Category: SNK

SNK NeoGeo Pocket Color

This is my NeoGeo Pocket Color (NGPC), a short-lived handheld videogame system that the somewhat esoteric Japanese company SNK sold from 1999-2001.

I believe I found it at Village Thrift sometime well after the system was discontinued in the United States in 2000.

Village Thrift has a good habit of taking a lot of items that go together, like a NGPC and several games, and putting them together in a clear plastic bag.  I remember finding it at their showcase, rather than the electronics section.

I’m also not sure if the scratch on the screen was there when I bought it or if that happened later.

NGPC_Collection

The games that were in that plastic bag along with the NGPC were:

Sonic The Hedgehog Pocket Adventure, a Sonic the Hedgehog platformer:

NGPC_Sonic_Pocket_Title NGPC_Sonic_Pocket_Screen1

Bust-A-Move Pocket, an entry in the well-known puzzle game series that resembles Bejeweled:

NGPC_Bust-a_Move_Pocket_Title NGPC_Bust-a_Move_Pocket_Screen1

Baseball Stars Color, a fairly straightforward baseball game:

NGPC_BB_Stars_Title

Neo Dragon’s Wild, a collection of “casino” games:

NGPC_Dragons_Wild_Screen

Metal Slug 1st Mission, a portable version of SNK’s Rambo-like side scrolling platforming shooter:

NGPC_Metal_Slug_1st_TitleNGPC_Metal_Slug_1st_Screen1

And finally Metal Slug 2nd Mission, the sequel to Metal Slug 1st Mission:

NGPC_Metal_Slug_2nd_TitleNGPC_Metal_Slug_2nd_Screen1

Oddly enough, there were no fighting games in that lot because that’s what SNK was known for and what enthusiasts wanted the NGPC for.

There are several neat and interesting things about the NeoGeo Pocket Color hardware.  The first is that it has this tiny spec sheet for the display written above the screen.

NGPC_Specs_Close

You know, in case you ever need to look up it’s pixel pitch.

The screen on the NGPC can be difficult to see in all but direct sunlight and it can also be a pain to photograph.  So, if my screenshots look odd, that’s why.

The need for very bright light in order to see the colors well was a problem with a lot of the color portable systems of this time period.  I fondly remember the uncomfortable position I had to sit in to play Tetris DX on my purple Game Boy Color while hunched below a reading light that was attached to my bed.  Penny Arcade memorably poked fun of the difficult to see screen on the Game Boy Advance in 2001.  The rise of back-lit screens like the one on my Game Boy Micro finally alleviated this problem.

The unfortunate thing is that when you see screenshots of games from the NGPC and Game Boy Color from emulators you realize what beautiful colors those games were putting out and how the hardware made them almost impossible to see.

The NGPC has a unique 8-way joypad located on the left side of the console. This was the system’s most memorable feature and one that people would be wishing for on other portable game systems for years afterword.

NGPC_Joypad_Close

Unlike the control stick you might see on an XBox controller this is a digital control pad, rather than an analog one.  However, because it can move in eight directions it’s easier to point in a diagonal direction than a conventional cross-shaped D-pad like you find on Nintendo systems.  SNK specialized in 2D arcade games that had sophisticated joysticks so it’s no surprise to find something like this on their portable system.  The joypad has a really solid feel and makes a lovely clicking sound as you move it around.

NGPC_Rear

On the back the NGPC curiously has two battery covers.  The system uses two AA batteries to power the system and one CR2032 button battery to backup memory to save games and settings.

NGPC_Battery_Message

If the CR2032 dies you get this lovely warning message when you turn off the console.

When you turn on the NGPC the boot screen has an attractive little animation accompanied by a cute little tune.

NGPC_Boot_Logo

If you turn on the NGPC without a cartridge you get this menu screen that includes a calendar and (in silly Japanese fashion) a horoscope.

NGPC_Menus

NGPC_Menu_Calendar

NGPC_Menu_Horoscope

I can’t think of a videogame feature more utterly useless than a horoscope.

In order to explain the NeoGeo Pocket Color I have to tie together a few threads.

SNK is not what you would call a household name in the US but it was one of the titans of the Japanese arcade in the 1980s and 1990s.  Their specialty was (and still is) was 2D fighting games.  That is to say that the graphics are hand-drawn sprites that view the action from the side.

In 1990 SNK released the NeoGeo home console which for all intents and purposes was one of their arcade machines repackaged for home use.  As you would expect it was outrageously expensive.  The console itself (including a pack-in game) was $650 and games cost $200.

If you owned a Sega Genesis or a Nintendo SNES the NeoGeo must have seemed like some sort of mystical Shangri-La.

If you purchases a NeoGeo what you would have gotten for your obscene amount of money were perfect arcade games in the home.  From the beginning of the home console market the fidelity of home console conversions of arcade games had been a constant problem.  There were always compromises in animation, music, fluidity, and control sensitivity.  Not so, if you were a NeoGeo owner.  What you got was perfection.

But in the mid-1990s the market moved on to consoles such as the PlayStation and N64 that were built around 3D graphics.  The arcades moved on too, and fighting games like the Tekken and Virtua Fighter series that were built on 3D graphics excited the public’s imagination.

SNK’s contemporaries like Capcom (whose Street Fighter series is one of the pillars of the 2D fighting genre) found ways to stay relevant by developing new series like Resident Evil while continuing their line of 2D fighting games.  SNK didn’t and the NeoGeo became an expensive collector’s item.

Then, something possessed SNK to release a monochrome portable system called the NeoGeo Pocket in 1998 followed by the NeoGeo Pocket Color in 1999.

NGPC_SNK_Logo_Close

1999, when the NGPC came out, was a very strange time for portable videogames because it’s when the technological gap between the home consoles and portable consoles was at it’s peak.  It wasn’t so much a technological gap as it was a chasm.

It’s funny how technology trends wax and wane over decades.  Today, vast sums of R&D dollars are being spent on making components (especially CPUs and GPUs) for portable electronics faster and more power efficient.  Intel’s new (Jone 2013) Haswell processors have marginal speed gains for desktop users but offer better battery life and less heat for mobile users.  Across the industry from Apple to Samsung the effort is going into making better mobile devices.

Back in 1999, everything was different.  Back then the money was being put into chips for devices like PCs and home game consoles that were plugged into the wall.  We wanted faster devices and didn’t much care how much power they used or how much heat they put out.

In the home console market, the Dreamcast had just debuted, ushering in an era of more more refined 3D graphics that would lead to the PS2, XBox, and GameCube.

The Dreamcast was powered by a 32-bit Hitachi SH-4 RISC CPU and a PowerVR GPU that’s the direct ancestor of the GPU in today’s iPad and PS Vita.

Meanwhile in the portable realm the popular Game Boy Color was still based on an 8-bit CPU, technology that was solidly rooted in the game consoles of the 1980s.  Very roughly this meant that the state-of-the-art home console was at least several hundred times more powerful than the leading portable console.

Battery life was the root cause of this gap.  You could build a much more powerful portable system with a much more powerful CPU, much more RAM, and a higher resolution back-lit screen.  But, it would have been heavy and had horrendous battery life.  The marketplace thrashings that the Atari Lynx, the NEC TurboExpress, the Sega Game Gear, and the Sega Genesis Nomad received at the hands of the Game Boy throughout the 1990s were all clear proof of this reality.

Essentially those systems had tried to be to the Game Boy what the NeoGeo had been to the SNES and the Genesis, a far more powerful, far more expensive competitor.  But, there was no place for that in the portable market.

The breakthroughs that would happen in the mid-2000s that allowed the revolution in portable computing devices simply had not occurred yet.

In 1999 the Game Boy Color sat at the sweet spot between battery life, weight/size, and cost.  As a result, any serious competitor would have to have a comparable size, weight, cost, and battery life to the Game Boy Color and that precluded anything that was vastly more powerful.  But it would also make it difficult for a serious competitor to differentiate itself from the Game Boy.

Technically, the NGPC was a 16-bit system and the Game Boy Color was just an 8-bit system but at these CPU speeds, with these amounts of RAM, and with these screens, the difference was negligible.

So the situation you had was that SNK must have felt that their background in 2D arcade games would be an asset in portable games, which were still totally dominated by 2D graphics even as the home consoles were putting out increasingly sophisticated 3D graphics.  They probably also thought that as a company that specialized in fighting games they could build a portable game system suited to fighting games (with that gorgeous 8-way joypad) and exploit a market that Nintendo had ignored.

The problem was that 1998-1999 was an awful time for any company not named Nintendo to launch a handheld game console.  From the earliest days of the Game Boy most of the best games had been essentially miniature versions of console games.  The great games of the Game Boy from 1989 to 1998 include Super Mario Land 1 and 2, Metroid II, Legend of Zelda: Links’ Awakening, Kirby’s Dream Land, the Donkey Kong Land series and other games that basically would not have existed without their console counterparts.

Pokemon changed all of that in 1998 (in the US).  Here was a game that had no console counterpart.  Here was a game who’s popularity was strongly attached to being able to play the game against and with friends by connecting your Game Boys together.  Here was a game that lent itself to consuming every available hour of a child’s day  –on the school bus, on the playground, waiting at the doctor’s office, etc — like no game since Tetris.

NGPC had nothing comparable to Pokemon.  At the time, the influence of SNK’s 2D arcade games was waning in American arcades so for the vast portion of the NGPC’s potential audience they had very little to offer.  There were SNK enthusiasts who loved the NGPC and there were fighting game enthusiasts who loved the NGPC, but on the whole it didn’t make much headway in the American market.  And that’s why mine ended up at a thrift store a few years later.

NGPC_Size_Comparison

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