you. But for anyone else, looking for diversity and more breadth, the Mini’s collection falls very short.
Is it worth the price?
Because it needs to be constantly tethered to a USB cable for power, any possibility of portability is lost, which doesn’t feel like a tremendous sacrifice because I can’t imagine carting this thing around on the bus or the subway anyway. Despite having a sub-phone sized display, the chassis is bulky and oddly shaped and, while that might be an asset when it’s sitting quietly on your desk, it’s decidedly a liability over long play sessions. When it’s settled in your lap you have to crane your neck at an unfortunate angle and when it's sitting on a flat surface it’s awkward managing the controls without accidentally shoving the whole machine around.
If the price tag weren’t quite so high, I might recommend the Neo Geo Mini purely on the strength of its desk appeal. Unfortunately, the International version will retail for $109.99 when it launches on October 15, and if you include two controllers the final price tag is more than double the cost of the superior SNES Classic. It’s not quite the $649.99 of the original, but it still feels way too steep when contrasted with its more competent contemporaries.