Retro collector review: Neo Geo Pocket Color

In the 1990s, Nintendo had a vice grip on the handheld console market.

The original model of the company’s revolutionary Game Boy remained viable for almost an entire decade—from 1989 all the way to 1998, when competition from handhelds like SNK’s Neo Geo Pocket convinced Nintendo to release an updated color model.

As a response, SNK released a color version of its NGP, the aptly-named Neo Geo Pocket Color, in August 1999. Unlike its predecessor, NGPC received a western release—first through the website eToys.com, then at most retailers that carried video games. It was a bold push into the Big N’s turf, but the fighting wouldn’t last long. In June 2000, SNK’s venture ended with its sale to Aruze, a company best-known for video gambling machines.

SNK’s wager against Nintendo didn’t work out, but it did give the US its first serious non-Nintendo handheld. Today, NGPC is championed by retro enthusiasts. After spending some time with the console myself, I can see why.

The hardware

To put it simply, NGPC is more impressive than GBC in all the ways that matter.

SNK’s handheld included a 16-bit processor two years before Nintendo would bring its own 16-bit portable, Game Boy Advance, to market. NGPC used that extra horsepower to display nearly three times the variety of on-screen colors (146 versus GBC’s 56) and 24 more simultaneous sprites. In short, NGPC looked better than its toughest competition—but graphics alone do not make a gaming experience.

Luckily, NGPC is also a joy to play. Informed by its experience as an arcade cabinet manufacturer, SNK chose to forego the then-standard directional pad for a responsive analog stick that feels a lot like the 3DS family’s circle pad. Inputs are made via the stick, two face buttons and an option button that’s usually used to move through menus or pause games.

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Thanks to the inclusion of an analog stick, SNK fighting franchises like Samurai Showdown and King of Fighters feel at home on NGPC. The minimal input options may suggest a shallow experience, but limiting actions to two buttons gave the games an appealing accessibility. They’re still fun to play today, and their chibi art styles (more on that later) help them feel less dated than the average GBC title.

NGPC also includes a system menu, which handles simple tasks like choosing a theme or setting date and time. The system features are persistently powered by a watch battery, while two AA batteries are required to access system menus and play games. NGPC users can expect to get around 40 hours of gameplay from each pair of batteries compared to GBC’s 15 hour average.

That’s a lot of gaming, but NGPC makes it feasible thanks to a comfortable design. Buttons are well-placed around the console’s 2.7-inch screen and gripping the unit is easy thanks to protrusions sticking out from the back of both sides. Other features include a headphone jack and an extension slot for the NGPC link cable, used for multiplayer gaming and connectivity with a number of SNK Sega Dreamcast games.

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My only complaints about the hardware are its cheap-feeling A and B buttons and the lack of backlighting. The former is just an opinion, but the missing light definitely dates this otherwise forward-thinking handheld console—finding the perfect angle to play by lamplight isn’t exactly a skill I thought I’d use after childhood, but here I am. Good thing the games are worth playing.

The software

There were 14 titles available for NGPC at launch, with first-party offerings like Metal Slug 1st Mission and Fatal Fury: First Contact leading the charge. Over the course of its short life, NGPC also received support from Namco in the form of an impressive Pac-Man port, as well as Sega, which contributed the second Sonic the Hedgehog game to release on a non-Sega console (the first was on Tiger Electronic’s Game.com handheld).

Sonic the Hedgehog Pocket Adventure received glowing reviews from critics and stands as a testament to NGPC’s power. That power wasn’t quite enough to run arcade-perfect ports of SNK heavy-hitters, but the company adjusted its approach and, whether inadvertent or not, gave NGPC one of its defining characteristics.

Titles like the aforementioned Samurai Showdown II and King of Fighters R-2 feature large chibi (cute) character sprites that leap off the NGPC screen. The shift in artistic style scaled down SNK arcade brawlers for the system’s 16-bit processor, created a marketable kid-friendly look for traditionally gritty franchises and gave SNK’s handheld fighters a distinct flare that withstands the test of time.

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One of NGPC’s rarest carts, SNK vs. Capcom: The Match of the Millennium, utilizes the chibi art style and tight controls to deliver a tour de force in portable fighting. SNK’s partnership with Capcom also produced SNK vs. Capcom: Card Fighters Clash, a critically acclaimed card battle game that plays like Magic: The Gathering lite. Two versions of the game were released for NGPC (SNK and Capcom), each featuring exclusive cards.

The NGPC library covered genres ranging from fighters and card battle games to sports (Pocket Tennis, Neo Turf Masters), puzzle (Bust-a-Move Pocket, Puzzle Link series) and RPGs (Evolution: Eternal Dungeons, Faselei!). Sadly, most of the games released for the console would never make it to US gamers—when NGPC was discontinued in June 2000, 30 games were available in the United States, only slightly doubling the console’s launch catalog size.

Most of those games received high marks from contemporary critics for balancing technically impressive features with fun, accessible gameplay. Based on my experience with the console’s catalog, I tend to agree.

NGPC 101

Despite NGPC’s low market share (its peak penetration was two percent), systems aren’t impossible to procure.

I had little luck finding NGPC items at used game shops, so I recommend starting online. I purchased my system on eBay and, after a slight delay due to special shipping regulations regarding the console’s internal battery, my metallic blue NGPC console arrived in great condition. I was worried about screen scratches and other damage common of used handhelds, but I’ve found that most NGPC-related auctions are by collectors who respect their pieces and are happy to answer questions.

Collecting is also made easier due to NGPC’s region-free status—an American system can play any NGPC game released in any country, and any system can play an American NGPC game. This comes in handy if collectors want one of the Japanese exclusive colors of NGPC or the 13-percent smaller remodel, New Neo Geo Pocket Color. NNGPC models can be spotted easily—the word “color” appears in print at the top-right corner of NGPC’s screen, while the slim model features the word in cursive.

As for games, it’s feasible to own the system’s entire US library without breaking the bank if the words “complete-in-box” aren’t important.

Most titles can be found at eBay or Neo Geo Store for reasonable prices, and sellers on Amazon sometimes offer sealed four-packs of games. These were released alongside a six-game bundle that hit discount retailers in 2003 and included the NGPC hardware.

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Two of NGPC’s rarest North American releases, Faselei! and Samurai Showdown-esque fighter The Last Blade, were part of the six-game bundle despite neither receiving an official US release. Japanese versions of both—and other rarer NGPC titles—are easier to find than their American counterparts, but require a working knowledge of written Japanese.

When considering items found in the US market, collectors who are vigilant and patient should be able to obtain a NGPC and at least half its US library for approximately $150. The price increases if original boxes and instructions come into play.

Verdict

SNK’s NGPC is a unique piece of gaming history and any enthusiast owes it to themselves to play these games. It’s an affordable alternative to GBC collecting—top first party titles can be purchased at a fraction of the cost—and the hardware is technically superior. It may not be a household name with a catalog full of recognizable franchises, but NGPC had a hell of a year, and it’ll take you less time than that to track down every one of its games.

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