The Neo Geo Pocket Color is one of the most underrated systems in video game history. Released just a few months after the Game Boy Color, its 16-bit innards meant its games looked significantly better than those on Nintendo’s handheld, and its clicky control stick was a delight too.
Ultimately, though, the system was a failure, capturing just 2% of the US handheld market. As a result, many of its games remain undiscovered and unplayed by most of today’s gamers. Slowly but surely, though, we’ve started seeing some of them on Switch: SNK Gals’ Fighters was released a few months back and anyone who pre-ordered Samurai Shodown on Switch got the NGPC Samurai Shodown! 2 as a free bonus (incidentally, it’s now available to buy separately).
It would appear that these weren’t one-off situations, because now here we have King of Fighters R-2, which initially boots to a Neo Geo Pocket Color Selection logo, implying there’s going to be more where this came from. More retro re-releases are always a good thing in our book, but that’s not to say there isn’t room for improvement here.
For those not familiar with it, King of Fighters R-2 is a handheld fighting game based on its bigger Neo-Geo brother King of Fighters ‘98. While KOF ‘98 has an enormous roster, there are a more modest 14 characters here at first (though more can be unlocked). The main mode lets you either choose a team of three in the traditional King of Fighters arcade style, or simply choose a single fighter for a series of more conventional one-on-one battles you’d expect in other fighting games.
Once you’re into the action itself you’re presented with a pleasantly accomplished combat system, especially for a handheld with only two buttons. Light punches and kicks are performed by tapping either button, whereas holding a button down gives you a strong one instead. Given that KOF ‘98 only uses four buttons, that’s more or less your full move set sorted. This ‘tap or hold’ system does mean there’s a degree of lag – because strong attacks won’t start until you’ve held the button for long enough – but it’s hardly problematic.
Despite being a late ‘90s handheld release, R-2 plays a strong fighting game. There’s a full combo system in place, you can perform counter attacks and evade moves, and there are even two different types of super meter depending on how you prefer to play: the Advanced meter acts like your typical Street Fighter situation with a bar that fills up as you give and take hits, whereas the Extra meter is aimed at beginners and has you charging it manually, automatically making you more powerful for a limited time when the bar fills up.
During actual fights, then, we have no issues. Everything runs nice and smoothly, the numerous music tracks are an absolute delight, hits feel satisfying to land and special moves are reasonably responsive: depending on your controller of choice, of course, as is always the way with fighting games on the Switch. We used a Pro Controller and had no problems at all using either the D-Pad or analogue stick, but as ever your mileage may vary if, say, you’re using the Joy-Cons and insist on using the directional buttons. Again, this isn’t unique to this game.
What is somewhat unique, though, is the oddly named 'Making' mode, a solo affair where you pick a character then take them through a series of battles while winning new ‘skills’. There are more than 200 skills to randomly unlock, and these can do anything from increasing certain stats and improving your ability to counter, to letting you restore more health between battles and even giving you new moves altogether. If you’ve always wanted to have Terry Bogard fire a gun at his opponent, this is where to go (also, what’s wrong with you?).
Versus mode, meanwhile, is handled quite cleverly. Back in the day you had to connect two separate Neo Geo Pocket Color systems with a link cable if you wanted to fight a friend, but don’t worry if you’re afraid that you’ll need two Switches to do the same here. Instead, when you choose the Versus mode on the main menu the game imitates the connection process, splitting the screen into two separate displays for the character select screen. When the actual fight starts the game returns to a single screen: it’s probably the best way this could have been handled without messing with the original game itself.
In terms of general presentation, things are decent if not entirely overwhelming. You can surround the screen with a border that makes it look like it’s running on a Neo Geo Pocket Color, and since the handheld came in a number of different designs there are a number of different borders to choose from as a result. An optional screen filter adds a light grid designed to give the impression that you’re playing on the original hardware (though this dims the brightness significantly), and you can use the right stick to zoom the display to your liking.
It also provides a digital manual, which is a nice touch, but there are still some other things we’d have liked to have seen. It’s a shame that you can’t bring up a move list at any point, for example, meaning the only way you can learn your fighter’s special moves is to get your phone or computer out and Google them as if it was the late ‘90s all over again (though you would have probably been using Yahoo! or Altavista back then instead).
We’d have also loved some bonus content like artwork or even just a gallery of packshots and advertising materials: given that the main Neo Geo games have been getting some incredible compilation packages like the recent Samurai Shodown Neo Geo Collection – which is rammed with behind-the-scenes stuff – this one feels light by comparison (although, granted, Digital Eclipse handles those compilations and isn’t involved here).
Ultimately, though, the main sticking point for some people will be the price. While Neo-Geo collectors will (correctly) believe that its launch price of $7.99 / £7.19 is a steal for a game like this, many looking to discover it for the first time may find that a tad steep for what’s essentially a 21-year-old handheld game, especially with the Neo Geo Pocket Color Selection branding suggesting there are more of these on the way.
Given that it’s presented almost exactly like SNK Gals’ Fighters was, this appears to simply use the same emulator shell with a different game slotted into it, and it therefore looks like SNK’s plan is to keep doing this every few months so that gamers can build up a collection of NGPC games. While we aren’t against this in theory, we’d rather SNK didn’t go with this trickle approach. It may be too late now but we’d rather just get it over with and pay full price for a Neo Geo Pocket Color Selection compilation, with 15 of the system’s best games on there in one go.
Still, that’s not to take away from what actually is on offer here. Naturally, those who appreciate the NGPC hardware will get the most out of this one, but that’s not to say that those who appreciate a good fighting game won’t enjoy it too (as long as they’re not the type to scoff at what are now slightly basic graphics two decades later).
It may be a handheld game from the late '90s, but there's a solid fighting system in King of Fighters R-2 and genre fans should check it out if it passed them by the first time around. It may be a tad pricey given that it's lacking in the sort of special features many other retro releases get these days, but gameplay's where it counts and in that respect we have no complaints.