Friday, August 7, 2009

Games You Should Know About (But Probably Don't)

In my last post, I said that Samurai Shodown celebrated its 15 year anniversary in 2008, but that wasn't the only SNK property to celebrate a landmark anniversary. In 1998, SNK decided to jump into the portable race with the Neo Geo Pocket. Unfortunately, the system only endured for year in the Japanese and Hong Kong markets (it never saw the light of day in the US) and only had 12 games in its library. However, out of the ashes of its predecessor came the Neo Geo Pocket Color, a handheld system that did come to the states and, despite the odds against it, could have toppled the stagnant monolith that was the Nintendo Game Boy. When the Game Boy came out, everyone went ape shit because it was a novel idea to play Tetris in the car, at grandma's house, in the bathroom, even at the boring ass vacation your parents dragged you on. But the Game Boy was much more than a portable Tetris dispenser. There were countless games in the Game Boy's library, even expanding into the Game Boy Color lineup. The problem was that about 95% of the games sucked ass. With the exception of the Legend of Zelda games (I still own a copy of Link's Awakening DX) and a couple other notable series, it was a shit shingle buffet. You would think that someone would have created a superior handheld with a stellar game library to pull the rug from under Nintendo's feet, and many have tried, but most of those handhelds couldn't do what should have been an easy task. The problem was the hardware. Systems like Sega Game Gear and Atari Lynx were too expensive and could drain an entire package of batteries in days. Add to the fact that none of them offered any games that enticed the consumer and Nintendo didn't even have to work up a sweat to retain their throne in the handheld race. Then came the Neo Geo Pocket Color. It was released in the States in 1999. I first caught notice of the system on some late night TV commercial, you know, the ones with the 800-number at the end. By the look of the commercial, I thought it was another crappy portable. Then I went to my local independent used game store (by local, I mean that only one is in existence, instead of the local chains, such as Slackers or Game X-Change - that might give some of you an idea of where I live). The store owner had a bunch of them in stock, along with a modest selection of games. After the guy told me about the system, I was sold. I bought one (Stone Blue in color) and a copy of Samurai Shodown 2 (note that I don't use the roman numeral for the game, because it's a different game from Samurai Shodown II, and is actually labeled with the number "2"), which is the game I referred to in my last post as being tied with Samurai Shodown IV as my favorite in the series. What was so great about the NGPC? First, the game library, though small in comparison to the Game Boy, sucked a lot less. That is to say that most of the games didn't suck at all. One thing the NGPC did well was, not so surprisingly, fighting games, as they were SNK's strongest selling video games. Along with Samurai Shodown, the NGPC had versions of Fatal Fury, King of Fighters, and The Last Blade (strikingly similar to Samurai Shodown, with different characters) in it's library, along with other popular SNK franchises, such as Metal Slug. It also had some pretty strong third party support, with games being made by Sega, Taito, Namco, and (most importantly) Capcom, who used their acclaimed SNK vs Capcom franchise to not only create a crossover fighting game, but an excellent card battle game, SNK vs Capcom: Card Fighters Clash. Sega also worked with Capcom and SNK to allow NGPC games to connect with games for their own underdog system, the Sega Dreamcast. The hardware was stellar, too. The NGPC had a really cool D-pad that worked like a cross between a joystick and an analog stick and played like a dream. It was the first handheld to have no region protection, so you could play japanese games without needing to mod your system. The system had no backlit screen to devour batteries in record time. But the best part was that it only cost, get this, $69.95. Not even the pointless Game Boy Micro was cheaper than that. While the NGPC wasn't given as much shelf space in retail stores, places like WalMart, Toys 'R' Us, and Best Buy did sell them. With great hardware, a small, but superior library of games, and a cheap price tag, the NGPC had all the ingredients to knock the Game Boy down a notch. But, of course, it never happened. Why? A lot of things happened to end the NGPC's reign of terror before it began. First off, SNK was imploding upon itself. I've heard rumors that third party communications grinded to a halt. Then there was the buyout by Pachinko and Slots company, Aruze, who were supposed to salvage the company, but instead hastened SNK's demise and liquidated their assets. SNK was barely saved by its former executives who bought back all their properties and reformed, a couple years later, as SNK Playmore (They also sued Aruze for copyright infringement... and won. Way to take out the corporate evil!) But another factor brought down SNK's handheld - none other than Nintendo itself. After years of resting on their laurels, the big N took out all competition in two strikes. First, came (shudder) Pokemon. Nintendo's game of capturing animals and making them fight each other for prestige (it's like a fucking cutesy, fluffy cockfight) became a phenomenon that single-handedly resuscitated the then faltering Game Boy. The other stroke was the impending Game Boy Advance, which was the final blow in this round of the portable wars. Even though there were already handhelds that had 16-bit graphics, the Advance was a 16-bit system that didn't have the failings of it's competitors (high price and short battery life). By this point, the NGPC had quietly faded into obscurity. Even though the original Neo Geo Pocket came out in 1998, the Neo Geo Pocket Color came out in the States on August 6, 1999 which means it celebrated its 10 year anniversary a couple days ago. Though many people only see the NGPC as an insignificant footnote in the history of portable gaming, I fully recognize that it was a solid system that, if things had been different, could have been highly successful. It did a lot of things right that put it a step above the Game Boy, even the Game Boy Color. Nonetheless, it is nothing more than a slight diversion in the collective consciousness of the gaming populace. Even so, I still have my NGPC, and you can have it when you pry it from my cold dead hands. Then, I'll resurrect myself, kill you, and reclaim it. Happy 10th birthday, NGPC. Never leave an old friend behind. Kaiser out

No comments:

Post a Comment