Neo Geo Pocket Color Selection Vol. 1 Review – A Niche Retro Treasure Trove

    Title: Neo Geo Pocket Color Selection Vol. 1
    Developer: SNK, Code Mystics
    Release Date: March 17, 2021
    Reviewed On: Switch
    Publisher: SNK
    Genre: Fighting, Action, Sports

SNK has been publishing a lot of Neo Geo Pocket ports to Switch. After six standalone releases, they decided to make a collection that also includes four new games. Titled Neo Geo Pocket Color Selection Vol. 1. Arguably, this collection includes some of the retro handheld’s best titles.

As a fan of the Neo Geo Pocket who grew up with the system’s games, let me talk a little about them first. Originally released in 1998 and reaching North America only in 1999 with its Color version, the handheld was a direct competitor to the Game Boy Color.

With only a select few titles, most of which were developed by SNK themselves, and low retail support in the West, it was only known and owned by a small portion of the market as it was already discontinued by 2000. These recent rereleases are the first chance for many people to own and play these games.

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This selection includes ten of the system’s big hits. When thinking of SNK, it’s normal to think of fighting games, and many Neo Geo Pocket games capitalized on that, making this volume dominated by those games.

Gals’ Fighters, SNK vs. Capcom: The Match of the Millenium, King of Fighters R-2, Fatal Fury: First Contact, The Last Blade: Beyond the Destiny, and Samurai Shodown! 2 had already been released individually and are included in this collection. Someone who had the chance to play the system is very likely to remember one of those.

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Compared to their console or arcade version, these titles can seem a little downscaled, but it’s still impressive how rich in detail and depth they are. With only directionals, two buttons, and a very restrictive limitation in both graphical and sound aspects, it’s amazing that they were even able to make a competent fighter at all.

These games still hold up well today, each with their own peculiar traits that make them fantastic additions to any retro collection. Besides the fighters, the collection includes four games that weren’t sold individually before. These titles are Metal Slug 1st Mission, Metal Slug 2nd Mission, Dark Arms: Beast Buster 1999, and Big Tournament Golf.

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This group of titles adds some variety to the package being three action games and a sports one. Though Metal Slug may be the more recognizable name, I’d argue Dark Arms: Beast Buster 1999 was one of the most impressive games the Neo Geo Pocket had, which added further quality to this collection.

SNK once had a peculiar game called Beast Buster on the arcades. Inspired by horror B Movies, this was a rail shooter in which you fought against zombies. It was never popular, so likely only a few people will recognize the name.

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On the Neo Geo Pocket, they decided to make an Action RPG spin-off with that same inspiration on horror B Movies, Dark Arms: Beast Buster 1999. The player has to explore areas like a graveyard and a small village with a werewolf situation. By defeating the supernatural creatures with a gun called the Catcher, it’s possible to get their souls.

Instead of getting stronger, you build weapons from seeds you find in the areas, then level them up by fighting the enemies, making energy reload faster. With the souls, it’s possible to upgrade weapons (with multiple options) and even adds elemental properties (fire, water, and electricity) to their attacks.

Dark Arms also features day and night cycles, which changes which enemies you find and the area layout. Certain doors only open at a specific time, and the same can be said to bosses and story events. The chiptune music is also a neat complement to its darker vibe.

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The two Metal Slug games are interesting spin-offs from the series. They aren’t only reminiscent of the numbered counterparts but also present a unique way to explore the missions. Instead of simply giving a game over, sometimes the player’s failure will lead to alternate paths.

This allows for some variation, as the player will be able to see different routes, and it serves as motivation to improve or to play again and experiment with the outcomes. Each area may have multiple layers, hidden items, and people to rescue. At the end of each mission, you’ll be evaluated and provide with ranking.

Though the first game was already good-looking by the Neo Geo Pocket standards, 2nd Mission is a clear improvement over it. Besides the more detailed graphics for characters and backgrounds, it has two main characters with their own stories, radio transmissions briefing the missions, a rescue list with funny descriptions, and a time attack mode.

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Metal Slug 2nd Mission also features voices for the power-ups to have that glorious “Pineapple” and “Machine Gun” cheesy audio the series is famous for. Even if a bit muffled and noisy, this was a nice touch for series fans.

However, whenever this happens, it’s noticeable how the game freezes and lags. There’s also a slowdown when there are too many characters and objects in play, and the same can be said for a few points of 1st Mission.

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Though it might have been kept for fidelity to the original game, it’s frankly sad not to have this slow down fixed. It’s especially egregious because the fighting games have such smooth performances, so it feels odd and less polished. Even though the gameplay itself works just as well as your usual Metal Slug game for a guns-blazing action fest.

Last and probably least in most people’s minds is Open Tournament Golf (also known as Neo Turf Masters). However, it’s a good addition to the collection, not only because it adds variety, but because it’s a really cute and interesting little game and one I was already fond of back in the day.

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Based on the Neo Geo game of the same name, Open Tournament Golf could be considered a simplified version with chibi sprites and a little less content than its counterpart. However, by itself, it’s an enjoyable game even for those who aren’t familiar with the sport. I don’t care about the sport at all, to be frank, but it’s a very charming game.

The game has three courses (Japan, Germany, and the USA) and six playable characters, each with its own statistics like accuracy and putting. Besides a versus, which can be played by sharing a joy-con on the Switch version, the game has three modes.

Stroke Play allows you to play it at your own leisure without any opponents. It’s considered a warm-up and a good way to train for the competition. Handicap gives you 18 roles randomly picked from the course and assigns you a number starting with 36 (which means “you’re really bad at it”).

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On Handicap, if you have a good performance, that number is updated. Reaching lower numbers is the equivalent of better rankings. But the real main mode of the game is Triple Crown, the championship in which you compete with other characters (which you only see on a board instead of watching them playing) and have to win three subsequent tournaments.

No matter the model picked, the gameplay revolves around specific actions in the field. First, the player has to aim the reticule to the spot they’d like to reach. It’s impossible to aim straight for the hole most of the time, so you have to avoid areas with mud, water, or sand. The greener the spot the ball is on, the easier it’ll be to perform better shots and to avoid missing the ball entirely.

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The player can also select a variety of clubs, each with its own range. Though the game already gives a choice that is somewhat optimized considering the distance to the hole, it can be helpful to change for some situations.

Once the player has adjusted reticule and club, they have to change to a screen that shows the character aiming. Here it’s necessary to pick how much strength you’ll use and if you’ll hit high or low. Both of those are gauges shown on the left side of the screen. Hit it really strong and in the exact middle and you’ll get a “nice shot” animation.

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However, it’s doubtful the ball will reach the hole from a distance, so aiming at the general green field around it is the goal. After that, putting comes into play. The screen is now straight over the hole and the player only needs to adjust the trajectory of the ball and hit it with an amount of strength close to the one indicated in the gauge.

This whole process includes multiple screens, cut-ins, seeing the ball move around the mini field, and chibi character art that shows their happiness or frustration over the results. It’s very cute, rich, and appealing retro art.

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The game is plodding, though, which isn’t a problem but highlights the limitations of the rewind feature. The animations take time, and the limited capabilities of the feature make it tough to be used effectively compared to save states or other similar functions.

However, it’s important to note that the games automatically save the state when closed. Besides that and the rewind, like the individual releases, they include manuals, Neo Geo Pocket skins for the background (keeping the screen ratio even if you zoom), and a scanline filter.

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The collection also has new features, such as playing them on the original black and white Neo Geo Pocket or the minimally-enhanced Japanese-exclusive New Neo Geo Pocket. It is possible to play the English or Japanese versions of the games, and it also includes a virtual box that allows you to check and open to see how the cartridges used to look like.

These features are a little bare, very simple additions to the games. The manuals are a really nice touch and I’m sure the multiple versions could be useful for speedrunners to play Beast Buster: Dark Arms or the Metal Slug games, for instance. But other than that, it isn’t anything game-changing to make people more likely to get them.

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Neo Geo Pocket Color Selection Vol. 1 is a great collection that includes most of the must-haves from the SNK handheld. However, the Metal Slug games still suffer from noticeable lag, which hurts their inclusion. Despite that, retro gamers and those who love SNK fighters should own this little piece of magic handheld history.

In fact, I’m slightly puzzled with the Vol.1 in its name, indicating at least one more collection is likely to come, as it’ll have to enter even more niche territory (like the robot-building RPG “Biomotor Unitron” or the rhythm game originally canceled in the west “Cool Cool Jam”).

A review copy of the title was provided by the publisher for review purposes

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Ivanir Ignacchitti

Random Japanese games are my jam. Handhelds, RPGs, VNs and PC banzai.