Monday, May 11, 2020

Console Review: Neo Geo Pocket Color


SNK is not a company that garners as much buzz as it once did. For those unfamiliar, SNK was responsible for the Neo Geo line of hardware. For those of you still unfamiliar, the Neo Geo MVS (Multi Video System) was an arcade system released in 1990 that supported up to six games in a single cabinet.

This was kind of a game changer, as arcade owners could purchase cartridges out of the Neo Geo's substantial library and slot a few of them at a time in a single cabinet. This library included several notably awesome series such as Metal Slug, The King of Fighters, Fatal Fury, Art of Fighting, and Samurai Shodown. The system was known for its great fighting games, which make up the bulk of its catalog.

The Neo Geo MVS

For home console owners, SNK developed the Neo Geo AES (Advanced Entertainment System) to provide the same arcade experience at home (it had very similar specifications and thus was able to reach the same level of fantastic performance). It even shipped with an arcade-like joystick controller. Unfortunately, the AES was an extremely expensive beast of a console which severely limited its home market. Because of this, the AES is even more expensive to collect for today. Many games go for thousands of dollars... yikes.

Neo Geo also released the standalone Neo Geo CD, released in 1994. which was released with a more classic controller pad instead of a joystick (this is really an excellent controller; the d-pad is replaced with a thumb-sized nub that uses micro-switches for an accurate and satisfyingly clicky experience). Unfortunately, this console's commercial success was hampered by its long loading times during gameplay.

Nowadays, one of the more popular ways to collect Neo Geo games is to procure an MVS, as the games are much cheaper than the AES in general. For those that don't want to stand up an arcade cabinet in their home, Arcade Works produces the Neo Geo Omega, which is a consolized version of the MVS. You basically get a Neo Geo MVS inside a home console (supports AES joysticks and Neo Geo CD controllers), so it combines the more affordable collecting of the MVS with the convenience of a home console.

All of this is good and (hopefully) interesting information, but I really want to talk about SNK's foray into the portable market. In 1998, the Neo Geo Pocket was released in Japan. One year later, the Neo Geo Pocket Color entered the Japanese, UK, and American markets as competition to the Game Boy Color.

Unfortunately, both the Pocket and Pocket Color were commercially unsuccessful. This had more to do with marketing and competition than anything else, though. Below, we explore the curious little portable itself.

Look and Feel:

The Neo Geo Pocket Color is one slick looking portable that comes in six different, sleek colors. It continues the popular portable trend of having only two buttons (A and B) and more interestingly boasts a control stick with "microswitches" instead.

The Neo Geo Pocket Color - a gorgeous handheld
I can't overstate how amazing the control stick is on this system. It blows the stiffness of a d-pad out of the water, but it manages to feel solid and sturdy, unlike the sticks of the Vectrex or Nintendo 64. This is just an exceptional design from 1998, and while the design is similar to the stick on the Neo Geo CD's game pad, it feels so much more comfortable and precise.

Picking up the system, it's a very light and decently small portable. While one might think a portable this size would be uncomfortable in large, adult hands, it's very comfortable, partly because it bears a landscape orientation rather than the unfortunate portrait orientation of Nintendo's portables of the same era. It also lacks the heft of the Sega Game Gear and Sega Nomad, which is a huge plus when you're relying on your hands to hold up your gaming experience.

The system avoids an ugly power switch by using a power button instead - fine by me and out of the way enough to not by accidentally pressed.

There's no "pause" or "start" button here, but instead an "option" button. This is kind of strange. In some games, you push this button to pause the game, but in others, it does something else. In some games, you need to hold the button down to pause the game. This merely causes needless confusion, in my opinion. At this point in time, some sort of a "pause" button was basically standard on most consoles so I'm not sure I agree with the omission.

When you power the console on, you're greeted by a built-in menu with a calendar, horoscope (I regularly check this to see how my "romance" and "money" is forecast), etc. It's a fun little menu that makes my Pocket feel like a palm pilot.

The cartridges are just slightly larger than Game Boy Advance cartridges. They definitely look a lot more classy than Game Boy cartridges. They slot into the console from the top in the back, just like most other portables at the time.

A Biomotor Unitron (US) Cartridge

The screen looks pretty damn good. It's not backlit, but that also means that this console has superb battery life. The Pocket can go for 40 hours on a single charge. While playing on a non-backlit LCD is a little bit of a pain nowadays, it was a fairly standard expectation in 1998, and there are aftermarket backlit LCDs you can get for the system today (I'm holding out for a full-size backlit LCD that Bennvenn plans to produce soon). At any rate, the Neo Geo Pocket Color is capable of producing twice the number of colors as the Game Boy Color and has a more powerful processor, to boot.

The sound is passable, but nothing to write home about. It's a little weak and tinny.  All said, this system sure is a looker, and the only portable consoles that rival how comfortable it is are the Game Boy Advance or the Nintendo DS.


Only 81 games were released for the Neo Geo Pocket and Neo Geo Pocket Color combined. Of these, only 31 were released in North America.

Wow. Even though there's no region locking preventing you playing the Japanese games released for the system, some of them are pretty challenging to get through if you don't know how to read Japanese.

The small library for the Neo Geo Pocket Color means that a prospective collector doesn't have a ton of options when it comes to buying games, but it does make the goal of having a complete collection attainable.

Personally, it disappoints me that this console was so short-lived in its day, and its library, despite how fantastically solid it remains, is more of an indicator of the portable's potential to me.

Moving on though, the console really is considered to have a strong library. It continues the Neo Geo trend of fighting games by reviving all of our favorite SNK franchises: The King of Fighters, Fatal Fury, The Last Blade.

Most of these fighters are remarkably fun, despite utilizing the only two buttons that the portable has. The games are colorful, fast, and the microswitch stick makes pulling off moves a dream (half and full circle movements are so much easier with a stick, though moves requiring orthogonal movements may be a little easier with a d-pad, honestly). SNK vs Capcom: Match of the Millennium is an especially awesome, polished fighter.

SNK vs. Capcom: Match of the Millenium

Unlike the Neo Geo MVS, the Pocket Color has a more balanced library, in my opinion - a good thing since its library is so small. It has a small but solid sports collection (Neo Geo Pocket Tennis and Neo Turf Masters being fun standouts), some excellent, unique puzzle games (Puzzle Link is addicting and original), and a whole host of fun, original curiosities.

In Biomotor Unitron, you develop and upgrade a robot in a town, which you proceed to take through procedurally generated dungeons and battle enemies. The battles clone the Pokemon battle system, but instead of having an arsenal of Pokemon at your disposal to switch out when you please, how you fit your Unitron before you head out determines your strengths, weaknesses, and abilities. It's a fun twist, and upgrading your robot to get that new part you've been wanting is extremely satisfying.

Ganbare Neo Poke-Kun is Tamagotchi game, but your "pet" is a game developer that lives in a small condo. Provided you keep him happy, he'll churn out mini-games for you to play. The game is a bizarre treat of an experience.

Ganbare is weird.

Dark Arms: Beast Buster is an overhead action RPG that has you collecting weapons, feeding them the monsters you capture, resulting in the weapons evolving... strange but cool.

Faselei! is a tactics game that utilizes programmable movement as a core mechanic - a fresh take on the genre.

I could go on and on about all the great games for this system. However, besides the plethora of unique gems on the system, the Neo Geo Pocket Color is the home of Metal Slug: 1st Mission and Metal Slug: 2nd Mission. These are two entirely new Metal Slug games, and they are absolutely phenomenal by the series' standard. The games add more vehicle stages and even a non-linear progression. While the system's limitations mean that they don't look nearly as good as their MVS equivalents, playing these is so enthralling that it was honestly hard to dwell on it, and they are among the best looking games on the system.

Metal Slug: 2nd Mission - a legitimately awesome Metal Slug experience


The Neo Geo Pocket Color is a stylish, functional, and incredibly fun portable to play. While the small game library is disappointing, the high % of quality games means that you are likely to be happy with what you collect and play, and I can't think of a better portable to play many of the best fighting series ever made.

Retrodrunk Rating:        (9/10 bottles of beer)

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