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Hardware Classics: SNK Neo Geo Pocket Color

Posted by Damien McFerran

I'm not boy

As the '90s drew to a close Nintendo's massively popular Game Boy handheld — which was almost a decade old and had already seen away more powerful rivals like the Atari Lynx and Sega Game Gear — was about to face a fresh wave of competition. The Bandai WonderSwan was perhaps the most interesting challenger — on paper, at least — because it was designed by Gunpei Yokoi, the man who created the Game Boy when he was still at Nintendo. However, the WonderSwan never saw release outside of Japan, and as a result it is SNK's Neo Geo Pocket which tends to stick in the memories of most western handheld enthusiasts.

A veteran of the '80s arcade scene, SNK was most famous at this point for its Neo Geo arcade system, which also spawned a home console in the shape of the Neo Geo Advanced Entertainment System. After an abortive attempt to make its domestic tech more affordable with the Neo Geo CD system in the mid-'90s, SNK decided to expand into the handheld sector. 1998's Neo Geo Pocket was, like the WonderSwan, built to outshine the then-ageing Game Boy. It boasted a powerful 16-bit CPU, 20 hours of battery life from two AA batteries and even built-in PDA-style functionality, such as a clock, calendar and horoscope reader — these features required an additional Lithium CR2032 battery. However, one thing it lacked was a colour display.

Like Bandai, SNK totally underestimated Nintendo. The Game Boy Color was launched in the same year as the Neo Geo Pocket and drastically changed the playing field; the Neo Geo Pocket and WonderSwan — both of which had monochrome displays — were instantly outmatched, despite the fact that their internal architecture was still better than that of Nintendo's console, which still used an 8-bit CPU. The Neo Geo Pocket performed limply at retail, with only ten games being released and no western launch. Licking its wounds, SNK returned to the drawing board and in 1999 released the Neo Geo Pocket Color. After a false start, the company was now ready to truly make some waves — not just in its native Japan, but in North America and Europe as well.

The Neo Geo Pocket Color is arguably the system that SNK should have launched with. While it is internally a close match for its predecessor, the all-important TFT colour screen — which could simultaneously display 146 colors out of a palette of 4096 — was glorious. Like its immediate rivals, the screen wasn't backlit, but this helped maintain some impressive stamina. The console is capable of 40 hours of battery life from two AAs — twice that of the monochrome edition of the system. Black and white Neo Geo Pocket games were all backwards compatible with the newer variant, and in a neat twist the vast majority of colour games would work on the original console — but would be displayed in monochrome, naturally.

Unlike previous handhelds, the Neo Geo Pocket Color didn't use a digital pad. Instead, SNK carried across the microswitched control stick seen on the Neo Geo CD joypad, a gloriously clicky interface which was as accurate as it was noisy. Ideal for fighting games which called for flowing movements, it remains an excellent way to play games — so much so that the recent Neo Geo X handheld replicated the same stick. Two face buttons were included, and the console could be linked up for multiplayer games with a special cable. Interestingly, another cable was also released which allowed SNK's system to communicate with the Sega Dreamcast; the idea was that content from a certain game could be accessed by linking up with another. As an example, it was possible to unlock characters in the Dreamcast fighter Capcom vs. SNK: Millenium Fight 2000 by earning points in mini-games played on the Neo Geo equivalent, SNK vs. Capcom: Match of the Millenium.

One of things that many former Neo Geo Pocket owners will recall is the amazing packaging used for the console's games. SNK looked to replicate the plastic clamshell cases used on its AES system, and the first few titles in Japan and North America were sold in smaller equivalents. Arguably the most appealing handheld game boxes ever, these looked positively gorgeous lined up on a shelf, and added to the mystique of the platform. Sadly, to cut costs SNK employed cardboard cases later on, with the exception of Europe, which continued to get clamshell boxes up until the death of the system in that region.

SNK being SNK, many of the titles released on the Neo Geo Pocket Color were ports of the company's famous arcade franchises — many of which involved fighting. King of Fighters, Samurai Shodown and Fatal Fury all received their own portable outings, complete with super-deformed combatants. Metal Slug was blessed with two Neo Geo Pocket adventures, the second of which — appropriately entitled Metal Slug: 2nd Mission — remains one of the console's most desirable releases. SNK explored new territory with the likes of Cool Cool Jam and Dive Alert, while existing IP was given a new lease of life in the form of Dark Arms: Beast Busters, an action RPG based on the 1989 coin-op Beast Busters.

Of course, third party support was always going to be the decider, and here SNK did better than was possibly expected; after all, the Neo Geo arcade system saw relatively little input from big-name external developers or publishers. The biggest surprise was the arrival of Sonic Pocket Adventure in 1999 — one of the Blue Blur's first outings on a non-Sega console (the first being Sonic Jam on the ill-fated Tiger Game.com), but Namco also supported the Neo Geo Pocket Color with a fantastically accurate conversion of Pac-Man, which came complete with a "Cross Ring" stick adapter to make moving in four directions easier. Capcom — a long-time rival of SNK in the arcades — was also on-board, producing Rockman: Battle & Fighters and lending its blessing to the SNK vs. Capcom series of titles. These included the aforementioned SNK vs. Capcom: Match of the Millenium — arguably the greatest handheld fighter of the generation — and SNK vs. Capcom: Card Fighters Clash, a excellent title which was released in two forms (Capcom and SNK) and would later receive a Japan-only sequel.

While the Neo Geo Pocket Color's library is loaded with classics — arguably more so than the WonderSwan's — it shared the same fate as all of the Game Boy's challengers. Nintendo's might in this sector was absolute, and SNK's plucky system — which was aimed at a more mature player in Japan, hence the witty "I'm not boy" advertising campaign — failed to gain the degree of traction required to eat into the massive market share of its competitor. In Europe, the handheld saw extensive lifestyle advertising and gained valuable shelf space in the likes of HMV and Virgin, two of the biggest entertainment retailers of the period, but such exposure was short-lived. Although North American promotional campaigns were less consistent, by the end of the console's lifespan it was getting a decent push and was being retailed in many of the country's largest stores. However, disaster struck when SNK collapsed and was subsequently bought-out by Pachinko maker Aruze.

The decision was made to terminate business operations in the west and focus entirely on Japan, where the console would survive a little longer. However, this move ironically resulted in some of the most collectable Neo Geo Pocket Color games. Western cartridges were recalled for recycling, but some made it to market in tiny numbers; the UK version of Pocket Reversi is worth a handsome sum these days, yet the Japanese edition — which is available in large numbers — is dirt cheap. Other games, such as the RPG Faselei!, are also incredibly rare in their western form.

The fact that the Neo Geo Pocket Color received a global release has ensured that prices on the second-hand market are relatively cheap — certainly when compared to the WonderSwan, which is growing in value with each passing year. A Neo Geo Pocket Color console won't cost you much online, but software is beginning to rise in price. Sought-after titles like Metal Slug: 2nd Mission, SNK vs Capcom: Card Fighters Clash and Samurai Shodown II are already much more expensive than they were just a few years ago. However, there are still plenty of cheap and highly playable titles around, so if you're looking to build a library quickly, it's not a painful experience by any means. Puzzle Bobble, Pocket Tennis Color and Neo Turf Masters are all low-cost offerings which are worth a look, while the console's surfeit of fighting games will make it a desirable purchase for fans of that particular genre.

Like the WonderSwan, the Neo Geo Pocket Color may not have succeeded in its goal of wrestling market share away from Nintendo, but that doesn't automatically mean it was a failure. Many fans will argue that the quality of the software available was far in advance of that on the Game Boy Color, and the fantastic controls, amazing battery life, cool PDA features and excellent screen combine to make a system which is still hard to put down, even today.

Screenshots courtesy of The Video Game Museum.

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User Comments (45)

Karakato

#1

Karakato said:

The Neo Geo Pocket Color was definitely the definition of an under appreciated Gaming console. The display was great for a screen without a backlight and the control stick had a great "click" to it. I'm still rocking my copy of Rock Man: Power Battle & Fighters and Pacman to this day and plan to nab the Match of the Millenium in the near future. The system had a really great library of fighters and arcade ports.

gojiguy

#3

gojiguy said:

One of my favourite handheld systems, ever. I still play this guy to this day!

I love Puzzle Bobble Mini, Ganbare! Neo Poke-kun, and Match of the Millennium!

FritzFrapp

#4

FritzFrapp said:

Fabulous system. If only SNK made a backlit version, I'd pay silly money for it. No mention of Ganbare Neo Poke-kun, Damien? It's probably my favourite game on the system. Even the box art is fantastic.

craigmoss19

#5

craigmoss19 said:

It would be great if these games came to the Virtual Console. I always wanted this console as a kid but my parents said "You either have this and only this, or you can wait until the Gameboy Advance is released and have that. You can't have both."

I think it's pretty obvious which one I chose.

KnightRider666

#7

KnightRider666 said:

I bought this shortly after launch and dug it. When I found out all games and systems were being pulled from the shelves, I bought every game that was out for it. Favorites were: Biomotor Unitron, Dark Arms: Beastbuster, Crush Roller, Metal Slug 2, SNK vs. Capcom Card Fighter Clash, SNK vs. Capcom: Match of the Millenium, and Samurai Showdown.

Plutonian

#8

Plutonian said:

It looks really cool, and I'd love to play around with one. I was in high school when this was released, but I wasn't doing any handheld gaming at the time, or much else besides Ultima Online actually, so I wasn't even aware of it.

FritzFrapp

#9

FritzFrapp said:

@Damo
Thanks, mate. Yes, I'm aware of the company (I read NeoGAF!) I thought RSG's mod was frontlit?
Still, to have had an official job done by SNK themselves would have been the business. Good article, btw.

DamoAdmin

#10

Damo said:

@Frapp Sorry yes, it's frontlit - still a lovely mod though, and means I can finally play my beloved console in the dark! And I've only had to wait a decade.

Dark-Link73

#11

Dark-Link73 said:

If there's one thing that gaming history has taught us is that if consumers aren't ready for innovation and/or change, they'll be reluctant to accept it no matter what.

The Jaguar, Lynx, Game Gear, Dreamcast, Virtual Boy, Nero Geo; are good examples of gaming devices that boasted features and/or technology that was ahead of it's time but are now common part today's gaming culture or are being introduced as "the future of gaming".

EarthboundBenjy

#12

EarthboundBenjy said:

I got this thing from eBay because there was one Sonic the Hedgehog game on it. That's it. I don't really have much of an interest in much else that was made for this machine, though I will say it's a pretty cool device.

AVahne

#13

AVahne said:

Not to be a grammar Nazi, but don't you mean to use "wresting" instead of "wrestling" in the final paragraph?

SuperMalleo

#14

SuperMalleo said:

I love this system. The games are pretty fun like Sonic's Pocket Adventure. Oh, and there's a Megaman game that was released only in Japan for it.
Untitled

Technosphile

#16

Technosphile said:

I liked Last Blade on the Pocket, but never on the "real" Neo hardwares. That home run minigame was so great.

Dynamite Slugger, Neo Turf Masters, SNK vs. Capcom MotM are all great. I dunno how cheap the Pocket stuff is anymore, but if you've never played one you should definitely check it out.

3dcaleb

#17

3dcaleb said:

so i remember when i got a game boy for the first time there was another handheld system at toys r us that had a color screen that i wanted so bad but i only had enough money for the game boy, it was around $300 i think. this was when the game boy first came out, around 1990 i think. i thought it was a neo geo but this says it came out way later. i wonder what it was? anybody know?

ICHIkatakuri

#18

ICHIkatakuri said:

@AVahne No they don't

I loved this system so much I bought 2! One for me and another for my girlfriend, which she never played and I just had two in different colours, still do :)

NickMon68

#20

NickMon68 said:

Its a great system, still have mine and all the games i bought for it. The Metal Slug and Sonic Games are my favs.

FritzFrapp

#22

FritzFrapp said:

@unrandomsam @3dcaleb
Yep, definitely the Turbo Express. That cost 250 to 300 bucks at launch. The Lynx came out in the Autumn of 1989, a couple of months after the Game Boy, and that cost $179.99 RRP at launch (I still have my import invoice somewhere).
I vaguely recall the Turbo Express (or PC Enginge GT, as we called it over this side of the pond) actually going up in price after launch. Can't remember exactly why. Amazing machine, but the worst battery eater ever.
[Edit: PC Engine GT] :)

3dcaleb

#24

3dcaleb said:

@unrandomsam @Frapp
ok that sounds right i remember the turbografix 16 being out then. that was a cool system, i remember splatterhouse, and bonks adventure, among others that were pretty fun. did that portable system play the regular tubografix 16 games? the games were pretty small, about the size of 2 or 3 credit cards stuck together. i wonder how much the turbo express/pc engine gt goes for now?

unrandomsam

#27

unrandomsam said:

@Frapp PC ENGINE LT looks like the one (4" screen is about the minimum I want. How long did it take Nintendo to offer that - 20 years).

ogo79

#30

ogo79 said:

speaking of beast busters, they really need to get both of those games on some sort of virtual console service or a disc compilation...

retro_player_22

#31

retro_player_22 said:

Still got my Neo Geo Pocket Color with 8 games, SNK vs. Capcom: Match of the Millennium is one hell of a crossover for the system.

Thats-what-shy

#32

Thats-what-shy said:

I still have TWO of these honeys in mint condition (boxes and manuals included), along with dozens of fantastic games (also, boxes and manuals included).
I'm one of "those types"... keeping every game and system I've ever owned, dating back to the Atari 2600, in a just-bought state.

HandheldGuru97

#33

HandheldGuru97 said:

Figures I change my profile picture that was a Neo Geo Pocket the day before an article like this comes out :P. Anyway....I LOVE THE NEO GEO POCKET COLOR!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Kay thats out of the way I'll be more civil. What an amazing handheld. Easily one of the most criminally underappreciated handhelds of not only the 20th century, but of the whole existence of handhelds!!!!!!!!!!!! There are some shortcomings of course most notably is the fairly weak library and (as I've just noticed thank you NLife) game prices are rising (anyone care to tell me what the hell happened to Neo Turf Masters??????? I can't find it under $20! :o Still an absolutely fantastic little machine I would love to see a fraction of the games on the 3DS eShop. Hey @NinLife think that the next most underappreciated handheld the great Atari Lynx could grab a spot light next???? ;)

ecco6t9

#34

ecco6t9 said:

If there was ever a system that deserved a second chance on the Virtual Console it is the Neo Geo Pocket.

Zodiak13

#37

Zodiak13 said:

Love this handheld. I am happy to say I still own mine but wish I never got rid of any games. Still have around 10 but I had a lot more if I remember correctly. If anyone see's the system on the cheap snatch it up and give it a try.

ccanfield1

#39

ccanfield1 said:

Thanks for doing this article. I love my NGPC. I have 2 and even got one modded to add a front light to the screen for easier play in low light conditions, which is about the only issue I have with the system. So many great games and the control stick is still the best I have ever experienced on a handheld.

kurtasbestos

#40

kurtasbestos said:

I won one of these in a Saturn Bomberman tournament many years ago. I only ever picked up a few games for it, and I was never really all that impressed. I kinda wish I had given it more of a chance.

sdelfin

#41

sdelfin said:

I was an extremely early adopter of the original Neo Geo Pocket, as I preordered it way in advance and couldn't wait for it to come out. Not much later, I joined with a friend of mine to cover the system with what eventually became a pretty prominent news and review site. I loved the thing. I still have both my systems and all the games I acquired including a euro release of Faselei, which was a pain to get even when it was new, as well as extra copies of the Card Battle carts so I don't have to erase my saves to start over. Excellent write up of the system. No doubt Nintendo had been working on color for a while before the release of the NGP and Wonderswan, but I wonder when Nintendo would have actually released if not pressured by competition.

AshFoxX

#42

AshFoxX said:

I really hate that I am not a fan of fighting games, otherwise the NG systems would have been a godsend. Too bad they didn't focus on racing games.

Cobra

#45

Cobra said:

Still my all time favourite hand-held. The controls are the definition of gaming heaven, I've never enjoyed gaming more than I did with this. Plus the games were awesome too. Can't even remember how many hours I sank into the Card Fighters Clash. Not to mention being glued to Faselei! from start to finish. Can't say I'd be up for it going virtual console, the games may have been great, but it was the controls that brought it to perfection.

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