Amazon ran a sale about a week ago on Neo Geo Pocket Colors - a handheld system by SNK that was launched around the time Pokemon became a household word. The system went unnoticed while Nintendo's pocket monsters took the world by storm, but SNK singlehandedly released a large number of quality games for their system - the majority well made miniaturized versions of their established arcade frachises. While the selection had an overly generous portion of fighting games, the console's library has only a few stinkers in the lot; a sharp contrast to the quality needle in the haystack of licensed mediocrity that is the Game Boy library. Had Pokemon never hit it big, Neo Geo is one of the few handhelds that had a chance to survive against Nintendo's Game Boy systems.
The NGPC is a nice piece of hardware. The screen is one of the best reflective screens I've seen, easily better than the original GBA screen. In terms of hardware horsepower, it is about a third of the way between Game Boy Color and a Game Boy Advance. According to the box it claims 40 hours on a pair of AAs - with the batteries that came with the system I got less than 15. The control stick appears to be analog, or at least as analog as a NES Max controller. It makes a clicking sound when you push in one of the cardinal directions - I like that. I'm a big fan of analog joysticks, but it is odd that a handheld ripe with quality fighting games doesn't have a tap-tap-tap friendly directional pad. The two gameplay buttons feel firm, but pressing them hard causes the system to vibrate like a Sega controller. Ergonomically, the Neo Geo Pocket Color is slightly less comfortable as a GBA SP.
I ordered three games with the system: Samurai Shodown 2! (a samuari fighting game, natch), Capcom Vs. SNK Cardfighters Clash (trading card game), and Metal Slug: 2nd Mission (side scrolling shooter).
Samurai Shodown 2!
When I first popped the samurai fighting game into my NGPC, limitations of the handheld system immediately became clear. My recollection of the Samurai Shodown! series was from the arcade games that feature vibrant colors, detailed backgrounds, and extravagant animation. The handheld version feels threadbare by comparison. The characters are rendered with three or four colors and and the most elaborate attacks may be composed of five frames of animation. The audio is poor, with only a few attack sound effects.
15 minutes in, the quality and clear effort invested in the title helps ease any qualms about any technical inadequacy. There are over twenty characters to choose from, each with two styles of play, and I've seen at least half a dozen stages. Many of the characters reflect different aspects of samurai combat with the various stances while others use staves or rapiers. While the animation is sparse, the frames they choose express the force of the moves well.
One of my favorite things about Samuari Shodown 2! is that with only two buttons on the NGPC, one of them is used for parrying attacks. You can still pull away to block, but I love the mind-games involved with accurately predicting when your opponent will strike. I like that defense is a focal, proactive element in battle and not a simple matter of guessing high, low, or middle after you've finished mashing your buttons.
The special moves in the SS2 are familiar ones - mostly variations of the basic Capcom fighting game moves (fireball, dragon punch, etc.). A fighting game must provide me some juicy carrot in order to learn a new set of secret handshakes - ones that borrow conventions allow me to play and appreciate the game at a higher level sooner. I'm glad Samauri Shodown 2! does this.
I'll write reviews of Cardfighters and Metal Slug sometime later. . .
Oh yeah - this SNK ad rocks.