Neo-Geo Pocket Color
Based on: An admirable, if futile, shared determination amongst the old masters to go down swinging.
Article by Jeremy Parish | August 3, 2009
SNK's Neo Geo was a beast of a machine, a graphical powerhouse capable of pushing 2D visuals that remained unmatched by the competition for a decade, until the mighty Dreamcast finally offered flawless renditions of Capcom's finest CPS-based arcade smashes. While other companies were touting the promise of "arcade-perfect" home ports, their fingers slightly crossed to forgive the exaggeration, SNK cut straight to the chase and simply gave gamers the actual arcade games. That power came with a price, literally, as Neo Geo systems were unreasonably expensive, and the carts even more so.
Which makes it kind of weird that the Neo Geo's portable sibling, the Neo Geo Pocket, was the first handheld system to face off against Nintendo on Gumpei Yokoi's terms. In contrast to the console from which it took its name, the NGP offered only modest hardware power, sported an inexpensive black-and-white screen, netted great battery life, and sold at a reasonable price. It was a fantastic system supported by a library of great titles that demonstrated raw power isn't essential to good game design, and it was a near-total failure at retail.
That's a shame, because the Pocket was the first portable system to truly beat Game Boy at its own game in just about every other way that matters. Unfortunately, by the time the system launched, SNK was an entity on the outs. The arcade scene had all but dried up, and pricey home releases of coin-op favorites like King of Fighters and Metal Slug were barely enough to keep the company afloat; the Neo Geo's architecture was going on a decade old, and all but a tiny (and wealthy) group of fans had migrated to 32- or 64-bit consoles. The Pocket theoretically could have saved the company's bacon, but as a manufacturer, SNK lacked both the clout to pull in third parties and the money to carve an effective retail presence.
Tragically, SNK clearly took careful notes and exactingly duplicated the factors that had made Game Boy so successful—every factor, that is, except for a wide-ranging library of games with varied appeal. The Neo Geo Pocket wasn't a patch on its console counterpart in terms of horsepower, but its moniker was apt regardless; it served up portable versions of popular Neo Geo arcade and home titles, and little else. SNK had catered to the hardcore arcade connoisseur ever since ditching its NES licensee status and flying solo, and the Pocket's library reflected that niche appeal, boasting the single best collection of handheld fighting games that will ever be made. The Pocket served up obvious conversions, like King of Fighters and The Last Blade; unexpected surprises, like the (mostly) all-girls Gals Fighters and the best products -- that's plural, products -- to result from the SNK/Capcom alliance; and genuine miracles, like Rockman Battle and Fighters, a remix of those atrocious Mega Man arcade fighters that was improbably good.
Unfortunately, in doing so, the Pocket pinned its success to genres that the mainstream had left behind years before. That meant the system may have somehow managed to worm its way into Wal-Mart's electronics department, but the Wal-Mart crowd wasn't buying. Meanwhile, dedicated fighting fans still had trouble taking handheld gaming seriously, and the cutesy super-deformed graphics SNK used for its Pocket conversions certainly didn't help. Never mind that the brawlers were packed with detail and personality, or that they moved with grace and fluidity, or that they made complex arcade fighters work smoothly on a two-button system with a teensy screen; SNK's greatest failing was that it put together brilliant games with no real audience.
In a move that Nintendo would swipe a few years later, the Pocket even offered an innovative link-up ability with a console. But Pocket wasn't paired with the Neo-Geo, as you might expect; SNK was pragmatic enough to realize there was no real percentage in trying to mine its aging—rather, dying—home hardware. Instead, they teamed up with Sega for a link to Dreamcast, a sadly fitting union, and not just because the new console offered the first great conversions of Neo Geo brawlers ever to appear on non-Neo Geo hardware. No, the connection ran deeper. Both systems were the final glorious efforts of their respective creators, two former arcade powerhouses that had made formidable bids for the home market in the waning days of the NES but which had trouble weathering the transition to 3D heralded by the '90s. Both systems were a step ahead of their direct competitors; both played host to an amazing array of brilliant first-party output in a short period of time; both died young when the funding dried up; and, oddly enough, both companies ended up being consumed by slimy pachinko companies. The Dreamcast/Neo Geo Pocket connection was practically destiny, though in hindsight it seems more like an alliance of resignation: Vasquez and Gorman making peace long enough to clasp that live grenade in their final seconds before the xenomorphs caught up with them at last.
Released a few years sooner, who knows? Maybe Neo Geo Pocket could have done a lot better. The fighting genre was far more vital then, and Game Boy had yet to experience the Pokémon renaissance. Perhaps it was timing that ultimately killed the machine: that yellow bastard Pikachu bolstered Game Boy's fanbase, and, even as the Pocket launched, Nintendo was hyping up its color revision to the system. SNK quickly followed with the Neo Geo Pocket Color, a damn fine machine that didn't matter a whit in the long run.
The death of the Pocket was so sudden it even caught SNK by surprise; the company had made a fine showing at E3 2000, promoting quality titles like Faselei! and Card Fighters Clash 2 while promising more Neo Geo conversions such as Magician Lord. A month later, Aruze bought the company and unceremoniously killed U.S. distribution of the handheld in an instant, letting it limp on for a while in Japan before gutting the Pocket line to pillage its inexpensive screens for slot machines—machines festooned with characters and franchises that had been so beautifully represented on the Pocket, now shilling for the 100-yen coins of haggard salarymen gambling away their nights before returning to loveless homes.
If ever a handheld deserved a shot at Nintendo's crown, it was Neo Geo Pocket. Unfortunately, like its namesake big brother, all its promise amounted to little more than a boutique novelty in the end. Its only real saving grace is that the selfsame lack of popularity that led to its untimely demise makes it a cheap pick-up on the aftermarket, and its limited yet brilliant library makes it a worthwhile purchase even a decade later. Even Nintendo's handhelds have left the Pocket's hardware in the dust at this point, but Game Boy isn't the only portable to profit from the fact that great game design transcends time and technology.
Screens courtesy of VG Museum