Restoring The Past
SNK was lighting up arcades long before its Neo-geo hardware came along. Brandon Sheffield and Frank Cifaldi explain why those early games are crucial, and how they’re preserving them with the SNK 40th Anniversary Collection
How Digital Eclipse is bringing SNK’S first wave of games to Switch
If the recent closure of high-profile ROM sites like Emuparadise has taught us one thing it’s the importance of having access to classic games that you can legally own and play as the developers originally intended. Of course, preserving games in the form of compilations is certainly nothing new, but developers have really been upping the stakes in recent years. Compilations like Rare Replay, Street Fighter 30th Anniversary Collection and Mega Man Legacy Collection are as much about the heritage surrounding the franchises as the games themselves. No company knows this better than Digital Eclipse, and it’s been working its own special brand of restoration magic for years and most recently wowed us with the aforementioned (and 91% scoring) Street Fighter 30th Anniversary Collection.
Digital Eclipse has now turned its attention to the early arcade and NES games of SNK in the form of a brand-new compilation, the SNK 40th Anniversary Collection. Exclusive to Switch and designed to show off those halcyon days when the company was first finding its feet, it features an eclectic range of games and according to Frank Cifaldi, has been in the works for some time. “SNK and Digital Eclipse have been wanting to work on something together for years, but we could never connect the dots before now,” he says. “I think this specific project needed a historian’s touch, which is what we excel at.” He has a point. Nowadays, there’s so much focus on SNK’S Neo-geo that it’s easy to forget it’s the same developer that delivered arcade thrills in the form of Ikari Warriors, Prehistoric Isle In
1930, Athena and countless other games, which meant Frank, who works as head of restoration, knew he and his team has a unique opportunity. “Every SNK fan knows those later games, but they don’t really know much about what came before them,” he says. “For us it was a dream project: it’s easy to sell people on Mega Man or Street Fighter, but we wanted to prove that there’s an audience for lesserknown titles if they’re treated with care and respect. I think people who are into older videogames are willing to go exploring for hidden gems, and it’s so rare that a game compilation encourages that.”
Brandon Sheffield, who is involved with the project in a writing capacity, is also keen to point out that it highlights an important slice of SNK history, which is often overlooked due to the popularity of its later home consoles. “This collection shows where SNK came from, before the hardware was standardised, when the company was still finding itself,” he explains. “There are great games in here that have very rarely been played, but they’re very much a part of the evolution of the company, and very fun to play in their own right. It was also really important to us to give developers like Yokoyama-san and Yoshino-san their due. Whenever people talk about SNK, they talk about the Neo-geo.
But this collection highlights the innovations of the staff of that time, when each new arcade board was made from scratch, to meet the specs of a specific game or series. Those wild and free days are what we are celebrating here. On top of that, there are games in this collection that have never been properly emulated before, and thus weren’t even playable in their correct form until now. Even if they were on prior collections.”
At the time of going to press, 18 games have been announced, which range from early releases like Fantasy and Vanguard, to the popular Ikari Warriors series.
Interestingly, in addition to arcade originals, the collection also features a number of NES conversions, including the acclaimed RPG, Crystalis. “Something unique about SNK is that every home version offered something unique that was not in the arcade original,” continues Frank. “Plus, a lot of these ports were made in-house at SNK, sometimes by the same people who made the arcade games. This collection is a snapshot of SNK as it was in the Eighties, I like to call it an ‘interactive art book.’ That snapshot would not be complete without the home versions.”
If choosing to focus on the pre-neo-geo games was a relatively straightforward decision for Digital Eclipse to make, collating the assets that were needed was a lot more difficult as Brandon reveals. “SNK doesn’t have a lot of the original boards, and it’s tough for them to get interviews and the like, because reaching out to past employees can be a bit of a faux pas for Japanese companies. So we took a lot of it on ourselves. Frank sourced dozens of arcade flyers, cleaned up logos and fuzzy screenshots, and bought arcade boards to test them against existing ROMS to ensure they were correct. As for myself, I found and interviewed several former SNK employees, which is easier for me to do as a third party, versus SNK doing it themselves.” Equally useful from Digital Eclipse’s viewpoint was being able draw on the experience of those employees. “It was such a relief,” says Frank, “as some Japanese companies won’t acknowledge past employees. Because of that we were able to get a lot of insight that we could never possibly get otherwise.”
We’ve long told stories in Retro Gamer about how source code can go missing or get destroyed, so it’s unsurprising to hear that Digital Eclipse faced similar issues while collating its selection of games. What is surprising are the sheer lengths that the team went to in order to secure the titles it wanted. “I took a sevenhour bus and train ride through rural Japan to a shop in the middle of nowhere that rents out arcade boards,” reveals Brandon. “This was the only known location of Space Micom, one of SNK’S very first games. I managed to play it, confirm a massive amount of info (it has a CPU, prior to this we didn’t think it did), and gather intel about a number of other undumped SNK titles. That relationship is ongoing, so no promises, but anything that comes out of that will be quite exciting for the preservation of SNK’S history.”
Of course, tracking down games is only part of the problem, you also need to faithfully emulate them and ensure they work in a way that’s acceptable for modern gamers. It was a challenge for Frank and his team, partly because of SNK’S love for a certain type of joystick that was popular at the time. “The biggest challenge has been dealing with the Loop Lever games,” explains Frank. “The Loop Lever was this weird joystick used in several games, including Ikari Warriors. It was basically a joystick that you could twist: you’d tilt to move, like a regular joystick, but you’d twist it around 360-degrees to aim your gun. I don’t know about yours, but my Switch didn’t come with a Loop Lever, so we had to figure out how to make these games play right and feel good using stock hardware. What we ended up doing – and this was not easy – was forcing the games to play like ‘twin-stick’ shooters. When SNK re-released these games in the past, the best they could do was map buttons to ‘rotate clockwise’ and ‘rotate
counterclockwise,’ which to me does not replicate the arcade experience at all. In the arcade, if you were good, you could turn quickly in any direction you wanted to just with muscle memory, which is impossible if you’re waiting for your character to rotate where you need him to on screen. Technically ‘twin-sticking’ these games is making them a little easier than they ever were, so it was a tough decision to make, but we believe this is the best way to preserve the intended feeling of playing the actual games in the arcade.”
While Digital Eclipse wants the games to look, play and feel as accurate as possible. It’s also keen on ensuring its collection becomes the definitive word on SNK’S early history, a difficulty Brandon is only too aware of as he’s collated the information, developer diaries and trivia about the available games. “I did as much work and research as possible to ensure the information was accurate,” he admits. “It’s tough, because once this game comes out, whatever I have written becomes the truth, if you know what I mean. This is the official SNK standpoint once it comes out. But we’re relying on old documents, old memories, old interviews. None of that is perfect, and when I had two pieces of conflicting info from two different developer testimonials, I had to do extra research to figure out who to trust. Reading it, it’s all pretty simple stuff in there, but you won’t imagine the work that went into it. I’ve got a pretty short description of Micom Block and Space Micom in the collection, but if I hadn’t taken that journey out to rural Japan, it would’ve been wrong, because the available information about the game was either incorrect or insufficient.”
If there’s one thing that’s obvious about Digital Eclipse, preservation of the past is incredibly important and it’s pleasing that companies like Digital Eclipse, M2 and many others go to great lengths to ensure that a new generation can enjoy the classics of yesterday. “’Preserve’ is a loaded word, but I think the important part of what we’re doing here is contextualising the games,” concludes Frank. “If it’s just a compilation that loads some game ROMS, to me, that’s not a very compelling product. But because we offer easy access through Watch so you can experience the whole game without learning it, and because our Museum mode teaches you about the games and their place in history, people can do more than just play these games, they can understand them. And to me, doing that right now is vital. We’re in a unique time where we’re celebrating the golden age of this medium while its authors are still alive, and that’s not going to be the case for much longer. The more we can do to capture these stories, the better off the future will be in understanding gaming’s roots.” It’s something Brandon agrees on. “With this collection, we have brought SNK games back to life in a way that they can be played correctly for the first time in years. And as the developers get older, the memories about this time fade. Frank and I realised this might be our only shot at preserving SNK’S history… and there’s so much we couldn’t fit in to the compilation. If we don’t preserve these memories, nobody will.
And SNK’S history is extremely interesting to me. They defined that Nineties arcade game feel. They defined the 2D fighting game world, outside of Street Fighter. They brought sound synthesis and vocal theme songs to arcade. They pioneered RPG systems in coin-ops. I mean… I wish we could preserve it all, I really do.”
i took a seven-hour bus and train ride through rural Japan to a shop in the middle of nowhere that rents out arcade boards Brandon Sheffield
» Frank Cifaldi is Digital Eclipse’s head of restoration and is immensely proud of its work.
» [Arcade] Athena is one of SNK’S earliest success stories in the west and was converted to several systems, including the NES.
» [Switch] Blasting dinosaurs in the excellent Prehistoric Isle In 1930. What’s not to love?
» Brandon Sheffield went to great lengths to ensure SNK’S history is as accurate as possible
» [Arcade] You won’t find the Mega Drive version of Ikari III here due to the licence being owned by Takara.
» [Arcade] Psycho Soldier is the second game to feature Athena and includes a track sung by Japanese pop idol, Kaori Shimizu.
» [NES] Crystalis is one of SNK’S few original NES games, so its inclusion here is a welcome one.
» [NES] POW: Prisoner Of War is the first SNK game that Frank played.