#10: Vanguard (ARC)
Although it wasn't the first coin-op video game that SNK produced, Vanguard is arguably the most significant one from SNK's early years. Debuted in 1981 and co-developed with TOSE, Vanguard is regarded by many as the precursor to more modern scrolling shooters like Konami's Gradius. Taking the baton from previous games like Space Invaders, Vanguard was largely responsible for putting SNK on the map in the gaming industry. It advanced the scrolling shooter genre in several ways that would have significant influence over the coming decade of the genre. Some of the now-standard features that Vanguard was among the first to introduce included multiple directions for scrolling and multiple directions for shooting. To give you an idea of how early in the gaming industry we are talking about, Vanguard was also the first color video game released by SNK.
The popularity of the game also led it to be one of the first instances of SNK porting a popular game to home-based consoles, the Atari 2600 and the Atari 5200. Such an action represents an early precursor to the general direction in which SNK would go in the future, where they attempted to create a symbiosis between arcade and home consoles through their Neo Geo console family. Vanguard is likely one of the best and most significant titles in the company's long history, and the only reason why I am placing it this low on this list is that it was co-developed with TOSE rather than created by SNK alone.
Today, SNK is most popularly regarded as a developer of fighting games. Due to the company's recent troubles, it is most recognized now as the other half of the first few "Capcom vs." games, although SNK was only marginally responsible for the development of the console iterations of that short series. Although the industry is crowded by heavyweights Capcom and, until recently, Midway Games, SNK was arguably the company that popularized the genre as a whole through the creation of several different notable franchises. One of these, developed later in the company's history, was the Art of Fighting trilogy.
By the time Art of Fighting came along, SNK already had some significant experience with the genre; most notably, Fatal Fury had debuted earlier. Art of Fighting, though, served largely to elevate the fighting game genre to a new level of maturity highlighted especially by the significantly improved storytelling elements of the franchise. Whereas earlier releases in the genre, both by SNK and others, provided for relatively simple plots to justify the gameplay, Art of Fighting introduced a more robust and interesting cast of characters along with a twisting and tense plot line to explain the bouts between the different fighters. The success of the series spawned two sequels leading to the Art of Fighting trilogy, and the more robust storytelling and characters led to the creation of anime series based around the same fictional universe. Art of Fighting is also interesting in being the first example of SNK uniting the fictional universes of its franchises.
#8: Ozma Wars (ARC)
Ozma Wars was the first video game created by SNK, but right from the beginning it demonstrated what would become the impressive design prowess of the young company. A coin-op arcade game, Ozma Wars built on the example set by Space Invaders. It utilized the same hardware, but also developed and expanded the fixed shooter genre in several interesting ways. I had the chance to play an original Ozma Wars arcade cabinet not long ago, and at the time, I was impressed that such an advanced game could both exist on the same hardware as the more simplistic Space Invaders, and that such an advanced game could have been designed so early in the arcade industry's history. I would highly recommend looking up some of the footage of the game in action on YouTube to get an idea for how ahead-of-its-time the game was.
Ozma Wars featured ships moving in unpredictable and differing fashions, as well as ship animations as the ships drew closer to the player ship. Various different kinds of ships were available as enemies, and they would appear in different combinations throughout the various levels. The animation on the ships alone was impressive for the day with movement and firing animations rather than static moving sprites. The game was also among the first to feature an energy counter, one of the earliest examples of something like an HP system that would decrease as the player took damage and was replenished between levels. Given the amazing design and success of Ozma Wars, it is unsurprising that SNK would go on to become such a dominant force in the industry for so long.
Before SNK had made a name for itself in the fighting game genre, it found success in several other genres as well. One of the early examples of SNK's success was in the 1986 arcade game Ikari Warriors, the first development by the company to reach major success in the United States. Released between Commando, which basically created the run & gun genre, and Contra, which would become the most popular and quintessential game in the genre, Ikari Warriors found significant success on the basis of some of its notable improvements not only to the genre but also arcade games as a whole. In an early example of the importance of innovative and intuitive control schemas, a significant amount of the game’s success can be attributed to the Rotary joystick it utilized. Rather than simply pushing the joystick in the direction that they wanted to walk, the Rotary joystick allowed the player to rotate the stick in order to aim. This allowed the player to move, aim, and fire with only two hands, a significant improvement for the time.
Later console ports of the game proved less compelling due to the lack of this Rotary joystick feature, but the game is also notable for several other innovations, none more notable than the impressive graphics relative to other games of the time. The game was also notable for its two-player cooperative mode, a gameplay feature that would play a major role in popularizing the later run & gun game Contra.
After finding success in the fighting game genre, SNK still did not shy away from other genres that had made them popular and successful in the first place. The Metal Slug series picked up the torch from Ikari Warriors as another example of the company's prowess with the run & gun genre. Released in 1996, the Metal Slug franchise would go on to become one of the most famous creations for the Neo Geo home console. Its release date coincided with the time when SNK had begun to focus more on home console releases than just home ports of arcade games. The franchise is also partially responsible for helping contribute to the distinctively SNK visual style, characterized by fluid animation and bright colors at a time when the rest of the industry was moving more towards gritty realism.
The franchise would spawn numerous sequels, but among fans of the series, the third instance is often considered to be the best. The game was created at a time when SNK had already started to fall on hard financial times, but in a stroke that ought to inspire the rest of the gaming industry, the company responded by ensuring that the release was the best possible quality rather than going for a quick simple cash grab. The game expanded on the franchise's structure by introducing forking paths, new power-ups, new status ailments, and new vehicles. Coupled with traditional graphical advancements and other developments, the game went on to become arguably the best in the franchise, earning itself ports to the next generation of consoles (PlayStation 2 and Xbox) and virtual console re-releases on Xbox Live, Wii Virtual Console, iPhones, and Androids.
As mentioned far too many times already, SNK is most famous for their contributions to the fighting game genre, and it is for exactly that reason that four of the top five games on this list are fighting games. Starting this out is the 1997 Neo Geo release The Last Blade. Considered by many to be one of, if not the, best franchise on the Neo Geo, The Last Blade takes the design prowess that SNK had honed over the previous decade and channeled it into a fighting game that shied away from many of the trends of the industry at the time. Whereas many other fighting game releases in the late 1990s moved towards bigger characters, bigger attacks, and more flashy fireworks, The Last Blade grounds itself very strongly in Japanese mythology. This was a very strange twist for the genre, but one that was executed flawlessly.
Perhaps the most notable elements of The Last Blade, in addition to the more mature and artistic setting, characters, and structure is the way in which the series provided for excellent balance rather than concentrating on showmanship. Toward this end, both The Last Blade and its sequel are still popularly played in some arcades in Japan and still occasionally appear in fighting game tournaments. This indicates the ability for SNK's designs to stand the test of time. In some ways, The Last Blade is seen as the heir to an earlier SNK series, Samurai Shodown, but we will talk more about that in a moment.
The introduction to this list indicates that referring to the company as SNK Playmore is a bit of a misnomer considering the vast majority of the company's notable titles came long before the Playmore moniker was added; in fact, the only game on this list released after the company's re-purchase by Playmore is this #4 entry, The King of Fighters XIII. Of course, arguments could be made for the inclusion of several different games from SNK's second-most famous fighting series in this list, but The King of Fighters XIII holds a special significance as the most notable title released by SNK Playmore after its restructuring. In some ways, the game is indicative of the company's rise from the ashes into a notable game developer once more.
This is not strictly a historical placement, however, as the quality of The King of Fighters XIII came at a time when creating a strong fighting game was becoming more and more difficult. As games became capable of creating more robust experiences, the relatively simplistic head-to-head structure of fighting games began to fade away, with only Soul Calibur and the recent Street Fighter sequel still popularizing the genre (outside of the ensemble games between developers). SNK Playmore had previously released the franchise's 12th installment a year earlier, but it was The King of Fighters XIII that gave the company its biggest victory, winning several awards for best fighting game of 2010. That, coupled with a rich history of games to leverage in the modern port-heavy industry, has given SNK Playmore a lifeline into continued success.
#3: Crystalis (NES)
In addition to its prowess with fighting games, we have shown how SNK also excelled with scrolling shoot ‘em ups and run & gun action games. At the beginning of the 1990s, the company also ventured into the new realm of role-playing games with their action RPG Crystalis. Released in 1990, Crystalis was different than many of SNK’s other popular releases in that it had no arcade counterpart; the game was released directly to the in the NES with help from Nintendo. After the success of Final Fantasy, responsible for basically creating the RPG genre, SNK was quick to capitalize on what seemed to be the next big genre.
Although Crystalis did not sell as many copies or reach as much cultural penetration as Final Fantasy, it has gone on to become something of a cult hit. In many ways, it was an extremely large step ahead of any RPG at the time. For one, the setting of the game was the future rather than the past, a post-apocalyptic nuclear wasteland bearing surprising similarity to the overused setting of many modern games. The graphics were among the most advanced at the time, pushing the NES past what anyone thought it could accomplish. It was also one of the first games to put significant attention into its soundtrack, and its plot was miles ahead even of those from Square's famous franchise. The game is also notable for having not yet received a virtual console re-release, making it something of a hot commodity.
Although the title doesn't give it away, Garou: Mark of the Wolves is the ninth game from SNK's most famous series, Fatal Fury. Like Metal Slug mentioned earlier, Garou: Mark of the Wolves was developed when SNK's financial hardship was starting to set in, and gave an excellent example of how SNK responded to adversity not by panicking and going for the easy money, but rather by developing high-quality titles that it was sure would sell strongly.
Garou: Mark of the Wolves is considered by many to be not only the best game in the Fatal Fury franchise, not only the best fighting game ever created by SNK, but also arguably the best fighting game ever created. It pushed the limits of its console, the Neo Geo, with its graphical excellence and high degree of control and technical skill required to excel. It also provided an astoundingly balanced roster of characters such that, like The Last Blade, the game is still used in some fighting game tournaments today, another tribute to the game’s timeless design. Recognized as the best fighting game of its release year and console generation, a sequel has been rumored for over 10 years with fans of the series still hotly anticipating its next release. Garou: Mark of the Wolves itself was also something of a crossover with King of Fighters, featuring references and characters from the other series; as such, the success of The King of Fighters XIII has fans anticipating a sequel more than ever before.
Although Garou: Mark of the Wolves is arguably the more famous game, one of SNK's earlier releases garnered comparable acclaim: Samurai Shodown II. The Samurai Shodown series started one game earlier, and was responsible for one of the major characteristics of the previously-mentioned The Last Blade: whereas most fighting games at the time were based in a modern setting, Samurai Shodown was based in feudal Japan. The other notable shift spawned by the franchise was a move towards weapon-based combat rather than melee or hand-to-hand combat. The game did a remarkable job of tying everything together, theming the visual style, combat style, character design, and music after that feudal Japan setting. The game itself was very well-received, sweeping awards for the best fighting game of that year and receiving some recognition as the best overall game of the year in any genre.
With such high praise lavished on its predecessor, Samurai Shodown II had high expectations upon release, yet still managed to meet them flawlessly. With a bigger cast, new gameplay innovations, and several more fighting styles and techniques, Samurai Shodown II has gone on to become one of SNK's most-acclaimed titles. And yet, there is a decent chance that you have never even heard of the game: SNK kept it on their Neo Geo console in an effort to make it a console-seller. After several years, the game was finally ported to Windows and PlayStation, and more recently the game has been made available for every current virtual console framework.
Honorable Mentions: Psycho Soldier, Fatal Fury: Real Bout, Ikari III, Top Hunter: Roddy & Cathy, Ninja Commando, Sengoku, Lee Trevino's Fighting Golf, Blazing Star, POW: Prisoners of War, NAM-1975, World Heroes.
After the financial disaster and restructuring attempt of the early 2000's, SNK Playmore stands in decent position to revive itself as a major player in the video game industry. The strength of its recent releases like The King of Fighters XIII shows that ability to design high-quality games has not diminished with the expanding capabilities of console hardware or with the increased expectations placed on the gameplay experience. That said, however, the company has been relatively quiet in this latest console generation. Many of its recent releases have been virtual console ports of its old famous titles, as well as anthologies put together for release on modern-day consoles. In some ways, this is particularly beneficial: many of SNK's best titles never made it to the United States, or failed to reach a critical mass of popularity if they did. The availability of classic games on modern consoles has given SNK a new audience that they may have been lacking previously; time will tell if the company is able to channel this new attention into more high-quality games, like the recently-released Metal Slug 7.
If you’d like to join in on the discussion of this list, I invite you to the Top 10 List discussion board, linked on this page. You’re also welcome to contact me directly via the information in my contributor profile, or to come by either of the web sites that co-host these lists, DDJGames.com or GamingSymmetry.com. If you have any suggestions for what company I should review next, please let me know!
List by DDJ (08/15/2012)
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