40 Years Of SNK
from arcade machines to consoles and from fighting games to theme parks, SNK has done it all. We speak to staff from the company’s past and present to find out about the highs and lows of the last four decades
Veteran developers take us behind the legendary company’s history
With 2018 being SNK’S 40th anniversary year, the company is celebrating as its fans would hope. SNK is healthy and creating brand-new games, as well as celebrating its heritage with a mini Neo-geo and a compilation of early arcade games.
But its road to this milestone hasn’t always been a smooth one. The company has been one of the arcade industry’s top players and was the first to prove that a market exists for luxury consoles, but it has also experienced bankruptcy and even seemed to have left the videogames market behind in the not-too-distant past. But whatever its fortunes, SNK has always been a fascinating company to follow.
SNK was founded as Shin Nihon Kikaku (New Japanese Product) in 1973 by Eikichi Kawasaki, but its history as a videogame developer only dates back to its incorporation as a stock company in July 1978. The company started with capital of 3 million yen (less than $25,000 at the time), with the company setting up its office in Higashiosaka. SNK’S earliest games were Ozma Wars and Safari Rally, but its first major hit was a shoot-’em-up called Vanguard which offered four-way shooting and levels which scrolled in different directions. The game didn’t just hit big in Japan, as Centuri licensed it for the North American market and the game’s success there saw it licensed for home conversion by Atari. This success was followed by more games including Lasso, Marvin’s Maze and Vanguard II.
The early years of SNK were characterised by the explosive growth of the company. By the end of 1983, the company had ten times its starting capital. In
1984 it moved its headquarters to Osaka, where the company grew at a rapid pace. In September 1985 it had increased its capital by 18 million yen, another 60 per cent growth in less than two years, and the following year was a landmark. 1986 saw the company officially change its name to SNK, which it had been using on marketing materials for some years prior, and it introduced some notable hit games that proved popular with gamers such as Ikari Warriors and Athena. Both games received follow-ups to capitalise on their success in the form of Victory Road and Psycho Soldier. The company also moved into the development of games for home systems, most notably the NES.
One of the developers that joined during this period was Kasatoshi Yoshino. “I would say there were roughly 100 people working at SNK when I joined the company,” remembers Yoshino, who joined in April 1985. Hiroko ‘Minako’ Yokoyama, who joined SNK in April 1987 as an illustrator and graphic artist, provides a little more detail. “I mostly remember the development division, which was divided at that time into four planning, one sound and one software departments for approximately 30 employees. There were four to five people in each planning department.” Although videogames tends to be considered a male-dominated industry, Yokoyama wasn’t the only woman at SNK. “There was at least one female staff working in every development department, but also at the sound and the marketing divisions.”
Yoshino’s job as a developer was a varied and enjoyable one. “I took care of the follow-up on the planning and debug on all the titles released between 1985 and 1987,” he explains. “I was really excited to be involved in game development. I had a lot of fun and good times when I went for lunch with my coworkers, and talked with them about videogaming.” However, this excitement went hand in hand with hard work. “I also remember being busy, sleeping for a few hours in a hotel close to the company, and working from early in the morning until the middle of the night searching for eventual bugs and issues on titles just before release.”
Yoshino’s recollection of SNK as a place where enthusiastic gamers worked hard explains how he ended up doubling up as a sound composer on ASO and other games. Despite the size of the company at the time, there was a surprising degree of flexibility around each person’s job. “As the sound department had no staff when I joined SNK along with a programmer, we started working at creating sound. I was later promoted as ‘super adviser’, which allowed me to give my opinion and advice on sound creation.” Continuing from that, Yoshino later became SNK’S PR manager. “I was mainly doing marketing research. I was in charge of events in collaboration with game magazines, planned game strategy books, community fan books such as ‘Video Game Land’, telephone services, and many more projects.”
Yoshino wasn’t the only one who found that
SNK was a place to experience new challenges. “I remember it was very hard at the beginning as I had to learn and remember tons of things,” explains Yokoyama. “I was from design school, which means drawing was the only thing I was able to do when I joined SNK. I had no experience at all with computers, and had a lot of busy days at SNK.
“It depended on the game, but I was usually involved from half a year to one year per project I also remember working two full years on a project. Dot pixels before the Neo-geo were mainly made with Sony’s SMC-777 development tools. SMC-777S were used to create Ikari Warriors on MSX-2. We had a lot of difficulties and headaches when porting arcade games to home consoles, due to the technical limitations of those systems. Game consoles in the Eighties had very limited display specs.”
Yokoyama’s explanation of the design philosophy behind SNK’S games at this time goes a long way to explaining their success. “Mr Oba [Koji Obata] made
“game consoles in the eighties had very limited display specs” Hiroko Yokoyama
sure when he was working on titles such as TNK III, Ikari Warriors and Guerilla War that the enemy positions as well as the game difficulty will slightly change at every try for endless replayability. He also made sure to add an ‘exit way’ to every in-game situation that looked unescapable. These difficult games were not just giving frustration to players, but hid also the pleasure to see enemies changing their position and behaviours depending on [how] these games were played.”
As it reached its tenth birthday, SNK was in a strong position. The company had just moved into a new headquarters, and 1988 saw the company release more arcade games than any previous year. The momentum continued right through to the end of the Eighties, with plenty of arcade releases including the company’s first ever one-on-one fighting game, Street Smart.
The company was also becoming a more ambitious developer of games for home systems, starting work on the Game Boy with Dexterity and finding receptive audiences on the NES with original projects such as Baseball Stars and Crystalis.
However, it was in 1990 that SNK’S arcade division took its next major step into the future. The company introduced a popular lightgun game called Beast Busters that year, utilising a unique cabinet with three mounted guns. It’s notable not just because of its heritage, but because it marks the end of the pre-neo-geo era. The Neo-geo range kicked off with the MVS arcade board. Games were offered on relatively affordable replaceable cartridges, and boards featured up to six cartridge slots, allowing for owners to add more games without taking up additional floor space. Other companies had previously marketed similar systems, but these had generally been based on home console hardware, which lagged far behind what could be found in arcades. SNK approached the situation from the opposite direction, as the MVS was a thoroughly modern arcade board – and the home console equivalent was, too.
Originally intended for rental use only, the Neo-geo Advanced Entertainment System was launched in Japan in 1990. This proved so popular that SNK quickly realised that there was a market for a retail release, which followed in 1991 along with launches in other regions. The console was a powerhouse that provided uncompromised arcade games, with massive sprites and voice clips that owners of other consoles could only dream of. That power came at a price, though – the console itself was £400 and the game cartridges cost £150 or more. For comparison, in 1991 £400 could buy you an Amiga with 1MB RAM, ten games and accessories. £150 would have bought you a Mega Drive and a game to play on it. As a result the AES achieved a status as a luxury console, owned only by the most dedicated players. It still worked for SNK, as AES games had a negligible development cost due to using the same code as their arcade counterparts.
While the Neo-geo AES had a naturally limited market, the Neo-geo MVS was a big success.
Apart from being very convenient and affordable for arcade operators, the system offered a good mix of games. Early titles included such diverse games as NAM-1975, Puzzled, King Of The Monsters, Magician Lord and Super Baseball 2020. One early hit that proved pivotal was Fatal Fury, a fighting game from former Street Fighter creator Takashi Nishiyama. Following up on the success of the game and popularity of the genre, SNK started a number of series including Art Of Fighting, Samurai Shodown and eventually the crossover King Of Fighters series, and gained a formidable reputation as a developer of fighting games. These were all successful games that allowed the company to grow rapidly, and as time went on SNK specialised in the genre. “Since I studied animation in school, I thought I’d work in either the games industry or the animation industry,” says Yasuyuki Oda, who joined during this period of expansion and worked on many fighting games for SNK until 2000, before returning to the company in 2014. “I’m from Osaka, and in Osaka you’ve got Konami, Capcom and SNK. I applied to all three in
1993 and was accepted at SNK.”
You might be surprised to learn that even working with the Neo-geo, developers still felt limited by the hardware. “The specs for the system weren’t actually that high, so we had to develop tricks to get the games to display as we wanted them to display,” says Oda. “For example, to create a weak punch, you’d have three frames of animation, and display them one, two, three, two, one to show the arm coming back. For a heavy punch, you could reuse the first two frames and then finish with a new fourth frame for the hit, then go backwards from three to one as the arm comes back.”
Despite the company’s growing success, the culture at SNK remained the same, with creators who were passionate about what they made. “There was competition between the teams, but it was a positive kind of rivalry. My favourite game from the other teams was Samurai Shodown II.” Of course, that meant
“at the time it Wasn’t uncommon for people to pull all-nighters. there Was always somebody at the office” Yasuyuki Oda
that the culture of hard work also persisted. “The laws are very different now, but at the time it wasn’t uncommon for people to pull all-nighters. There was always somebody at the office,” Oda recalls. “There was a time that I was so busy that I was only allowed two hours on Sunday to go home and get clothes for the week. One week, the train fare from Shin-osaka to the office in Esaka was 160 yen. When I came back, the fare was 180 yen and that was when I was finally able to read that there was a new prime minister.”
Buoyed by its success and aiming to bring its games to a wider audience, SNK announced the Neo-geo CD console at the Tokyo Toy Show in June 1994 and released it in September. The theory behind this move made sense. Although CDS were slow to load (especially with the console’s single-speed CD-ROM drive), they were cheaper to produce than the smallest Neo-geo cartridges and offered greater storage capacity then the biggest. A bit more work was required to convert the games but they could be enhanced with CD audio and sold much more cheaply, with prices ranging from 4,800 yen to 7,800 yen. Greater third-party involvement and dedicated home games were also slated for the system, including reports of an updated version of Crystalis. With its sights firmly set on mass market success, there was no rental trial for this machine – instead, SNK embarked on a promotional tour of six cities, starting in Hokkaido.
The Neo-geo CD hardware itself was introduced at a high price because the system required significantly more RAM than its cartridge counterpart, but that didn’t stop the system selling out its initial stock of 30,000 on day one. The Neo-geo CD had over 30 games by the end of 1994, and in 1995 it started to receive games like Puzzle Bobble that didn’t appear in cartridge form, and received exclusive developments such as Crossed Swords 2. However, these were thin on the ground and the flagship game Samurai Shodown RPG was heavily delayed. What’s more, the Saturn and Playstation both launched within a few months of the Neo-geo CD’S introduction, and both consoles were cheaper and capable of displaying
“i Wasn’t a big fan of the hyper neogeo 64. i Would’ve preferred to Work on the playstation” Yasuyuki Oda
3D graphics. SNK introduced the Neo-geo CDZ in December 1995, which delivered faster loading times, but it couldn’t halt the format’s decline – there were fewer games released in the Neo-geo CD’S last four years than its first four months.
Even as early as the mid-nineties, the original Neo-geo hardware seemed to be nearing the end of its natural life as a flagship product. Still, SNK made advances in other areas, as the company launched a chain of Neo-geo Land arcade locations. The first Neo-geo World was launched in Tsukuba in December 1995, offering a variety of attractions including simulator rides, bowling, karaoke rooms, restaurants and plenty of arcade games. In 1996, the Neo Print amusement photo booth was introduced, which allowed users to decorate their photos and print them to stickers. The company also began to develop games for other platforms again, beginning with Neo-geo conversions for the Playstation and Saturn in 1996.
SNK had plenty of reasons to think that the future would be bright. In order to prepare for that future, a number of changes were made in 1997. Neo-geo AES and CD consoles were discontinued, though game production would continue as the MVS continued to receive support. In the home, SNK would continue to produce arcade conversions, but also original projects for the Playstation. For arcades, SNK launched an MVS successor: the 3D-capable Hyper Neo-geo 64, with the driving game Road’s Edge as its debut release.
Unfortunately for SNK, that bright future was a false dawn. Part of the problem was that the Hyper Neo-geo 64 failed to succeed the Neo-geo MVS.
One key reason for this was that it sacrificed one of the key selling points of its older hardware. The arcade market was shifting away from games with joysticks and buttons, towards dedicated driving and lightgun cabinets. The Hyper Neo-geo 64 had to support them, and it did. But the beauty of the MVS was that it was a universal platform, and Hyper Neo-geo 64 boards weren’t – hardware designed to play driving games wouldn’t play the fighting games, for example.
However, there were bigger problems than that. “I wasn’t a big fan of the Hyper Neo-geo 64. I would’ve preferred to work on the Playstation, it had better specs,” says Oda. However, the board wasn’t just underpowered – its 3D interpretations of Samurai Shodown and Fatal Fury failed to achieve the same acclaim as the 2D originals. “This is just my opinion, this isn’t an official line from the company, but the people who worked on the Hyper Neo-geo 64 weren’t the same people who worked on the original Neo-geo. I think that was the main problem.” Hyper Neo-geo 64 game production never overtook MVS production, and the board saw its final release less than two years after its debut. This left SNK in an awkward situation, reliant on the aged MVS hardware, and without the resources to attempt a second successor.
One area in which SNK could still leverage its expertise in creating 2D games was the handheld market, and it developed the Neo-geo Pocket for introduction in 1998. However, the console, a black
and white handheld, launched just as Nintendo finally moved the Game Boy line into colour. Early sales were brisk, but the console would never leave Japan – the rest of the world would receive its successor. “In 1998 I met with John Barone who showed me a prototype of the Neo-geo Pocket Color,” says Ben Herman, who joined SNK America in 1999 as vice president of sales and marketing. “The opportunity to set up sales and to sell the product with its great titles was too great of an opportunity to pass up. And a salary too!”
The Neo-geo Pocket Color was a serious attempt to gain a foothold in the market, with wide distribution and visible marketing. When the console arrived in 1999, it was cheaper than the Game Boy Color, offered better visuals and similar battery life. Versions of its arcade classics including King Of Fighters, Metal Slug and Samurai Shodown were all made available within the first year. What’s more, SNK established partnerships to bring Pac-man, Sonic The Hedgehog and Puzzle Bobble to the platform, although it did have to develop some of these internally. By E3 2000, the Neo-geo Pocket Color had claimed a two per cent share of the North American handheld market – a small percentage, but it represented an audience that was able to make the operation profitable. “With third-party support, we could have hit three per cent in three years. It’s all about the games,” says Ben.
That opportunity would never come, as SNK was in trouble. In January 2000, pachinko manufacturer Aruze purchased SNK and absorbed it as a subsidiary. By April, the company employed 185 fewer people than it had a year prior, and in June the company withdrew the Neo-geo Pocket Color from non-japanese markets. Boxes and manuals were pulped, and cartridges were intended for reuse in the Japanese market. This wouldn’t come to pass and most stock wound up back in the wild via liquidation.
SNK enjoyed a high profile in 2000 thanks to its crossover projects with Capcom, which saw both companies produce great games. But as its characters fought for supremacy in fighting games and trading card games, SNK was fighting to survive. “Aruze bankrupted SNK,” opines Ben, and it’s certainly true that the company went into rapid decline under its ownership. Arcade game production diminished to the point that The King Of Fighters 2001 was contracted out to external developers, and in Japan the Neo-geo Pocket Color turned into an outlet for Aruze-branded pachislot games. In October 2001, SNK went bankrupt. However, the SNK story was far from over.
“Playmore was a brilliant move. SNK overcame the bankruptcy situation in court,” says Ben. SNK founder Eikichi Kawasaki had seen the bankruptcy coming, and established a holding company in August 2001. The first step to overcoming the collapse of the original company was purchasing SNK’S properties, allowing the company to resume production of Neo-geo arcade games. These still had to be developed externally – Playmore worked
with Eolith on The King Of Fighters 2002 and had Mega Enterprise develop Metal Slug 4. But in 2003, Playmore was able to sue Aruze. The former SNK owner continued to use the SNK properties in spite of the rights having been sold. Playmore won the case and was awarded 5.64 billion yen in damages.
With its security assured by this judgement, Playmore pressed ahead with a full-on revival by regaining the rights to the SNK name and rebranding as SNK Playmore. “I received a phone call and was asked to come to SNK HQ in Osaka. I did not know why and was offered the position as President to reopen USA HQ. It was an honour.,” recalls Ben. “I had more authority to make SNK strong again in the USA.” The American operation at this time was based in Wall, New Jersey and had a tiny staff of just five people. How does a company run with so few people? “I outsourced everything from warehousing to sales reps, which was very efficient,” replies Ben.
Unfortunately good things can’t last forever, and Neo-geo game production was discontinued in 2004 with the release of Samurai Shodown V Special. “What kept it alive was the fans,” says Oda. “But there were a lot of Chinese copies of the cartridges, that ended up hurting the system.” If you want to know how SNK Playmore felt about that, the plot for 2005’s Neogeo Battle Coliseum concerns an evil corporation called WAREZ with the ability to clone powerful fighters. New arcade game development moved to the Dreamcast-based Atomiswave platform, and the company also entered the lucrative pachislot market with a Metal Slug machine in 2004.
In the home market, the company continued to convert its arcade games to consoles, although it occasionally ran into problems – in particular with Sony, which wouldn’t approve certain games for standalone release in the North American market. “We did combo packs for PS2 to overcome that,” remembers Ben, although some games couldn’t be combined – most notably SNK vs Capcom: SVC Chaos. Ben also remembers problems with the competition. “Xbox was a headache as mid-stream Microsoft started
360 while we were developing for Xbox,” he says.
The company also experimented with 3D versions of Metal Slug and The King Of Fighters on the PS2, and published the mobile dating sim series Days Of
Memories featuring its popular characters. As the generation continued, the company found success in publishing retro-focused compilations on the Playstation 2, PSP and Wii.
The next generation proved to be difficult. Though digital distribution enabled SNK Playmore to distribute its back catalogue, the high costs of developing packaged games meant that few were released, and those were usually arcade conversions. Even this was a struggle, as Samurai Shodown Sen was poorly received on Xbox 360 and The King Of Fighters XII was beautiful but limited in content. Original titles were instead created for the Nintendo DS, including SNK Vs Capcom: Card Fighters Clash DS and Metal Slug 7. The King Of Fighters XIII released in 2010 and would become the company’s final original game to launch in arcades first (though it remains active in the market today). It was ported to PS3 and Xbox 360 in 2011.
What followed was a period where SNK focused on pachislot machines and mobile games. That changed in 2015, though. “For quite a while the company had invested itself into pachislot,” explains Oda. “The laws changed and it became much more difficult to thrive in this market space, so the leadership decided they wanted to return to console game manufacturing, which is what allowed me and a lot of other former staff to come back.” The majority shareholding in SNK Playmore was also acquired by Ledo Millennium for $63.5 million in August of that year.
The first major project under SNK’S new focus on games was The King Of Fighters XIV, released in 2016. The game shows SNK’S current approach to game development – it’s for home platforms first, and the first in the main King Of Fighters series to go 3D. Both changes have required some adjustment for Oda. “One of the biggest differences is that the volume per game for consoles is much greater. You’ve got a bunch of different modes that you have to worry about, plus the options menu and things like that,” he explains. However, there are some advantages. “Because you don’t have to worry about getting players to put in another 100 yen, you can actually lower the difficulty level a bit.” Given his animation background, the change of graphical technology has also been a challenge for Oda. “The cool thing about 2D is that
“a lot of kids played these games at release, and may still have memories about them somewhere in their heart” Hiroko Yokoyama
depending on how good your artist is, you only need to draw the cool stuff. The way 3D works is that everything has to be rendered. The hard thing with 3D is how you hide the parts that don’t necessarily look as cool.” The game has been positively received and was followed by SNK Heroines: Tag Team Frenzy.
Today, SNK is celebrating its heritage with a number of projects. Its early years are being celebrated in SNK 40th Anniversary Collection for Nintendo Switch, and a dedicated mini console has been created for fans of the Neo-geo era. But what is it about the company and its games that keeps players’ interest? “Games made before the Neo-geo were created at a time where there were plenty of technical restrictions, which led game creators to think a lot about how to make enjoyable games,” says Yokoyama. “A lot of kids played these games at release, and may still have memories about them somewhere in their heart.”
For Yoshino, it’s also nostalgia. “I’d say that players probably now over their forties will enjoy games such as ASO, Athena and Ikari Warriors the same way they did when they first played these games three decades ago,” he says. Ben agrees, citing “Great retro products, great IPS and great gameplay.”
But for Oda, who has the chance to shape SNK’S future, we’re wondering which parts of its past might be part of his plans. If he could bring some old series back, which ones would he choose? “One is Ikari Warriors, and the other is Athena,” he answers. “But this is just what I’d like to do! These were games that came out when I was in middle school and high school, and I played them a lot.” Best not start the rumour mill turning, then: these are not concrete plans. However, the company has announced the return of Samurai Shodown for 2019, so it’s clear that SNK’S past is still a big part of its future.
SNK is many things to many people. Some will associate it with the rotary joysticks of the Ikari Warriors era, while others can’t think of the company without picturing its sprite art or expensive cartridges. None of these are things that SNK does today, yet the company retains a distinct identity – when you look at Terry Bogard, you know he’s the Fatal Fury protagonist. When you see that the Neo-geo Mini replicates an arcade cabinet rather than a console, it’s easy to see the spirit of a company that didn’t have to produce £150 cartridge games, but did so because it could. And that’s why we hope to see SNK celebrate many more birthdays – ultimately, there’s not another company like it.
» [Arcade] Ozma Wars is a fantastic early take on the shoot-’em-up genre and it still presents a challenge today.
» [Above] Fantasy was an impressive early release from SNK that featured all sorts of varied levels and a strong narration.» [Right] Alpha Mission is known as ASO: Armored Scrum Object in Japan.
» [Below] SNK’S flyers did a great job at making arcade owners excited about stocking its latest games.
» [Left] An early arcade flyer, showing of SNK’S interesting isometric take on Pac-man, Marvin’s Maze.
» Yasuyuki Oda joined SNK as an artist and has served as a planner and now a producer
» [Neo-geo] Garou: Mark Of The Wolves is considered by many to be one of the finest looking 2D fighting games of all time. It’s hard to disagree.
» [Above] Ikari Warriors was on of SNK’S first big surprise hits in the west.» [Right] It might look superficially similar, but The Last Blade is very different to the Samurai Shodown series.
» [Neo-geo] Showing off some impressive fiery effects in the enjoyable fantasy platformer Magician Lord.
» [Neo Geo Pocket] SNK’S first portable console didn’t last long before it was given a colour upgrade.
» [Arcade] Samurai Shodown VI was one of several games that SNK released on Atomiswave hardware.
» [Neo-geo Pocket Color] It doesn’t have a vast library of games, but the NGPC does have some cracking titles.
» Ben Herman spent two spells at SNK in the USA between 1999 and 2008
» [DS] Metal Slug continues to be a strong franchise for SNK that’s appeared throughout its history.
» [PS4] King Of Fighters XIV is an impressive return to form and features nearly 60 playable characters.
» [Switch] The latest brawler from SNK features an all-female cast.