The story of the handheld that stood up to the almighty Game Boy!
By Robert Marrujo:: Video game developer SNK Playmore was looking to take a piece from Nintendo’s handheld pie when the company launched its Neo Geo Pocket in 1998. The system was much like a Game Boy, offering an unlit LCD screen and simple 8-bit graphics. While Pocket was an admirable shot at replicating the success of Game Boy, the device suffered from perhaps the worst timing in the history of console launches, coming hot on the heels of the release of Game Boy Color, the chromatic followup to Nintendo’s hit portable. Cracking into Nintendo’s commanding control of the market was going to be difficult enough going against the original Game Boy juggernaut, but to put a colorless unit into stores against the new Game Boy Color was tantamount to suicide. Though Neo Geo Pocket was on shelves for only a year (and never left the shores of Japan), SNK went back to the drawing board to quickly (as in, five months later!) overhaul its handheld for both a conflict on even footing as well as an international debut.
Released in 1999, the Neo Geo Pocket Color faced an uphill battle against Game Boy Color, though it had nothing to do with the quality of the system. Horizontally oriented like a first-generation Game Boy Advance, the Pocket Color sat with its screen in the middle and its control inputs to the left and right. One especially sound innovation that SNK made with the handheld was with its clicking analog stick in place of a traditional D-pad; the stick worked like a wonder, offering excellent directional input (which was very handy in fighting games, especially). The buttons were a bit less exciting, just standard “A” and “B” circles like any other portable or console controller, but they functioned fine (and were in reverse order as compared to Game Boy). The screen itself was full color and unlit, not unlike Game Boy Color. Pocket Color shipped in an assortment of six hues: Platinum Blue and Silver, Clear, Aqua Blue, Stone Blue, and Anthracite.
Along with the unit’s sturdy and handsome build quality, it was the Pocket Color’s built-in software that further defined it as a fine rival for Game Boy Color. When the system was turned on without a game cartridge inserted, a basic home screen/dashboard was pulled up. There were standard system setting options like date and time, but there was also a calendar, world clock… and horoscope generator! Yes, if a player input his date of birth the Pocket Color would give a daily update of his good (or bad) fortune. Gimmicky, but fun stuff, to be sure. So with all those exceptional qualities on display, one would assume that Pocket Color should have been on even footing with Nintendo’s handheld. Unfortunately, a number of factors came into play that scuttled the device’s chances of ever being successful.
For one thing, Pocket Color was initially sold exclusively through SNK Playmore’s online store for $69.99. Despite its alluring price, for anyone in 1999 to limit Pocket Color’s sales to Internet consumers was a surefire way to guarantee that the handheld would be getting into a limited number of people’s hands. It would take a few more years for Americans to really begin surfing the Internet and purchasing anything online, much less an unheard of gaming console. As a result of SNK’s initial decision to keep Pocket Color out of brick and mortar stores, the portable was immediately at a disadvantage against Game Boy Color. SNK would eventually deign to sell the handheld in a wider variety of outlets, but the concession proved to be too little, too late for software developers who had flocked to Nintendo’s better-selling portable to produce their games.
That’s not to say that Pocket Color didn’t have any great games to play. Titles like Metal Slug: First Mission, King of Fighters R2 (which controls amazingly with the handheld’s "clicky" analog stick), and Card Fighters’ Clash were all wonderful pieces of software that took advantage of Pocket Color to the fullest. Arguably the best game on SNK’s portable, however, was Sonic the Hedgehog: Pocket Adventure. Sega worked with SNK directly to produce the title, which was a stunning showcase for what Pocket Color could do. The unit had a 16-bit processor, which put it well ahead of Game Boy Color's capabilities. Animations were slick, the game speed was blazing, and it did a better job of recreating the thrills of the original quartet of Sonic games on Genesis than so many other attempts on superior hardware have come short of doing in the years since. Still, there’s no denying that Pocket Color had only a small library of titles worth purchasing, and joined with SNK’s online-only sales misfire, nothing could be done to save the system from obscurity.
Pocket Color certainly made a go of it against Game Boy Color, but its fate was ultimately sealed when Japanese gambling company Azure purchased SNK. Azure, which made its mark in the manufacturing of pachinko machines, quickly ended all Pocket Color support in the US and the UK in 2000, roughly a year after the portable had been put on the market. The console faded away not much later in Japan, as well. There's no real explanation for the end of Pocket Color's production. Sure, it wasn't doing gangbusters in terms of sales, but such a short time on the market clearly wasn't much of a sample size to go off of in terms of long-term growth and sustainability. Rumors suggest that Azure had designs on seizing what it could of unsold Pocket Color units and harvesting their screens for use in its pachinko machines, but that story is likely more based in imagination than actual fact. Regardless, Pocket Color's lifespan was unceremoniously cut short, leaving fans and pundits to perpetually play the "what if?" game about what sort of legacy the console might have had, if given the chance to flourish.
It’s easy to see why the Game Boy line was king for so long, as Nintendo rarely, if ever, made mistakes with it. In the case of Neo Geo Pocket Color, though, it’s arguable that the company avoided a potentially serious blow from SNK. Pocket Color was a rousing handheld that embraced the core tenets of the Game Boy line (reasonable pricing and long battery life) that so many other competitors ignored, and built off of them in surprising and fun ways. Whether intentionally or not, later handhelds like Nintendo DS and 3DS even came to be influenced by Pocket Color’s quirky take on onboard software, with innovations like Pictochat and StreetPass. SNK might not have been able to compete with Nintendo in terms of sales, but the company was able to stand toe-to-toe with the giant so far as quality was concerned, and for that it should be commended.