Childhood Wish Fulfillment (and Why Movie Theaters Are Doomed)

Tomorrow, December 18th, marks the release of the Neo Geo X, a handheld re-imagining of the Neo Geo video game system.

NeoGeoXPromoThe original Neo Geo (or, more properly, the Neo Geo AVS) was a home console designed and manufactured by SNK.  Introduced in Japan in 1990, SNK released it in the United States the following year.  A company called Tommo, in partnership with current Neo Geo IP holder SNK Playmore, will be releasing the Neo Geo X, a portable version of the original system that doubles as a console via the use of a clever docking station that replicates the look of the original AES.

Despite being a huge fan of video games when I was 12, I never owned a Neo Geo.  Then again, neither did anyone else I knew.  Or many other people in the country, for that matter.  And there was a very good reason for that.

You see, what made the Neo Geo so unique at the time was that it finally achieved the elusive goal of every home console since the late 1970s: Arcade perfection.  I mean that literally: The hardware for the Neo Geo was nearly identical in every respect (and was identical in terms of performance) to the arcade version of SNK’s masterpiece.

The Neo Geo ad that first grabbed my attention, leading to a brief (if lingering) obsession.

The Neo Geo ad that first grabbed my attention, leading to a brief (if lingering) obsession.

This meant that the same game you played at your local pizzeria or movie theater could be played in your very own den, without the graphical, sound, or gameplay shortcuts necessary to bring games home, even on great consoles like the Sega Genesis or Super Nintendo.  In fact, the Neo Geo actually innovated the concept of memory cards for video games, and the home and arcade versions of the machine were identical to the point of using the same card interchangeably.  That is, you could save your progress on your home (AVS) machine, and then take your card to the arcade (MVS) machine and pick up where you left off.

This was the Holy Grail of gaming: A machine that could actually replicate the best that the arcade had to offer.  Going back to the Atari days, gamers had been playing for inferior versions of their favorite arcade hits, with the understanding that a drop-off in quality was necessary to bring those games home.

Duplication of the arcade experience was also a moving target.  As home consoles became more advanced, so, too, did their arcade counterparts.  The quest for “arcade perfect” seemed futile in some respects because of that phenomenon.  However, there was no doubt that the gap was closing, and that horrible Atari 2600 ports had given way to successively-closer home versions from more advanced consoles, all the way up to Genesis games that occasionally had to be seen side-by-side with arcade games to spot the differences.  But the differences were still there.

That is, until the Neo Geo.

Yet, this perfection came at a price—a hefty one.

The Neo Geo console retailed for a whopping $650, which is a little over $1,000 in today’s dollars.  When I first saw the retail price for the AES, I convinced myself that a year of saving, coupled with twelve months of equally-dedicated begging, could probably bring the Neo Geo within reach, even for a middle-class kid like myself.

For a brief time in 1990, I had become obsessed with the Neo Geo after seeing the initial print advertisements and drooling over the screenshots.  In fact, I was so infatuated by the SNK machine that I surreptitiously ran up a fairly substantial “1-900” bill at my grandmother’s house calling a video game hotline  just to listen to some of the in-game audio for Baseball Stars Professional.[1]  Remember that, at the time, there was no internet.

So, I was totally on-board the Neo Geo bandwagon.  I was convinced I could get my parents to buy the console.  I would be the envy of my friends, and, more importantly, my hope was that I would be able to play bona fide arcade games in my own home by the following Christmas.

I quickly abandoned that hope when I saw the prices for the games.

Presented for a size comparison.  Yeah, the Neo Geo cartridge LOOKS like it cost $250, and it did.

Presented for a size comparison. Yeah, the Neo Geo cartridge (upper-left, next to the NES cart) LOOKS like it cost $250, and it did.

In a pre-CD, pre-flash-memory, pre-internet world, there was simply no medium by which to distribute games other than cartridges.  Cartridges meant expensive chips.  And games as advanced (and huge) as Neo Geo titles meant a whole lot of chips.

The long and short of it was that Neo Geo games retailed for $200–$300 each, which was as much or more than a competing system cost.

While I figured I could get the folks to pop for a $650 combination Christmas / birthday present, I also knew that owning a Neo Geo meant getting about one game per year.  That meant a game collection maybe three-or-four-deep by the time I got my driver’s license and possibly had bigger fish to fry.  I also went through my mental rolodex of video game purchases over the years, realizing that maybe one-fourth of those choices had been duds.  Advanced graphics or not, having a 25% chance of picking a bad game (and only playing that one game for a whole 12 months) seemed like a bad idea.

So, I abandoned the notion of owning a Neo Geo entirely, although somewhere, deep down, I still carried a little torch for the venerable machine.

The Neo Geo X allows the adult[2] version of me to embark on a journey of childhood wish fulfillment.  Based on everything I’ve seen so far, the system looks fantastic, featuring a Linux-based emulation that appears at first glance to be absolutely perfect.  The ability to hook up the Neo Geo X to a television and play with a USB-based version of the old arcade sticks has the 11-year-old version of me jumping for joy.

In addition to the handheld, the docking station, an arcade stick, and the connector cables (HDMI and composite), the system comes pre-packed with 20 classic games.  The selection is a bit fighter-heavy for my tastes, including such staples as Samurai Showdown II, Fatal Fury Special, and World Heroes Perfect, but fighters were unquestionably the bread-and-butter of the system.  There’s certainly variety, though, with games from a wide range of genres, like Baseball Stars II, Nam-1975, Cyber Lip, Magician Lord, Super Sidekicks, Puzzled, and League Bowling.  The limited edition initial run of the Neo Geo X also includes a bonus game, Ninja Master’s.  Ninja Master’s comes on a SD memory card that will be the format for future titles for the system.

The best part?  The system, the accessories, and all 21 games retail for a mere $199.  For those of us old enough to remember staring at lists of individual games that cost more than that, this seems like a major bargain.  I pre-ordered mine weeks ago, and I’m looking forward to giving it a test run sometime later this week when it arrives.

In thinking about the Neo Geo’s history, another thought occurred to me.

When I was growing up, duplicating the arcade experience was the fantasy of most gamers.  Today, two decades later, arcades basically don’t exist anymore, except as nostalgia pieces.

So, what changed?

The “arcade experience” meant two key things.  First, a video game that looked, sounded, and played like a game in the arcade.  Secondly, a game that allowed a social, celebratory gathering atmosphere.

Early games failed on both counts, but especially the former.  The Neo Geo was the first to change that.  Other systems, through peripherals that allowed more than two players, then, later, through online connectivity, erased the second.

The point is that we went from dreaming about emulating the arcade experience to asking “What’s an arcade?” in a generation.  And, for the same reasons, I think movie theaters are on the way out.

"4k" TVs cost a ton now, but they won't in three years.  They have a better picture than most movie screens.  Also, glasses-less 3D is coming soon as well, removing yet another theater trump card.

“4k” television sets cost a whole lot right now, but they won’t in three years. They have a better picture than most movie screens. Also, glasses-less 3D is coming soon as well, removing yet another theater trump card.

What three facets of the movie-going experience make it unique?  First, the actual sensory aspect, meaning watching a film on a large screen with beautiful picture quality and surround sound.  An increasing number of us are able to reproduce that in our own homes, coupled with the ability to pause and rewind.  Plus, the snacks are much cheaper.

Secondly, there’s the social aspect.  Again, our home theaters are so large now as to be able to accommodate the same number of people as would accompany us to a movie.  That works in tandem with the almost-limitless online communities and review sites where discussion about films takes place perpetually.  I will grant that it’s difficult to simulate the experience of being in a theater full of people enjoying an uproarious comedy, but, as with picture and sound, the experience is now so close as to have crossed a critical threshold.

Finally, there’s the first-run aspect.  This is the one remaining ace in the hole for the movie industry, but even that element may be drawing to a close.  Many low-budget and independent releases are already using an “on-demand” or “same-day digital” distribution model.  Many others have an increasingly-short lag-time between a limited theatrical run and a home release.  The hurdle for major motion-picture companies are the eligibility rules for the Academy Awards.  The short version is that it’s difficult (or impossible, by rule) for a company seeking to distribute a film by non-traditional means to avoid running afoul of Oscar eligibility.  There’s also a lingering stigma, especially among the old-school (and sometimes just plain old) folks who run Hollywood.

But the change is already happening.  On-demand distribution methodology will be the norm on television (except for live events) within five-to-seven years.  Theaters have already begun showing “one night only” events to try to create a new type of business to bolster a moviegoing public that increasingly chooses to stay home.[3]

Within a few years (and I mean very few, as in less than a decade), we’ll have inexpensive televisions that have superior picture quality to a typical theater screen of 2015 or 2020.  We’ll have more access than ever to movie discussion, debate, questions, and facts, whether with friends or with strangers.  Finally, it is more likely than not that major film releases will come to homes even more quickly than they do now, particularly with streaming options becoming more feasible and popular thanks to improved infrastructure in most parts of the country.

So, just as arcades died a surprisingly quick and quiet death thanks to home systems that could reproduce or nearly-reproduce what gamers could find in arcades, so, too, will the suffering of theaters increase exponentially under the weight of ever-greater and ever-cheaper home options that reproduce the best parts of the experience.

Metal Slug

Metal Slug, with its beautiful art style

Maybe we’ll look back at HDTV, 5.1 surround sound, or Netflix as the beginning of the end of the theater industry in the same way that we look at the Neo Geo as an important first step toward the decline and fall of arcades as a money-making enterprise.

For now, I’ll be content to table that philosophical question for the sake of playing Metal Slug.

_____________

[1] It’s funny how puberty can change priorities.  Even by the end of the following year, the idea of spending money for the sake of listening to video game audio seemed ridiculous.
[2] I’m using the term “adult” very loosely, here.
[3] One thing that the movie industry very shrewdly obscures is the general decline of the business.  Film is the only entertainment business that uses total receipts as the measure of success.  TV uses number of viewers, music uses number of albums sold, and video games use number of games sold.  Instead of using number of tickets sold, the movies use total receipts (but don’t normally adjust for inflation), which gives the impression that the movie industry is always getting bigger and bigger.  The truth is that, when adjusting for inflation, only one of the the 25 most successful films of all time has been released in the past 15 years, and that’s Avatar, which ranks fourteenth.  On the other hand, when not adjusting for inflation, 20 of the 25 highest-grossing films of all time are from the past 15 years, including last year’s The Avengers, which checks in at #3.  That distortion allows the film industry to maintain the fiction that the movie industry’s health is better than ever.
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One Response to Childhood Wish Fulfillment (and Why Movie Theaters Are Doomed)

  1. This is pretty much part of the reason I hibernate in my room which is equipped with a 42″ 1080P LED LCD HDTV hooked up to my 360, PS3, Wii, WD Media Center, HD Xfinity cable box, PS2, and Turbo Graffix 16, and old-school modded Xbox. 😀

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