Released in 1987, this misguided Athena awkwardly sculpts an arcade title into an NES game. The original arcade Athena was never particularly good, but the NES version suffers under truly baffling priorities. Instead of scaling back the game or turning it into an action-RPG (as Tecmo did with Rygar), the programmers of Athena tried to imitate its progenitor in ways that didn’t matter. So the NES game replicates the arcade game’s intro, level graphics, and box-wipe transitions. And it has nothing resembling coherent, enjoyable gameplay.
As you endure the unpredictable controls and grating soundtrack of Athena’s first level, you might notice the small blobs that emerge from trees. The Japanese version of the game dubs them “nuupah,” and the American manual calls them “goobers.” They’re easily dispatched, or rather they would be if the game’s hit detection weren’t so terrible.
Let's turn to Crystalis, which stands at the other end of SNK’s library. Unlike Athena and Ikari Warriors, Crystalis was built from scratch for the NES, and the effort produced one of the console's finest. An energetic action-RPG in the Zelda vein, Crystalis features a broad, Nausicaä-inspired world ushered in by an apocalypse. Its hero wields a variety of spells and swords, plus other abilities far ahead of the NES era: chargeable magic, shape-shifting, and jumping. Far too many action-RPGs still lack in the jumping department.
There’s also an Athena cameo or two in Crystalis. The goddess heroine was rapidly becoming SNK’s first mascot by 1990, so Athena (as “Asina”) and her Psycho Solider sidekick Kensou show up to advise the hero of Crystalis. And this isn’t the only link between SNK’s best and worst NES games.
Once the hero awakens from his cryogenic pod and ventures past his hometown, the first enemy encountered is one of those blue blobs from Athena. It inches along with much the same animation, and it’s just as easily defeated.
This shared enemy wasn’t a mere shortcut, either. The Japanese manual for Crystalis (called God Slayer: Sonata of the Far-Away Skies) shows the hero posing with a blob, implying that these creatures might be tamed and befriended if the player stopped killing them all the time.
The SNK blob disappeared after this, and apart from a mediocre Game Boy Color port, so did Crystalis. SNK and director Kazuhito Kohno never bothered with a sequel, spiritual or otherwise. As the 1990s kicked in, SNK dismissed plans for original console games and instead turned to arcades. The company threw its weight behind the Neo Geo, arcade hardware that was also available in a pricey console form. It was both SNK’s greatest legacy and its downfall.
The Neo Geo did well at first, attracting a dedicated crowd of fans who didn’t mind paying $600 for a system and $200 for arcade-exact games. The console found further success when Capcom’s Street Fighter II arrived in arcades and sparked a fighting-game craze. While the Neo Geo never hosted a Street Fighter game, SNK took full advantage of the trend. The Neo Geo’s library of side-scrollers and sports titles soon turned to a lineup of fighting games and more fighting games. In 1996, SNK was juggling five different fighter dynasties: Fatal Fury, The King of Fighters, Art of Fighting, Samurai Shodown, and the short-lived Savage Reign. This couldn’t last.
The game industry’s mania for fighters diminished toward the end of the 1990s, and arcades themselves waned in the face of increasingly powerful consoles. SNK either didn’t notice or didn’t care. The company continued cranking out Neo Geo games as well as new versions of the system. A CD-based Neo Geo proved an unsatisfying cul-de-sac, and its library was mostly arcade ports with painful loading times. The Hyper Neo Geo 64 fared even worse in its attempt to replace the aging Neo Geo in arcades. It died quickly, hosting only seven games and receiving no home-system incarnation.
The PlayStation era saw widespread fondness for action games and RPGs, yet SNK made only a few stumbling attempts at these. A Samurai Shodown RPG met with delays and poor marketing, and its eventual release was swiftly buried. Athena: Awakening From the Ordinary Life put the recurring heroine in a sci-fi adventure, yet it offered little gameplay. SNK found better material by financing Sacnoth’s Koudelka (above), a PlayStation RPG staged at a haunted monastery in the late 1800s. Even this proved a troubled creation. Tedious random battles infest the game's Resident Evil approach, while the clumsily translated dialogue wrecks all attempts at mature storytelling.
These blunders had cost SNK dearly by the end of the decade, even as the Neo Geo saw its best titles in Metal Slug 3, Garou: Mark of the Wolves, and Last Blade 2. The company put new faith in a handheld called the Neo Geo Pocket Color, but financial strains forced SNK into a merger with gambling-machine monolith Aruze in 2000. Aruze quickly gutted SNK, and the Neo Geo Pocket Color died just as it was finding its niche in North America. Strangely, Koudelka survived SNK’s collapse, as Sacnoth reformed as Nautilis and made the directly related Shadow Hearts trilogy for Aruze.
SNK recovered, but the damage was done. Company founder Eikichi Kawasaki bought back old properties and flew a new banner under the name SNK Playmore, which relies mostly on older properties. The label is still alive today and still updating franchises like The King of Fighters and Metal Slug. Like most faded Japanese game companies, they’re also supported by pachislot machines and creepy anime-girl titles.
In Crystalis and its little blue gel-creature, we see the road not taken. Had SNK paid a little more attention to consoles and their favored genres, the company would’ve had a place to turn when arcades and fighting games were no longer enough. Perhaps today that blob would be SNK’s version of the Dragon Quest slime, appearing in a Crystalis remake, a genuinely good Athena game, and any number of original titles. But that path closed a long time ago.