New anthologies of old games have gotten a lot better recently, especially on the Nintendo Switch. In addition to Sega releasing individual games from its back catalog with new features, the company also recently ported its smartly packaged Genesis Classics collection to the console. Recently, the Switch also received the SNK 40th Anniversary Collection, another amazing look back at gaming’s past which digs up some of the company’s more obscure gems and presents them with great emulation and an exquisite array of bonus features. The experience of playing through these old games feels almost transportative.
The collection released in mid-November with 13 games that pre-date the Neo Geo, SNK’s short-lived console. SNK games, like the Metal Slug series, have gotten plenty of attention over the last couple of decades. So, instead of highlighting those well-known titles, SNK 40th celebrates some of the company’s more overlooked games, like Psycho Soldier, which was the first to ever include vocals in the soundtrack, as well as a Commando-inspired top-down shooter with co-op called Ikari Warriors.
Just yesterday, 11 more games were added as free DLC: Munch Mobile, Fantasy, Sasuke vs. Commander, Chopper I, Time Soldiers, Bermuda Triangle, Paddle Mania, Ozma Wars, Beast Busters, SAR: Search and Rescue, and World Wars. That brings the full count up to 24.
The collection spans just over a decade, starting with 1979's ZMA Wars and ending with 1990's Crystalis, which in my view is one of the best and most underrated games SNK ever produced and is worth a good chunk of SNK 40th’s $40 price tag all by itself. The game, which is about fighting mutants in a post-apocalyptic future and trying to stop a megalomaniac from taking control of the world, manages to hit a lot of the classic role-playing game notes without feeling just like a collection of recycled tropes.
Similar in many ways to the original Legend of Zelda, Crystalis is a top-down exploration adventure game that came out on the NES just as its life-cycle was winding down, before later getting a clumsy port to the Game Boy Color. Instead of just being another generic fantasy setting, the game takes place in a future where the world has been thrown back to medieval times by a nuclear war at the end of the 20th century. You collect new swords and magic abilities, make your way through dungeons, defeat bosses, and eventually make it to a final showdown that feels like a high water mark among final boss fights in the 8-bit era. The fact that Crystalis never turned into a series still gives me pangs of disappointment.
The SNK 40th Collection does one better than just porting these games to the Switch, where playing them can now be conveniently nestled into moments of downtime. In addition to a vast virtual museum detailing SNK’s early history, from its first arcade cabinets up to the Neo Geo’s release and including scans of promotional artwork and game manuals, the collection has a suite of options that work seamlessly and feel far superior to your typical barebones emulator.
You can rewind action in any game with precision by simply holding the left Joy-Con trigger. Every game also has an option to play either the Japanese or Western versions, as well as whether to play it in portrait or vertical mode (the latter of which benefits greatly from the Flip Grip accessory). Even the gameplay itself is customizable, with four difficulty settings for each game ranging from Easy to Very Hard and a slider for determining how many lives you want to start with and what the point thresholds will be for earning more. And there are, of course, the requisite display settings, which let you decide whether to play zoomed in with sharp pixels or in the original aspect ratio using monitor or CRT filters.
Digital Eclipse, the company which has worked on a number of recent retro anthologies, including Street Fighter’s 30th Anniversary Collection and the recent Mega Man Legacy Collections, was also responsible for SNK 40th, and perhaps more than any of the previous projects, this one sets the bar for what all retro restorations could be. The library is solid, every game plays smoothly and comes with a bunch of options for customization, and a virtual museum contextualizes everything. All these touches help the experience go beyond just that brief feeling of “look how different games used to be” that accompanies playing with artifacts from the past and instead encourages a deeper appreciation of the games themselves as particular works of art from a specific time and place.