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‘Neo Geo Pocket Color Selection Vol 1’ Review: Essential Handheld History

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‘Neo Geo Pocket Color Selection Vol 1’ Review: Essential Handheld History

When the Game Boy Color released in Japan in October 1998, it truly confirmed the Nintendo handheld's dominance of the portable market. With its monochromatic predecessor seeing off all competition, the new Color model took Nintendo's gaming on the go to new heights, ultimately paving the way for the Game Boy Advance and further success. However, that very same month, another handheld console hit store shelves in Japan: the Neo Geo Pocket.

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SNK's first foray into the handheld market - following the company's Neo Geo hardware for homes and arcades - was a black-and-white system that was immediately behind the times, and it flopped. But SNK wasn't done, producing the Pocket Color in 1999 to a chorus of considerable acclaim. It released internationally, turning a profit in the States in spite of the Nintendo competition; but with SNK in financial dire straits before the Color's release, the console was discontinued in 2000 outside of Japan, and a year later in its homeland.

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The Color Pocket is one of those fascinating what-could-have-beens in video gaming - had SNK been in a better position, who knows what the console could have achieved. Today, the Color Pocket is revered for both its hardware - a long battery life, crisp (if not backlit) screen and wonderfully clicky joystick - and small but high-quality library of games, featuring amongst them shrunken-down entries in the Metal Slug and King of Fighters series.

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Pocket Color games have been making their way onto the Nintendo Switch in recent months - but anyone who's held off checking them out can now pick up the Neo Geo Pocket Color Selection (volume one - implying there's more to come) and get ten for the price of under four quid a title. Of the ten, six were already available, so if you've already got those, bad luck I guess?

New to Switch via this collection are Metal Slug: 1st Mission and its sequel, funnily enough called Metal Slug: 2nd Mission. The second game is the superior experience, but both pack SNK's classic side-scrolling shooter action onto a tiny screen, with visuals bold enough that you're never lost as to what needs smashing and who needs saving. Big Tournament Golf is a simple but sweet clubs-swinging sim with three courses and a range of players to choose from, of varying specialities, and has a melody that plays throughout that will stick in your head for hours afterwards. If the name's new to you, don't sweat it: it's absolutely better known as Neo Turf Masters.

Neo Geo Pocket Color Selection Vol 1 / Credit: SNK
Neo Geo Pocket Color Selection Vol 1 / Credit: SNK
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Then there's Dark Arms: Beast Buster 1999, which is maybe this collection's standout title - albeit less because it's good (it's... alright?), and more because it's, well, odd. An RPG spin-off from SNK's rail shooter Beast Buster, which is noteworthy enough on its own, it's a curious combination of classic role-playing and magical military might, where spirits are found and captured and forced into your guns to make them more powerful. You grind these power-ups until your arsenal is suitably supercharged, and then a fella who looks like Death tells you what to do next. Ever wanted an RPG where you feed your guns? Here you go.

The remaining six titles all stick to the genre that SNK really made its name with - they're all one-on-one fighters, albeit with a chibi twist. The best is easily SNK vs Capcom: Match of the Millennium, which successfully uses just two buttons to deliver a nuanced experience that throws back to Capcom's original Street Fighter of 1987 with its pressure-sensitive approach to weak and strong attacks. The cast is a mix of Capcom and SNK favourites, and all the usual hurricane kicks and so forth can be pulled off perfectly. There's a bunch of modes to pick from, different set-ups to go into matches with, and generally speaking it's a cracking fighter that goes above and beyond expectations for such a small thing.

Neo Geo Pocket Color Selection Vol 1 / Credit: SNK
Neo Geo Pocket Color Selection Vol 1 / Credit: SNK
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The rest - The Last Blade: Beyond the Destiny, Fatal Fury First Contact, SNK Gals' Fighters, King of Fighters R-2, and Samurai Shodown 2 - are all classically easy to have fun with and hard to ultimately master. With the slight exception of Shodown 2, which is a fiddly customer compared to the other options, right out of the gate. Its superb critical reception at the time makes me think it's one worth sticking with, but on initial impressions it lacks the immediacy of its collection-mates.

With ten games, Neo Geo Pocket Color Selection Vol 1 adds up to almost a third of the total number of Pocket Color titles (31) that came out in North America - so if you've never sought out anything from this console before, this is a fantastic 'instant collection', both educational and entertaining. As is the norm for such retro releases, the compilation supports a rewind function - which you may need in those Metal Slug games - and you can take each game's packaging for a spin, too. Literally: you can turn the boxes around, open them up and pick out the cartridge, and then zoom in and out of that.

Neo Geo Pocket Color Selection Vol 1 / Credit: SNK
Neo Geo Pocket Color Selection Vol 1 / Credit: SNK
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A variety of borders are available: from the original Neo Geo Pocket designs to the Color options, and even a few from the smaller New Neo Geo Pocket Color range. The square screen can be zoomed into so that it mostly fills the Switch screen; and a filter can be applied to the on-screen action, dulling it slightly and increasing its pixel presence for a more authentic-ish effect (or even turning it black and white). Two-player modes are supported on some titles, without the need for a second Switch.

Neo Geo Pocket Color Selection Vol 1 is a welcome history lesson for anyone who thought portable play at the turn of the millennium was all about Nintendo. SNK had a good thing going with the Pocket Color - and given half a chance, with better backing and more third-party support (a fantastic Sonic game aside, which sadly isn't on this set, non-SNK games were thin on the ground), you wonder if it might've given the Game Boy a decent run for its money.

Pros: Wallet-friendly way to experience another side of handheld play; SNK vs Capcom and Metal Slug 2 are genuinely terrific small-screen experiences; local two-player modes

Cons: Presentation is pretty basic; anyone who doesn't enjoy fighting games will feel short-changed (hopefully a second volume will contain greater variety)

For Fans Of: Street Fighter 2, Fatal Fury, Metal Slug

7/10: Very Good

Neo Geo Pocket Color Selection Vol 1 is available now, digitally, for Nintendo Switch (with a physical version to follow in the future). Code for review supplied by the publisher. A guide to GAMINGbible's review scores can be found here.

Featured Image Credit: SNK

Topics: Capcom, Retro Gaming

Mike Diver
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