Conversions & reproductionsAuthor: M.E. Williams
It's no secret that the Neo-Geo hardware has seen one of the more explosive bootleg markets in all of video games. That said, it's also no surprise given the high cost of owning authentic games on the AES, and even some MVS games. While there are bootlegs of NeoCD games (given the hardware has no copy protection built in), the AES and MVS are where the money is. It's in this market segment that we see the vast majority of bootlegs in the modern Neo-Geo Market.
The word "conversion" has become a modern catch-all in the Neo-Geo market that includes three types of bootlegs:
MVS to AES conversions
This confusing catch-all can cause undue hardship on the new Neo-Geo collector who does not yet have the market savvy to know what they are purchasing.
While many collectors look down upon any type of "conversion", many buyers flock to these bootlegs due to the generally lower bar of entry to having some of the most sought after games. Given the gulf in prices between the AES and MVS, one could easily come to the conclusion that if you want to save money on authentic games just get the MVS versions. While that sounds good in theory, bootlegs are synonymous with the MVS market and buyers need to be even more scrupulous when purchasing games in that segment.
Purchasing a conversion or a reproduction isn't the end of the world, and unless you have some self-inflicted morality on what should be done with retro video games, they can save you a lot of money up front. Just be advised that you won't make any money in the long term as they have no investment potential.
MVS to AES conversions
These are the true conversions - where the authentic mask-rom chips are desoldered from MVS PCBs and resoldered onto a compatible, authentic AES PCB. While the final product uses all authentic parts, it does sacrifice the original AES and MVS games - which is a big problem for some people. For others, this is a great way to get 100% compatible games for a fraction of the cost.
My example photo, Neo Bomberman, is a true conversion. This game also never had an official AES release.
MVS to AES conversions are contentious in the Neo-Geo community due to the sacrifice of two authentic games to create one mostly authentic game. On one hand it is understandable that those passionate about these second-hand consumer products want to protect these authentic pieces from being defaced, destroyed, or otherwise ruined. On the other hand (and I don't mean to sound flippant), unless these people who have a moral objection to conversions want to pony up the cash to purchase all games that are at risk of being a sack cart, there really isn't a whole lot to do about this situation. It's your money, so spend as you see fit.
When deciding what side of the fence you are on, here's a few things to consider:
MVS to AES conversions are uncommon in the modern market. You'll mostly find reproductions or EPROM conversions - both explained below.
Most MVS to AES conversions done by modern modders are advertised as such - and most are woefully overpriced.
True conversions typically only exist for the more outrageously priced AES games like Kizuna Encounter or Metal Slug. You won't often find conversions for common titles under $500 or so.
Playmore era games (2001-2004) cannot be converted (or are very hard to do).
There are some games, like Metal Slug X, that can't be converted from MVS to AES due to an Altera Max chip included on the PCB - but you can find Reproductions..
Ask yourself these questions: Should I just get an authentic MVS game and compatible converter? How much do I actually care about an AES game form factor in these games? If I'm willing to get a true conversion, would I just be better off getting a reproduction?
At the end of the day you will need to make your own choice on the ethics behind purchasing a conversion. Just make sure you are making a choice that is congruent with your views, values, and what you want out of your collection. It's your collection and money to spend, so make sure you're not making a choice just to please some know-it-all collector on the internet. Some people have very strong opinions about conversions.
If you want to purchase a conversion keep in mind that they will not rise in value - these are essentially bootlegs after all. Reselling a conversion in the market will result in a loss for you, so only purchase a conversion if you plan on keeping it. While you can also get scalped by people selling conversions as authentic games (this doesn't happen as often as you'd think), what you need to look out for is overpaying for conversions.
You will also want to check to make sure the "conversion" is an MVS to AES true conversion as many merchants will sell you a reproduction or EPROM conversion and call it an MVS conversion - phew, that's a lot of conversion. Because of this catch-all word, people often are unaware of what they are purchasing. The only way to check what you're buying is if the seller provides pictures of the boards and you can verify the mask-rom chips on MVS Scans to ensure authenticity.
These conversions sacrifice only one AES game by removing the authentic mask-roms and replacing them with programed EPROMs containing data from a different game. EPROMs are essentially a silicon CD-R - these are blank slate chips that can house any type of data. They can also be erased and re-written.
The example picture is from an EPROM conversion of PULSTAR.
EPROMs have some drawbacks, like a shorter shelf life than mask roms. But because of their versatility, they have been used across the decades as bios chips for various types of computers, among other uses. There are even some EPROM chips used in tandem with mask rom chips in authentic versions of Neo-Geo games, like some revisions of Art of Fighting 2.
You can easily spot the difference between a mask rom and and EPROM due to a little window on the top of the chip. If a UV light is shone on the window it will erase the contents of the chip. You'll often see EPROM chips with a piece of electrical tape over the window to protect it from UV rays. While the data on these chips will eventually deteriorate over time, they will last between 20-30 years - much longer than the amount of time you'll most likely use the game.
EPROM conversions are quite a bit heavier than authentic games/conversions. Without opening up a game, just compare the weight. If a game is significantly heavier than your known authentic, it is most likely an EPROM conversion. These conversions are also the most glitch prone. If one of the chips was not programed correctly it can cause numerous issues. It won't ruin your hardware, but the game may become unplayable. If you purchase an EPROM conversion, make sure you aren't paying much. While you can get a well programed gem that will last you decades, you run a higher risk of getting a dud than with a true conversion.
This "conversion" uses 100% all new parts and newly manufactured PCBs of varying quality. Collectors don't care much for reproductions, as they are worthless in the market, but still cost quite a bit to produce for the boutique sellers that make them. Expect to still pay over $200 for reproductions of any type.Image Credit: Culturea Neo-Geo
Reproductions are a fair bit lighter than an authentic game, and much, much lighter than an EPROM conversion due to the lighter weight of newly manufactured PCBs that do not use multiple ROM chips. Reproductions are a great way to pad your AES or even MVS collection if you want some of the more expensive games to play on your console. As they do not sacrifice any authentic games in their creation, if you have a moral dilema with conversions, this is your only other option to keep prices down. NCI is a popular reproduction manufacturer for AES games, and NeoOldStore is another. If you're after reproductions I do recommend NeoOldStore. Their reproductions are a fair amount cheaper than NCI and are the same or better quality. They advertise as "conversions", but most of their games are repros and can be had for less than $250 no matter the game.
You can also get multi-game reproductions. The 161-in-1 cartridge is a very popular choice, but you can also get single cart series collections. Having all the Metal Slug or Samurai Shodown games on one cart is a great way to save money and even reduce wear and tare on your hardware from constant game switching.
There is also a market for reproduction cases, manuals, inserts, and cartridge stickers. While these are around mostly for the reproduction game market, savvy buyers can also customize their game collection with these pieces - or buyers like me that source loose cartridges can get a reproduction case and insert in order to store and protect my investments.
My copy of Last Resort, for example, has an authentic game and manual, but the case and case insert are reproductions.
Reproduction softbox cases are just a tiny bit larger than authentic, and don't quite smell the same, but are otherwise a fair representation of the originals. Snaplock case reproductions use more matte plastics and the edges along the spine are white instead of black due to how they are hinged. Unless you know what to look for, though, it's hard to tell the difference between these cases and an authentic. Authentic inserts, labels, and manuals use a type of printing called "off-set." Reproduction printed material use high quality, laser prints. While these generally do look great, they are not quite the quality of an original but can come very close.
What should you do?
At the end of the day, do what you want with your money. If you want to collect for the Neo-Geo you have to do it within your own budget. Conversions and reproductions come with savings, but also with numerous caveats that I hope I've done a good job explaining to you.
Personally, I don't have a problem with conversions or reproductions. The AES game form factor is important to me because of my nostalgia with that piece of hardware. Over the last 25 years I've owned two MVS set-ups (both an arcade cab and a supergun + MVS board set), and I've sold both of those set-ups twice to switch back to AES. As a long-time collector, authenticity is important to me. And while I typically purchase MVS versions of games when an AES version is out of my price range, there are a few conversions that have snuck into my meticulously curated library. :)