I’ve got a bucket list. No, I’m not gonna die any time soon (knock on pressboard), but there were things that I just couldn’t afford to get as a kid that I still kinda want as an adult. I spent my allowance at the arcade, and there was one particular company that had new and compelling and awesome games every time I brought my quarters to my local geek shop – the NEOGEO. When the console was released to the home market, the unit itself cost a whopping $649.99 at launch! If that wasn’t enough, the games clocked in at a staggering $199 each. With unrivaled graphics at the time, it literally brought the arcade home at a time when the Super Nintendo Entertainment System was just moving from 8-bit to 16-bit graphics. My single-income family couldn’t afford a console that expensive, much less the games to go with it, so my dreams of owning a NEOGEO would remain just that – dreams. Fast forward to today and that same console still fetches upwards of $400 with some of the more rare games tipping the scales at $1000. If that sounds well outside of your price range, you might just be interested in what I have to share today – welcome the NEOGEO X Gold.

As I unpacked the NEOGEO X Gold box (you can find out what’s in the box here) I felt the rush that you always feel when you lay hands on a new console. The huge four button controller platform was equal in size to the console chassis itself! As I spun the system around I saw a welcome sight – an HDMI port. I wondered how these games from over 20 years ago would fare on modern widescreen TVs. Gameplay has certainly changed in that time but I didn’t care – it was time to capture a part of my childhood that I would have otherwise missed.

The first thing I noticed on the console is that it’s not actually a console at all, but a charging and pass-through dock. Opening up the clamshell (it looks like the original AES home console), the NEOGEO X is actually a small Sony PlayStation Vita-sized handheld! I guess I went into this one blind as I had no idea. Powering up the system, the familiar NEO GEO logo with the Max 330 Mega designation popped up on the screen. It was time to take the 20 pre-installed games for a spin. I won’t be reviewing the games individually as I don’t think that would be fair, but I did dig into each of them, spending a bit more time with some more than others. Magician Lord, Ninja Masters, Last Resort, and King of the Monsters quite a bit, though I did find myself wanting to pick up a second controller for some 2-player King of Fighters action.

Before we get to the games, let’s talk about the hardware. The aforementioned dock is a bit of a mystery. While it looks like an original AES system (though slightly smaller) it has some really odd limitations. There is a stern warning inside the console advising to never insert the handheld into the dock while it’s powered on. Given that the system had no sleep function, this means fully powering down the system to switch platforms. The dock has HDMI support, but so does the handheld, thanks to the included HDMI cables. You can charge the handheld with a USB cable, giving the dock only one real purpose – the ability to use the USB-corded (the original was a DB15 plug, similar to the original Atari) full-size controller. I don’t have one to test this with, but I have the sneaking suspicion that adapting it down to the mini-USB port on the back it just might work, making the dock a fancy plastic storage case.

If the case comes up short, the handheld itself more than makes up for it. Built of a sturdy plastic with a solid rubber backing with ridges, the NEOGEO X features a 4.3 inch LCD widescreen display running at 480×272 resolution. When using the HDMI cable (either via the dock or from the handheld), that’s pushed up to 480p – a decent improvement over the original resolution. The specs themselves are pretty modest, closest in parity to a mobile phone than the aforementioned Vita. The CPU clocks in at 1GHz, with 256 MB of RAM onboard, and 2 GB of storage. The games come on SD Cards, though the unit won’t read an off-the-shelf SD card, meaning you won’t be running ROMs on this unit without some sort of illegal hacking. These specs sound pretty low, but it’s more than enough to tackle the game ROMS. I say ROMs because, despite the fact that you can’t run your own ROMs, this unit is in fact an emulator.

The handheld runs an Final Burn Alpha emulator from a Linux-based operating system to run the game ROM images. As such, there are some hitches that you wouldn’t see on the original boards and carts, but unless you are running them side-by-side you likely would never notice. One thing you likely will notice, and this was an issue even in the arcade, is a less-than-stable framerate. The ROMs are pretty close, if not exact to the originals, warts and all.

Given that these are ROM ports of arcade titles, it is a little surprising to see such a barren menu. Upon booting the system you have the option to switch between NTSC and PAL, and in games you have the option to quit or continue to play – that’s it. No switches, no options, no high-scores, and no save states – surprising given that all of these things are present on other emulation software that will run NEOGEO ROMs.

There is one thing that 100% captures the original console and/or the arcade experience without any caveats – the buttons and stick on the controller and the handheld unit. In both cases, what looks like an analog stick or a joystick is actually an 8-way digital switch. This means you get up, down, left, right, and half positions in between, but no true analog movements.

There is one glaring omission that isn’t readily apparent but will become so as this console matures (if that is a thing, given its retro nature) – the lack of a spring in the SD Card slot. Unlike the Vita, PSP, or Nintendo DS, you have to shut down the NEOGEO X to swap out the cards, and also unlike those systems, there is no spring to eject the card. In the end, my wife’s nails or a pair of tweezers were the chosen method of removing cards as I was just getting frustrated with trying to hook the small indent on the cards with my short fingernails.

To really test the NEOGEO X I needed to phone a friend who owns the original. Sure enough, without putting them side-by-side he was unable to see a great deal of difference. While the HDMI output did appear a bit washed out when running through the dock, it was fixed entirely by the latest firmware update. Running directly from the handheld to my TV gave me the same results. Before the update there was also some difficulty getting widescreen support through HDMI, as well as some minor screen tearing from left to right, but those were also all but completely resolved with the update. The frustrating part however is that you have to buy another product (one of the game packs) to get the “Rocket cable” – a hardware dongle that allows you to update the system. There is no method to load it through a card or via USB, and the system has no wireless method to use either. It will be a bit puzzling for those who have grown up being asked to update as soon as their handheld connects to the Internet as it’s a bit more arcane than that in this case.

So with this system coming in at roughly $180 bucks on Amazon, the question is whether or not this system will end up under your Christmas tree. If, like me, you never got your hands on a NEOGEO system, this is the next best thing. While the emulation isn’t perfect, and in some places is even a bit lackluster, it is the best legal way to play classic NEOGEO titles. The handheld lets you take them on the go, and the included 21 are some of the best this system has to offer. Over time we’ll see how well SNK supports this system. As it stands, all of the game packs are retailing at $24.99 as it includes a rocket cable – a charging / firmware update dongle. For those of us who already have one, it would be nice to see a cheaper card-only option since there is no USB or WiFi method of obtaining new titles. In the end, the NEOGEO X is a bit of a mixed bag, but if you missed the boat on the AES, this is certainly a reasonable option…far more reasonable than paying $1799 for Metal Slug X!