a review of Neo Geo Battle Coliseum
a videogame developed by SNK Playmore
and published by SNK Playmore
for the arcades, the microsoft xbox live arcade and the sony playstation 2 computer entertainment system
text by David Cabrera
Kong Man Center is my other Chinatown arcade. At first glance yet another of the CD/DVD/VCD shops that lines the street, Kong Man, when one presses into the back of the store, houses a secret compartment of delights which I have affectionately dubbed the “closet arcade”. The closet arcade is just that; a dark, enclosed back room which only has room for five arcade cabinets and–barely– their players. The owner is clearly an SNK fan; when I first came here, to play King of Fighters 2003 before most people would play it, I found myself surrounded by not just the 2003 version of KoF, but every King of Fighters game: even the surreal, recolored bootleg Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon 2003. Some time later, when Neo Geo Battle Coliseum was released, word got out that, again, Kong Man had it before anybody else. There ended up being an unintentional gathering. These things tend to happen when there is only one place, anywhere, to play a certain videogame right now. The same people tend to come out.
So, as expected, the lot of us crowded around a strange new game which we could see being played before us, but could not yet understand. There was only one guy who knew what the hell he was doing; this is another common circumstance at these things. One guy has always prepared: he’s studied match videos, he’s read Arcadia, something. This guy’s efforts are rewarded by his only having to pay fifty cents all night. Meanwhile the rest of us, the huddled masses, bear the burden of feeding the machine, only to have our sore pixelated asses– retouched 90’s relics, they clash with the beautiful high-resolution backgrounds– dragon-punched into the air over and over again by his Kyo. All I can say for these fights is that NGBC‘s pleasantly quick pace makes these beatdowns mercifully brief, at least. It’s neither much fun for the audience nor for the players to fight such one-sided battles, but this was the only machine we had.
A huge man, the hero of our story, walks into the closet and pushes the human mass, already straining for space, further back, closer, as though a group of three had just entered. After watching a few of the beatings, he loudly proclaims– in this tiny room his yell bounces off the walls, enters and exits our poor, overworked and suffering ears– that our champion is, in fact, a tier-whoring scrub. “Kyo is hecking brooo-ken!” he howl-whines: Kyo is, in layman’s terms, too strong, too unfair to be inflicted upon others. A tier-whoring scrub only uses the strongest characters, because his abilities are themselves insufficient to win fairly. If it wasn’t for Kyo, and that dragon punch bullstuff, he continues, would beat his ass. With Marco.
Kyo Kusanagi feels more or less the same way he feels in latter-day King of Fighters, but as with every incremental upgrade, Kyo has little tricks that need to be learned. In this game, during a juggle combo, the trick is that Kyo can use his dragon punch equivalent three times in a row. He kicks you up into the air; you wait, you fall. He does the dragon punch: you wait, you fall. And then again, and again. It’s not a glitch or an exploit; it’s there because the designers wanted it to be. It’s not overly damaging, not unfair- but it’s terribly frustrating.
It was really pissing this guy off, and he wasn’t even the one losing to it. He was way down on the quarter line; the only way he could think to kill time was to continue to complain to the room. Nobody really wanted to hear it, especially not for the thirty minutes it took him to get to the front of the line. Finally, he moved some people over, stepped up to the machine, picked Marco, and began to fight.
Marco is in fact the Marco you may know from the Metal Slug series: he’s also one of the bigger oddballs in a very unusual cast assembled from all over SNK’s gameography, from Fatal Fury to Aggressors of Dark Kombat. Being a character ripped out of another genre entirely, Marco does not play very conventionally: if you don’t already know what you’re doing, you’re dead. In other words, our hero has made a promise he cannot keep. Marco flops around like a dying fish, his tag teammate who I don’t remember doesn’t fare any better, and Kyo dragon punches them both to his heart’s content. It’s over quickly.
Our defeated protagonist lumbers away from the machine, seething, mumbling to himself. He shuts up for about half a minute. Then, without warning, it is back to the song and dance from before, but louder, with more righteous indignation. Our hero is spiraling into barely coherent rage. He suggests, tentatively, that the champion, a much smaller, fitter guy, come out and have a fight with him, a real one, conducted via bare fists, to prove who is truly the superior joystick-and-buttons fighter. Nobody pays this any mind– we can’t even visualize these two fighting– until he repeats himself a few more times, demands our attention more and more insistently.
“YOU AND ME! WE’RE GONNA PLAY SOME STREET FIGHTER FOUR OUTSIDE, RIGHT NOW!!”
Did I even hear that stuff, in the middle of the closet arcade at Kong Man Center? Did I really hear something so ridiculous? Was it just something I read on a Shoryuken.com thread? Didn’t I hear it at both places? Who knows anymore. The point is that the man wanted to take it outside over a videogame, and that furthermore, he is only able to understand this hypothetical confrontation in terms of another goddamn videogame. Standing out there on the sidewalk, he would see gauges and lifebars in the corners of his mind’s eye.
The owner pops the closet door open after this loudest declaration: he doesn’t know or care what the hell anybody is talking about in here, but he wants us to keep it down, for Christ’s sake. As the owner stares our hero in the face, he casts his eyes down like a child avoiding blame. The volume of his ranting fades, subsides into murmuring. Eventually our hero storms out, our champion leaves with his girlfriend, and I finally get some quality time in with the game: time with people I have a chance of beating.
On even competitive ground, this is SNK’s best in years; a thought-out, solid, unique fighting system coupled with a nearly dangerous overload of SNK’s trademark self-referential fanservice. The latter is SNK’s main export and you can get it packed in with anything they sell nowadays. Pleasant, but not special. The former is rare and precious, and the only reason I ever really loved to play SNK’s games. It was this core that got the twenty-some people to huddle up in the closet-arcade, and later put up with the sound, the smell of our hero; it was also what drove him into a raving videogame tantrum. Whether we want to admit it to ourselves or not, a good videogame is still that strong.