Released in the autumn of 1994 in Japan, and despite the addition of the quicker Neo•Geo CDZ in late 1995, the Neo•Geo CD platform peaked in 1996. By this time Neo•Geo games were being released with ever increasing MEG counts, and the short comings of SNK’s CD hardware were becoming more evident.
With games like The Last Blade, The King of Fighters ’97, and Blazing Star being released, all pushing MEG counts well over 300 MEGs, the technology just simply could not cope in a way gamers found acceptable. The long initial load times were one thing, but long in game loads were something else.
Arguably it was The King of Fighters ’95 that first showed the NGCD’s major weakness. While its predecessor, The King of Fighters ’94, only suffered load times in between stages, KoF ’95 added in the issue of gamers having to suffer loading in between rounds as the NGCD loaded in the next fighter, severely slowing the pace of the game. While KoF ’95 is far from unplayable on the CD, it is certainly a lot less fun to play than either of its MVS and AES counterparts.
Notably there was no Neo•Geo CD release of Kizuna Encounter, one of very few SNK developed games not to receive a CD release, presumably because the system could not implement the on-the-fly tag-team mechanic the game employed. Kizuna Encounter was released in 1996 and weighed in at just 242 MEGs.
In 1996 15 titles were released for the Neo•Geo CD in Japan, but in 1997 that number had fallen to just 6, with the last third-party game, Visco’s Breakers, being published that year.
It is rumoured that by 1997 SNK had quietly dropped hardware manufacture for the system, with new old stock standard CD and CDZ units sitting on Japanese retailers shelves, in addition to whatever level of inventory SNK themselves still held.
A further four games were published by SNK in 1998, with the final two titles hitting the shelves in 1999. However, by this time even SNK were holding off from porting some of their titles to the system, knowing full well it would not be able to reproduce an experience gamers would accept – Metal Slug X being the most notable omission during this period (Garou: Mark of the Wolves did not get a home release on AES until 2000, after NGCD support had already been withdrawn).
The King of Fighters ’99 was the final official SNK release for the Neo•Geo CD, released in Japan on December 2, 1999.
The CD-ROM format combined with the primary Neo•Geo hardware was, on paper at least, a great idea, and perhaps the system would have seen more success if it had been launched at around the same time as Sega’s Mega-CD (1992), when Neo•Geo MEG counts were in a more manageable range for the machine’s design.
Launching at the same time as the Sega Saturn and Sony PlayStation, and priced at around the same level, the Neo•Geo CD was always going to struggle to convince gamers it was worth the investment when it couldn’t actually replicate the experience SNK was producing in the arcade. It was clearly a case of being late to market.
While the introduction of the CDZ helped address the situation a little, ideally SNK needed a far faster CD-ROM drive, and probably double the internal RAM cache the CDZ was afforded (56Mbit). This clearly would have made the CDZ far more expensive than it already was in 1995, but arguably SNK had already made their money on the main Neo•Geo hardware due to the success of the MVS in arcades globally.
Another alternative that SNK could have possible pursued in the CDZ’s design was a Saturn style RAM pack expansion that would have made the later releases far more tolerable. Alas this is all conjecture.
Ultimately does this mean the Neo•Geo CD and CDZ are not worth owning? As I have said elsewhere: of course not!
The vast majority of the Neo•Geo’s library was ported to the Neo•Geo CD and with all but a hand full of cases the games are still really playable and really enjoyable. Could the system have been designed better to cope with vastly bulging MEG counts in the arcade? Yes, definitely. But, SNK made a number of hardware related mistakes during the mid-late ‘90s and the Neo•Geo CD’s architecture was just one of them.