The Neo Geo scene continues to thrive thanks to the dedicated Hellwig brothers, who in 2000 began developing original games for SNK's 16-bit powerhouse.
As much as I love watching our industry grow and evolve, I'll always have a special place in my heart reserved for 8-bit and 16-bit games. I touched on this topic a few weeks ago, citing my appreciation for Watermelon Corporation and its recent Sega Genesis role-playing game Pier Solar, but I'd like to share a tale of another team with a similar set of ideals. That team is NG:DEV.TEAM, a company built from the aspirations of two brothers, Timm and Rene Hellwig, who in 2000 began their journey of developing and publishing games for the ill-fated, yet beloved, Neo Geo.
Originally released in 1990, the Neo Geo home console (dubbed the Arcade Entertainment System) was incredibly expensive, debuting at retail for $650. It wasn't just for show either; the AES was an exact replica of the hardware found in Neo Geo arcade machines. As much as Sega wished the Genesis could replicate the arcade experience at home, the Neo Geo actually featured pixel-perfect ports of arcade games from SNK, Data East, and ADK, to name a few. Despite the games' impressive use of enormous sprites and fluid animations, their lofty price tags, which began at $200 (fluctuating with their individual flash memory capacities), only fueled the doubts of those wary of the high-priced console.
Relative to the success of the Super Nintendo and the Sega Genesis, the Neo Geo tanked. It lives on as a cult favorite, and not just for being expensive and obscure. Series like Metal Slug, Samurai Shodown, and The King of Fighters are distinct products of SNK's commitment to extraordinary 2D arcade games.
The brothers Hellwig shared a passion for SNK's powerhouse console. They began developing Neo Geo games as a hobby in 2000, toward the tail end of the Neo Geo's life cycle. Designing your first game is already an enormous undertaking, but the process of creating physical cartridges for use in a Neo Geo would require feats of ingenuity and persistence.
Finally, in 2006, Last Hope was ready for production. After prototyping both the game and the cartridge design, the Hellwigs produced 60 copies of Last Hope…for $725. Admittedly, it wasn't cheap. Luckily for them, Neo Geo enthusiasts rabidly consume games, consoles, and accessories, without regard for pesky things like price tags, and Last Hope quickly sold out. It remains one of the rarest Neo Geo games: copies fetch thousands of dollars on eBay on the rare occasion someone decides to part with one.
Once word of Last Hope spread, it didn't take long for the Hellwigs to recognize the opportunity at hand. By porting the game to the Dreamcast, they could reach a wider audience and capitalize on the buzz surrounding Last Hope. They signed with publisher RedSpotGames and in 2007 began shipping copies of Last Hope for $40.
This was also the time the Hellwigs decided to get serious about game development as a business, establishing themselves as NG:DEV.TEAM. Since Last Hope, they've gone on to develop a handful of other games for the Neo Geo and Dreamcast, including an update to Last Hope, subtitled Pink Bullets.
Last Hope: Pink Bullets - 2009
Last Hope is an admirable side-scrolling shooter, but the original version was brutally difficult. The visual confusion caused by the blending of enemy fire and background art was a major detriment, and was unanimously recognized as the game's biggest flaw. To correct this, NG:DEV.TEAM created a second iteration of Last Hope, dubbed Pink Bullets, in 2009. As implied by the name, incoming fire was given a neon pink face-lift. It was a minor change, but it made a big difference. Last Hope is still a challenging game despite the change, but now you have only yourself to blame when you run out of credits.
Though Last Hope bears a striking resemblance to Pulstar and R-Type due to the presence of a Force pod look-alike orbiting your ship, the games are built on very different sets of rules and mechanics.
The pod at the front of your ship in Last Hope, the Z-42 Warpstar, is ever-present, acting as both weapon and shield. The ability to absorb enemy fire is a key tool in your arsenal and is your primary means of defense, as well as a conduit for earning score multipliers. The L and R triggers (on a Dreamcast controller) rotate the pod around your ship, and it can be challenging to manage the pod amid daunting obstacles and incoming fire, but the flexibility it provides is one of the defining elements of Last Hope.
Fast Striker - 2010
NG:DEV.TEAM's second game, Fast Striker, is a vertically oriented shooter that truly tests your reflexes. The in-game mechanics actually vary depending on the selected difficulty level. You don't simply face an increased number of bullets or enemies onscreen; the way your ship controls and the methods of scoring change drastically.
Regardless of which mode you choose, your ship is equipped with bidirectional firepower, firing ahead or behind your ship. When you're playing in certain modes, a warning will appear onscreen if an enemy is approaching your tail. As you navigate your way through levels, you accumulate a stock of strike shield units. Activating the shield protects your ship from enemy fire and allows you to barrel into enemies as a means of offense. It will activate automatically in novice mode, but all other modes require manual activation. It may be tempting to save your shields, but hubris can get you into trouble; should you take a direct hit, your shield stock is depleted. If you find yourself backed into a corner without an escape route, it's best to swallow your pride and activate a shield before squandering the entire stock.
Fast Striker is rendered in 2D, but the enemies and environments are prerendered 3D bitmaps. This technique, paired with the fixed camera and screen-scrolling speed, gives the false appearance of a game filled with complex 3D models. The same technique has been used in other games, such as Donkey Kong Country on the Super Nintendo, tricking the eye into seeing models that would otherwise be impossible for the system to handle.
GunLord - 2012
Departing (slightly) from the spaceship shooter genre, the latest game released by NG:DEV.TEAM is a side-scrolling platformer that emphasizes exploration and firepower. It's also worth mentioning that it's based (almost entirely) on mechanics from the Turrican series of games, which also came from humble beginnings at the hands of a determined German developer, the multi-talented, Manfred Trenz.
GunLord is a sequel of sorts, following the conclusion of Last Hope. You control Gordian Gaiden, husband of the main character of Last Hope, Vanessa Gaiden. As the titular GunLord, Gordian possesses a wide range of weaponry. His standard weapon is a multidirectional spread-shot cannon, but numerous pickups can alter the nature of its range and effect. He also possesses the Snake Beam, which is a concentrated beam weapon that Gordian uses to hit enemies lying just out of reach.
Exploring the entirety of the game's setting, the planet Kairos II, requires the use of Gordian's wheel ability. It's a throwback to Turrican, but this was ultimately derived from Samus Aran's morph ball from Metroid. Once it's activated, Gordian tucks into a ball, allowing him to roll into tight spaces.
GunLord is undoubtedly reminiscent of Turrican, featuring a near identical control scheme, but rather than simply paying homage to the series, it builds on its strengths. GunLord has large, sprawling maps, gigantic sprites, and nine levels filled with gems to collect and enemies to destroy. It's the most complex title from NG:DEV.TEAM to date, mixing platforming and shooter gameplay (level two is a horizontal spaceship shooter) to great effect.
So what's next for the German studio? It recently announced a new shooter, NEO.XYX, which is due on the Neo Geo and Dreamcast sometime in 2013.
NEO.XYX - 2013
It's a shame that these games are limited to "dead" consoles, but as NG:DEV.TEAM grows and word of its games spreads, there's always the chance we could see digital versions find their way to home consoles or portables. After all, Fast Striker is available on iOS devices, so the notion of other games in NG:DEV.TEAM's library finding homes on modern devices isn't too crazy. Without confirmation from NG:DEV.TEAM, we can only hope, but it's safe to assume that if it wants to expand its fan base, it will find a way to reach as many customers as possible.