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History Lesson: SNK

The arcade giants responsible for a slew of fighting gems

So dedicated were their mascots to thrashing the pixels out of one another, it seems rather apt to follow last week's lesson in all things Capcom with an SNK chrono-smear.

And while we may have covered the chunky tale of the chunky Neo-Geo a few weeks back, there's more to SNK than hulking black boxes full of funky sprite wizardry.

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Smelted in the mind-forge of Eikichi Kawasaki, SNK was born in July 1978 (meaning it celebrates its 35th anniversary this year - happy birthday!). Abbreviated from Shin Nihon Kikaku, its full title is translated as New Japan Project, sounding so much like a shady anime corporation we half expected its HQ to be a laser-sprouting death-ziggurat. This isn't the case.

No, far from it - SNK was an innovator. 1979's Ozma Wars may have seemed like a Space Invaders clone (in fact it was only the second vertical shooter ever released), but it was also the first arcade game with clearly defined level changes. Similarly, Vanguard, a Defender-aping shooter, allowed four directions of shooting for the first time, and introduced obstacles to be avoided along with enemies - an obvious precursor to R-Type and Gradius.

Between 1979 and 1986, SNK produced 23 standalone arcade cabinets, never revolutionising or spawning new genres but, equally, never resting for a direct clone. Ikari Warriors, although hiding a clear dose of Capcom's Commando under its Rambo-esque headband (developer Keiko Iju admits to nabbing inspiration from Sly Stallone's mumbling vagrant), was the first cabinet to offer two-player simultaneous play, and it had some nifty rotary joysticks to boot.

With these forward thinking mechanics, SNK was truly earning its "the future is now" slogan. At the same time, wise SNK bossheads were realising that the future was NES. With the video game crash of 1983 shattering the home console market like a Wii Remote chucked in the throes of gamer rage, SNK bet on Nintendo, becoming a third party licensee.

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A trilogy of violence in Ikari Warriors, bored goddess muckabout Athena and Xevious-a-like Alpha Mission (or as it was known in Japan, Armoured Scrum Object) made for a strong NES showing, prompting SNK to branch out into original console titles, such as the vicar-worrying God Slayer and Baseball Stars (please note: Baseball Stars wasn't vicar-worrying).

Returning to Ozma Wars and Vanguard provides us with a tidy metaphor for what happened next. Both titles feature a health mechanic in which energy and fuel slowly deplete, forcing the player to kill to regain energy and continue. This isn't to suggest that SNK went on a mental killing spree in downtown Osaka, but it nicely represents the dilemma of investing in the arcade industry.

Committing to the arcade scene with the Neo-Geo MVS, SNK was hopping into a ship with depleting fuel. In hindsight, the AES home variety seems more like a $599 priced missile on a search for a health refill than a potential home console victor.

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Further shots were fired in desperation. Join the dots between the Neo-Geo CD, CDZ, Neo-Geo 64, Neo-Geo Pocket and Pocket Colour and you'll see a downward spiral, concluding with pachinko manufacturer Aruze purchasing SNK in 2000. Once-loved SNK characters were condemned to a dismal future of decorating pachinko machines.

Only they weren't. For, just like Indiana Jones turned out not to be evil at the last minute in Temple Of Doom, Kawasaki (who had walked out to form Playmore in 2000) returned to buy SNK's intellectual rights, previously dispersed when Aruze drove SNK into bankruptcy. So, restructuring as SNK Playmore, a solid part of the SNK-that-was was saved.

These days, while SNK Playmore continues to release the occasional new game (usually new instalments of its popular King Of Fighters series), it tends to make its money from re-releases and compilations of its previous Neo-Geo titles. If you'd like to try out a wide range of SNK's most popular games we recommend hunting down SNK Arcade Classics Volume 1 (released on Wii, PS2 and PSP), which features 16 classic Neo-Geo games.

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