Everyone’s got that friend. You know the one. Whenever you go to his house you peruse his entertainment center and repeatedly ask yourself, “What the hell is this?” Movies from faraway lands, books that were printed once before the publishing company burned down and games that were released for a console you’ve never even heard of. If you didn’t have that friend before, you certainly do now. My name is Matthew Jay, and I favor the obscure. Please like me?
The good editors of Snackbar Games have given me this little soapbox on which to stand and shout to the internets, “PUT DOWN YOUR BROWN AND GRAY SHOOTERS AND PUT THIS IN YOUR BRAIN!” Each week I’ll feature something that may not have any social significance, memorable characters or hell it might not even be fun. But I think you should play it. Sometimes it might not even be a game. Jay Button could feature a series, console or a really nice scarf with Mario on it. The point: I have a penchant for the road untraveled, and I’d like you to take a walk with me.
Now is that pretentious or what? Don’t take this as me thinking I know more about games that you. I’m sure I don’t. But I AM better at tricking editors into giving me a place to complain about video games.
To kick off this little experiment, I’m featuring one of my favorite pieces of gaming hardware in existence. I’m sure you’ve heard it’s name whispered on the floor at PAX or on the RacketBoy forums, but few people have owned one, even when it was in production.
Nintendo has ruled the handheld gaming market since the Game Boy hit shelves in 1989, but many have still tried to compete. Sega had the Game Gear, Atari failed miserably with the Lynx and in 1999 SNK released the Neo Geo Pocket Color. Despite releasing a couple home consoles, most notably the Neo Geo AES, SNK was always primarily known as an arcade manufacturer. Their forays into the console market with the Neo Geo’s intense graphic capability and crazy prices were seen as gaming for the truly hardcore. With the NGPC… that hadn’t really changed. At least it’s cheaper. And now it’s become quite easy to find with online auction sites and Amazon. You can even get a good chunk of the console’s library for around 20 bucks. The console itself can be had for $20-50 and it usually comes boxed with a game. That’s what happens when you sell half the product you’ve made. (Just ask Sega.)
In ’99 the Game Boy Color had been out for a year, and rumblings of the GBA had already started. Even with two iterations –the Neo Geo Pocket and Pocket Color– a fantastic library, the greatest handheld joystick ever and connectivity with Sega’s Dreamcast, the poor thing never had a chance. Was it the lack of a backlight, little third party support or just the fact that gamers can be pretty narrow-minded that killed it? Probably the latter.
To get your collection started, here are a couple titles I’d particularly recommend:
Capcom vs. SNK: Card Fighters Clash
Despite being largely out of the public eye, the Neo Geo Pocket was not without its trendy games. In 1999 Pokemon ruled the world. So much so that Nintendo was just looking for excuses to make games out of it. After three versions of the same title and a pinball game, they even made a Game Boy version of the real-world card game. Much cheaper than actually buying the cards and saving you from having to interact with children in fear of that pesky court order, the Pokemon TCG game was basically Pokemon but instead of catching them all you collected them. I’m not saying Capcom vs. SNK Card Fighters Clash is a ripoff of this formula, but the games are uncannily similar. Visually it’s almost exactly the same, as the player wanders from place to place, collecting cards, building decks and battling. Even the cheaply-animated sprites never stop kicking their feet when standing still. Only in this game the cards are based on your favorite Capcom and SNK characters, thus making it way better (I actually really like Pokemon, but come on).
Just as any collectible game, building decks and learning rules to a new game within a game can be daunting, but Clash eases you in well and I instantly got a hold of how to play. Deck building is as easy as switching cards in and out of a prebuilt deck at first and as your progress you’ll start to develop your own strategies. Two versions of the first game exist: one with a Capcom focus and one with more SNK characters. Pick the company with your favorite roster and play this quirky classic. It’s also one of the deeper, less arcade-y NGPC titles.
Sonic the Hedgehog Pocket Adventure
Like I said earlier, the NGPC had very little third-party support. But they did have Sega at their backs. Sonic the Hedgehog Pocket Adventure is one of the easiest-to-find, cheapest and best games on the console. Eventually it was used as a pack-in with the retail NGPC.
Sonic Pocket Adventure plays like Sonic 2 remixed, taking the best Sonic game and making it even better. Some of the levels are shorter but they become tighter and more fun. Stages from Sonic 2 that I’ve hated since I was a kid are suddenly infinitely more playable and every Robotnik fight is improved over the original. For instance, the fight in Casino Zone is way better than its Genesis counterpart. In Sonic 2, you wildly fly back and forth across the half-pipe stage and hope you’ll hit Robotnik somewhere other than the giant drill coming out of the bottom of his ship. Sonic Pocket’s boss produces two platforms on either side of him that move up when the other moves down. It gives you a sense of control over the fight, while being difficult and fun. A lot of the game is like this and it’s an incredibly enjoyable experience. This might be my favorite 2D Sonic game.
Metal Slug 1st and 2nd Mission
While there were only a couple third party supporters for the console, SNK brought all its big guns to the Neo Geo Pocket, including the flagship title Metal Slug. Not really much to say about these two except that they’re the best handheld port of the series I’ve played yet. Metal Slug 1st and 2nd Mission retain the quick pick-up-and-play arcade gameplay and difficulty all in a gorgeous little package. While most companies that were making handheld ports of well-known titles at the time would try and emulate the visuals of a much larger screen, SNK embraced the Neo Geo’s small screen and modeled their characters accordingly. That gave us the adorable yet functional chibified versions of classic SNK characters. These sprites were especially effective in the genre SNK and this console are most well known for.
Anyone who owns a Neo Geo Pocket Color will tell you it has some of the best handheld fighters ever made. All the best SNK fighting series got at least one entry on the NGPC including Last Blade, King of Fighters, Final Fight and Samurai Shodown. They even gave the ladies of SNK their own game, Gals Fighters. The best of the bunch is definitely Capcom vs. SNK: Match of the Millennium. With 22 playable characters, beautiful visuals and an incredibly deep fighting system, CvSNK:MotM is one of the most satisfying portable fighting experiences ever. It’s also one of the few NGPC games that can connect to the Dreamcast for extra content. Yeah, SNK was doing that way before Nintendo. And the NGPC was the first handheld with a menu including features like an alarm clock, calendar, horoscope and language settings. NGPC carts were manufactured in Japan and the localization was done in-house. Most carts have both languages built in and will switch depending on what your console is set to. That and it’s region-free, so importing is a breeze. This also leads to some fun mistakes in the translation like Robotnik telling me to “GET MORE CHAOS EMERALD!”
These are just a few of the games I’ve enjoyed on the console, but there is a whole great library on this thing, most of it relatively cheap. I cannot recommend this console enough for any fan of handheld gaming or fighters.
Come back in a week to read about my thoughts on Boktai: the Sun is in Your Hand, a game where I have to actually *shudder* go OUTSIDE.
Matt Jay’s collection is always building, and he’s always up for suggestions. Shoot him an email if you have an idea for something you’d like him to cover.