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

Retro Gamer - - CONTENTS - Words by Nick Thorpe

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.

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