With the increasing popularity of smartphone games, the rapidly declining sales of the PlayStation Vita and the Nintendo 3DS seemingly being the only profitable portable system left, the future of the handheld videogame industry is uncertain. So uncertain that it’s hard to remember a time that the market allowed for more than two options per console generation. During the late 1990’s and early 2000’s the handheld videogame industry was a diverse and exciting place. While Nintendo still reigned supreme with the Game Boy, rival hardware developers felt confident that they could release a successful product that would take market share away from the Japanese goliath.
Enter Shin Nihon Kikaku, better known as SNK, an arcade developer and the publisher of classic franchises like Metal Slug and King of Fighters. In the early 90s SNK launched its Neo Geo brand in an attempt to transition their arcade success into the home console market. They had early success with the Advanced Entertainment System (AES) and the Neo Geo CD, but quickly found that they couldn’t compete with the sales and third party support of Nintendo and Sega. SNK rethought their strategy and designed the Neo Geo Pocket, a 16-bit, monochrome, cartridge based handheld system that was inexpensive and could benefit from ports of SNK’s extensive arcade library. Exclusive to Japan, the system was well received, but was quickly replaced by its successor the Neo Geo Pocket Color to better compete with the Game Boy Color.
While the Neo Geo Pocket Color shared a similar design to its competitors with two input buttons and a directional pad, it was unique in that the d-pad was eight direction, used microswitches and felt more like an arcade joystick than a traditional directional input. The design was beneficial because SNK is widely known for its fighting games, and some of the best games on the system such as King of Fighters R-2, SNK vs. Capcom: Match of the Millennium and Fatal Fury: First Contact are of the fighting genre. Because the Neo Geo Pocket and Pocket Color were released in such quick succession, they are two of the few consoles not only backwards compatible, but forwards compatible as well ensuring that customers who bought into the system early were not left out. While the system was powered by two AA batteries, SNK designed an internal memory system powered by a watch battery that ran a simple clock, calendar and alarm system on the handheld’s menu. Basic by today’s standards, but at the time it set the Neo Geo apart from the Game Boy.
Because the Neo Geo Pocket Color was released in the European and North American markets in 1999, SNK realized that it needed third party support. Understanding that the console couldn’t stand on arcade ports alone, SNK partnered with Sega. Sonic the Hedgehog Pocket Adventures was one of the Neo Geo’s most successful games, and marked one of the first times a Sonic the Hedgehog game appeared on a non-Sega console. The partnership produced several excellent games, and Sega even developed an adaptor that connected the system to the Sega Dreamcast for cross system functionality. Despite a generally positive reception, numerous factors including poor sales, lack of third party support outside of Sega, the sales dominance of Pokémon on the Game Boy Color and the looming release of the Game Boy Advance meant SNK pulled the Neo Geo Pocket Color from the European and North American markets after only a year. Shortly afterwards, SNK withdrew from the console market entirely and went bankrupt.
Thankfully, SNK and some of their popular franchises live on today under the helm of SNK Playmore. And while the original Neo Geo family of systems might be long gone, it’s a great time to be an SNK fan. SNK continues to develop and publish new games, oversees the rerelease of many of its classic games on modern consoles and the Neo Geo Pocket and AES have been succeeded, albeit in a spiritual succession, by the Neo Geo X. Nowadays the Neo Geo Pocket Color can be found for very reasonable prices online and is a great pickup for collectors and classic arcade game fanatics alike.
Photo credited to Shawn Liu