Once upon a time, in the distant past where the arcade wasn’t full of dust and cobwebs, rather a thriving hub of flashing lights, excited young gamers and distinct bleeps and bloops…There was one company, one developer/distributor, that stood out like the Rolls Royce of video games. No, not Sega (but close)…The folks that brought the world the MVS, the very same who genuinely gave the most authentic (with the price to go with it) arcade experience in the home. Three letters that stood tall, a grand presence, and a towering beast of arcade perfection – SNK. With SNK comes that cherry red cab of excellence, which has span off multiple times over the years, most recently via third party and emulation with the X incarnation. Neo Geo.
In the late 1990’s, the Atari Lynx was a long gone memory, the Game Gear had fizzled away without true sequel and the Tiger Game.Com had challenged the status quo to only go down in flames. The Game Boy brand was unbeatable in terms of the handheld market and much like now, no matter how Nintendo faired in the home? One of their consoles was likely in your hand. A new, true challenger had to step up, something needed to smash through that glass ceiling of portable monopoly…SNK with their beloved Neo Geo branding, thought they had the answer. Enter the Neo Geo Pocket.
1999 was a big, make or break kind of year for many hardware developers. The Dreamcast wowed the whole world with its monolithic powers, Bandai teamed up with the legendary Gunpei Yokoi with their first iteration of the WonderSwan and a new millennium was right around the corner that would hold a massive shift in the markets across the board that are still being felt to this day. If you lived through it, the excitement could easily still resonate.
The Neo Geo Pocket’s release was an iffy one at best. Having made its debut at a similar point in time to the Dreamcast, with the Q4 ’98 window in Japan – it only ever had official, supported release in its home nation and smaller Asian markets, depriving the rest of the world of what could have been. Not to say it was bad, but more the fact it never really had the chance.
Following the Nintendo rather than Sega/Atari model, there was no backlight and unlike the popular Game Boy Color of the time, it remained in the age of black and white, despite running a board that smashed that of its rivals. The original NGP could be seen as a perfect representation of then-SNK stubbornness. Third party support? N’ah! Communication to the press and other distributors to help shift the product? Gotta be kidding! The fact it lasted a year on the market is almost a miracle when in comparison to the total non-support from the parent company and those around them at the time. With a lifetime (official) library of only 10 games, it is in a certain regard a collectors dream, considering it was a bomb in the marketplace, only adding to the niche appeal. In retrospect, it’s as if SNK wanted the poor thing to fail!
The aforementioned board though? Well, let’s get tech-spec-ial (hmm, sure that’s a kind of word): 16 bit TOSHIBA TLCS-900H h CPU, 32 bit/16 bit register bank configuration at 6.144 MHz, pumpin’ a wonderfully squared 256×256px with 16 palettes/plane and 64 sprites/frame. In terms of its sound, you’ll find the standard Z80 8-bit CPU with a SN76489 soundchip (or at least the equivalent). Topped off with I/O serial SIO 1 channel 19200 bit/s and 4-bit internal memory. Not bad, huh? It was all cleverly forward compatible, almost recognising the possibility for a superior form to come. More on that in a minute…
It also looked rather sexy, certainly fitting for the Neo Geo family name. A comfortable, landscape look, moulded sassy curves and an amazing micro-switched analogue thumb pad dealio, that’s comparable to the much-loved pad SNK had coupled with the mighty Neo Geo CD unit. Games always looked crisp on the sharp monochrome LCD display and undoubtedly beat the pants off an aging Game Boy in every possible regard in terms of overall appearance. It also didn’t suffer from the Sega/Atari mistake of eating batteries, running off two AAA batteries that allowed for a big chunk of game time.
This is all, of course, just the beginning of the story. Roll back round to 1999 and SNK were at the ready with the NGP’s successor. Same 16-bit glory, now in full colour brilliance! Aptly named: the Neo Geo Pocket Color. Fully backward compatible with its older sibling, but now even more beefed with 146 colours on screen out of a possible 4096, trouncing the GBC quite easily. But making competitors their proverbial bitch in the tech department had never been something that SNK had found difficult by any stretch of the imagination, it just hammered the point home if anything.
To join in on the fun with cables, SNK released multiple additions to make your NGPC that bit handier. This of course included the obligatory system link for multiplayer madness, but also a special link cable compatible with select Sega Dreamcast titles (only furthering the bond between the two arcade giants). Also, as I’ve yet to mention – the NGP/C was very much a worldwide deal. That, as in, you have language selection, clock setting and even horoscopes (yes, horoscopes) – all things that weren’t a part of Nintendo’s GBC platform.
Unlike its predecessor the Neo Geo Pocket Color was actually given a fairer shake, with strong push State-side and releases in Europe. Although attention was minimal by comparison to the marketing sway of Nintendo, the NGPC was a common fixture in smaller game stores at least in my region here in the United Kingdom. Something that hadn’t happened since the rise of the Atari and Sega handhelds, so that’s an immediate plus in SNK’s favour. They were, of course, still the underdogs. With Pokemon being the biggest thing in the history of everything ever, SNK would needs some top-drawer titles to garner any real interest from gamers, especially the female and kiddie markets that Nintendo had on handheld lockdown.
Third party support was instantly improved with the NGPC, with Rockman/Megaman, Pac-Man and even Sonic all getting a look in. It was of course various ports and originals that involved SNK’s primary arcade IP’s that got the strongest showing in the unit’s game library. Speaking of library, if you like snazzy boxes, the carts all came in snappy clamshells reminiscent of those found with the AES, rather than the flimsy cardboard that Nintendo continued with until the dawn of the DS. Another excellent point for presentation. The console was also available in different variations, similar to what the Game Gear and Game Boy had done over the years, with different colours, etc. Some more outlandish than others, but always smart and suitable for the brand. You never felt like you weren’t buying a product of absolute quality when it had the Neo Geo stamp from SNK.
Ultimately however, with the GBC picking up steam and the Game Boy Advance on the horizon, SNK really had no true hope in being the ones to finally knock the big N off their perch. As such, with a lifetime sales figure clocking in at 2million or so units, SNK’s handheld adventure had been mostly fruitless, only made worse by the financial instability of the company and its incoming buyout. As impressive as the machines were and continue to be, the dent in the market was only marginal and records were finally smashed for a number two when Sony entered the fray with their PlayStation brand and the PSP (which again, had to settle for second best at retail, despite yet another superior handheld to that available from Nintendo). The Pocket project was finally abandoned in 2001.
Despite this history being waved in your face, you may well be asking yourself (and this site)…What can I actually play on it? Is I worth playing? How about you go and ask Galactico that, would be my first response. But if you’re looking for a true retro handheld that isn’t just about Kirby, Pokemon and co – the Neo Geo Pocket (Color) is quite frankly, a total boss!! I’ve made it clear my love of SNK on several occasions, an opportunity to play some variation on the go? Come on now! GENIUS!
Obviously a first mention is being thrown to the King Of Fighters variations, R-1 and R-2, available on the system. Think Virtua Fighter Animated meets Virtua Fighter Kids, but pure SNK style and pizzazz! With your cutesy versions of Terry and the like, pound the crud out of your friends with super tight and responsive controls that reflect the excellence of the consoles build quality.
There’s also unique port of Match of the Millennium and a couple of Samurai Shodown gems, too. If you just love your card games, there’s a two game variant (Capcom version/SNK version), of SNK Vs. Capcom: Card Fighters Clash! Sonic’s solo outing on the system is one of the well-regarded 2D incarnations of the character (post-MD era), Bust-A-Move gets a typically good showing and who doesn’t love a bit of Pac?! Not to mention a whole heap of other weird and wonderful titles like Cool Cool Jam (a fun rhythm game), Dark Arms: Beast Brothers (an action-RPG title), a look in for Cotton with a version of Fantastic Night Dreams, a couple of Metal Slugs and a host of typically fun SNK arcade sports titles. Oh, Azure also whacked out a bunch of Pachinko games, if that’s really your thing.
Despite the overall selection of titles at your disposal when looking into the NGP/C, much that is available is of a very high quality and most certainly worth a play through or three. With its wide array of genres on show, despite the size of a library like that of a Game Boy; it’s an easily recommended addition to any retrobates gaming arsenal and may well become a preferred travel companion in no time at all! If you like quality over quantity? As always, just take a trip back in time and go with SNK. They rarely (if ever) steer you wrong!
I do urge anyone out there reading this who have seen one for sale at a decent price to just take the plunge. Having not supported the console with a buy in my early teens when I saw those aforementioned local stores having a hard time shift them leaves me with a feeling of guilt and regret. Don’t join me in that! Once again, the little guy may have lost, but the little guy made its own wonderful path of retro bliss.
So, go grab a Neo Geo Pocket Color and revel in its brilliantness. Just make sure you’re in a well-lit area. This was still 1999, after all. Everyone used candles then... Well that's the rumour!