SNK’s library might not be the best, but their retro compilation sure as heck is.
Unlike past retro collections, I came into SNK 40th Anniversary Collection with little background knowledge of the developer’s library. Years ago I played Crystalis on NES. I’ve heard of Ikari Warriors and Psycho Soldier. That’s basically it. Bereft of nostalgia, I experienced this collection of ‘80s SNK arcade and console games with fresh eyes. While the majority of these games seem to be amusing but ultimately mediocre relics of the past, the comprehensive package and variety of options make this a fascinating and brilliant historical collection.
While the centerpiece is the selection of 14 games (with 11 more on the way in upcoming free DLC), the lightly interactive museum mode was what I went to first. A timeline shows off SNK’s games starting in 1978 and going up to 1990 with each released product having a brief slideshow made up of factoids, development history, concept art, and screenshots. The timeline is a light and easy way to uncover details about each game and why they’re important to the trajectory of SNK. It would all be even cooler if you could go right from the timeline to playing each game, though. The rest of the museum is a treasure trove of interesting digital exhibits, with all sorts of marketing assets, arcade guides, and more. Soundtracks are also accessed here, too.
The selection of games leans heavily on shoot-’em-ups and top-down combat games. From the shoot-’em-up department, Vanguard stood out to me as a novelty—the earliest playable game in the initial release of the collection. The Ikari Warriors line of games, which seems to technically include TNK III and Iron Tank, dominates the package with a total of five games. These games do a great job of highlighting the differences between the included arcade and console versions. For example, the NES version of Ikari Warriors here is a trash game, but the arcade version is actually worth playing. The arcade games usually win out here, though the NES-exclusive Iron Tank is an ambitious Jackal-like action game with branching paths and some light RPG elements.
A lot of the arcade games made use of a rotary analog stick, which was a joystick that you could move in eight directions but also rotate, generally used for movement and shooting separately. The lack of that unique control input is expertly accounted for by emulating the rotary analog control to twin sticks. Honestly, I didn’t even know at first that these games weren’t designed with twin sticks in mind. It feels that smooth and it makes Ikari Warriors, TNK III, and others better by including the developer’s savvy fix.
Athena and Psycho Soldier stood out to me as games I would have loved if I had played them years ago. They’re part of the same series of arcade platformers with the first in the series, Athena, being a mostly excellent experience as you build up your heroine from bathing suit to full suit of powerful armor. The difficulty is harsh, but thankfully it doesn’t cost quarters to play and every single game in the SNK Collection lets your rewind at any point with the press of a button.
Crystalis is one of the few console-only games included. It’s also likely the best NES game you never played. Originally released in 1990, it is a highly polished and excellent Zelda-like action RPG. I’d argue that if you’ve never played Crystalis before, the entirety of the SNK 40th Anniversary Collection might be worth the price of admission to play it in its beautifully emulated form.
Across the board, every game runs extremely well, coming with a slew of display options. Of note is the ability to watch a tool-assisted perfect run of the majority of the games. That doesn’t replacing playing it yourself, but it adds to the history-focused intrigue of this package since the lineup can be experienced and understood even without gaming prowess. Honestly, every retro collection should have a feature like this.
Crystalis aside, I don’t think any of the other games in the SNK 40th Anniversary Collection is a must-play. The Ikari Warriors games are generally all fun and Athena and Psycho Soldier are both great in their own way, but this assortment of games is more about the story they tell. SNK isn’t Nintendo or Sega, but they carved a unique path through the industry that has helped them stick around for 40 years. This celebration might only be focused on the first dozen or so years, but it’s a lovingly crafted and curated virtual exhibit that sets the standard for retro collections for the future. SNK 40th Anniversary Collection shined a light on a company I didn’t know much about, and I’m thrilled it will now be easy for others to learn about them the same way I did.