There may be no single type of video game release that varies as much in quality as the retro game compilation. Across the years, we’ve seen collections come out with everything from only two games to 40-plus, themed bundles of titles to completely random selections, stellar custom emulation engines to garbage stolen code, and everything in between. It often feels like every single release of this type is a roll of the dice for fans, with no assurance of how things will turn out until a finished copy (or digital download) is in-hand and playable.
With that in mind, I can say—with absolute sincerity—that SNK 40th Anniversary Collection feels to me like one of the best retro compilations in years.
That sentiment doesn’t come because of the package’s emulation quality, but I don’t say that in a negative way. On a personal level, the name Digital Eclipse (and its sibling brand Backbone Entertainment) was one I hated seeing attached to retro releases for years, as the studio became known for some shamefully shoddy work in its past. Recently, however, the team has been putting a concentrated effort into improving its offerings—even if there still have been a few bumps in the road along the way. Even here, SNK 40th Anniversary Collection isn’t perfect. After installing and trying out the day-one patch, I’ve encountered at least one random glitch, and I can’t promise that there won’t be other issues either now introduced in that patch or which I simply didn’t run into before. Still, in the time I spent with this release, I came away impressed not only with what I’d seen, but also with the fact that I’ve been able to concentrate more on the games I’m playing and not how well they’re emulated—and that’s how it should be.
Those games, by the way, are going to be a sore spot for some. When people think SNK, dollars to donuts they think of the NeoGeo era, or maybe even a high-profile release prior to that like Ikari Warriors or Crystalis. Well, both of those are here, but so are Alpha Mission, and Athena, and TNK III, and Street Smart, and Vanguard, and other games I’m betting a lot of players may have never even heard of. (For information’s sake, the rest of the at-launch games are Guerrilla War, Ikari Warriors II: Victory Road, Ikari III: The Rescue, P.O.W., Prehistoric Isle, and Psycho Soldier.)
My introduction to the company then known as Shin Nihon Kikaku came through its earlier arcade and NES releases, and I actually remember when I was mad about it making the NeoGeo platform—because it meant its future games would vanish from every other system. So, there’s a lot of value to this collection to me. From the nostalgia I feel playing the arcade version of Ikari Warriors again, to my continued bafflement over its incredibly weird sequel, to the realization that I knew Vanguard but had totally forgotten than I did, to once again facing off against my life-long nemesis Athena, SNK 40th Anniversary Collection holds a lot of importance to me, and I’m really glad that something other than SNK’s NeoGeo efforts are finally getting proper recognition. But. This isn’t early Capcom. Nor is it early Konami, or Sega, or other developers whose games still hold up incredibly well for a wide array of more casual players. These games can be hard to go back to, a fact that I admit even while loving them, and even being an SNK fan doesn’t guarantee you’re going to enjoy what’s on tap here.
SNK fans should give this collection a try no matter what, though, because of the history it contains. It’s not just those games, many of which are available in both their arcade and home console forms, but also the included Museum option. At its core, it’s similar to the history sections you’ll find in other such collections: artwork, other images, background details on games, and so on. However, the work the team has put into documenting SNK’s history here is utterly commendable. They were able to track down information, assets, and even working machines for games that still have little to no documentation all of these years later, meaning the “SNK Complete Works 1978-1990” section of the Museum contains content that even hardcore SNK fans will probably be seeing for the first time. As someone who likes to think they know the company’s history, I was shocked by some of the games I had no knowledge of, and using the slideshow option to travel through the images with additional explanatory text was legitimately exciting. This one feature of SNK 40th Anniversary Collection is good enough that it could actually be used as one source of reference material going forward, and that’s shocking to say about a feature that many other compilations too often treat as throwaway bonus content.
What makes SNK 40th Anniversary Collection extra special is the sense of pride taken in putting this package together is also seen in the included options for games. Some of what’s here isn’t a surprise: the ability to rotate the screen for playing on vertical displays, challenge options (difficulty, number of lives, etc.), border art, screen filter and ratio settings, save states, gameplay rewinding, and the ability to toggle which regional version of a game you want to play (Western or Japanese). What I didn’t expect was the ability to watch a full playthrough of every game, and then even be able to pause the reply and start playing from the exact moment you paused. While it makes sense how this is accomplished—it’s obvious a replay file or something similar—it felt like total witchcraft the first time I tried it. It’s such an incredibly smart idea that I can’t believe wasn’t tried before (to my knowledge).
The Digital Eclipse team has also put some real thought into the control options, which is important due to a problem that some of the included games pose. For those who have never tried them in the arcade, titles like Ikari Warriors, Guerrilla War, and TNK III feature a joystick that you could twist, so that—using only one input device—movement and aiming could be separate actions. To accomodate for that, players have three main choices: set aiming to the right analog stick, and fire to a shoulder button; keep aiming on the right stick, but have your character automatically fire whenever pushing in a direction (like many twin-stick shooters); or have directional aiming set to different face buttons, so that the games can be fully played when using a solo Joy-Con. Now, I know those solutions all sound very obvious, but they’re luxuries we often simply don’t get.
There is one gripe I have with SNK 40th Anniversary Collection, and some may see it as looking a gift horse in the mouth. Beyond the 14 games included at launch, 11 more will be coming as free DLC on December 11th: Munch Mobile, Fantasy, Sasuke vs. Commander, Chopper I, Time Soldiers, Bermuda Triangle, Paddle Mania, Ozma Wars, Beast Busters, Search and Rescue, and World Wars. Now, that’s great, and I’ll certainly always take more games, but for an “archival” release like this it’s a bit frustrating that those bonus additions aren’t safely stored on the cartridge. There will absolutely come a time when the Switch’s eShop is gone, and at that point, those games could be lost to later generations. (Though, thankfully, the Switch does offer the ability to share DLC and updates with other local Switches, so at least there will be one option no matter what.)
In a relatively short amount of time, the Nintendo Switch has surprisingly become a bastion for resurrecting classic Japanese gaming, and SNK 40th Anniversary Collection is an important addition to those efforts. And, just maybe, it could teach its competitors a thing or two. While one could make an argument over if these games hold value to all players or not, there’s no arguing that SNK’s past is something worth preserving and experiencing—or that this package is a damn impressive way to do so.
Disclosure: Frank Cifaldi is an online acquaintance of mine due to some contributions of scanned promotional goods I’ve made to his Video Game History Foundation. Cifaldi served as part of the development team on SNK 40th Anniversary Collection.
What I hoped would be a decent collection of SNK’s early gaming efforts ended up being one of the most impressive retro compilations I’ve encountered in recent memory. While not every game included will excite more casual players, those who do have an appreciation for the library offered here will find them presented with a level of care, concern, and passion that is too rarely seen.
T – Teen
|SNK 40th Anniversary Collection is available on Nintendo Switch. Primary version reviewed was for Nintendo Switch. Review code was provided by NIS America for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of one to five stars.|
Mollie got her start in games media via the crazy world of gaming fanzines, and now works at EGM with the goal of covering all of the weird Japanese and niche releases that nobody else on staff cares about. She’s active in the gaming community on a personal level, and an outspoken voice on topics such as equality in gaming, consumer rights, and good UI.