The Neo Geo Pocket Color, released in August of 1999 and made by SNK, makers of the (incredibly expensive) Neo Geo systems and arcade cabinets, is a great little handheld — one of the last dedicated to 2D gaming. Made of a smooth, sometimes see-through, sometimes multicolored plastic resistant to finger smudges and damage, it feels great to hold. Battery power lasts so long they rarely need replacement and the huge, backlit 16-bit color screen was a relief to see after over a decade of the Game Boy’s muddy display. There are only two face buttons, but my god, man, the tactile feedback! They have a joyful spring to them.
And the joystick! What a marvelous fit for a system that offers some of the best handheld fighting games ever made. It’s terrific for any genre, but when it comes to fighters it makes executing quarter-circle-forward moves and the like a breeze. Why the DS and PSP (or the 3DS) didn’t emulate such a brilliant design is still a mystery. If the traditional D-pad ever receives a replacement, the NGPC’s joystick should be it. It was my thumb’s best friend for a while.
Famous for the Metal Slug, King of Fighters and Samurai Shodown games, SNK was a cult darling in its day. Sadly, at the time of the Neo Geo Pocket Color’s release, the few “hardcore” players who would have cared barely took notice. A shame since before the company folded, SNK managed to distill their classic arcade experience into a pocket-sized form with a tiny yet impressive library of software that deserves notice.
Released at a different time perhaps the Neo Geo Pocket Color could have been a contender. Now it stands proudly next to its console counterpart, the SEGA Dreamcast (they had a link cable connection — before the GameCube and GBA did!), like one of the ghosts at the end of Return of the Jedi. I’m not counting on it, but hopefully someone at Nintendo will remember these little treasures and put them up for download on the 3DS eShop or something. They deserve to be enjoyed again.
Metal Slug (in any form)
Metal Slug 1st Mission and Metal Slug 2nd Mission feature the same kind of surreal, military shoot-’em-up-platforming as their console brethren. And they’re just as unforgiving. Here’s a rundown for the unfamiliar: You play as a big-nosed commando sent behind enemy lines to rescue P.O.W.’s and kill giant enemy crabs. The shaggy P.O.W.’s reward you by pulling powerful weapons and items out of their boxer shorts! Sometimes you’ll hop in the titular Metal Slug, a powerful tank that can mow down enemies like they’re made of butter. Or paper. Or cellophane. Something. Not quite Contra, not quite Mega Man, it’s one of SNK’s flagship titles and it’s fun as hell to play on the go.
With 26 playable characters, beautifully animated graphics, and a robust combat system using only two buttons, SNK vs. Capcom: Match of the Millenium is still a great fighter, more-so when you consider its modest handheld home. It used to be my my favorite Vs. game this side of Marvel vs. Capcom 2. In many ways, I preferred it. Millenium is a calmer, more deliberate game than the jokey craziness of MvC2. Each action has a sticky friction, like the characters’ feet are actually sticking to the ground of each arena. There’s gravity at work. The slower action’s most likely due to the NGPC’s relatively weak specs, but those limitations helped make the game feel better.
Aside from the main fighting mode, which offers standard 1-on-1, 2-on-2 tag team and King of Fighters-style 3-on-3 queue teams (!!!), there are also mini-games where you can shoot down enemies from Metal Slug and help Arthur from the Ghosts ‘n Goblins games. The soundtrack features all the familiar character themes as well. It’s wonderful stuff that deserves a resurrection on a modern system. It’d certainly make multiplayer easier. Otherwise, SNK and Capcom fans would do well to track this down.
Bust-A-Move isn’t a tough thing to find these days. It’s been on every single platform ever. But Bust-A-Move Pocket/Puzzle Bobble Mini is probably the best version of this classic puzzler I’ve encountered. Before I knew it, hours passed playing this gem. Er, gem? I mean orb. Orb. Multi-colored orbs that need to get shot down by cute, tubby dinosaurs. It’s not an essential, but it’s a solid version of a solid game.
Rockman: Battle and Fighters floundered as a Japan-only release, but if you can get your hands on it, it’s extra-nifty. Basically Mega Man: Boss Rush Mode: The Game, you can play as Mega Man, his Racer X-like brother Proto Man, or that doofus Bass, and fight round after round against boss characters from across canon. Cut Man, Heat Man, Centaur Man (?!), the Yellow Devil and lots more — it’s way better than it has any right to be, and it’s tightly designed and wonderfully animated too. A great find for Mega Man fans. Or at least it would be if Capcom actually gave a — gah, nevermind. What’s the use?
The Neo Geo Pocket Color offered a lot of options for fighting fans: King of Fighters, Fatal Fury, Samurai Shodown, Match of the Millenium and Gal Fighters, a brawler starring only the ladies of SNK, to name a few. The Last Blade, a samurai slasher in the vein of Square’s Bushido Blade, stands out as something more methodical than you’d expect from SNK’s arcadey milieu. A difficult, deep, daunting beast of a little game with wonderful sprite work and flowing control.
SEGA and SNK were pals around the Dreamcast era, so the NGPC also hosted one of Sonic’s last good games before his dark days (that he recently got out of). The suggestively titled Sonic Pocket Adventure mixed the old and new Sonic styles. It had the Sonic Adventure look — the green-eyed hog did his “I’m so cool and edgy” thing all over the box art — but it had the feel of Sonic the Hedgehog 2. Actually, many of its stages and music were pulled directly from that game. It controls, looks and sounds great and remains one of the best portable Sonic games to date.
For more portable gaming roundups, check out our Best PSP Games X-List!