Review: Neo Geo Mini: International Version (Hardware)
What's in the Box?
What you get in your Neo Geo package depends on how much you're willing to invest. At the basic level just buying the console, you can expect to find the arcade-themed system itself, as well as an extraordinarily large USB-C cable to power it. Aside from that, you have some stickers to decorate the system and... That's it? For those just buying the unit itself, this is the full package. If you're wanting to experience each of the system's games to the fullest with two people on the big screen, you'll need to buy a HDMI cable and controllers separately. To add to your troubles, this HDMI cable isn't your average HDMI or HDMI Mini, SNK opting for a port I definitely do not recognise, really pushing you to buy the extras. The system itself comes in at around £100, with controllers £20 apiece and a HDMI cable around £10. I'm not entirely on board with how SNK have split apart this package, but if it can keep the cost of the main unit down for the single players out there, it could be argued to be a good thing.
From an aesthetic point of view, the Neo Geo Mini hits hard. Rocking the look of a traditional arcade cabinet, it features a 3.5 inch display above a joystick and buttons. While the design is rather striking in its deviation to your usual mini or classic consoles, it doesn't come without its drawbacks. By far my biggest issue lies in its confused state of portability, perhaps the biggest draw of these systems. Where you're able to throw your NES, SNES, or PS1 Classic into a bag to plug and play anywhere, the Neo Geo Mini's screen gets in the way. It needs some kind of cover for even basic peace of mind in a bag. You can of course buy a screen protector, but it doesn't feel enough. A more minor complaint comes from the button stylisation chosen for the International release—more specifically their single-tone grey colour. As somebody new to an ABCD button layout, it took longer than I'd have liked to become familiar with which button does what. Without the visual contrast seen in the Asia release, I had to glare at the hard to see which button was which. This of course is a problem that goes away in time, and one you can completely overlook if already familiar with this layout.
The joystick and overall control scheme did surprise me once I found my footing. I never imagined such a cramped layout of four buttons and a stick paired with a less than sizable screen could be at all comfortable, and yet I found it the ideal way to play. The stick in particular was the thing that brought it all together, the ball on top allowing me to grip it from a number of positions and effortlessly play each game.
The video above shows what I feel to be the best way to enjoy these games. Hitting the buttons as you would on an arcade machine with your fingers feels far more natural and responsive than just using two thumbs as you would with a controller. It's not to say the controllers you can get for the system are bad by any means, but I had a much better time not using them. A nice thing to mention for the penny pinchers among us is that if you're desperate for some two player action, you can get away with just picking up a single controller separately and having one person use the system controls. Whether the controller is registered as player one or two depends on which port it's plugged into, largely providing a simple and intuitive experience.
The system comes with 40 games built-in, continuing the trend of classic consoles with this number not being expandable. Though I find myself unfamiliar with the system's library outside of the Metal Slug series, I feel there's a great variety of games and genres on offer here. From shooting to platforming, to fighters and Tetris-likes, there's a good chance there'll be something you like in this surprising range of titles.
While I won't go through each title individually, there are two themes I noticed threaded through the majority of the system's library. The first is a fantastic sense of progression. This idea feels incredibly arcade-esque, giving you the power to leap from the start of the game into a slow and methodical way of playing, or blaze through level after level knowing what to pick up and which enemies will jump out. The sensation of going straight from zero to hero, and being punched right back down to zero for misstepping, is incredibly gripping, and has kept me hooked on games I never thought I'd be playing for any period of time.
The other theme is a little more obvious: multiplayer. If you have a player two to experience these classic titles, you'll be better off for it. Some games featuring coop, others 1v1 battles, and others feeling as though two disconnected sessions are being played in tandem, your options are largely open—assuming you're willing to pay the toll for one or two additional controllers.
All in all on the games front, I'm happy, but where it gets interesting is comparing this library to those available on the Switch. At the time of writing, an impressive 38/40 of these great titles have already seen a release, one of those coming out as I've been reviewing this unit. What does this mean for you as a consumer? Well if you already have a Switch and only want one or two games, it means you still have a way to play without needing to buy this. That being said, with each title costing £6.29, the lines begin to blur when you find yourself more and more engrossed. With all 40 titles coming to more than £200, I might still recommend this for the more rabid players among us.
Big Screen, Little Screen
The last major aspect of this system I feel needs discussing is the image quality both via its 3.5 inch screen, and its optional HDMI out extra. A surprising standout, the built-in screen definitely stood supreme. With the image feeling crisp and clear, each title felt responsive and fresh. The details were visible and a joy to look at; the same can't be said for the image on a larger display.
The filter used for their HDMI out is for the lack of a better word vile. Each previously-pleasant scene now feels muddy and washed out, and with little to no option to customise the experience, it's easy to regret the £10 wasted on your odd HDMI cable. I hate to sound so negative about a product I really did come to love, but something like this goes a long way in ruining an otherwise brilliant release, especially when you have the Switch Neo Geo games available with their abundance of options and filters.
A more minor criticism I have lies in the system's menu, and their use of what I believe to be Times New Roman as a font choice. Though a seemingly-minor decision, it goes a long way in devaluing what is otherwise a premium experience. It feels as though they were short on time, and felt it necessary to rush it out with a menu seeming at home in the 1000 games in 1 machines you can find at your local market.
Despite my criticisms, I genuinely do recommend this to a certain kind of person. If you love the arcade feel of games, have a second player to join you on this journey, are happy to play on a 3.5 inch screen or overlook a muddied larger display, and don't already own most of these games on the Switch: this is for you. Even if you find yourself missing a player two, I'd still be inclined to recommend this, assuming you can get past its shortcomings. It is by no means a perfect console, but on the whole I feel you do get a good experience for the price of entry.
+ Great 3.5 inch screen
+ Built-in controls feel comfortable and natural
+ Selection of games feels incredibly diverse
+ System feels well-built and sturdy
- Cheap-looking menu
- Forced filters on HDMI out
- Game list is non-expandable
- Controllers, HDMI, and screen protector sold separately
out of 10
The Neo Geo Mini has a lot going for it. From its display to its controls and library of fantastic games, it sadly finds itself held back by forced filters and shoddy menus. If you can get past this, you'll have in your hands a significant and satisfying piece of gaming history.