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Image: Nintendo Life

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, 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.