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Neo Geo Pocket Color: The Portable That Changed Everything

On the 16th anniversary of SNK's portable powerhouse, a look back at all that made it special.

Retrospective by Jeremy Parish, .

My affinity for portable games makes me a real aberration in the gaming press. Among gaming fans, really.

Don't get me wrong, I enjoy my consoles; the impossible tangle of wires and cables next to my desk proves it. It's just that where everyone else gets angry when an Xbox One game doesn't output at 1080p resolution, I get angry when a Game Boy screenshot's resolution isn't a faithful multiple of 160x144 pixels. Or worse, when it's a JPEG. My god, people, have you no decency?

But this fascination is a relatively recent development for me. I've been hooked on video games most of my life, which means all the way back to the beginning of the '80s, but I've only been a dedicated handheld enthusiast since around the time the Game Boy Advance launched. I missed the entire classic Game Boy's life, aside from a handful of greats I played on Super Game Boy — yes, I was so married to big screens (well, relatively big; this was the '90s, after all) that I would only play portable games on a console. Game Gear always seemed fascinating but improbably pricey. Lynx was an amazing novelty.

The Game Boy Color offered my entrée into handheld gaming, but even then it felt more like a distraction from all the cool things happening on PlayStation, Nintendo 64, and Dreamcast. Those consoles were literally reinventing what the words "video game" meant with the likes of Super Mario 64 to Metal Gear Solid. Game Boy Color took all those cutting-edge first-person shooters and turned them into 2D side-scrollers. Rare's Conker was lewd, angry, and disgusting on N64, but his Game Boy Color adventure stuck to the original toothless and cloying rendition of the character. And that was pretty much portable games in a nutshell: Years behind, geared toward kids. And then the Neo Geo Pocket arrived, and everything changed.

Cue angelic choir. [Source]

When you think about it, the NGP (not to be mistaken for Sony's bizarrely coincidental codename for Vita, Next Generation Portable) was a strange creation. It makes a certain amount of sense that SNK would jump into the handheld market in the late '90s; by that point, everyone else with their own console had done the same thing as well. Nintendo, Sega, Atari. Even NEC (with the TurboGrafx-16-compatible TurboXpress) and Bandai (via its freshly announced WonderSwan) had gotten in on the act. So obviously the company behind the powerful Neo•Geo needed to do likewise.

But that's the thing: The Neo•Geo made its mark through its premium status. The most powerful console of the 16-bit race by far, the Neo•Geo also managed to be the most expensive. It was the Cadillac of consoles, a literal arcade-quality experience at home (with a little tweaking, you could play arcade boards on your home system). Handheld systems, on the other hand, existed at the opposite end of the spectrum. It's not that high-powered handheld hardware can't exist; rather, the needs of high-powered hardware undermine the needs of portable gaming.

The Game Boy succeeded not because the world was desperate for a dinky-low resolution screen whose four putrid shades of grey collapsed into a blurry singularity every time the screen scrolled, but rather because that miserable little screen was so easy on the wallet both in terms of up-front hardware costs and long-term battery expenses. Sure, Sega managed to compress the Genesis hardware into the glorious Nomad and even created the mind-boggling portable Genesis/Sega CD/Discman hybrid CD-X, but both of those systems could suck a set of batteries dry in a matter of an hour or two.

The thought of transforming incredible Neo•Geo arcade titles like Kizuna Encounter into an acceptable handheld form was quite a tall order. [Source]

How, then, could SNK hope to produce a portable system as powerful as the Neo•Geo, a machine whose 2D graphical capabilities remained unmatched by other consoles even as the millennium drew to a close? The simple answer was: They didn't. In fact, they didn't even bother trying.

The modest premium experience

The genius of Neo•Geo Pocket came from the fact that SNK didn't attempt to create the most stunning handheld experience ever. The system didn't even begin to compare to the Nomad in terms of raw power. It even lagged behind Atari's Lynx, which had debuted nearly a decade prior; the original Neo•Geo lacked a color screen.

But those black-and-white visuals tipped the designers' hand. They weren't out to push the boundaries of handheld technology. Rather, SNK decided to work within the parameters Nintendo had established with the Game Boy and excel within those limitations. Bandai adopted a similar tactic with its WonderSwan; after a decade of watching Nintendo walk all over superior competitors with a piece of hardware that strained the limits of minimum technical acceptability, would-be rivals finally cottoned to the secrets of Game Boy's success: Be crappy, but be crappy with panache. These new systems (along with the disastrous Game.com) were the first handhelds to attempt to beat Nintendo at its own game.

Of course, Nintendo hadn't been sitting still throughout the '90s. The Game Boy provided a stable source of income for the company, but Nintendo always had an eye toward the future, developing new portable systems in the background. Virtual Boy was a dark, apocalyptic future. Project Atlantis was a future that never came to pass. But the R&D divisions kept churning through hardware iterations, and so Nintendo was ready to deal with these new challengers by changing the rules. A week before Neo Geo Pocket launched in Japan, the Game Boy Color debuted, immediately rendering SNK's new system and Bandai's upcoming WonderSwan launch obsolete.

"Tetris is in color now? Back to the drawing board, everyone." [Source]

To their credit, SNK was quick to respond. The Neo Geo Pocket Color arrived less than five months later, giving the platform the visual boost it needed to convey its technical edge over Game Boy Color. Still, being caught flat-footed didn't do SNK any favors; it left the original Neo Geo Pocket dead in the water, doomed the moment it debuted. While the Color model proved to be backward-compatible with all but a handful of black-and-white titles, only about half of the releases for the color model supported monochrome mode.

Still, with the move to color, players could more easily appreciate what a fantastic little machine SNK had created. Boasting a 16-bit processor and three times the RAM of Game Boy Color, NGPC could generate more detailed and colorful graphics than Nintendo's system. Sprites were larger and moved with fluid grace, animating with a degree of buoyancy never before seen on a handheld system. Even Lynx and Game Boy Color tended to generate choppy, sputtery graphics at a distractingly low frame rate, but that wasn't a concern for NGPC. And SNK put that technical prowess to work the way it knew best: With loving, pint-sized recreations of its arcade games.

Portable punch-up

The Neo•Geo platform had gotten off to a shaky start back in 1990, squandering its unprecedented visual quality on derivative and unremarkable games. NAM-1975 and Magician Lord looked incredible, but they didn't offer anything beneath those slick visuals to justify the staggering cost of their overstuffed cartridges. It wasn't until Capcom codified the fighting genre with Street Fighter II that SNK found its calling, launching multiple one-on-one brawling concepts in rapid succession. For every forgettable Aggressors of Dark Kombat, the Neo•Geo saw a breakout hit like Fatal Fury, Samurai Shodown, or The King of Fighters.

The legendary clicky stick.

SNK and its dedicated NGPC developers like Sacnoth and Yumekobo did a remarkable job of converting these complex, eye-popping arcade fighters to a screen with a mere eight lines of resolution more than the Game Boy offered and a measly two buttons. These weren't the first portable fighters by any means; in fact, King of Fighters R1 and Fatal Fury First Contact weren't even those series' first handheld outings. Both had already made appearances on Game Boy courtesy of Gaibrain. But those 8-bit efforts paled compared to the silky smooth and incredibly responsive versions that NGPC owners enjoyed.

As much of the credit for the sheer playability of NGPC fighters had to do with the external hardware as it did what was inside. Yes, the system's beefy processor and healthy RAM cache facilitated quick, responsive game design. But the system's wide horizontal format, styled almost like a compact Game Gear, made the NGPC comfortable in the hands. And its control interface — a short, recessed stick that socketed into eight directional grooves — remains many fan's all-time favorite form of digital input.

The system's so-called "clicky stick" neatly solved the problem of how to integrate a more responsive digital interface than Nintendo's time-tested D-pad while at the same time maintaining a low profile visual design that would minimize wear and damage to the stick. Both Sony and Nintendo borrowed the general concept of the NGPC's stick for the PSP and 3DS analog sliders, though many would argue with less success.

The precise responsiveness of the NGPC's stick made top-class fighting games possible. Advanced moves proved a dream to execute on the system, and the portable's lack of buttons (two face buttons versus the Neo•Geo MVS's four) was resolved in software: "Light" fighting moves required a quick tap of the buttons, while "strong" actions used sustained presses. It was a simple and elegant solution — and it even worked when Capcom's Street Fighter II characters (normally controlled with six buttons) showed up in first-of-its-kind company crossover fighter SNK Vs. Capcom: Match of the Millennium.

Fighting game franchise crossovers are a dime a dozen these days, but in the frontier days of 2000, this official artwork of Street Fighter's Sakura Kasugano playing NGPC head-to-head with King of Fighters' Kyo Kusanagi blew plenty of minds. [Source]

The NGPC wasn't strictly limited to fighting games, either. Its arcade conversions included great puzzlers like Magical Drop and classics like Pac-Man, which came with a small accessory that allowed players to constrain the control stick to cardinal directions for precision play. Perhaps most impressively, the system played home to a pair of Metal Slug adaptations that compensated for the downscaled visuals by expanding the scope and complexity of the adventures, with an expansive world map and multiple routes to explore across playthroughs.

Achilles and his heels

All of this sounds amazing, right? And yet here we are, speaking of NGPC as a historical curiosity. An obscurity. But a system this great should have had a happy ending, right? It should have crushed all who stood before it!

Of course, that didn't happen. Like all who dared to challenge Nintendo's portable empire before the age of smartphones, NGPC failed to set the world on fire. In the end, a mere two million units made their way into gamers' hands. Unlike WonderSwan, SNK managed to give the console a global release. Even so, it languished in obscurity.

Neo Geo Pocket Color's ultimate failure boiled down to two factors: Software support and retail reach.

While SNK and its close partners did a bang-up job of producing top-flight software for NGPC, they represented a small coalition of talent. Compared to the hundreds of studios banging away at Game Boy software and the dozens of studios Bandai collaborated with on WonderSwan, NGPC couldn't sustain the frequency of releases necessary to be fully competitive.

NGPC's library was chock full of great fighting games, but even the biggest fans had to admit there's only so many ways you can beat up Terry Bogard. Even Mega Man's NGPC outing was a fighter! [Source]

The system also lacked sufficient diversity in its lineup; its arcade-focused library was undeniably impressive, but handheld fans in the late '90s had moved beyond those quick, bite-sized experiences and more toward games like Pokémon. The NGPC wasn't without its share of RPG-like releases, including Dark Arms: Beast Buster and the highly regarded SNK Vs. Capcom: Card Fighters Clash, but they were few in numbers.

Worse, it was difficult to find NGPC games. Like NEC before them, SNK lacked a strong retail presence and the network necessary to get its games into stores. American handheld enthusiasts initially had to purchase the Neo Geo portable online — and in 1999, Internet shopping had yet to find mainstream traction. Eventually, the system made its way to major retailers like Wal-mart and Toys 'R Us, but only well after launch.

Theoretically, SNK's big partnership (a cross-platform collusion with Sega) should have been a huge boon for the NGPC. Sonic Pocket Adventure — developed by Dimps, who would later go on to make the Sonic Advance titles — was easily the tentpole title for NGPC upon its American launch. Even more intriguingly, Sonic Pocket Adventure connected with Dreamcast through a special cable, as did several other NGPC games. This probably would have worked out better if Dreamcast didn't already have its own built-in portable element with its VMU memory cards... and, obviously, if Dreamcast had survived longer. Unfortunately, SNK hitched its wagon to the wrong horse.

Cut loose

Not that it might have made any difference. Any possibility the NGPC might have had of establishing itself in the long term was cut off in 2000 (a mere year after the U.S. launch of the system) when gambling manufacturer Aruze bought SNK. Aruze's first act as the new owners of SNK was to kill the NGPC outside of Japan. The popular rumor was that Aruze intended to scavenge NGPC screens and the rewritable flash chips inside NGPC game carts to integrate into their pachinko machines. While that was probably just Internet hysterics and paranoia at work, there was little question that the portable system had no place in Aruze's vision for the SNK brand. The platform was killed quickly in the U.S. and Europe, and vanished soon after in Japan.

The swift and unceremonious severing of the NGPC's lifeline meant that several planned U.S. releases stalled out; most infamously, strategy RPG Faselei! was manufactured and even released in Europe, but its U.S. version — slated to launch mere weeks after the buyout — never happened, resulting in an unevenly distributed game that sells for hundreds of dollars... assuming you can even find it in its rare boxed form. Meanwhile, games in development, including announced sequels to Magician Lord and Ikari Warriors, were shut down and never completed.

For this, NGPC died. [Source]

The Aruze buyout demolished the NGPC's life and legacy in a single motion. What little platform inventory remained in retail channels and warehouses was eventually dumped onto the market via budget packs (some of which, curiously, included unreleased titles like Faselei!), and the system was quickly forgotten as the portable gaming world moved along to more advanced platforms like GBA and PlayStation Portable. Aside from the occasional discovery of prototype games (such as the Castlevania-like Magician Lord 2), the NGPC has all but vanished from the world's radar.

Still, NGPC had its place. It served as a technological bridge between the 8-bit portable era and the GBA, a proof-of-concept that a handheld system could offer more robust technology and still hit all the same success points that worked in Game Boy's favor. Its physical design found an echo in GBA, and its clicky stick paved the way for modern analog sider pads.

And speaking for myself, it proved that portable games didn't have to be a compromise. While plenty of contemporaneous Game Boy Color titles managed to hook me despite their technical shortcomings, NGPC games required no such adjustments. Games like Gals Fighters, Card Fighters Clash, and Metal Slug: 2nd Mission worked on their own terms. They set out to create great game experiences and succeeded admirably, with slick visuals and deep play that sincerely felt like solid 16-bit console creations. It kindled an appreciation of gaming on the go that burns strong 15 years later.

Neo Geo Pocket Color's life may have been painfully brief, but it was nevertheless memorable for those who experienced it. Perhaps all the more so for the system's brevity, in fact.

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Comments 15

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  • Avatar for kidgorilla #1 kidgorilla 4 years ago
    Great, great article. I tracked down a copy of Faselei! a couple of years ago after playing through as much of Sacnoth's output as I could. A cool curio, but man, it really hasn't aged so well. Some good ideas, but some strange execution, too.Edited October 2014 by kidgorilla
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  • Avatar for jmroo #2 jmroo 4 years ago
    Awesome read. This all sounds like a pretty big bummer! I've never taken the time to familiarize myself with NGPC's non-fighting standout titles, and hearing about that RPG not releasing at the last minute really makes you wonder how cool the NGP line could have been if it kept going.
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  • Avatar for MetManMas #3 MetManMas 4 years ago
    I always thought the Neo Geo Pocket Color was an odd system. There's no denying that it was more powerful than the Game Boy Color, but in terms of color the handheld looked like a step backward from what the (battery-munching) Game Gear and Lynx were capable of.

    But really though, late 90s handheld colorization was pretty weird in general. With the GBC and NGPC, it's like almost everyone forgot the spriting cheats that were learned during the NES days to make games look colorful. So you have a bunch of games with black/white/3rd color sprites and background tiles that prioritize shading over color use when there's only four colors to work with on an 8x8 tile, often drawing more attention to the artwork being tile-based in the process.

    Still, I do regret not giving the Neo Geo Pocket Color the time of day, and regret even more not picking up those NGPC console/cart packs Rhino Games had before it was bought out by GameStop. While I'm not particularly a fan of pre-3DS handheld fighting games (the whole "having to find another person with the same handheld and game and link the systems together with a cable" thing makes handheld multiplayer much harder to do), the system did have some neat exclusives that I regret not playing.

    Though I'm not counting on it, I really hope NGPC games get added to 3DS and/or Wii U VC someday.
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  • Avatar for HandheldGuru #4 HandheldGuru 4 years ago
    Fantastic work as always Mr. Parish! As a handheld gamer myself the Neo Geo Pocket Color stands out as very, very unique little machine. Despite a not even 18 month long lifespan the library is simply superb!! Lacking a little bit on the side of 2D platformers, but Sonic Pocket Adventure alone makes up for that hole! Great RPGs, amazing fighters a complete and utter gem of a handheld. One of my favorites, once again excellent article Jeremy. I love what you've written up about some of the more obscure handhelds (the Atari Lynx article you did was superb) and your work over on Gameboy World, simply incredible (hasn't helped my obsession for the GB(C)!). Keep articles like this coming!!!!!!!!
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  • Avatar for GaijinD #5 GaijinD 4 years ago
    I still hold a bit of a grudge against Aruze for what they did not just to the NGPC, but SNK in general. As far as I can tell, their "vision" for SNK was a source of characters that could be pasted on pachinko machines, and not any sort of video game developer. Even with the original founder of SNK forming Playmore and eventually reacquiring all of SNK's IP, I don't think they've ever been the same.
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  • Avatar for Ghopper101 #6 Ghopper101 4 years ago
    I bought a NGPC the instant I laid eyes on my first one. I love the little system; the games are very difficult to find locally,so I will have to buy online. :(Edited October 2014 by Ghopper101
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  • Avatar for SatelliteOfLove #7 SatelliteOfLove 4 years ago
    This is reminding me Rosa shoulda been in a KoF already.
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  • Avatar for boxofficepoison #8 boxofficepoison 4 years ago
    I remember when I was picking up a bunch of stuff on the cheap after the demise of the Dreamcast I was looking through the budget Dreamcast section and they'd thrown in a few NGP systems and a few games for super cheap. I think I picked up about 6 dreamcast games, a ngpc system and 5 games all for about 100 bucks. I was pretty happy my purchase.
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  • Avatar for mobichan #9 mobichan 4 years ago
    I sincerely regret never buying a NGP. But the one thing I could never get over was the clicky stick. That clicking just made me sad. Am I the only one? I was given a NeoGeoX for xmas last year and the dpad emulates the clicking, much to my dismay.

    As for the Gameboy comparisons, I think Nintendo's ace was bundling Tetris. They may have had a bunch of 3rd parties making games, but for a lot of people, Tetris was the one and only title they ever owned or played. Very similar to Wii Sports and the Wii fan base. Tetris carried it along until Pokemon. I realize that is a very reductive view of the system's life, but I can't recall a game in the interim having as much impact on system sales.Edited October 2014 by mobichan
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  • Avatar for DiscordInc #10 DiscordInc 4 years ago
    I managed to pick up a NGPC in a budget pack from EB Game, but unfortunately it did not have a copy of Faselei. I still want to track down a copy of that at some point.
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  • Avatar for SargeSmash #11 SargeSmash 4 years ago
    @DiscordInc : That's when I got mine, too! Definitely a great little system. I was lucky enough to snag a US copy of Faselei! though. They cleared a lot of them out on eBay years ago. Pretty sure there were no boxed US copies.
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  • Avatar for Aleryn #12 Aleryn 4 years ago
    It's articles like this and the Raven Software one that brings me back every time. The contemporary stuff is good too, but this is such a nice core.
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  • Avatar for orient #13 orient 4 years ago
    I picked up a NGPC a few months back along with Sonic Pocket Adventure, Metal Slug: 2nd Mission and that Taito train game. Great little system, but I've got to admit -- going back to no back light after a decade or so of backlit screens is a horrible pain in the ass. Still want to pick up a few fighters for it, though.
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  • Avatar for jgoreham #14 jgoreham 2 years ago
    I'm pretty late to the party (this article is about a year old as of my reading of the article) but over the weekend, I found and cleaned up my NGPC that I bought while I lived in England in 2009. I'm smitten all over again and I think it might live in my purse for a while and come to work with me for my over-long union lunch break (I get an hour and a half!). I see that there aren't a lot of games; considering trying for a complete collection. When I first got it and my meager games collection (I have 7 titles I think?) I thought I would collect for it but only buy what I found "in the wild" but despite staying engaged in retro game playing and collecting, I never see the game carts around here. Anyhow, great little system. Thinking about doing a fan panel/presentation or something at our local scificon in the fall.
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  • Avatar for guuby #15 guuby A year ago
    Amazing article thank you Jeremy!!
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