NeoGeo Pocket Color Selection Vol. 1 Steam Edition Review: A Fascinating Look At A Forgotten Handheld
If I were to make a list of systems most deserving more attention, the NeoGeo Pocket Color might well sit at the top. While its graphics may not impress today, in 1999, it was pretty mind-blowing. This was still two years before the Game Boy Advance was released, with the Game Boy Color, and its 8-bit graphics, dominating the market. The Game Gear was a thing, but it never fully caught on, and its screen frequently wasn’t capable of keeping up with its action, something that SNK’s handheld didn’t have a problem with. The NeoGeo Pocket Color was the first system in years to provide better hardware than Nintendo had on the market and really take advantage of it.
Of course, it didn’t sell. Nintendo had too much of the market wrapped up, and SNK didn’t have the name recognition of a Sony or Sega to carve out a corner of the market. Even at the time, I remember seeing a couple of reviews in gaming magazines and then forgetting it existed. I don’t remember seeing the console in person until a couple of years later when after the death of the system, the remaining stock was bundled in clamshells with cart-only games for a discount price. Curiosity led me to check it out, and I was shocked how well these games held up, even after the release of the Game Boy Advance.
Despite their quality, the NeoGeo Pocket Color’s games were forgotten until recently. Over the last couple of years, though, SNK started trickling out some of the system’s fighting games on the Switch, and after finding success, this collection followed. Featuring a more diverse set of games, it does an excellent job of representing what was great about SNK’s little handheld all those years ago. At times though, it can remind us of why some things end up forgotten.
The NeoGeo Pocket Color Selection Vol. 1 features ten games, which are mostly the same as what the Switch received earlier this year. The one change is that SNK vs. Capcom: The Match of the Millennium has been stripped from the collection, replaced by Crush Roller. I have mixed feelings about that change. On the one hand, this is a collection of ten games that still features five fighting games. At least this means more variety. Still, when the game they removed from the collection is quite possibly the best game in the original version, and it releases on the same day as a separate purchase, it feels a bit gross.
Providing a little more variety is not a bad thing, though, and Crush Roller is a genuinely cool puzzle game. You control a paintbrush, filling in mazes while fish creatures chase you. There’s definitely some Pac-Man in its DNA, but it’s fun with colorful graphics and cheerful music. Some of the later courses get pretty tough too, and multiple choices in which levels to play provides reason to replay it. Its only real issue is that parts of the board are hidden by overlapping paths, and corners can easily have a tiny bit of space unfilled which is hard to see. Finding myself at the end of a level with something still needing to be painted but being unable to find what that something was, happened a bit more than I’d have liked.
Get Ready To Fight
While Crush Roller is a genuinely cool addition, there’s plenty of good in the other nine games as well. There’s truly not a bad game in this collection. SNK is first and foremost an arcade developer, and when they started making handheld games, a lot of them were adaptations of their arcade franchises. It’s remarkable how successful they were, especially when it came to fighting games. With only two buttons, it just shouldn’t be possible to create fighting games with this much depth, and these games shouldn’t feel this smooth. Yet they consistently provide tight controls, deep move sets, and character lists, and feel like the franchises they’re a part of instead of bleeding together.
My least favorite of the bunch is probably Samurai Shodown! 2. It’s far from bad, really capturing the feel of the main series. Weapon attacks that do big damage, the more counter-based systems it implements, they’re here, and they feel good. The character sprites, however, are weak, and the backgrounds don’t look great. It captures the gameplay of the series fairly well, but doesn’t get the aesthetics right.
If you’re looking for a weapons-based fighter, I prefer The Last Blade: Beyond the Destiny. Bringing together elements from both of the main Last Blade titles, it features an incredibly deep list of options and modes: Story mode, survival, time attack, even some incredibly cool unlockable mini-games. Terrific character sprites are smoothly animated against impressively detailed backgrounds. Everyone controls well, and the series’ weapon-based combat feels as brutal as you’d expect. This one is a gem. If not for one other title, it would be my favorite fighter included.
Keep On Fighting
That other title is Gals Fighters. Unlike the other fighters here, this is totally original and not an adaptation of an existing series. Gals Fighters brings together some of SNK’s most popular female characters for a game which has a ton of personality, looks great, and plays incredibly smoothly. The characters provide excellent variety, and it feels a bit faster than some of the alternatives, but with the same tight controls. It doesn’t have quite the list of modes The Last Blade does, but there’s enough to keep you busy.
The other two fighters are solid, though neither is a true favorite. Both the King of Fighters R-2 and Fatal Fury First Contact do a good job of capturing the feel of their respective series. Fatal Fury was an early game on the system, and it shows. There’s a serious lack of options and modes and even characters. Still, I may slightly prefer the way it plays to The King of Fighters, which is full of characters and modes, but it doesn’t feel quite as good as some of the other fighters here. Still, if you’re looking to pour some hours into one of these, it will definitely keep you busy longer.
There’s More To Play
Stepping outside of fighting games, we have a pair of Metal Slug games unique to the platform. They’re both relatively simple shooters but have the personality and tight controls the series is known for. Which you’ll prefer is really a toss-up. The first has stronger level design but doesn’t run as well with annoyingly frequent slowdown. It also made the mistake of using the game’s start button to toggle to grenades. The second’s choice to have this button just throw them works better. However, both provide lots of variety in vehicles and enemies to keep you entertained all the way through.
Big Tournament Golf is a terrific portable version of Neo Turf Masters, capturing that game’s feel over three well-designed courses. A variety of golfers, all with different stats, and modes make this a fun one to spend some time with. I wish it had a stronger map, though, sometimes lining up shots can feel like a guessing game.
Dark Arms, meanwhile, is perhaps the collection’s biggest surprise. A horror-based action RPG where you fight with a gun, it doesn’t have a particularly deep story, but it’s definitely fun and provides a nice challenge, at least in the early going. My only real complaint with it came down to the gun balance. Early on, it feels like you don’t have enough shots for the situations you end up in, while later, you barely have to worry about it at all.
When The Past Comes Around
A collection is more than the games included in it, though, and the NeoGeo Pocket Color Selection Vol. 1 has a few cool extras. It features full art versions of the game’s box art which you can flip around and even open to view the cartridges. Definitely neat for those who want to get a feel for the system. Full art scans of the manuals are included as well, a big help in some of the fighting games as they feature move lists. You can pull these up mid-game with a few button presses. Graphic filters and options let you capture the feel of the original system’s graphics and view the system at a variety of zoom levels. You even have an overlay of the system around your screen, though I usually zoomed in a bit far to get the most out of that. Control mapping is, of course, an option as well. The strangest omission, though, is any sort of option for save states. Each game will save your spot when you exit it, so you can stop playing any time and jump back in later, but saving a particular spot to return to at your leisure isn’t available—an unfortunate omission for a modern collection.
As much as I like these games and think they’re fun to play even all these years later, there’s also a bit of sense that many of them aren’t really needed today. There are exceptions, of course, in games like Crush Roller, Gals Fighters, and Dark Arms. The Metal Slug games aren’t ports, and while perhaps not the best games in their series, they’re worth playing for fans. The other games, though? Big Tournament Golf is fun, but it’s no Neo Turf Masters, and that’s available easily on a wide variety of platforms. Even as good as it is, there’s little reason to play this version of The Last Blade when The Last Blade 2 is readily available on practically every platform under the sun. Twenty years ago, it was impressive to get to play a version of those arcade titles on the go, and that they were actually good versions was even better. Today though, you can play the arcade originals on the go easily, so it saps a good deal of the appeal of many of these games. At that point, they become more historical curiosities than games, cool to check out but something that is unlikely to hold your interest for long.
It’s hard to complain about a ten-game collection where every game is at least good. The NeoGeo Pocket Color Selection Vol. 1 is a fascinating look back at a system that deserved better. With few games that are truly essential, though, and many of them having better versions out there, it’s also not a must-own. For those who have fond memories of these games, or who are just interested in checking out a sadly forgotten device, though, check it out.
Final Verdict: 3.5/5
Available on: PC (Reviewed), Switch; Publisher: SNK; Developer: SNK, Code Mystics; Players: 2; Released: September 29th, 2021; ESRB: T for Teen; MSRP: $39.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a copy of NeoGeo Pocket Color Selection Vol. 1 provided by the publisher.