The Neo Geo AES was born out of SNK's decision to expand its business beyond arcade games and third-party software, and enter the lucrative 16-bit console market. It decided to differentiate the Neo Geo from its competitors by bringing arcade-quality graphics into living rooms. Marketing was heavily geared towards making it a gaming connoisseur's console, and it was even couched as a 24-bit system.
The "24-bit" marketing label was due to using both the Motorola 68000, a hybrid 16/32-bit CPU, along with the Zilog Z80, an 8-bit CPU. However, Sega's Mega Drive/Genesis console also used the 68000 (at a lower clock speed) and Z80, yet was marketed as a 16-bit console, in comparison.
Much of the Neo Geo's advanced graphical capabilities, however, came from the use of custom GPU graphics processors, both within the system as well as additional chips on individual game cartridges, much like an arcade machine. The Neo Geo featured up to seven specialized processors, including the two CPU processors and several graphics chips. And while the RAM was not very large, it could access larger ROM data directly from cartridges at high speeds. These features made the Neo Geo the most powerful home gaming system at the time of its release in 1990, rivalled only by the Sharp X68000 home computer (which also used custom GPU graphics processors). Another new feature of the Neo Geo was the use of removable memory cards to save data; it was the first console to have such a feature.
It is the longest supported home platform, having its first game game released in 1990 and the last game, Samurai Shodown V Special, released in 2004.
Multi Video System
The MVS (Multi Video System) was a fantastic innovation for the arcade industry. It allowed arcade operators to save on much-needed space by having a single cabinet have multiple games. The MVS came in two, four, and six slot systems; these would allow gamers to pick which game they wanted at the title screen. The control options were the same as the AES four-button system, the only difference being the controls were mounted to cabinet. A key difference between MVS and AES were the cartridges: a MVS cart will not work in an AES, and vice-versa. The goal behind this incompatibility was to deter arcade operators from buying the cheaper AES cartridges. The MVS carts from did not come with colorful artwork or plastic boxes like their home counterparts; they would often come in plain cardboard boxes with only a marquee slip or flyer.
Candy Cabs are Japanese sit down cabinets that SNK used for their MVS machines inside Japanese arcades. These machines are typically smaller and lighter than there American counterparts, some weighing as little as 175 lbs (80 kg). This style of cabinet is normally lined in long uniform rows allowing for each person to have their own screen and controls. Vs play is achieved with either vs cabinets in older machines, or newer networking cabinets.
In North America Neo Geo games were normally housed in red stand-up cabinets branded with the Neo Geo logo. Becuse by design the MVS had multiple games running on it at one time, the cabinets would rarely have game artwork featured on the side. The North American MVS cabinets supported headphones and a memory card, something that made the MVS unique.
The North American Neo Geo cabinets have a 4 button layout labeled with the first four letters of the alphabet. The buttons were always colored the same, A being red, B yellow, C green, and D blue. These were the official colors of the Neo Geo buttons, and would appear this way when presented in game. The control panel itself has a red background with white diagonal stripes coming from both corners, meeting in the middle with a Neo Geo logo. The North American cabinets would normally have HAPP brand buttons, and a bat-top joystick.
Advanced Entertainment System
AES (Advanced Entertainment System) is the term used for describing the home platform of the Neo Geo system, as opposed to the arcade or MVS (Multi Video system) version. The term has since become slang to describe AES cartridges themselves, However the proper name for a AES Neo Geo game is NGH. The way to tell an NGH cartridge from its arcade counterpart is the large colorful artwork featured on the home carts. Arcade cartridges had no branding or consumer packaging because they were hidden inside the machines.
Before the AES was made commercially available it was only sold to larger video rental stores who would in turn rent the system out. This was an unusual practice for a video game platform, and was speculated that this was SNK testing the waters for mass consumption.
Neo Geo Memory Card
The Neo Geo system was the first platform to use a removable memory card. The Neo Geo memory card was primarily used to continue from where you left off in an arcade game. The Memory card was also cross-compatible with the AES and would allow you to start a game at home and continue in the arcade, or vice versa.
AES Launch Library
On January 31 1990 in Osaka Japan the Neo Geo AES was made commercially available.The platform launched with nine titles.
Neo Geo CD
Released in 1994, the Neo Geo CD was an attempt to compete with CD-based hardware. CDs were also much cheaper to produce than the large NGH cartridges, allowing SNK to sell this platform at a cheaper price point. The Neo Geo CD contained mostly the same hardware, but with a CD drive instead of a cartridge slot.
The Neo Geo CD had a significant downside when compared to the AES: load times. Unlike more popular CD systems at the time thie Neo Geo CD only contained a single speed CD drive, this meant that load times on some games, could be between three to five minutes. While for some systems this would be a burden the fact that the platform was almost exclusively made for fast action arcade experienced this became a much more severe problem for SNK. Fighting games for instance would often load between each round, when compared to it's cartridge counterparts this made the games seemed like lesser products.
In 1995 the Neo Geo CD underwent a redesign, and was renamed the Neo Geo CDZ. It had much of the same hardware, but with a dual-speed CD drive and a larger memory cache. This reduced load times for CD-based games. There was only a very limited run of Neo Geo CDZ's in Japan; no North American or European versions where made.
High Price Point
The Neo Geo AES was a notoriously expensive console, costing $650 at launch. There was little effort to emulate or adapt MVS hardware builds for home entertainment use, so cartridges costed as much as existing arcade cabinets ($100-$300). The console failed to gain market share because of these prohibitive costs, although it gained a cult following amongst its targeted demographic of gaming aficionados. The console lost what market share it had earned among enthusiasts by refusing to innovate or improve the system when its competitors did, especially when it did not make the jump to the 32-bit 5th generation of consoles in the late 90s.
Efforts to make its games more accessible by porting some of the console's exclusives to specialized arcade cabinets enjoyed limited success, but the console could still not compete with its competitors' price cuts and more extensive game libraries. The increased access to the Neo Geo's library did however cement SNK's reputation as a developer of solid fighting games, fueling its success for the rest of the 90's with hits like the King of Fighters franchise.
The console itself ceased manufacture in 1997, but games for the console would continue to be made and released in arcades, mainly in Japan. The last game for the console was made in 2004, giving it the second-longest lifespan for an arcade-to-home console.
Neo Geo Control Options
The Neo Geo AES was a unique system because although an officially-endorsed joypad was available, it was not the standard controller. An arcade stick featuring the same layout as the Neo Geo's MVS counterpart was the pack-in controller used for the system. The controllers used 30 mm arcade buttons and a 35mm ball top joystick.The physical base of the the stick was quite large measuring 280mm x 190mm x 95mm (Width Height Depth), nearly the same size as the system. The joystick has a cult following, with the controller having reproductions made for the PS2, PS3 and Wii.
Although the AES stick has a cult following, it is not without its problems. The buttons on the stick used arcade micro switches but, unlike real arcade buttons, they did not sit inside sleeves. This made it possible for the buttons to rub up against the shell of the stick, this would result in loud squeaking noises or even get stuck underneath the shell. A common aesthetic problem with the AES stick was the joystick ball top getting hairline cracks in the finish, which in extreme cases would cause the ball top to split open. Finally, the button layout on the original Neo Geo was not very ergonomic, a problem which was addressed with the stick's redesign
A Mahjong controller was released in 1990 for the Neo Geo AES and is now a rare collectible. It was never released outside of japan because of the lack of interest in Mahjong games outside of the country. It was designed to assist and facilitate the Mahjong games on the AES.
Two joysticks where released by Hori, the first in 1991 and the updated version in 1992. These sticks where considered an upgrade to the officially released SNK sticks because they used superior components and an ergonomic layout. The Hori joystick also featured a turbo function.
Success on Other Consoles and Modern Ports
SNK ported the console's most popular games to other home consoles, and established a joint venture with publisher Takara. The likes of Samurai Shodown, Fatal Fury, and Art of Fighting were made available for the Sharp X68000, Sega Genesis, Sega CD, Sega Saturn, Super Nintendo, Game Boy, Game Gear, 3DO, and Sony Playstation.
There is emulation support for the console's games on the Nintendo Wii's Virtual Console, and Neo Geo games are available on Playstation Network for the PS3 and PSP. Game Tap Subscription Service has Neo Geo emulation support.
AES as a Collectible
The Neo Geo AES is a popular collector's item because of the system's quality, rarity, and durability over time. The system's high price point at launch coupled with the fact that games could be hundreds of dollars new meant that most people's libraries of games stayed small. This lead to obscure or popular games becoming more valuable and difficult to track down. For example, the popular AES game Metal Slug regularly sells at auctions for eight hundred to two thousand US dollars. The prices of these games have lead some collectors to modify their AES systems to play significantly cheaper MVS cartridges.
SNK went insolvent in 2000, and attributed this to the rampant piracy on the Neo Geo. It was then acquired by the Korean company Playmore, and rebranded as SNK Playmore.
CPU (Central Processing Unit) processors
- Main CPU processor: Toshiba 68HC000 (based on 16/32-bit Motorola 68000) @ 12 MHz
- Performance: 2.1 MIPS (Million Instructions Per Second)
- Additional CPU co-processor: Zilog Z80 (8/16-bit) @ 4 MHz
- Performance: 580,000 IPS (Instructions Per Second)
- Graphics pipeline: PRO chipset (1st gen), LSPC2-A2 & NEO-B1 (2nd gen), NEO-GRZ (last gen)
- Main GPU (Graphics Processing Unit) processors:
- 1st Generation PRO chipset:
- PRO-B0 (palette arbiter)
- PRO-CT0 (graphics serializer, sprite graphics multiplexer)
- 2nd Generation chipset:
- NEO-B1 (sprite & tiletset multiplexer, line buffer, palette arbiter)
- Last Generation chipset: NEO-GRZ (all-in-one GPU)
- Additional GPU processors on board:
- NEO-G0 (palette data buffer)
- PRO-C0 (palette arbiter, line buffer)
- NEO-I0 (graphics memory address latch)
- NEO-273 / NEO-CMC (graphics memory multiplexer & bankswitching)
- NEO-ZMC2 (sprite tile serializer)
- Sony CXA1145 (RGB encoder)
- Additional GPU processors on cartridges:
- LSPC2-A2, NEO-B1, PRO-C0, NEO-GRC2-F, NEO-GRZ, NEO-CMC
- Color palette: 65,536 (16-bit color)
- Colors on screen: 8,192 (13-bit color) (8 KB on-screen palette RAM)
- Sprites (tiles) on screen: 381 hardware sprites (without sprite multiplexing)
- Sprite/Tile sizes: 16x16 to 16x512 pixels
- Sprites/Tiles per line: 96
- Texels per line: 1536
- Display resolution: 320 x 224 pixels
- Aspect ratio: Standard (4:3)
- Hardware features: Side-scrolling, vertical scrolling, sprite-scaling
- 1 hardware (non-scrolling)
- Up to 3 scrolling (requires 128 sprites per plane)
- Possible A/V outputs: RF, Composite, Component (RGB)
- Sound CPU: Zilog Z80 (8-bit) co-processor is used to control sound
- Main sound chip: Yamaha YM2610 (15 channel) @ 8 MHz
- 4 channel FM (Frequency Modulation) synthesis, 4 operators per channel
- 3 PSG (Programmable Sound Generator) / SSG (Software Sound Generator) channels
- 7 channel 4-bit ADPCM (Adaptive Differential PCM), six at 18.5 KHz and one up to 55.5 KHz
- 1 programmable noise channel for voices
- 2 interval timers
- LFO (Low Frequency Oscillator)
- Sample rate: 24 KHz (FM), 18.5 - 55.5 KHz (PCM)
- Sound output: Stereo
- DAC (Digital-to-Analog Converter) sound chip: Yamaha YM3016
RAM (Random-Access Memory)
- Main RAM (Random Access Memory)
- Neo Geo: 74 KB (including 64 KB work RAM)
- Neo Geo CD: 2 MB
- Video RAM (VRAM)
- Neo Geo: 84 KB
- Main VRAM: 64 KB (including 8 KB on-screen palette RAM)
- Fast VRAM: 4 KB
- Palette memory: 16 KB
- Neo Geo CD: 4.625 MB
- Sound RAM
- Neo Geo: 2 KB (from Z80)
- Neo Geo CD: 1088 KB (including 64 KB for Z80)
- Internal save RAM: 64 KB
- Memory cards: 2 KB RAM each (official), up to 16 KB each (custom)
ROM (Read-Only Memory)
- ROM (Read-Only Memory) on board:
- Toshiba (SP-S2 / SP-E) BIOS ROM: 128 KB
- Toshiba LO (Lookup) ROM: 64 KB
- Sound ROM: 128 KB
- NEC SM1 sound driver ROM: 64 KB
- NEC SFIX graphics ROM for default fix layer tileset: 128 KB
- Maximum usable Z80 ROM without bankswitching: 62 KB
- Additional ROM on cartridges:
- Maximum cartridge ROM without bankswitching: 2 MB
- Additional sound ROM: 512 KB
- Maximum 8-bit ADPCM ROM for audio samples: 32 MB
- 16-bit C ROM graphics memory for sprite tiles: Variable
- Maximum sprite tileset: 128 MB
NeoGeo Development Wiki, for more technical details on hardware.