AES (Home System)

Image: By Evan-Amos - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18260466

If money is no object, then the Neo-Geo AES is the choice for you. While the system itself won't set you back more than $400 for an unmodded and unboxed console (with appropriate hookups), a complete in box console will cost upward of $800. And a modded system that will work with different, more modern AV types will cost between $400 and $800 depending on options. For some reason US consoles are more sought after in the 2020 collector market despite having some serious drawbacks that I'll cover below. It's not the price of the console that is the barrier of entry, though. No, that goes to the price of the games.

Neo-Geo AES games are vastly more expensive than other Neo hardware variants or even any other retro game console. To be frank, what is affordable to Neo-Geo AES collectors could be the difference of having food to feed your family for a few weeks, or even months to a year for many, many people. Titles which released in 1990 – 1995 are mostly reasonable in price, with many of the more popular titles in this date range costing between $80 and $150 USD for a complete Japanese version. Beginning in 1996 SNK began producing far less AES games compared to years prior, and the prices reflect that. While you can still get some must have titles like King of Fighters 98 or Real Bout Special for under $350, be prepared to pay well over $500 for many of the console’s best titles from 1996 - 2004. For example: unless you truly have money to burn, you’ll have to skip the entire Metal Slug series - which would cost you roughly $30,000 to have all 6 games that released on the AES. I'm not exaggerating.

If that doesn’t sound expensive enough, US and European game variants were produced in far fewer quantities, so expect to pay at the very least double the price of the Japanese version. Many, many US titles are FAR more expensive, though, costing the collector thousands (yes, thousands) more than the Japanese variant. For example, World Heroes Perfect costs around $430 for a complete, good condition Japanese copy, while a US version is sitting right around the $4000 mark in the 2020 retro game market. At the end of the day, whether you purchase Japanese or US versions of games, having a full set of official releases is only the dream of the rich if you did not begin collecting these games when the prices were more reasonable (but still outrageous).

All Neo-Geo AES games use the exact same PCBs and Chips across regions, so the only difference in the games is the language on the case insert, the manual, and the sticker on the cartridge. Due to this, all games have multiple languages and censorship modes included for all regions in which the game was released. As the AES is a region free console, the language displayed, and even censorship is dictated by the region coded to the console's bios chip.

This is the sticking point with US consoles versus Japanese consoles. Japanese consoles will display the game in Japanese, but will not have any censorship. Most games have an option to switch the language to English, so this is largely a non-issue for the vast majority of games. Because these are arcade games, all the important information is in English regardless.US consoles will display games in English, but many games include seemingly random censorship you cannot remove with a stock console. For example: games like Samurai Shodown 2 display with green blood, and Mai’s breast bounce animation is eliminated in many King of Fighters games.

If you would like an AES for easy hookup to your TV, you’re also out of luck. While the console does support SCART RGB right out of the box if you have the correct cable, you will still need some sort of intermediary device to hook up the Neo to a modern display. Thankfully there are a litany of options, but at the very least you’ll need to budget an extra $100 to $400 depending on the device you choose. Additionally, the composite video on the console is crap, so even if you hook up your AES to a CRT (old tube TV) you'll want to explore getting at least an S-Video mod for cleaner output.

Additionally, consoles with a serial number above 200k or so have a video output issue called "jailbars" which degrade the quality of the video by a significant margin even if running via RGB. This can be fixed on these late model consoles, but seeking out an earlier release console will eliminate the need to fix this unsightly issue.

Finally, there are a few options for those that just want an AES for hardware accuracy but don’t care about collecting the physical games. Most retro consoles have a device that allows you to put the entire rom collection for the console on an SD card and select the game you want to play from a list. These devices cost an average of $300 or more (if you can find them). You can also get MVS adapters which allow you to play the (vastly cheaper) arcade versions of the games on your AES. There are a few more options you have when purchasing AES games, like conversions or reproductions, and the 161-In-1 cartridges. Check out the How to Buy Games article for more information on these options. For more detailed information on the MVS/AES, check out the full review.

I recommend the AES for these types of gamers:

      • The Collector: AES games are works of art inside and out, look amazing on a shelf or display, and command high prices due to two main factors: quality and scarcity. You want the best of the best, and you want to be able to show off your collection. You also might be looking at this collection as an investment for the future, or as an eventual bequest to a child or museum. You only buy games complete and in Very Good to Mint condition - you also may want a few graded games in your collection just for bragging rights. If you like spending money on high-priced goods to impress a niche crowd, this is your golden ticket to the upper echelon of retro video game collecting.

      • The Nostalgic Gamer: You are a gamer first - collector second, but you have an emotional attachment to the AES. And, you were most likely lucky enough to have had an AES in the 90's. The ritual of opening up one of those sturdy, beautiful, SNK emblazoned snap-lock cases, carefully removing the behemoth cartridge, and playing one of your favorite games is an experience you can't quite describe - and AES games are worth the extra money to retain that experience. You don't care too much if the games are mint. In fact, you'd rather have a few blemishes on the games to ensure you keep the price down. You value the time you spend with each game, and having games to play in your archive is of upmost importance to you rather than having an expensive conversation piece sitting in your bookcase. This is the category I fall into.

The MVS

The MVS is the arcade version of the Neo-Geo. It came in 4 varieties: 1 slot, 2 slot, 4 slot, and 6 slot. The MVS is even more complicated to hook up to modern displays, and is even relatively complicated to hook up to a CRT due to the video signal being different than NTSC standard. At minimum for a CRT you will need to purchase the MVS board of your choice plus a device called a SuperGun that converts the Jamma arcade signal from the board to something your TV can use. If on a modern display you must then run the SuperGun through another external upscaling device or line-doubler, which can run you an extra $100 to $400. You can also purchase "consolized" MVS 1-slot boards from various online retailers which is a much easier plug-n-play solution that eliminates the need for a Supergun, but you'll still need another device to hook up to a modern display unless it has an HDMI out. There is also the arcade cabinet route, but I only recommend this option if you like to tinker with old electronics or are an arcade enthusiast. You can get a one slot, Big Red cabinet for as cheap as $400 if you're patient.

Games for the MVS are MUCH MUCH cheaper than AES. For example, an authentic copy of Metal Slug 1 costs upwards of $10,000 for the AES release, but can be had on MVS for less than $200. This price difference is due to the sheer number of MVS games produced compared to their AES counter parts. For more detailed information on the MVS/AES, check out the full review.

I recommend the MVS for these types of gamers:

      • The Authentic Gamer: You don't want to pay big prices, but you care about authenticity. Having a collection to show off is less of a priority as you'd rather just have the authentic game to play. There's a good chance you got into SNK games after the 90's, but you know the value of playing on OG hardware. A big chunk of Neo gamers fall into this category as it has the best cost balance. There are a few games that made it to the arcade but never got an official home release, like Breaker's Revenge or Neo Bomberman, so that is a boon as well.

      • The Arcade Enthusiast: You didn't grow up with an AES in the home, but you did frequent arcades as in the 90's that had a generous rotation of SNK games in their Big Red MVS cabinets. Your memories of playing these games were in the arcade, and that is where they feel most at home. You don't mind getting your hands dirty with a little electronic maintenance, so you go for no less than a 2-slot MVS cabinet so you have some choice without opening up the cabinet every day to change out your games.

The Neo-Geo CD

The Neo-Geo CDZ - Circa 1996

The cheapest of the bunch, the Neo-Geo CD comes in three flavors:

      • The Front Loading Model: First edition model, limited to less than 30,000 units in Japan only.

      • The Top Loading Model: Generally inexpensive (even CIB), but like the front loader it has a single speed drive making load times on many games with frequent loading (like a fighting game) unbearable.

      • The CDZ: The final CD model. It has a sleeker, more futuristic design than the prior models, a faster CD drive with a larger data cache, and has no region lock. The small form-factor has been reported to lead to overheating the console. The CDZ is usually double the price or more of the either single-speed console and is the most sought after of the CD line of hardware. (Pictured)

While the Neo CD may have been made to make the Neo-Geo more affordable at home, it doesn't come without a few caveats. For more detailed information on the history of the console, check out the full review.

  • First, the games in today's market are about as expensive as MVS games. So, they are cheaper than AES but be prepared to still pay over $300 for some titles. Prices are rising in 2020 due to renewed interest in SNK products through aggressive marketing of classic IP and the release of the Neo-Geo Mini Console (emulators in a box) line-up.

  • Second, the system only has 7mb of ram. While that is more ram than any other console of the day, it still isn't enough to produce 100% arcade perfect ports of later releases. For example: The Last Blade had numerous frames of animation removed, and in Art of Fighting 3 SNK actually removed the sprite scaling effects entirely (which is a key feature of the game) and shrunk the character sprites.

  • Third, there are the long load times. In the single speed drive consoles, early Neo releases aren't too bad. But for later releases (post 1995) expect loads to take no less than a minute in many cases. The CDZ, while much better overall, still has some excruciating loads for late 90's Giga-Power releases. Playing games like the King of Fighters series is a lesson in tedium unless you set it to Single Play mode rather than team play.

  • Fourth is the wear and tare over the years on mechanical CD drives. Lasers will fail and the motors that move the laser often run into numerous mechanical issues. In order to circumvent this you can install a replacement drive that runs games off of an SD card. Eventually all CD mechanisms will fail, so this should be an upgrade you should heavily consider if buying any CD based hardware for any retro console; unless you have spare parts or source a lightly used console.

  • Finally, the Neo CD does not have access to the full library of Neo-Geo games. SNK began to phase out the console in 1997 and by 1998 no new hardware was produced. While King of Fighters 98 & 99, Last Blade 2, and Real Bout 2 saw a CD release between 1998 and 1999, no other games from 1998-2004 saw a release on CD.

While you should heavily consider the caveats listed above before diving into a Neo CD purchase, there are some upsides. Many multi-thousand-dollar games can be had for a few hundred bucks. For example, the stellar horizontal shooter Pulstar cost over $3000 on AES but less than $200 on CD. All versions of the Neo CD have a multi-AV out on the back like an AES console, but they also have dedicated RCA outs for video and stereo audio, and even a dedicated S-Video out! The S-video out is quite handy as the composite video on these consoles is absolute trash. Additionally, most games have arranged soundtracks which are actually pretty good overall (although, I prefer the cartridge music in most cases).

I recommend the Neo CD to these types of gamers:

      • The Hardcore Neo-Geo fan: You already have an AES, MVS, or both and you just want to collect all pieces of SNK hardware because of your love for for the Neo-Geo. The Neo CD is a perfect compliment to these collections and is a considered an additional console rather than the stand-alone Neo solution. This is where I fall. I have a mint-condition front-loading model only to play the handful of CD exclusive games to compliment my AES and MVS collections.

      • The casual Neo-Geo fan: You love the Neo-Geo and want to own a real piece of gaming history to make your other gaming friends a little jealous. As you don't want to break the bank, you don't mind the load times and you even don't mind playing King of Fighters in single mode rather than team mode. You also don't mind the later Neo-Geo releases not being available on the console because you already have the Dreamcast and/or PS2 versions, and they're fine.

      • The "Catch'Em All" retro gamer: You want a large representation of various consoles, want to keep costs down as your primary collections are either Nintendo, Sega, or Sony systems, and arcade authenticity isn't a huge concern because you typically play/played ports of Neo games on other consoles. You just want a handful of good games, and since you don't have a lot of nostalgia with the games you don't mind the cut frames of animation and arranged soundtracks.