By the mid 90s, pretty much everyone had given up attempting to compete with Nintendo in handheld video games. Nintendo had seen off every competitor quite easily in the early years, and in the mid to late 90s the release of the first Pokemon games started a new handheld boom period for them.
So in 1998, with the original Pokemon explosion just rolling out worldwide, a struggling SNK thought they’d give it a go, and released a handheld partner to their Neo Geo home consoles – the Neo Geo Pocket. The platform ran through three models in its short life between 1998 and 2001, and while now a footnote on gaming history, it managed to be a worthwhile Game Boy alternative and is now quite a nice little platform to collect.
In terms of capability, the system is somewhat comparable to the Game Boy Color, but what sets it apart from your average handheld is its focus on the fighting game genre, which until then was always quite weak on handhelds.
To facilitate the easier control of fighting games, SNK developed a mini joystick to use as the directional controller instead of a dpad. Feeling somewhere between a genuine joystick and the rather excellent floating dpad of the Sega Saturn controller, the ‘clicky stick’ takes up more profile than a dpad would, but it’s simply a fantastic little controller, much better than dpads for fighting games, and makes playing the handheld a unique experience.
The original model used a black and white LCD like the original Game Boy, but was quite shortlived, as unfortunately for SNK Nintendo had just released the Game Boy Color to great fanfare. It was followed quite rapidly with the backward compatible Neo Geo Pocket Color, which used a similar non-backlit reflective colour LCD display to Nintendo’s machine. SNK attempted to respect early adopters, and most games continued to be compatible with the original black and white model, which probably held certain games back somewhat. While the original was only released in Japan and Asia, the colour model was also released in Europe and the US.
The initial colour model is slightly larger in every dimension than the original. But there is also a final Japan-only revision, the Neo Geo Pocket Color ‘slim’ model.
The slim is comparable to the original black and white machine’s size, and has a slightly sharper, higher contrast screen. It’s definitely the best model.
The system has an odd two battery design. In a similar fashion to Sega’s Saturn and Dreamcast it uses a button battery to save console settings, and like those systems it has a bios with some basic built in software like a calendar.
Of course also like those systems, it has a nag screen about a dead battery, and asks you to set the date when the sub battery has died.
Black and white games can be ‘colourised’ on colour models in a similar manner to original Game Boy games on a GBC, except that the choice is made and saved on the bios screen, instead of selecting via a button combination at boot.
The games came in extremely cool little cases fashioned after the Neo Geo AES ‘Shockboxes’.
At least they did in Japan and Europe. The USA got basic cardboard boxes, and unfortunately late in the life of the system the Japanese games moved to cardboard as well.
Frustratingly the cardboard boxes are thinner and slightly taller then the mini shockboxes, so the two types of game packaging don’t like up nicely next to each other on a shelf.
While the system is mostly famous for the handheld versions of many SNK classics such as Samurai Spirits, King of Fighters and Metal Slug, it actually received some support from third parties as well, such as Puzzle Bobble Mini from Taito and a pretty nice version of Pac Man from Namco.
Quite famously, Sega released a Sonic game on the platform, Sonic Pocket Adventure. A semi-remix of Sonic The Hedgehog 2, it’s probably still the greatest original handheld Sonic game. Sega and SNK entered into something of a partnership, as there was a Neo Geo Pocket Color to Dreamcast cable released that allow transfer of data between certain games, such as the Dreamcast ports of King of Fighters 98 and 99 and the Capcom vs SNK games.
The system is unique for the many excellent fighting games. While all the fighting games look pretty similar, in a super-deformed style, they evolved and got significantly better as time passed. Earlier games like King of Fighters R1 and R2 and Fatal Fury First Contract are decent, but the latter ones are much smoother. Match of the Millenium: SNK vs Capcom is simply the best handheld fighting game ever released, and the super-kawaii Gals Fighters, with its female only cast, is full of crazy-cute animations reminiscent of Capcom’s Pocket Fighter.
It’s a pretty nice system to collect. There are decent to great games of most genres (action, RPG, puzzle), and many people love the quite addictive SNK vs Capcom card game. But it’s really about the fighters, as they’re what sets the system apart.