In Defense of Limited Credits
I've been an SNK Neo-Geo fanboy for well over 25 years. One of the things that used to drive me crazy as a teenager was the Neo-Geo AES (the home console version) and its limited 4 credits per game on just about every game in the library. If you could not beat the game in 4 credits or less it was game over and you had to start again. As an adult, my feelings on this have changed considerably.
The Neo-Geo is a pure arcade system. Due to this, the games are designed for the user to play in bursts and eat your quarters. In the arcade the longevity of a game is only determined by the amount of money you are willing to spend on that machine. Arcade style games had to be difficult enough to ensure you popped in more money to overcome the obstacle, but be fair enough to not frustrate you into not spending more money. That said, it’s no shock that most Neo-Geo games are difficult by their very arcade nature.
One of the biggest complaints I’ve heard over the years about the Neo-Geo AES (home system) is the limited amount of credits the player has to complete a game. Capped at 4 credits for the vast majority of releases, there are a few outliers that give the player more breathing room.
Savvy Neo-Geo collectors are well aware of, and many use the much lauded UniBios custom bios chip. This little wonder chip can be installed in both AES and MVS units and acts as a sort of on-board Action Replay allowing the user to enable a bevy of options and cheats, like infinite credits. That said, other than cheats for extra characters, blood, or even Mai’s breast bounce in some games, I never touch the infinite credits options, and there’s a good reason.
Think of it this way, the main goal of an arcade game is to win the game by using the least amount of money – thus, one credit in one sitting. Think about how much time you’d spend at the arcade if you wanted to get really good at Street Fighter 2 or Darius 2 back in the day; dozens if not hundreds of hours - which equates to hundreds of dollars. Most arcade games took a year (sometimes more, and very rarely less) to be ported to consoles, and these ports were heavily compromised to begin with. With the Neo-Geo, you could spend your $200 upfront and “git-gud” in the comfort of your own home.
Often arcade inspired games on various consoles used limited credits to give you a more immediate goal as well. The Thunder Force games on the Mega Drive come to mind, or the ever-popular Contra series of run-n-gun action games. That said, there are plenty of arcade-like games on home consoles that have an unlimited continue function. These games typically create difficulty or prolong their playability in other creative ways.
For example; Castlevania on NES has unlimited credits/continues, but it has maddeningly difficult but fair enemy placement, treacherous but fair platforming sections, and purposefully restrictive movement options.
On your very first play you might use up to 5 continues (that’s 15 lives) and not even make it past the middle of the second stage depending on your familiarity with classic 2D action games. While Castlevania 1 is actually exceedingly fair, it is very difficult, and the developers were well aware it will take a long time to learn the game well enough to blast through using no continues. Konami could have added a credit cap on top of the difficulty (some later releases did) , but the game is hard enough and has a natural stopping - frustration point. Because there was no save function, you had two options: leave the system on until you come back to it again, or turn the system off and start over - further increasing your skill at playing the game.
While 4 credits may be a little strict (I think 7 is the sweet spot), as an adult I enjoy this restriction mostly because it gives me something to shoot for in the limited time I have to play video games. If I want to get cozy with a session of Viewpoint on Neo-Geo, for example, I know that I have 4 credits until it’s game over. Usually, unless I have some extra time, I’ll stop playing after it’s game over. It helps me to maximize my time in playing these games, and gives me a clear difficulty curve to overcome. Once I can clear a difficulty setting in less than two credits, I move on to the next difficulty setting, and so on.
Sure, it can be tough when you’re on your last credit, playing through a beloved game on Very Hard, and the boss KO’s you right before you beat the game. While frustrating in the moment, that’s never stopped me from revisiting it a day later and further honing my skills back on the road to the boss. It’s playing these games over and over (not just progressing) is what creates skill, and it is skill that wins the game.