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Game Review

by Todd Ciolek,

SNK 40th Anniversary Collection

Nintendo Switch

SNK 40th Anniversary Collection
SNK celebrates four decades with a collection of over a dozen arcade and NES games: Alpha Mission, Athena, Crystalis, Guerilla War, Iron Tank, the Ikari Warriors trilogy, P.O.W., Prehistoric Isle, Psycho Soldier, Streetsmart, TNK III, and Vanguard.
What made SNK a cult favorite game company? Was it the Neo Geo, which delivered arcade-perfect games at home for just two hundred dollars per cartridge? Was it the Neo Geo Pocket Color, a well-made and vastly underappreciated handheld system? Was it the way SNK artists created some of the most amazing hand-drawn pixel art ever seen in a video game?

It probably wasn't SNK's lineup from their early days. In the 1980s, before any sort of Neo Geo arrived, SNK was just another name struggling for identity and coasting from one arcade trend to the next. The SNK 40th Anniversary Collection covers the company's formative decade in 13 games and, when possible, their NES adaptations: Alpha Mission, Athena, Crystalis, the three Ikari Warriors titles, Guerilla War, P.O.W., Prehistoric Isle, Psycho Soldier, Streetsmart, TNK III (and its loosely related and separately listed NES version, Iron Tank), and Vanguard. Packed with extensive bonus features, it's an all-encompassing profile of SNK up to 1990. It's also a brutally honest one.

For starters, the most prominent games in the collection are the worst ones. Ikari Warriors was SNK's most recognizable hit of the 1980s, and it led to a trilogy of overhead Rambo-style action games with unique rotating-joystick controls. The original Ikari Warriors, perhaps momentarily enticing in arcades of 1986, is revealed as mediocre in its repetitive enemies and cluttered, uneven difficulty curve. It has only one small surprise at its end, and even the appeal of hopping into a tank can't enliven it. The NES version is even worse, showing the crude, choppy handiwork of Micronics, an enigmatic developer and scourge of many an early arcade-to-NES port.

Ikari Warriors II: Victory Road is more intriguing at a glance. It launches the first game's heroes into a dimension of bizarre creatures and gung-ho voices, equipping them with armor and swords as well as firearms. It's nearly as monotonous and crude as its predecessor, however, with only the occasional giant monster to perk up each stage. The NES version adds some side attractions in shops and even a twist ending, but it's another Micronics hack-job. Ikari III: The Rescue returns to straightforward killer-commando territory and emphasizes hand-to-hand fights, but the simple stage design and cluttered screen does it no favors. The 1990 NES version is, surprisingly, an improvement. SNK did their own ports by this point, and Ikari III is more coherent and measured in this format—though still seldom above average.

Athena, the collection's other nostalgia-loaded headliner, faces the same unfortunate truth. The arcade original puts a bikini-clad version of the Greek goddess into battle against vaguely Hellenistic creatures, and it has some good ideas: Athena can outfit herself with different weapons and forms, while the stages hide numerous power-ups. Too bad it's clumsy and unsatisfying in execution, dragged down by imprecise controls and level design that rarely gets interesting. The NES version, also from Micronics, is a complete mess. Pity the children who picked it up just because it was the only Nintendo game with a clearly advertised female protagonist back in 1987.

Fortunately, the collection can do better. Athena got a second chance with Psycho Soldier, a side-scroller that made her descendant a schoolgirl superheroine and gave her a sidekick named Kensu. The game's multi-floor stages recall CAPCOM's earlier Son Son, but the control is smoother and accessorized with power-ups and colorful effects—plus an actual theme song in either Japanese or delightfully atrocious English. It meets with the same enemy repetition that bogs down many an arcade game from this era, but Psycho Soldier's still a charming memento of a time when Japan's game companies used “Psychic” and “Psycho” interchangeably.

Another good find lies in Prehistoric Isle, a side-view shooter that dispatches biplanes to a land of dinosaurs and other primitive beasts. Stages offer some creative enemies, including cavemen who leap aboard your plane and try to drag it down, and an optional weapon satellite changes its projectile type depending on its position. True, there are better shooters easily found out there, but not so many set on dinosaur islands.

Other arcade offerings land in the middle. P.O.W. is a standard military-themed brawler with a solid NES incarnation. Guerilla War advanced the Ikari Warriors formula and starred Che Guevara and Fidel Castro (and occluded this in the U.S. version), but the arcade game's sluggish pace makes the speedier NES port more enjoyable. The same goes for TNK III, a simple tank shooter broadened greatly when it became the more complex Iron Tank on the NES.

The rest of the games are notable more for their small places in history. Streetsmart is an interesting step in the evolution of fighting games from Karate Champ to Street Fighter II, as it sends its combatants on a cross-country trip to defeat foes one-on-one and gather women like trophies. Despite its multi-plane movement and distance-sensitive attacks, it pales before every fighter than followed it. Alpha Mission is a similar stepping stone. It takes its vertical-shooter ideas from Namco's Xevious and adds more power-ups, but it's rigid and tedious. Vanguard is the oldest of the bunch, interesting only for bringing multi-directional firing to an otherwise drab side-scrolling spaceship shooter.

The greatest flaw in these arcade titles and their NES ports may be their successors, many of which are found easily on the Switch. SNK didn't really hit their arcade stride until the Neo Geo appeared in 1990, and a lot of the games here are larval forms of later classics. Streetsmart is a rough prototype for Fatal Fury and the King of Fighters. The tanks and unsettlingly cartoonish enemy deaths of Guerilla War and Iron Tank foretell the Metal Slug series. And it's hard to stomach any Ikari Warriors outing when you might try its distant and wholly superior descendant Shock Troopers.

Only Crystalis is truly remarkable. One of SNK's attempts at a console title with no arcade equivalent, it's an action-RPG staged in a magically infused, post-apocalyptic wasteland unflinchingly patterned after Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (with a Castle in the Sky fortress). It's among the best games on the NES, injecting a Zelda-derided structure with smooth pacing, an ever-expanding lineup of spells, and a storyline neither too overwrought nor too lean on interesting sights and melodramatic turns.

Crystalis may be an odd sight among the arcade fare, but it's the saving grace of SNK's formative days. It remains an engrossing adventure with an arcade game's immediate appeal and an action-RPG's rewarding depths. It has only a few links to the company's broader catalog, including cameos from Athena and Kensu, and seeing it here is a sad reminder that SNK didn't return to this path very often.

Yet there's more to the SNK 40th Anniversary Collection than Crystalis, a few decent arcade games, and the ugly realization that Ikari Warriors was never very good. Developer Digital Eclipse presents each game with superb accuracy, going so far as to graft the rotary-joystick controls to the Switch's dual analogs. Every title gets display options, vertical-screen orientation, and perfect pixels right down to the way a ubiquitous “Winners Don't Use Drugs” screen makes it look like the director of the FBI is named “Williams” Sessions. The anthology often shows these arcade games more respect than they might deserve, as though the Criterion Collection assembled gorgeously remastered, painstakingly documented 4K Blu-Ray editions of the Iron Eagle movies.

Best of all is a feature that lets you watch a game played to completion, free of obnoxious YouTuber narration, and with the option to jump in and take control at any time. It's not available for every game (so you can't go straight to the NES version of P.O.W.'s famous final screen), but it brings new appeal to many of these arcade titles. It also recreates that rare and wonderful moment in everyone's arcade-going youth: when an older, better player with a pocketful of quarters almost made it through a game but had to leave suddenly and told you, the only bystander, that you could take over.

In fact, the watch-and-play system redefines this collection's entire focus. It transforms even the mediocre titles into specimens to be analyzed and enjoyed however you like. Go straight to the weird final boss of Ikari Warriors. Select any opponent you'd like in Streetsmart. See if Vanguard actually has an ending. Skip right to exploring that floating tower in Crystalis. Not that you should skip much of Crystalis.

There's more historical focus in the bonus features. A listing of SNK games profiles every release from 1978 to 1990, with a special section for the mysterious Tangram Q. Other extras include complete arcade guides with adorably crude illustrations, SNK newsletters, soundtracks, and a gallery of Crystalis concept art. Absent are the manuals for the NES games, but that will dismay only Crystalis fans who want the artwork from the Japanese manual. And they'll want this collection just to find out why Mesia's hair changed color for the box illustration.

Similar treatment lies ahead for other SNK games, as NISA plans a free downloadable bundle of 11 more arcade titles on December 11: Beast Busters, Bermuda Triangle, Chopper I, Fantasy, Munch Mobile, Ozma Wars, Paddle Mania, SAR: Search and Rescue, Sasuke vs. Commander, Time Soldiers, and World Wars. Time Soldiers and SAR are the standouts, and one wonders how Beast Busters, a light-gun shooter, will fare on the Switch. Yet all of the games should benefit from the collection's watch-and-play option.

The SNK 40th Anniversary Collection can be harsh, showing some older games in all their clumsy design and mundane aesthetics. Don't get this anthology in the hopes of rediscovering Ikari Warriors or Athena. Get it for Crystalis. Get it for the chance to play almost two dozen arcade games with unprecedented freedom. Get it for the most fascinatingly thorough retro-games revival on the market. You'll find no disappointment there.

Overall : B
Graphics : B+
Sound/Music : B-
Gameplay : C+
Presentation : A

+ Great options and extras, Crystalis is still fantastic...
...but most of the other games aren't

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