Neo-Geo Pocket

Disclaimer: This is not an in-depth technical review.

Author: M.E. Williams

Despite being a juggernaut of the arcade industry in the 80's and 90's, SNK broke into the home console market with hardware that they hoped would have the same mass appeal as their arcade games. Through one lens you could say that the AES and Neo-Geo CD were successful, turning a decent profit for SNK despite high prices of both consoles and, in the case of the AES, software as well. At the same time, SNK could never compete with the software selection of their much lower priced home console rivals so that success was limited. After the almost immediate failure of the Hyper Neo-Geo 64 arcade hardware in 1997, SNK decided to try their hand creating a brand new piece of kit in a market they had no experience in - portable gaming. Did their gamble pay off? Well, yes and no.

Portable gaming was a big deal in the 1990s. Alongside the traditional TV based game consoles of the day, Nintendo, Sega, Atari, and NEC all tried to meet this growing market segment by creating a compelling portable gaming solution with interchangeable cartridges for people on-the-go. Despite Sega, Atari, and NEC all releasing powerful portable hardware with full-color screens, the bulky size of these units, along with dismal battery life, didn't exactly speak to the on-the-go consumer they were targeting. It was Nintendo, with their underpowered black & white little grey box that hit the sweet spot of providing compelling gaming experiences tailored for portable play and long battery life. While the NEC Turbo Express (PCE Express) and the Sega Game Gear would see some market share during the early 90's, Nintendo's Game Boy shredded the competition and had a stranglehold on the portable console market for the duration of the 1990's. 

Throughout the 90's there had been a fair number of ports of some of SNK's most popular arcade games on both the Game Boy and Game Gear. Despite some of these ports being quite good, SNK didn't develop these games in-house and instead passed off most publishing rights to Takara who would then commission smaller development studios to create the greatly compromised ports. While some of these ports turned out exceptional, like Fatal Fury Special on Game Gear and King of Fighters 95 on Game Boy, the majority were marginal representations of their arcade counterparts at best. 

While a bit late to the party, SNK eventually wanted a slice of the portable gaming pie for themselves. They sat back and watched the portable console war over the course of the decade and by 1998 felt they had a good grasp on what would make a new successful contender in the portable hardware market: low-cost, modest power, and quality games that were designed from the ground up for portable play. Thankfully, arcade titles were the perfect type of game for portable play in the 90's with their drop-in/drop-out gameplay, and SNK knew that market segment very, very well. On paper, the prospect of creating a modestly powerful portable console that would play unique variants of their most popular arcade games sounded like a sure-fire hit. But like all good ideas on paper, SNK's brilliant plan had a few hurdles to overcome; namely a little game you may have heard of called Pokemon (Pocket Monsters in Japan). 

Pokemon released in Japan in 1996 and in late 1998 in North America. While sales were not strong at first, the addictive gameplay that was perfectly designed for portability quickly became a cultural phenomena around the globe. This made sales of Nintendo's Game Boy sky rocket again despite being almost a decade old at that point. In order to quell the masses who were a little tired of the black & white original, Nintendo released the modestly more capable Game Boy Color line in 1998 that was backward compatible with all prior Game Boy releases - and you could even play some of these older titles in limited color. 

When SNK finally released the original black & white Neo-Geo Pocket in October 1998, Nintendo was already raking in the dough with its new mainline Pokemon franchise and huge back catalog of quality portable titles. But despite renewed consumer interest in Nintendo's handheld, SNK charged ahead with the release of the Neo-Geo pocket and a hand full of quality titles; most of which were downgraded ports of their most popular arcade franchises at the time like The King of Fighters, Samurai Shodown, and Super Sidekicks (Neo Geo Cup 98). Each title received a massive rework in graphics and gameplay to make them feel more at home on significantly less powerful hardware. 

After seeing the success of Nintendo's Color upgrade to the Game Boy, SNK released their own color version of the Neo-Geo Pocket called...The Neo-Geo Pocket Color. This new variant would completely replace the black & white product line upon launch and became the only version of the Neo Pocket available on the market. It was backward compatible with the small library of black & white games, and some of these original 10 black & white games were even released in new color editions later in 1999. A handful of the original release games were coded with some basic color functionality, like Samurai Shodown!, that would unlock when played on a Color system. What's more, SNK didn't want to produce ill will with their customers, so the black & white console was forward compatible with most color software as well. When the Neo-Geo Pocket was released internationally in 1999, SNK chose to only release the Color line of the handheld which left the black & white edition a Japan exclusive. Finally, in October of 1999, SNK released the final revision of the hardware called the Neo-Geo Pocket Color Slim. Exclusive to Japan, this slimline edition is 13% smaller than the baseline model with a slightly better speaker. 

From 1999-2000, SNK developed and/or published a healthy amount of quality titles for the Neo-Geo Pocket Color across all genres. While most of the library comprised of unique spins on their arcade properties, there were quite a few RPGs, puzzle games, sports games, and card games as well. Despite their best efforts, the console was not the smash hit that they wanted it to be. That said, it was still a profitable venture in both the East and West with the console gaining 2% of the handheld market share in North America by the end of 1999. Despite a modestly positive outlook going into the 21st century, SNK had a few more hurdles to jump if they wanted their little handheld to be a success. Sadly, they never made it to the finish line. 

Due to the huge amount of investment capital poured into the underpowered Hyper Neo-Geo 64 (which flopped upon release in 1997) and the general downturn of the arcade industry by the year 2000, SNK's success and money was quickly running dry. In a bout to save the company from collapse, pachinko manufacturer Aruze purchased SNK and all their brands in early-2000. And by June of that year, Aruze closed SNK's worldwide branches and immediately recalled all stock of Neo Pocket software and hardware to be resold in Asian markets. Although, that venture didn't last very long as the SNK brand dissolved entirely by 2001. 

While there is more to the story of SNK's fall from prominence and eventual resurgence, this is where the story of the Neo-Geo Pocket hardware line stops. Despite being on the market for not quite three years, the Neo-Geo Pocket garnered a cult following all across the globe due to a healthy amount of quality portable games on capable hardware that were just as fun to play as SNK's full arcade experiences. Even today, the Neo-Geo Pocket is remembered not only for its amazing library, but also for its incredible hardware design. Thankfully, modern SNK is beginning to release a small quantity of Pocket Color games on Nintendo's Switch console so new and old gamers alike can play some of the best portable games from the late 90's - many of which hold up admirably today. No, there is nothing like playing these games on real Neo Pocket hardware (mostly due to the truly innovative control stick), but the fact that there is still a drive and interest for these games over 20 years later speaks to the timeless nature of these amazing works of art.

The Neo Pocket's control stick was revolutionary for the time, featuring pin-point accuracy using arcade-quality micro-switches. 

General Specs:


The Neo-Geo Pocket, and subsequently the Color variant, is a marvel of engineering. Despite the modest size and 40-hour battery life, it is a true 16-bit machine that outpaced any previously released dedicated portable console in raw processing power. While the dual processors and sprite pushing power of the hardware is impressive, the most impressive feature of the Neo-Geo Pocket is most certainly the control stick. 

Given the arcade roots of SNK's games, the hardware designers wanted to retain the true arcade feel of using micro-switched joysticks in their pocket games. While using a D-Pad would have been an easy, cost effective option, SNK instead chose to engineer a gated micro-switch mechanism for a rotating thumb pad that isn't completely unlike the Neo CD controller. The throw and sensitivity on the thumb stick was just resistive enough that it gave a extremely solid representation of what it would be like to play these tiny little games in an arcade. The feeling of playing a game on the device is hard to describe for those that have never held one before as there has never been anything else even remotely like it. It is so well engineered that the mechanisms that make the stick work still work well today on consoles that are more than 20 years old. It really is something, and is a key reason why I still avidly play my Neo-Geo Pocket Color today. The thumb stick is easily the hardware's best feature, and that's saying something.

In order to keep costs and battery life manageable, SNK opted to not use a backlit screen. This is a double edged sword as the games look nice and crisp under the right conditions; but the hard part is finding the perfect conditions to bring the screen to life. While SNK had a chance to rectify the omission of a backlit screen when they released the Pocket Color, they fortunately/unfortunately opted for the same approach to keep costs low and battery life high. 

Thankfully, in the modern market there are backlit replacement screens you can get for the Pocket Color that are less than $50 and easy to install. These replacements really bring to life the games in a way they've never been seen before. If you have a Pocket Color I highly recommend exploring these options. It shaves the battery life in half, but you can still get a respectable 10-15 hours which is a very small trade off for the ease of playing the console in any lighting condition.

The included mono speaker sounds fine, for the tiny little thing that it is. The upside of this is that the sound processor is similar to what was in the Sega Master System, so there isn't a whole lot of richness lost due to the simplicity of the music. My only real gripe here is that the music on the arcade ports lacks the punch of the MVS originals coming through the four channel, tinny sound processor and speakers - which mars the experience a bit. SNK produced some of the best arcade music of the era, and to hear it downgraded in a way that is much less elegant than the visual downgrade is a missed opportunity, but an understandable one.

SNK included some goodies in the console's bios that you could use when not playing a game. When booted without a game you are treated to a cute menu system, complete with some up-beat music, that lets you change system settings and access limited PDA functions. What's more, you can even have the console tell you your horoscope for the day! These aren't groundbreaking features by any stretch, but it is a nice touch that makes the system all that much more likeable.

If you have a buddy that also has a Neo Pocket, you can use the link-cable to play two-player games. Given that many of the games released are arcade ports, there is no shortage of two-player experiences on the hardware. Speaking of the games...

Neo-Geo Pocket games originally came in sturdy, plastic clamshell cases with a snaplock that were very much like the premium cases that housed expensive AES home cartridges. Every game came complete with a full manual and a secondary plastic protection case for the cartridge for when you want to take your game on the go.

When the console was released in the US, SNK USA opted to use less sturdy paper components for the outer case of games. While not nearly as durable as the plastic snaplock cases, they still opened up like a book, which is a nice touch. In a bid to keep costs low, SNK Japan switched to these paper cases as well for late 1999-2000 release games. Oddly enough, the other Asian markets and the European market kept the snaplock cases for all releases. A full European set of snaplock Pocket Color games is one of the most sought after collections in the retro game market.

Like prior SNK consoles, the Neo Pocket saw very little third party support. That said, it did have the largest stable of publishers and developers of any SNK console, so there is a bit more variety on the console overall. For example, Compile and Success released versions of the popular Pyuo Pyuo and Cotton series games, and Cacpom gave us the first home ports of their Rockman (Mega Man) arcade games. 

Speaking of Capcom, SNK brokered a deal with them in the late 90's where the two companies agreed to create a series cross-over titles that poke fun at their rivalry during the 90's fighting game war. While Capcom would go on to produce the first arcade fighting games based on the cross-over, SNK decided to focus on their Neo Pocket for this venture rather than their arcade platforms; at first anyway. The first two games SNK produced for the Neo Pocket are actually one in the same. In SvC: Card Fighters Clash, a deck-building card game, players could purchase which card deck (cartridge) they wanted to begin with, SNK or Capcom. The other game SNK published was SvC: Match of the Millennium - which is by all accounts the best handheld fighting game ever created. Make sure to check out the review for more details on this groundbreaking classic title.

The variety of games on the Neo Pocket was a boon for the system, but not all releases made it out of Japan - at least initially. Some heavy hitters like the strategy RPG Faselei! didn't see an official release in the West, but it eventually made it to the states in a more round about way. Around 2002-2003 there was a plethora of unused stock of Neo Pocket hardware and cartridges that never made their way back to SNK when the system was liquidated in the US. I'm not sure of the publisher of this effort, but rather than release the complete versions of the games, they threw out the manual and outer boxes and packaged the games in bubble packaging at 6 games a pack. You could also get cheap hardware and game sets as well. These were sold for a fraction of the original cost just to liquidate the rest of the Pocket inventory. Low and behold, the fully translated Faselei! and Last Blade were among the common games you could find in these bubble packs, surprising and delighting many fans in the US that thought they would never play these games in English.  

The story of the Neo-Geo Pocket is really a tragic tale, as this is one of those instances where you had a solidly designed product, dozens of compelling games, and unique spins on arcade hits. Unfortunately, Nintendo's dominance in the portable hardware space, the Pokemon craze, and the promise of the Game Boy Advance in 2001 all but killed any momentum SNK could have had in this space. There is no way to know if the Pocket could have survived if SNK did not run into the financial trouble they found themselves in. Maybe there is an alternate reality where SNK never went out of business and the Pocket Color survived in the market for years to come? I like to think there is a reality where this is the case because I really do have a soft-spot for this unique hardware. I wanted so bad for it to succeed. 

But, this is a modern review for a modern gamer that needs to answer the question, "do I recommend you go out and purchase a console for yourself?" Yes and no. A dedicated hand-held console is a hard sell in 2021 with so many options available that play emulated or official versions of these games already. That said, the experience of playing these games on an actual Neo Pocket is entirely unique because of the control-stick, and something really is lost in translation when playing these games on any other solution. If you're a retro-game enthusiast that wants to try things as they were, then go out and buy a Neo Pocket right this very second along with a copy of Sonic the Hedgehog and Match of the Millennium - you won't regret it. If you don't care much about micro-switches, then find another solution. I personally want everybody to play and fall in love with this little device, but I am also aware that it isn't for everyone, especially over 20 years after its disappearance from the mainstream game industry. At the very least, play the Neo Pocket's game library any way you can. There are many quality titles waiting to be explored.