Video Carnage 21 — Neo Geo

From four colour low-res 8-bit portable racers, we now swing to the other end of the spectrum and check out the high-end home arcade system that was literally a home arcade system.

The Neo Geo had its share of racing games, though it’s library is more well known for the awesome fighting games that SNK made. Still, the console had by far the best hardware of all the 16-bit systems. The competition couldn’t touch it. Many gamers couldn’t touch it either because of its high price, but that’s another story. The high specs of this machine allow for some great gaming experiences, and if you enjoy video games for the artistry of their graphics and sound, then the Neo Geo is not to be missed.

Stakes Winner 2 (1996)

Stakes Winner 2 case

This is a first for my reviews – a horse racing game.

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I really wasn’t expecting much out of this game and its predecessor, but I was seriously impressed when I started to play it.

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The introduction screens are cinematically rendered and gorgeous, of course. The music is great too, and it has some variation in style so it doesn’t get tedious. And as with most Neo Geo games, there is a brief instruction screen that shows you how the controls work. “Stakes Winner 2” came out only in Japan, so it helps if you can read Japanese.

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The first thing you can do is enter your name, and this gives me a chance to complain about something that drives me up the fucking wall in video games. That thing is the countdown timer in selection screens. What fucking purpose does that serve? Why give me only 20 seconds to enter my name? What if I make a mistake and need to change it? What if I’m undergoing an acute identity crisis at the time and I just can’t decide who I really am?

Seriously, this shit pisses me off. I’ve seen it a lot more often in fighters than in racers, but a lot of great racers include this bullshit for some reason. When I’m in a menu screen, I don’t want the pressure of a time limit preventing me from checking out all of the available options and thinking about them at my own pace.

The only possible reason I could see for including this is in an actual arcade where there is a lineup of people waiting to plunk coins into a machine behind the player. Even then, I think it’s kind of a dick move. There sure isn’t any reason that I can see to pull this shit in a console game.

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Okay, now that my rant is over, it’s time to select a horse. There are a handful of attributes that each horse has, and I think the blue bar on top is speed. Again, there’s a timer to make this selection. We have to keep in mind that the Neo Geo was a home and an arcade system, so you could have seen this game in a Japanese arcade just as likely as you could have seen it in a (wealthy) Japanese gamer’s home.

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Once you’ve chosen which mighty steed you shall ride, you are shown the race track. The start and end points are marked too. These are not long races. At the top of the screen, you can see that I can choose between two options. I’ll be damned if I know what they are.

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Rankings are shown before each race.

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The horses all line up in the gates…

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…and then the race begins.

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You can see now that you have a “life” meter for your horse. Next to that is an image of his expression. To make your horse go faster, you press B button to whip his horse butt. All three buttons are involved in gameplay, but I can’t read the Japanese instruction screen, and I couldn’t figure the other two out while I played.

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Be careful not to whip your horse too much, as that will become counterproductive. You have to learn when to use the riding crop as encouragement, and when he will try to gain on the other riders on his own.

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There are also power-ups sprinkled along the track. Some will restore the life meter, and some will give you a speed boost, like the one I just gained above.

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If you ride well and get the right power-ups, you will likely finish in first place.

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Rankings are shown again after each race.

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This screen is a good one to see. I don’t know what it says, but the shirtless rider celebrates good lucky win time!

I think he is wearing a shirt, actually.

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On we go to the next race, where I can choose from three options that I can’t decipher.

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You can see that after winning the first race, I’ve moved up in the rankings.

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Here we go during the race. I was really starting to get a feel for this game by now. It’s quite enjoyable, and it’s so well programmed that it really gives me the impression that me and my horse are a team.

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This one was a squeaker…

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…but I finished first again.

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You Super Champion Legacy Joy!

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I had to wonder what this screen was all about when I saw it. I couldn’t look at if for long, mind you, with that fucking countdown timer nearing zero. It looked to me like this was a chance to choose from four different race tracks.

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But I was wrong about that.

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I don’t know what the hell this is. The animated hand on the screen keeps urging me to press the button.

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Are those moles? They’re gigantic! What are they doing on a horse racing track?

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Should I be avoiding them or trying to trample them?

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Well, I crossed the “Goal” line.

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And it looks like that was some kind of bonus stage where I could get my horse’s attributes increased, because that’s what happened. Each of those three blue bars got bumped up one notch.

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Alright, third race.

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This one has me facing some tougher competition.

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It makes the first two races seem like a walk in the park.

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And it was in this race that I discovered that some of the “power-ups” on the track are bad. I hit two that made my horse slow down almost to a stand-still.

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Aw, crap.

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Not surprisingly, I lost.

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I guess this means I’ve been demoted to stable boy.

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My shame is compounded by having to bear the scowling face of this rugged-looking bomber-jacket-wearing Japanese man. He is not impressed.

You do get “continues” with this game, and since this is the Neo Geo, you can simply press the coin button to have as many as 99.

This is a fun game, and it’s a nice change of pace from the other racing games I’ve played. Rather than pushing a machine to the limit and keeping it in control around turns and terrain and other vehicles, you need to team-up with your horse and race together to win. I’ll have to play this a lot more to be able to figure out how to use the other buttons during the race, as I’m sure they play a part somehow.

“Stakes Winner 2” also came out for the Sega Saturn and PlayStation, but I think those are Japanese versions as well. If you want to check this game out, those are your options, and of course emulation.

Over Top (1996)

Over Top case

This is a top-down racer with an isometric view.

Over Top 01

Normally, I’d skip a game like this, but this one is damn fine.

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We get the usual how to play screen, and again it’s in Japanese because this was a Japan-only release. But the controls are straightforward. A accelerates, B reverses, and joystick left and right steer. As far as I could tell, the vehicle transmissions are automatic, and you don’t have to worry about gear shifting. I could be wrong about that though.

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You get to select your car before you race. Among the stats you are shown is a diagram of how well the vehicle shown handles on certain terrain. This default “Plot” handles best on pavement. It also handles well on dirt roads, but not so well on sand and snow. You can also choose a colour for your paint job, but you have to be fast because this game has a countdown timer in the menus too.

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This is the start of the race. The music in the game is decent, but it can’t be turned off. I would have preferred an option to do that, but this game is plenty fun anyway.

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This darkened screen shows me driving through a tunnel. The graphics are lovely to watch as they fly by, and everything is active. The spectators, the surroundings, even the birds that fly overhead – everything seems to be animated and moving in this game.

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All of the info relevant to the race appears on the screen. The mini map shows you the track in orange, as well as the direction your vehicle is facing by the direction the arrow points. I find maps like this to be a must in top-down and isometric racing games if I’m to avoid flinging my car off the track.

There is also a timer at the top of the screen, and you must make it to the next checkpoint before this reaches zero. Next to that timer is an indicator of the weather conditions. Next to that, your current rank in the race.

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Once you make it to the checkpoint, the mini map will fill with static and you will get a summary of that part of the race.

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The computer takes over driving your car until you make it to the start of the next track.

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These cheering crowds are lucky that this fence is in the way.

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My tires kick up lots of dirt on this road. Check out the hairpin turns in the mini map.

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I made it through okay, so here comes the next stage.

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Looks like an invisible barrier preventing this from turning into the first installment of Grand Theft Auto.

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And here’s where steering gets tricky, on a sandy road. I blame the F9 screenshot key for my bad driving. That will hold up in a court of law, won’t it?

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If you look carefully, you can see it’s starting to snow. The graphics and effects in this game are outstanding.

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And here we are up in the mountains on a snowy road…

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…and damn is it hard to steer!

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I kept getting stuck at this one spot near this boulder. I didn’t make it past this point on this race, but I’ll be back.

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After the race, I was shown a little animation of my car’s progress along the race course.

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And then the words “GAME OVER” just to remind me.

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The final rankings did not include me, but I had a blast anyway.

That blue car isn’t the only vehicle you can race with. There are eight options available from the start, and each one has its own handling characteristics:

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I decided to give the motorcycle a spin, since I tend to have a bit more fun with motorcycle racing games. This thing goes a lot faster than that blue car!

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It doesn’t handle nearly as smooth, so I had to learn how to use the reverse button as a brake when taking those turns.

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I still had a blast. This game is a hoot, and the attention to detail is superb. Note the different appearance of the speedometer in the bottom right corner when I race with the motorcycle.

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One thing I don’t like about the isometric view this game employs is how easy it is to get “lost” in some spots. Even with the direction indicator in the mini map, it can be easy to get stuck behind obstacles if you drive off the road into some trees like I did above. It took me a good ten seconds to get out of here.

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By the time I made it out, I had lost my comfortable lead and dropped down to fourth. It’s a small annoyance, and I’m sure that once I play the game some more I’ll know the tracks better than to repeat this mistake, but it’s another reason why I much prefer third-person racers.

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So I pondered that while I went to go hang out with some goats. Actually, here’s another spot I got stuck in. This fence didn’t seem to want to let go.

I found this to be a fun game, and I’ll be coming back to it again. It has some things that I don’t like, such as music that can’t be turned off and an isometric view, but everything else about the game makes it worth playing despite those complaints. And great Neo Geo games are always worth playing just for the experience of seeing what the highest possible 16-bit video game art could be like.

Neo Drift Out (1996)

Neo Drift Out case

This game is a lot like “Over Top”.

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It’s a top-down isometric racer, and it too came out in 1996.  Everything good that I said about “Over Top applies to this one too.

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The instruction screen shows the two-button action.  A is accelerate, B is brake.  Ideally, C would be crush an D would be destroy, but we can’t have everything now, can we?

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You get to enter your name in this one… if your name is three letters long.  Hello, my name is AAA.

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There are three actual branded cars that you can choose from when you start.  The Toyota Celica is the fastest, though it won’t take much abuse.

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The Subaru Impreza has evenly matched specs.  This is the right kind of car if you’re a neutral kind of driver.

Neutral Embassador

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I usually go for the top speed cars to start, but I found the steering to be way hard to control without practice, so I chose the Mitsubishi Lancer.

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The first track is just a practice run.

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You get counted in and… wait a second… are those heavily stereotyped depictions of poor Sub-Saharan African villagers?  Are they holding spears!?

Japanese culture has been known for certain… ahem… insensitivities.

Mr. Popo

I think it’s time somebody sat down with Japan and had “the talk”.

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Back to the game.  The graphics are even better in this game than in the last one I talked about.  There are some pretty neat zooming and scaling effects used to show you more of the track when you need to see it.  There’s also music playing, but it’s pretty good, and this is a Neo Geo game, so we have to expect that there won’t be any silence.

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The sound effects are just awesome too.  You will hear your engine pop if you push the accelerator too hard, and it sounds real.  Your race is also accompanied by a constant commentator who will announce the turns and react to those great jumps you make, or those times when you slam into the edge of the track like I did.  He’s over the top, out to lunch, and lots of fun to listen to.

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And that’s it for the practice run.  I’m cheered on by more villagers as I cross the finish line.  Oh, Japan.

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Now we get ready for the first actual race.

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The countdown is grand and cinematic, of course.

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I think this race takes place in Europe somewhere.

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There don’t appear to be any other drivers in this race, and the aim is to beat the clock.

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This course has a lot more twists and turns.  Just like the last game, almost everything on the screen is active and animated.  There are pylons and oil drums along the road at certain points, and if you hit them, you send them flying.  And that looks great too, but it’s not exactly the way to win the game.

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And here I came across the finish line way too slow.  I could have sworn this game was calling me names, but it says “retired”.

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You have the chance to continue for as many times as you laid down coins, or as many times as you hit that coin button before you started.

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I chose to end this demonstration now.

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This is an awesomely fun racer, so I will be back many times.  It takes full advantage of the Neo Geo’s hardware, and it beats every other racer for the system in terms of graphics, sound, and overall gameplay experience.

I was really surprised that I couldn’t find a third-person racer for the Neo-Geo, but these last two are hands down the best isometric top-down racers I’ve played.

I recommend playing all three of these games, but since the Neo Geo was so rare and expensive during its life, it’s still very rare and expensive these days to collect the hardware and games.  Your best bet with these is to play them on a PC with an emulator, so check out NeoRageX.