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History of: SNK

by Katherine Simon When one thinks of the arcade giants of the 1990s, some of the big names that might come to mind are Capcom, Namco, Konami, Sega, and Midway; however, one arcade innovator that always seems to be left out of the discussion—despite their innovations in the field—is Shin Nihon Kikaku (SNK), creator of the Neo Geo arcade cabinets and multiple successful game franchises, such as Metal Slug and The King of Fighters. Despite their early success in arcades, they’ve seemed to have fallen off the map after the shift to home consoles. The company’s recent titles still sell relatively well, and their characters are even showing up in the likes of Tekken and Soul Calibur, but they’re no longer the juggernauts they used to be during the golden era of arcades.  More recently, when Fatal Fury protagonist Terry Bogard was revealed to be the next DLC character for Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, a lot of younger, casual fans were confused and wondering who this ripped Pokemon Trainer look-alike was. Then, everyone immediately forgot about him as soon as Sans showed up and overshadowed literally any other announcement made that day. I love Sans Undertale just as much as the next person, but SNK and Terry Bogard have such a legacy in the arcade gaming scene, and they don’t deserve to be overlooked. To celebrate Terry's Smash debut, we’re going to go through the history of SNK, and hopefully bring light to the impact they left on arcade gaming.

The start of a new Japanese project

Image from Collector Vision
Before we get into SNK’s golden age, we have to go all the way back to the distant year of 1979. A relatively new company, named the Shin Nihon Kikaku Corporation (Translated as New Japanese Project in English), released their first attempt at an arcade game, Ozma Wars. Originally established as a computer software company, the rapid growth of the arcade market inspired them to break out into the recently booming market. After Ozma Wars, they continued to work on various other arcade projects throughout the '80s, such as Psycho Soldier and Ikari Warriors (fun fact: the former was noteworthy for being the first video game with a vocal theme song, sung by former Japanese idol Kaori Shimizu), all of which had seen various ports to the Nintendo Entertainment System. While the NES ports were the primary source of their success, SNK wanted more people to pay attention to their arcade endeavors.  During the late '80s and '90s, rival company Capcom had been dominating the arcade market with their CP System series of arcade boards. Created in 1988, these machines were incredibly innovative because, unlike a lot of arcade cabinets that were programmed specifically for one game, the CPS featured removable cartridges that could be freely switched out. Not only did it make arcade game development more cost-effective for Capcom, it also made the cabinets more enticing for arcade operators due to their cost-efficiency. After seeing Capcom’s success with their new arcade system, SNK decided to take the foundation Capcom laid out with the CPS and build on it for their series of arcade cabinets. In 1990, SNK released the Neo Geo series of arcade cabinets out into the world. Much like the CPS, the Neo Geo featured interchangeable cartridges that could support multiple games, but it had a few key advantages over Capcom’s golden goose. Outside of being more powerful than the initial CPS model, the Neo Geo featured up to six cartridge slots, compared to the CPS’ measly one. For business owners with limited space, this was a dream-come-true, since it allowed establishments to feature more games at a lower cost. Needless to say, the Neo Geo took off and became a huge staple of arcades everywhere, thanks to its economical design. The Neo Geo also featured a home console variant named the Arcade Entertainment System, which was released the same year. While initially only available through rental in Japan, demand from fans led to SNK making the console available for purchase. Since the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo were vastly underpowered compared to arcade machines at the time, people who wanted to play their favorite arcade games in the comfort of their homes had to settle for watered-down ports that looked and played worse. Since the AES uses the same hardware and cartridges as the arcade machines, the system was able to provide a 1:1 arcade experience from the comforts of any home. The AES was also unique in that it was the first home console to utilize memory cards, long before it became the standard for the fifth and sixth console generations.  Unfortunately, the AES did have one glaring flaw that prevented it from becoming anything more than a niche product: it was ridiculously expensive. The console itself cost $650 at launch, and games usually ranged from $100-$300. To contrast that with its contemporaries, the Genesis cost $150, the SNES cost $200, and games for both usually cost around $50-$70. Unless you were part of the 1%, or were willing to evade your taxes in order to play your favorite King of Fighters game at home, there was no way in heck you’d be able to afford a Neo Geo. While the success of the arcade cabinets kept the console viable as a luxury item, the AES didn’t go far outside of the non-bourgeoisie market.

Becoming the King of Fighters

Image from Fandom
Of course, the Neo Geo wouldn’t move units with its fancy specs and economic design alone—it would need a library of entertaining games to go along with it. If there was one genre that dominated arcades in the '90s, it was fighting games. Since Capcom is a recurring entity throughout SNK’s history, it should come as no surprise that arcade fighters were Capcom’s bread and butter during that era, thanks to the overwhelming success of a little game called Street Fighter II. Created as a successor to 1987s Street Fighter, the sequel’s refined combo-based gameplay, and a memorable cast of characters set a new standard for competitive fighting games; it went on to sell 30 million units total across all iterations. Around the same time Street Fighter II hit arcades, SNK had been working on their own new fighting game franchise after headhunting the original Street Fighter creator, Takashi Nishiyama. Their first foray into the genre would be 1991’s Fatal Fury: King of FightersFatal Fury’s playable roster consists of a measly three characters: protagonist Terry Bogard, his brother Andy Bogard, and their friend Joe Higashi. The three enter the titular King of Fighters tournament in hopes of seeking revenge on Geese Howard, a crime lord who killed Terry and Andy’s adoptive father 10 years prior. While this roster might seem pathetic compared to SF2’s eight-character roster, Fatal Fury set itself apart from other fighting games by allowing players to move into the foreground or background of a stage, in order to evade attacks. Keep in mind that this was the pre-3D era of gaming—before the likes of Tekken would flesh these mechanics out to great success—so Fatal Fury was definitely ahead of its time in that regard.  While the first Fatal Fury might seem archaic and shallow by today’s standards, especially compared to the more complex SF2, the first game did well enough to warrant multiple sequels and various anime adaptations. As the series went on, more players would grow attached to Fatal Fury’s colorful cast of characters, and would appreciate the many gameplay refinements that SNK would add to the series. Protagonist Terry Bogard in particular stands out in the sea of stock martial artist fighting game protagonists, mostly due to his uniquely American aesthetic and quotable, broken English lines. Fatal Fury would continue to release new games up until 1999’s Garou: Mark of the Wolves, a post-timeskip story featuring Geese’s biological son, whom Terry adopted after the events of Real Bout: Fatal Fury, Rock Howard. After Fatal Fury’s success, SNK found a comfortable home amongst the arcade fighting game genre. Alongside continuing the Fatal Fury series, SNK would develop more fighting game franchises such as The Art of Fighting (a more traditional Street Fighter-esque fighter that was among the first to feature super moves), and Samurai Shodown, one of the first weapon-based fighters that also featured health-recovering items and stage hazards. In 1994, SNK debuted what would soon become its flagship franchise, The King of Fighters. Alongside its original characters, KOF would also integrate characters from Fatal Fury and Art of Fighting, as well as their pre-Neo Geo endeavors, such as Psycho Soldier and Ikari Warriors. Most of SNK’s biggest franchises were represented in KOF in some capacity, making this among one of the first crossover fighting games. Outside of Japan and North America, KOF would see great success in Latin American regions, thanks to the Neo Geo’s cost-efficiency, allowing the arcade cabinets to be prevalent in drug stores and arcades. The series would see yearly releases up until 2003, but it is still going strong today, with the upcoming 15th installment slated for a 2020 release. Seeing as KOF was created five years prior to the original Super Smash Bros., it features many similar mechanics such as roll dodging; it wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest that KOF might have been one of Smash’s main influences. This isn’t a baseless assumption either, as Smash director Masahiro Sakurai has even shared a story about how absolutely destroying someone’s girlfriend in KOF ‘95 inspired him to create Smash. If Sakurai’s recent 45-minute stream is any indication, it’s clear that the man loves SNK fighters and is incredibly happy to work with one of their characters after 20 years.

Bankruptcy and future of the company

Image from IGN
While SNK did enjoy great success throughout the '90s, the turn of the millennium would not be treating the company well—for a multitude of reasons—ranging from the general decrease of interest in arcade gaming to the aging Neo Geo hardware not keeping up with the vastly more powerful 6th generation consoles. SNK was struggling financially and had to file for bankruptcy in 2001, with assets being bought out by Playmore Corporation. This would require them to outsource their Neo Geo games to other companies. Low morale within the company led to many of their developers either moving on to Capcom, or helping to create Dimps, a studio primarily known for developing the handheld Sonic the Hedgehog games. Around the time of SNK’s bankruptcy, Capcom also signed a deal with them to allow the two companies to make crossover fighting games with their characters. Capcom would work on the Capcom vs SNK series (which was really just Street Fighter vs King of Fighters, but including Darkstalkers’ Morrigan and Samurai Shodown’s Nakoruru), while SNK would work on some crossover games for their Neo Geo Pocket handheld, as well as their own console fighting game, SvC Chaos. While the CvS games did well critically and financially, Capcom got a majority of the profits, due to them being the primary developers while SvC Chaos didn’t do great financially, due to its mixed critical reception. Overall, it’s evident that Capcom was benefiting more from this deal than SNK, despite many Capcom fans getting into SNK through CvS. This would not be the last time SNK and Capcom worlds would cross over, as both Street Fighter and Fatal Fury antagonists Akuma and Geese Howard would appear in Tekken 7, while protagonists Ryu and Terry would make their way into Super Smash Bros. In 2003, the company would soon rebrand to SNK Playmore, and shift focus from Neo Geo development to developing for other arcade boards and home consoles. The Neo Geo console would cease development in 2004, with Samurai Shodown V Special being its final game. Even if SNK’s bankruptcy made the company’s future seem bleak, the longevity of the Neo Geo is nothing short of impressive and enough to give the PlayStation 2 a run for its money. In recent years, SNK Playmore laid low and wouldn’t have any noteworthy releases outside of the occasional KOF game and modern console ports of Neo Geo games; however, in recent years, SNK has seemed to be making an effort to become a prominent developer again. After being acquired by Chinese tech company 37Games in 2015, SNK Playmore would rebrand to the SNK Corporation in 2016 in an attempt to return to their roots. Since then, SNK would release many successful games, such as King of Fighters XIV and 2019’s Samurai Shodown reboot. SNK would also focus heavily on licensing out its characters for crossovers, which includes Terry’s Smash Ultimate inclusion, as well as other guest appearances in popular fighting game franchises like Tekken, Dead or Alive, and Soul Calibur. Needless to say, SNK’s future is looking very bright, and it’ll be interesting to see if Terry’s Smash inclusion will help push the company back into mainstream popularity.
Sources: YouTube, Polygon, Kotaku, Source Gaming, SNK Corporation Images: Collector Vision, Fandom, IGN Featured Image: Katherine Simon