SNK's $109 Neo Geo Mini is a replica arcade machine that fits in the palm of your hand. It's got 40 built-in games, and with the right accessories, you can also hook it up to your TV and experience some of the best '90s arcade games on a proper display. There are other ways to purchase individual Neo Geo games on modern consoles, but like Nintendo's NES Classic and SNES Classic, it's hard to ignore the convenience of having so many great games under one compact roof.
Before examining the Mini as a TV-connected console, it's worth noting that it's a pretty great table-top curiosity on its own. It has dozens of games, most of which are decent, and they are more enjoyable to play (in short bursts) on the 3.5-inch screen than you might expect. Unlike similar small arcade machines the Mini can't use batteries and must be powered over USB-C.
The primary components to watch out for are the speakers, which barely keep up with the energetic soundtracks and sound effects backing every game. It's also a shame that you have to go into menus to raise or lower the volume, but the lack of physical volume buttons isn't a deal-breaker. If you'd rather bypass the speakers entirely, you can alternatively plug a pair of headphones into the 3.5mm audio port on the back.
Relatively minor issues aside, the Mini hardware makes a strong first impression. It's the sort of gaming device that's great for a few minutes here or there, and the large library of included games ensures that you always have plenty of options to pick from when looking for a little distraction. Here are the covers for every game available in the International version of the Neo Geo Mini being sold in Western territories:
Metal Slug and King of Fighters games dominate the list, for better or worse--Neo Geo fans can probably tell one sequel from another, though newcomers may not immediately benefit from having numerous examples of those particular series in this format. Beyond those two popular franchises, there's a strong collection of fighting games (The Last Blade 2, Garou: Mark of the Wolves, and Samurai Shodown V Special are notable non-KOF standouts), shooters (Last Resort, Ghost Pilots), and even sports games like Top Player's Golf manage to impress.
Of course all of the games were designed to be played on full-sized monitors, and it's exciting to think that the Mini can double as a console that lets you do just that. The reality of the situation is less exciting and more expensive than we prefer.
Despite offering Mini-HDMI video output the Neo Geo Mini doesn't come with a video cable. SNK will gladly sell you branded cable in fancy packaging for a premium, or you can instead pick up a generic cable for about $5 on Amazon at the time of writing. The lack of an included cable would have been perfectly understandable if the Mini used standard HDMI cables, but its omission is a little odd considering that you need the less-popular Mini-HDMI design to get up and running on your TV.
Neo Geo Mini controllers are also only available as a separate $25 purchase apiece, and unfortunately it doesn't look like there are any alternate solutions. We tried several USB controllers connected via a USB-C dongle to the Mini, and none of them worked. Given that our only option is the official Neo Geo Mini Controller, it's good to see that they perform well enough to let you play complicated fighting games without much frustration. That said, it would be nice if the d-stick offered any kind of feedback mechanism, let alone the original micro-switches used in the original model.
In terms of general emulation performance, the Mini is perfectly capable of running the included games in either table-top or TV mode without skipping a beat. You may find that the default video settings result in a stretched or otherwise misaligned 720p video frame, though that's easily adjusted via the Mini's video settings or your TVs aspect ratio controls.
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The Mini applies a smoothing filter by default that attempts to round out the rough edges of in-game artwork, but this results in wavy sprite edges and other unsightly effects. While you can turn off the 'image optimization' setting, the resulting image is still of poor quality, with blurry pixels and color bleed suggesting that the video signal is being stretched to 720p after rendering the games at a lower resolution. All of the good games are still good, they just look uglier than we'd like.
The UI at large could benefit from a refresh, because despite looks not being everything, the bland menus feel out of place next to the bombastic packaging and the action-packed games within. Call it an effect of being spoiled by Nintendo's pitch-perfect user interfaces on its Classic consoles, but the Mini's OS leaves a lot to be desired. It gets the job done, and offers modern conveniences like save states, it just feels like it has received the least attention of all aspects of the system.
Fault the Mini for its video quality, lackluster UI, and nonexistent third-party peripheral support, but all of these critiques fall by the wayside if you think of the Mini as a simple toy, rather than as a retro console. Bite-sized arcade machines are cropping up more frequently as the retro-game bubble continues to expand. When it comes to content, SNK has the competition beat. The Mini could have shipped with half of the included games and it would still be easy to recommend as a gift or a personal gadget for your workspace, albeit a pricey one.
That said, SNK had a great opportunity to knock the Mini out of the park and deliver a great way to play Neo Geo games on your TV and missed the mark in more ways than one. Whether through a covert update solution or by correcting future production runs, SNK can theoretically correct the Mini's video filter and scaling through software, and probably open support up for third-party controllers, too. Until that imaginary update comes to pass, the unfortunate news is that the Mini is not made to a standard of quality that will please the audience that would appreciate it the most, and that's a tough pill to swallow when you consider how close SNK came to getting it right.
Editor's note: SNK provided the product samples evaluated in this review.