In 1998, eight years after bringing authentic but expensive arcade thrills to the home with its Neo Geo AES, SNK entered the handheld market with the release of the Neo Geo Pocket. It was monochrome, but the Neo Geo Pocket Color quickly arrived the following year. Competing with the Game Boy line, the NGPC featured various genres of games and some notable names (Metal Slug, Sonic the Hedgehog), but it was fighting games which formed a big part of the system's lineup. That a piece of hardware with “Neo Geo” in its name would also be home to multiple brawlers is not particularly surprising, but what was impressive was how well put together these pocket-sized fighters were.
Releases covered series such as Fatal Fury, Samurai Shodown, King of Fighters and The Last Blade, and despite an obvious visual downgrade and the system only having two buttons, they managed to provide an experience that felt true to those series as they appeared in both the arcades and on the AES. Now Cardboard Robot Games has adopted the look, sound and two-button combat system of those games to provide some welcome fighting excitement of their own with Pocket Rumble, a Switch-based 2D fighters which is newcomer friendly and throws in online play, too.
As well as using just the two buttons, Pocket Rumble simplifies special moves by having them performed by pressing down-forward or down-back with one of the attack buttons. Similarly, other techniques can be performed by pushing the two attack buttons together. This streamlined control system means the game works well with any of the control options on Switch, including detached Joy-Con.
While the game is easy to control, it possesses depth and challenge, and simply jumping in and button mashing will result in defeat. There’s a training mode where you can try out your moves (visible hit boxes can be turned on, should you wish) and there’s also a series of 31 short lessons explaining the intricacies of the fighting system. The lessons start with the very basics (move forwards, duck) as well as highlighting your special moves, but they eventually cover the likes of air-blocking, grabs to counter a block and using a move to clear a projectile.
Once you’ve mastered your various attacks (special and standard), it’s a matter of timing and choosing the right option for your situation. Characters have a twelve-chunk energy bar and although some moves have multiple hits if landed correctly, each hit removes one chunk of energy bar no matter the move performed. Taking this into account, it might seem pointless that the game includes light and heavy attacks, but the allure of a heavy attack is the greater hit stun, providing you with you with a larger window of opportunity in which to add a follow-up attack.
Visually, Pocket Rumble does a good job of capturing the look of a Neo Geo Pocket Color fighting game despite a different aspect ratio and larger screen; the display on an undocked Switch is actually larger than an entire NGPC system. Fighters have a chibi design and use four colours - a clear reference to the limitations of SNK's handheld hardware - although each has eight colour choices for their fighting garb if you’d like something other than the default. Fighter designs are generally decent and show off a lot of character, despite their simplicity.
More colour and detail is provided by the backgrounds, which include the likes of a classroom, a street, an amusement arcade and a laboratory. Various background animations provide things like subtle lighting effects, objects swaying in the breeze or something a bit more noticeable, like a moving train. Overall, it’s more elaborate than anything the NGPC could have managed, but it works well nevertheless; it feels like 'enhanced' retro, if that makes sense. While the NGPC didn't have them, scanlines add to the old school look of the game (with five opacity options available) but they can be turned off should you wish. The sound is even more faithful, with charmingly basic crunches and bumps working together with some well-composed tunes that are fun to listen to during the fights.
Despite the low number of eight fighters, there’s a good variety of moves and styles across the game, with inspiration seeming to come from SNK’s various game; however, other influences seep in too, and at times it feels like Street Fighter, Tekken and even Killer Instinct.
Each of the fighters feels unique, despite having common inputs; the reason for this is that the resultant moves vary considerably. Tenchi is perhaps the closest to a “standard” character: what we have here is a fireball spammer's choice who also possesses a good anti-air move and useful charge attack. On the other end of the spectrum there’s the ghoul-like June who summons various blades with a number of moves, can throw her head, turn into a cannon and will teleport while others can only dash.
Dashing provides more variety across the lineup than you might expect. Naomi will run towards opponents and Quinn will leap, whilst sword-wielding Hector will get in a hit on his rival should he be within range to dash past them. Keiko can’t run at all, but she can keep her distance thanks to her cat (a little distance away) who will transform into a monster to attack Keiko's opponent. Fighting against Keiko? Stay away from the kitty.
Of the other fighters, Subject 11 has large hands (perhaps inspired by World Heroes’ Rasputin) to grab a hold of you and throw you about (one of his attacks deals a whopping four hits) and the smartly-dressed Parker can place orbs that can electrocute the other fighter when caught between them.
There are also various different super meters in the game, although this is not like other games where multiple ISMs/fighting styles are selectable. Here, each fighter has just the one. While this could be seen as limiting, each style is suited to the individual fighter and this again helps differentiate the cast while also providing variety in your matchups.
Tenchi’s super meter builds as he fights, unleashing his best imitation of a Shinkuu Hadouken once full. On the other hand, Quinn begins with a full meter, which is good for one activation and sees him turn into a wolf, able quickly rush about the screen to cause damage (although this ends abruptly should the opponent get a hit in). Parker has parries and Hector’s is an interesting ability as it replenishes some of his health. On the other hand, his speedy special attacks cause self-harm.
Outside of the basic arcade mode, the other options for the solo player are VS CPU, where you fight a single opponent, and Career, which is similar but points are earned/lost depending on if you win or not. One notable difference between these modes and the arcade one is that you can change your character between rounds should you lose. Get more confident and you may take an interest in the colour-coded frame bar (located beneath your health) that indicates the likes of startup and recovery times, allowing you to consider further possibilities in future combos.
Single player is a good way to develop your technique, whether in the training mode or repeated battles against a fighter you are struggling against, but it’s not where the replayability of the game comes from. That comes from fighting other people, and Pocket Rumble is happy to give you that option, both on and offline, with both again allowing you to switch your fighter should you have just lost a round.
Online play is simple and straightforward allowing you to partake in ranked battles or against a friend. The number of players with the game has steadily increased leading up to launch, so you shouldn’t be waiting too long to find an opponent. If you do find yourself hanging around you can back out of the menu, play some single player and then be notified once a fight is available. The game uses GGPO (Good Game Peace Out) middleware to keep lag to a minimum, and barring one occasion, our online time with Pocket Rumble ran very smoothly.
To guarantee no waits between fights - or if you’d just rather fight friends than strangers - local play works well whether playing on the big screen or in tabletop mode, with the simple controls meaning newcomers can quickly get up to speed and indulge in the fighting fun.
Despite being a useful tool in your training, Pocket Rumble's arcade mode is slight, but in multiplayer the game excels thanks to a diverse (albeit small) lineup of characters. Fighting games can be complicated things, off-putting to newcomers with their wide array of moves and techniques, but Cardboard Robot Games has crafted a fun and easy to learn experience here, bundled up in a wonderfully nostalgic audio-visual imitation of the old Neo Geo Pocket Color brawlers. By employing just two attack buttons and simplifying the special moves, it may not offer as much depth as some fighting games, but there's still enough to keep even a genre veteran happy here. As newcomer friendly as the game is, timing and correct move choice are still key, so experience is undoubtably a factor. Working well with any controller, the game is good fun and perfectly suited for quick bursts of play, whether that be in online battles or playing tabletop against friends. Admittedly the Switch is not short of decent fighting games, but Pocket Rumble still provides great entertainment.