Thank You, COVID…
Much, much later than planned, I’m able to drag myself out of bed to get working again. Thank you very much COVID and a stupid immune system. I can finally share with you my thoughts on the Darksoft NEO·GEO Multi AES Cartridge.
I was a teenager when the NEO·GEO launched in 1990, and working in the first of several games shops we owned. My first experience of NEO·GEO outside of an arcade was the one we had in the shop for people to play. My idea of course, it’s more fun than stock-taking you know.
It was to be some time before I finally got my grubby mitts on my own NEO·GEO. The only system at the time which literally offered perfect arcade conversions. Being an arcade system in a much smaller box, it had a reputation for being powerful. It also, justifiably, had a reputation for being bloody expensive. The games, which are re-boxed arcade carts, were priced significantly higher than any console before, or since.
JUST THE POSH KIDS?
Building a significant collection of AES cartridges was mainly reserved for the kids with well-heeled parents. I’ve personally never managed to own every NEO·GEO game that I want to. With some individual games going from hundreds of pounds at release, to thousands now. Even as a much, much older, married man it’s something I’ll never achieve. Not unless I want to be divorced from parts of my body I’m really rather keen on.
The NEO·GEO is home to some truly incredible games, not just the beat ‘em ups the system is most associated with. There are some incredible shooters, racing, action, puzzle and even the occasional platform game. It may never have achieved the mainstream success of a Nintendo or Sega system. But there are still over 100 officially licensed games for the NEO·GEO. Which may pale in comparison to others, but hey, quality over quantity. This is after all the system which gave us: Art of Fighting, Blazing Star, Fatal Fury, Garou: Mark of the Wolves, King of Fighters, Metal Slug and Samurai Shodown to name just a few.
OUT WITH THE OLD, IN WITH THE NEW
After a couple of decades with pretty poor options, such as 161-in-1 type cartridges. For those of us who can’t or won’t spend obscene amounts of money for a game from
scalpers sellers on eBay. It is with absolute delight that we can now say there are some much better options available to us. Thanks in no small part to products such as the Darksoft NEO·GEO Multi AES Cartridge. It’s worth mentioning that this review will also largely apply to the MVS variant, as they are almost functionally identical. I’d just like to thank Darksoft and the good folks at Save Your Games again for allowing me to put this cart through its paces.
If you read my preview of the DSMAES as I’m calling it to save me a lot of typing. Then you’ll already have a pretty good idea what I think of this product. Considering I have already said that I’d be buying one. So, a fairly big spoiler for the end of this review.
BIG GREY HEFFALUMP
The elephant in the room, of course, is that the DSMAES is not alone in the NEO·GEO cart market. There are two (well, four if you count MVS variations) cartridges available from Terraonion. I haven’t had the opportunity to try any of their NG carts. I have however, purchased their PC Engine Super SD System 3. Which you may hear more of in a future review.
One thing I can tell you off the bat regarding Terraonion. As far as my experience with the SSDS3 goes. I’m not so keen on the way they distribute software and firmware updates. To get these you must register your serial number, to gain access to their updates page. It’s a small thing, sure, but I much prefer the way Darksoft does it. He just pops updates to the menu and firmware on the Arcade Projects forum for anyone to access. Which is the way most guys in the scene do it.
Why do I prefer this? If for some reason the Arcade Projects website was unavailable, someone else can host the files. I have several TB of firmware, software, EEPROM backups, games manuals and all sorts of files for instance. Yes I’m a hoarder, but it’s come in handy for people sometimes.
THE LEGALITY ISSUE
I’m also not going to go much into the other elephant in the room. That being one of the legalities of game ROMS. You can, and will, please yourselves when it comes to that issue. As a rule of thumb I only buy flash carts to play home-brew, fan hacks and backups of games I own. Some games are just too valuable to use these days. Not that I’m selling, as much as my wife would like me to. I’d just never be able to replace some of them. Nor do I see much wrong with using a ROM from a company who no longer exists and for which there is no possible way of the [once] rights holders receiving payment for the item. So many companies and their software catalogues from my youth have disappeared and when my carts, tapes and floppies are worn out, if not for my backups, I’d never get to play those games again.
PACKED WITH POWER
The DSMAES comes packaged just like NEO·GEO games of old, in a proper moulded case. Both case and cartridge have nice artwork and it doesn’t look out of place sitting next to your other NEO·GEO games. Indeed the only thing that would suggest to you that this is not an actual original game is the small, but easy to find, Micro SD Card slot on the side.
Setting up is a ridiculously simple process. Mine came with the latest firmware and menu already installed. However, if any of these need updating, it’s a simple drag-and-drop to the Micro SD card. The actual update process itself takes only a few seconds. That aside, simply drag all of your ROMS onto your Micro SD card and you’re up and running. A complete ROM set for the cartridge is available, I can’t say where, but it’s not difficult to find.
The DSMAES is incredibly well specced, it uses an 8 layer state-of-the-art PCB design. The ‘brain’ of the cartridge is an Altera Cyclone IV FPGA. Backed up with both DDR and Flash memory and an additional ARM processor. All of which comes together into a low power high-density design. That’s important, as there’s no strain placed on the NEO·GEO, or its power supply. I have been using my normal NEO·GEO power supply during my testing and I haven’t encountered a single issue.
The DSMAES boots to its menu in a matter of seconds after you power-on your NEO·GEO. Depending on how you setup the menu, you either boot to a game selection menu, main menu or straight to the game in slot one. Slot one? Yup, there are three slots available for you to store whichever three games you’re currently playing. That’s a great feature over some one game only cart designs, giving you quick access to three favourites. Each of these slots has 768 Mbits of memory, enough to hold any commercially released NEO·GEO game, or current homebrew.
Once at the main menu, you will find it quite feature-packed for a flash cartridge. At the top, is the games list, where you will navigate and select your ROMs. The games list has a filter feature, allowing you to sort ROMs by year, letter, manufacturer, or genre. This is a very welcome feature, going through a huge list can be a royal pain if you’re doing it one-by-one.
Having chosen your games, there is a configuration entry with soft-dip settings for each game. If I’m honest, I’ve had mixed results with that section, possibly because I use the UniBIOS. If I set the options in the UniBios, they work as expected and are reflected in the DSMAES menu. One other thing about those settings, you MUST run the game once or they won’t take effect. Perhaps coolest of all, particularly for people who dot have a UniBIOS. You can set both the region of the console, and whether it’s operating in AES (console), or MVS (arcade) modes.
That last one is a huge boon, as any NEO·GEO aficionado will know. AES games, while arcade perfect in visuals and sound, were often changed to better suit a home system. The option to change the system type, without additional hardware, gives access to the perfect arcade modes of the games.
Thankfully there’s an option to change the menu music or disable it completely – I like mine silent. You can toggle in-game hotkeys, skip the Darksoft intro, toggle game list animations and choose the game list style. Boot mode options are, booting to the menu, directly into the game list, or to the game saved in slot 1.
There’s also a quick-launch feature when you’re navigating the games list. Simply hitting the 1P start button will automatically load the game you’re viewing into slot one and launch it. Finally, an about section allows you to see which firmware and menu version you are currently using. Handily, it also tells you how many of the available NEO·GEO games you have.
DOES WHAT IT SAYS ON THE TIN
So the DSMAES is pretty feature-packed, what about the main purpose of the product – playing the games? The reason I have taken so long to get this review out (other than bloody COVID), is Darksoft very kindly allowed me complete free-rein with it. Often when you get products to review you are up against a time limit before the product has to be returned. However, being (rightly so) confident in his product, Darksoft said from the start that I should take my time. He wanted me to get a proper feel for the product, to explore every nuance of the device, good, or bad, no matter how long that took.
That kind of freedom and generosity has meant that I have had the time to fully explore and experiment with the cart. While I have yet to make my way through all 240 (ish) games, I have played a very large selection. I’ve covered every genre the NEO·GEO has and played all of the most popular games – even though I am utterly hopeless at some of them. That includes the latest, very unofficial, Samurai Shodown 5 Perfect release, which works, well, perfectly.
The dozens of games I have played have all worked without a hitch, you really wouldn’t know its not the original cartridge you are using. For my own amusement, I tried a little experiment. I left the room while my wife placed a game into the NEO·GEO, covered it and started a game. Then I returned and played said game for a while, not knowing what cart was in there. Without exaggeration, I just could not tell which version of the game I was using, the number of correct guesses I managed was embarrassingly low. Even then, it was luck, not a judgement that got me my correct guesses.
Of course, there have been some small issues here and there since the cartridge first launched. But Darksoft has a terrific track record for supporting his products, and the DSMAES is no different. Since it launched there have been several firmware and menu revisions for the device, each one fixing bugs or adding new features. By this point in time, I am very happy to report that there are now no known bugs with games. Which means every game will play exactly as if you had popped the original cartridge into your NEO·GEO.
I have a hunch – though don’t hold me to this, I am occasionally wrong (don’t tell the wife I admitted that), that even though the cart has, as far as I can tell, perfect compatibility now, we have not seen the last of the firmware updates. Darksoft really likes to make sure his customers are very happy, and he does his absolute best to accommodate all of the (realistic) feature requests people make on the forums. I reckon there’s a little, not a massive amount, but a little headroom left in the FPGA and associated hardware for another feature or two, so fingers crossed.
SHOULD YOU? WOULD I?
When all is said and done, this is an incredibly well-made product. It performs flawlessly and has more than enough features for a device of its type. Is it expensive? Well, yes and no.
The price is high, but if you compare it to the price of even some single NEO·GEO games, it represents incredible value for money. I would not, in any way, shape, or form hesitate in recommending this to any NEO·GEO owner. In fact, if you have a NEO·GEO and don’t have this cart yet, your next stop after reading this should be to the good folks at Save Your Games, especially just now while the cart is on offer at a reduced price… I know I am!