As the years advance and old gaming hardware and media gets more expensive, harder to find and even more difficult to maintain, the matter of gaming preservation is of increasing importance.
I’ve previously talked about how emulation and ROM archives have an important role to play in all this — in spite of interference from certain quarters — but of arguably greater importance are companies’ own efforts to preserve their respective histories and portfolios.
I picked up the SNK 40th Anniversary Collection for Nintendo Switch recently, and I’ll be covering the individual games in it over the next indefinite period of time in an “SNK Essentials” column (and perhaps some videos) — but today, I wanted to talk about this package as a whole, what it gets right, and what I wish it had done slightly better.
For starters, I’ll just say that if you’re serious about this collection, you’ll want to seek out a physical copy in the limited edition packaging. While the Switch game case itself is unremarkable (no instructions, no interior inlay art), the additional content in the package is something any aspiring gaming historian will want to add to their collection.
First up, the limited edition box itself is lovely, featuring cover art for most of the games in the base package — more on what I mean by that anon. And unusually for this type of release, it’s printed both on the outside and inside, with the inside looking like what I imagine a die-hard SNK enthusiast’s bedroom would look like were they to wallpaper it entirely with promotional posters.
Inside the box, we have the game itself; a hardback, 30-page artbook; a shrinkwrapped collection of 13 beautiful large art cards; and a two-disc CD soundtrack consisting of 16 tracks in total.
The artbook is particularly cool; although short when compared to some similar publications inside other limited editions, it provides plenty of value by including not only artwork and screenshots from the games (again, only those in the base collection) but also some facts about their development and interesting pieces of trivia.
The art cards include a couple of pieces of artwork representing the collection as a whole as well as iconic images for each of the games in the base collection. They’re printed on large-format “postcard”-style card, and are eminently suitable for framing and display.
The soundtrack CD I’ll cover in more detail in a MoeGamer Music article in the near future, but for now suffice to say that the 16 tracks mostly consist of original audio versions of music from the various games (with one track per game, rather than one track per… err… track), but there is also a high-quality remix of the original 1987 vocal theme for Psycho Soldier, the version of the Ikari theme heard in The King of Fighters XIV and a “2018” remix of the Psycho Soldier theme. The double CD case has annoyingly flimsy hinges, but be careful with it and you should be fine.
So what about the game itself? Well, let’s start with the good: the “base collection” I keep mentioning refers to what you get if you just put the cartridge in your Nintendo Switch and fire it up without updating or downloading anything. That consists of 13 games: Alpha Mission, Athena, Crystalis, Ikari Warriors, Ikari III: The Rescue, Guerrilla War, P.O.W., Prehistoric Isle in 1930, Psycho Soldier, Street Smart, T.N.K. III, Vanguard and Victory Road.
Where applicable, both original arcade and NES versions of the games are included, meaning you have two versions of Alpha Mission, Athena, Ikari Warriors, Ikari III: The Rescue, Guerrilla War, P.O.W, T.N.K. III and Victory Road to enjoy. Home ports for some of the other games do exist on non-NES platforms (Vanguard has very good Atari 2600 and Atari 5200 versions, for example) but they are not represented here, presumably due to licensing issues of some description, or perhaps simply the loss of original code to work with.
The fascinating thing about this collection is that it represents SNK games that don’t get talked about a lot — in other words, SNK games that are not Neo Geo games. SNK’s Neo Geo output is pretty well known by this point thanks to companies like Hamster and dotEmu putting out ports for various platforms (pro-tip: as a general rule, Hamster’s are good, dotEmu’s are, umm, not) but its pre-Neo Geo stuff and particularly its non-fighting game stuff tends to go largely overlooked and underappreciated. Which is a shame, as there’s some great games among these early titles, as we’ll discuss further in the coming weeks.
The emulation is handled by Digital Eclipse, who are absolute masters of their craft at this point, so the games all run flawlessly… and by “flawlessly” I mean “authentic to the original experience”, right down to slowdown, bugs and graphical glitches. The games can all be run in “sharp screen,” “full screen” or “stretch screen” modes, with the former offering the best quality picture without filling the screen, the second offering a zoomed in view to fill the vertical height of the TV or Switch screen, and the latter stretching the graphics to fill whatever display you are using.
You can also apply one of two filters to the screen; rather than these being smudgy “smoothing” filters, however, these instead simulate the scanlines of either a CRT TV or a monitor. Most of the arcade games in the base collection can also display bezel artwork if you so desire, though this can also be switched off; rather oddly, switching to the “full screen” mode literally zooms in the whole screen, so you also crop off the edge of the bezel artwork when you do this.
You can redefine the controls of each game as well as tweak settings such as whether auto-fire is active, and arcade games also have what would have been their dip switch settings available to tinker with as well, allowing you to adjust things like difficulty, score thresholds for extra lives and suchlike. There’s also a “rewind” button you can use to cheat death as well as a save game function if you want to save scum, pick back up where you left off or simply save your high scores.
On top of the games themselves, there’s also an absolutely fantastic “museum” mode that not only includes concept artwork and original (Japanese-only, for the most part) documentation for the various games, but also some fascinating historical slideshows that explain SNK’s history in detail, including information about a number of games that aren’t represented in this collection. These not only display artwork and screenshots for you, but actually narrate (through text) what you’re seeing, allowing you to really take a guided tour through these virtual historical artifacts. Absolutely fascinating.
Now, what’s the big “but” that’s been hovering over all this since I started? Well, two things. Firstly, the package seems to crash a lot, though thankfully never mid-game; it only ever seems to be when changing between the “Arcade” mode (where you play the games) and the “Museum” mode (where you read the information and enjoy the bonus content). This is annoying, but not a dealbreaker. (EDIT: Restarting my Switch also seemed to alleviate this issue completely, so try this if you encounter similar problems.) My main issue with the collection concerns something that is becoming an increasing bugbear of mine when it comes to the preservation of games: post-launch support.
Post-launch support, in theory, shouldn’t be a bad thing. A company willing to fix any issues that remained in a product that made it to store shelves is, on paper, something admirable. (For example, Digital Eclipse could fix that aforementioned annoying crash bug by the time you read this.) However, post-launch support is the absolute enemy of preservation, since it devalues physical editions of games and, in some cases, makes them nigh-worthless. (Final Fantasy XV says hello, although its subsequent “Royal Edition” rerelease mitigates this somewhat, if not completely.) In the case of the SNK 40th Anniversary Collection, the post-launch support makes up nearly half of the game content of the Nintendo Switch version — though supposedly the imminent (at the time of writing) PlayStation 4 port includes everything from day one. You know, as it should be.
As it stands, the Nintendo Switch version of SNK 40th Anniversary Collection adds 11 games through free software updates, with a couple (Beast Busters and S.A.R. Search and Rescue) available as free DLC rather than an automatic update owing to their increasing the game’s age rating due to violent scenes. And while it’s fantastic to add Chopper I, Fantasy, Munch Mobile, Sasuke vs. Commader, Time Soldiers, Bermuda Triangle, Paddle Mania, Ozma Wars, Beast Busters, S.A.R. Search and Rescue and World Wars to the mix… it’s baffling — I’d even go so far as to say inexcusable — that these aren’t simply included from the get-go, whatever the reasoning behind it. It’s even more surprising that these additional games have missed out on a couple of minor features such as bezel art, instead featuring a generic SNK-themed bezel if you choose to display the borders.
Now, your mileage may vary as to whether or not you think this is a problem. If you keep hold of your copy of the game and take care of both your Nintendo Switch and the microSD card that contains the update data and DLC, you’re all good. For me, personally, the opportunity to have all these games on the go outweighed my own personal objections to the way the release has been handled. But it still concerns me; a few years down the line, if and when the Switch eShop closes — and it’s worth noting that Nintendo was the first of the “big three” to close their digital storefront for the seventh console generation with the demise of the original Wii’s Shop Channel in January 2019 — how will you get access to those other games if you haven’t already downloaded them?
Well, one option is, of course, to eschew the Switch version in favour of the PS4 port, which, according to the official website, “includes all 24 titles” — though it remains to be seen if this literally means they’re all on the disc, or if there’s simply a day-one update that adds the second batch of 11. But even assuming the best-case scenario here, you miss out on the big selling point of the Switch version, which is having these games available to take with you, wherever you go, which is immensely valuable; arcade games are ideal for handheld play thanks to their short-form structure and addictive nature, so confining them to the TV just doesn’t feel quite right somehow.
Alternatively, you could buy the digital-only version and simply, as before, ensure your microSD card and Switch are always kept in good, safe condition — but then, of course, you miss out on the opportunity to enjoy those wonderful collectibles from the limited edition I mentioned earlier.
It’s frustrating, because this package could have so easily been the absolute perfect example of how to do video game preservation correctly. Instead, it comes extremely close, but falters due to an issue that companies specialising in game preservation, such as Digital Eclipse, should really not be falling foul of.
It’s disappointing, but it is what it is, and I’d like to emphasise at this point that it most certainly does not diminish the spectacular value of this otherwise excellent collection of underappreciated and overlooked games from SNK’s early years. I just hope the industry as a whole — and specifically retro specialists such as Digital Eclipse — can learn something from this.
*breathe* Rant over. Please look forward to the SNK Essentials series, starting next week, because I’m really looking forward to getting stuck into these games!
Thanks for reading; I hope you enjoyed this article. I’ve been writing about games in one form or another since the days of the old Atari computers, with work published in Page 6/New Atari User, PC Zone, the UK Official Nintendo Magazine, GamePro, IGN, USgamer, Glixel and more over the years, and I love what I do.
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