The NeoGeo Pocket Color was launched in the West ten years ago this month. Each day this week, starting from tomorrow, I’ll be looking at a key game for the system and discussing its merits in terms of whether it’s still worth playing today. Before all that, let’s take a look at the machine itself and its history.
There’s a school of thought that believes that games are heading inevitably towards a single platform future. Things would be so much easier, they snivel, if only we could follow the film industry’s example and agree on a standard like DVD. I’m not so sure. With games, the interplay between hardware and software is always going to be more nuanced than popping in a disc and pressing play.
Every games platform is the result of a chain of decisions (from hardware specifications to how the end product is marketed) that carve out a subset of games that are technically viable, and then a smaller subset of those that will actually sell. The kind of machine that can sell 100 million units is going to be built first and foremost to grab the low-hanging fruit.
Occasionally a console comes along that doesn’t try to please everybody all of the time, focusing instead on addressing a particular niche exceptionally well. One such specialised mutant was the NeoGeo Pocket Color (NGPC), a handheld console manufactured by arcade (and ‘niche’ home console) stalwarts SNK to break into a market that had been dominated for a decade by Nintendo’s Game Boy. An audacious move, but in 1999 (the year of the Dreamcast, The Matrix and, erm, The Phantom Menace?) the mood was sufficiently optimistic for gamers to entertain the notion that 20th Century Goliaths like Nintendo and Sony were due for a fall.
SNK weren’t quite so foolish as to try to tackle the Game Boy head on. Instead, they targeted an audience that Nintendo weren’t contesting – the grown-up gamers that had moved on to the PlayStation. The Game Boy had gone unchallenged for so long, and its archaic 8-bit architecture had fallen so far behind the home consoles, that by 1999 it was firmly pigeonholed as a child’s toy. This was a perception that Nintendo were in no hurry to dispel, seeing little detrimental effect to their efforts to sell Pokémon to every ten-year-old on the planet. Even the previous year’s revamp (the Game Boy Color) had only made the most perfunctory efforts to beef up the machine’s capabilities, putting it roughly on par with the original NES.
The NGPC’s specifications easily outstripped the Game Boy’s right across the board. It had a 16-bit CPU capable of pumping out blazing fast flicker-free 146-colour graphics, a dedicated sound chip and an internal calendar and clock. Every game had flash memory backup, doing away with cumbersome password saving.
(It should be pointed out before we continue that SNK weren’t quite the technical visionaries the NGPC spec might suggest. They had originally launched a monochrome version in Japan, then rushed to add colour support a few months later to stave off unflattering comparisons with the Game Boy Color.)
Just as importantly, SNK had paid close attention to the needs of a portable device. The NGPC could run for a preposterous 40 hours on a single pair of AA batteries. It was petite (about the size and weight of a closed DS Lite) with a slightly hollowed underside allowing it to fit snugly in the hands.
For all the improvements under the hood, the NGPC’s most celebrated feature was its microswitched thumbstick. This stick was orders of magnitude more comfortable and precise than the tiny, spongy d-pads that Nintendo have been gradually making smaller and less responsive with each of their handhelds since the original Game & Watch, and it remains one of gaming’s greatest mysteries that nobody has copied it since.
Sadly, the NeoGeo Pocket Color’s low cost, high performance and physics-defying battery life came at a price. Like the later Game Boy Advance, the NGPC used a reflective TFT screen with no backlight. While the shortcomings of this screen are not quite as pronounced as the GBA’s (which needed hardware hacks or a miner’s lamp to even be playable), having to hold the screen at awkward angles to catch sufficient photons seems archaic in an age when even the cheapest mobile phone has a bright full-colour screen.
In the end, the NGPC didn’t put a crimp in Nintendo’s plans, beyond perhaps inducing them to get the 32-bit Game Boy Advance out the door more quickly. It survived in the market for just two years (1999-2001) before SNK’s financial troubles forced them to sell up to pachinko maker Aruze, who unceremoniously dropped all video game activities prompting a recall of all NGPC stock from Western territories.
During its life, the system found a small but supportive audience, even in the UK. It was sensibly priced and marketed to adults (with mainstream press advertising and prominent displays in high street stores), leveraging recognisable games such as Sonic, Pac-Man and Puzzle Bobble.
In all, there were fewer than 100 games released for the NGPC. Leaving aside the ranks of uninspiring parlour games, anaemic JRPGs and fruit machine sims, we are left with at least a couple of dozen games in the competent-to-great range. Many are ports or spin-offs of existing titles, but in all such cases they’ve been heavily reworked to suit the machine’s capabilities – SNK seem to have taken great pains to win the favour of fans of the originals. In a nod to the prevailing market trends of the time, many of the games shoehorn in a Pokémon-esque collecting element.
So far so rose-tinted, but things have moved on in ten years. Since the NGPC’s death we’ve seen the handheld market go nuclear, gorging on advances in screen, battery and miniaturisation technology served up by the burgeoning mobile phone sector. With the PSP, DS and iPhone now offering thousands of games catering to every taste, does the cream of the NGPC’s library still have anything to offer? To answer that, I have picked six games that at one time or another I would have described as essentials for the system, to find out whether they’ve stood the test of time.