This is my favorite videogame that absolutely should not, in any way, work.
First, a bit of an explanation. This is the Neo Geo Pocket Color:
As you can probably guess, this was, essentially, the Neo Geo “Gameboy”. Actually, the true NG Gameboy would be the NGPC’s ancestor, the monochrome Neo Geo Pocket. But that device didn’t make it out of Japan’s orbit (and only had like eight games), so the first Neo Geo portable around these parts was the Neo Geo Pocket Color, released in 1999. According to Wikipedia, Neo Geo spent four million dollars advertising the new handheld that Christmas season… but I’m writing this paragraph because most people have never heard of the device. Hell, I didn’t even buy mine until sometime around 2002 when it was worth approximately seventeen cents. I know how to wait for a bargain.
The Neo Geo Pocket Color had some interesting games. It had portable Pac-Man. It had portable Metal Slug. It had portable Puyo Pop. Yes, it predominantly had console/arcade hits in portable form, and didn’t have much in the way of “original” content. Much of the NGP library would eventually become the domain of quickie cell phone downloads, and there isn’t a Link’s Awakening or Metroid 2 to be found on the system.
Except… this is a Neo Geo, right? So where are the rad SNK fighting games?
Look at that system again. Notice anything interesting about it? Yep, it only has two “active” buttons and a start-esque “option” button. I don’t think the Power button is going to get much use during gameplay, so the NGP effectively only has a maximum of three buttons. That’s one less than the NES controller! And you know what nobody played on the NES? Fighting games. Sega had to invent an entirely new controller to court the Capcoms and Midways of the world, and the NES could barely support a ninja turtle stabbing a dragon. There is effectively no way a fighting game would work on this little system.
SNK did produce a number of fighting games for the Neo Geo Pocket. There’s Fatal Fury, King of Fighters, Samurai Shodown, and even a SNK vs Capcom game (not to be confused with its card-based cousin that is an entirely different animal). Each of those games are best described as noble attempts to port the robust arcade fighting games to a system with two buttons and a screen smaller than an amiibo. They’re full of “fan service” and fun little touches that seem absent from their big brothers, but they still feel like drastically compromised ports of the “real” experience. Writing this in the far flung future of the 21st Century, nobody is ever going to play a round of (pocket) King of Fighters R-2 over (arcade) King of Fighters ’98 for any reason other than the sheer novelty.
But there was one fighting game on the system that had no big brother… or big sister, as the case may be. SNK Gals’ Fighters was not based on any particular SNK franchise. Okay, yeah, it’s most similar to King of Fighters, but it eschews the partner/team dynamic that defines that franchise. It features characters from not only KOF, but also 2-D and 3-D Samurai Shodown games (before it was cool), and The Last Blade. It introduced a new, hidden character that had never made a (playable) fighting game appearance. And, more than anything, it knew exactly how to have fun with its place in the world.
SNK Gals’ Fighters could have been terribly exploitative. Let’s face it, anytime Mai Shiranui jiggles onto the stage, you’re probably going to be drowning in “fanservice” (re: boobs) before lunch. Couple this with Athena, goddess of the bikini, and an entire cast of teenage women, and, well, we’re a hair’s width away from Senran Kagura before even pressing start (“option”). However, in a delightful turn of fortune, SNK decided to forgo the obvious “anime tiddy” angle and played to the NGP’s strengths. SNK Gal’s Fighters employs a charming “super deformed” visual style that not only dramatically reduces the odds of a “sexy” panty shot, but also allows the characters to morph and change like Darkstalkers characters. It’s one of those things we lost as we entered the world of polygons, but it’s enchanting to look back at the sprite days and see how many different “changes” could be hoisted onto a single character. It’s similar to the eclectic fun of Capcom’s Pocket Fighter, and that’s never going to be a bad thing.
And the gameplay is just as tops as the graphics. Yes, there are only two buttons, but you’d be surprised at how many combos and motions can be wrung out of a simple punch and kick. At least from a control perspective, SNK Gals’ Fighters proves that the NES actually could support some decent fighting games. Did we really need a high punch and low punch for taking down Kano? And the NGP’s control stick is ideal for fireball motions and alike, and I can nary recall another portable system that could make that boast. In short, SNK Gals’ Fighters is an absolute joy to play.
And it’s all tied together with a “plot” that does not in any way take itself seriously (or come off as too exploitative, either. Can’t stress that enough). Each of “the gals” are competing in this Queen of Fighters tournament to win a talisman that will grant one wish. Want to guess some of those wishes? Well, Athena wants to have long hair again, Yuki her own gym, and Shermie needs a bigger cage for her pregnant hamster. Also, Mai’s ending involves a bad dream where she imagines her lover, Andy Bogard, is secretly a woman. Speaking of which, the final boss of the game is the mysterious Miss X… who is actually just Iori (King of Fighters’ makeshift Vegeta) in completely unconvincing drag. I don’t think it does anything to help transsexual relations, but, as the British are well aware, a “manly man” in a completely incongruous dress is always going to be funny.
So, yes, despite the fact that SNK Gals’ Fighters could potentially be an exploitative, unplayable mess, it’s probably the best game on its system. I kept my Neo Geo Pocket Color in my actual pocket for a year or so (didn’t want to damage a real system), and I had SNK Gals’ Fighters in that slot most of that time. Pac-Man or Metal Slug is fun and all, but give me a lovable version of Whip to pound on Shiki any day.
FGC #193 SNK Gals’ Fighters
- System: Neo Geo Pocket Color. I don’t see it getting ported to… anything. Ever.
- Number of players: I would assume two. I have never seen another NGPC out in the wild to confirm, though.
- Limitations: Nakoruru of Samurai Shodown appears without her trademark hawk, probably because the NGP has a hard enough time rendering two fighters, left alone tossing a bird in there. Mamahaha does show up for a few attacks (and assisted flying), so it’s not all bad.
- Favorite Fighter: Yuki Kushinada is Kyo’s girlfriend, and has only appeared in other games (before and since) as a background, non-playable character. She’s an easily unlocked hidden character here, and her fighting style is best described as… Kill la Kill’s Mako. Okay, she’s also a lot like the eventual Kisarah Westfield of Neo Geo Battle Coliseum/Aggressors of Dark Kombat, but I like my description better.
- Shattered Memories: When you win via a Super Move (Bop), random art relating to the loser’s life flashes across the background. I choose to believe this means you are destroying your opponent’s dreams.
- A sign of the times: You have to beat the game six ways from Sunday to unlock all the fighters. This is only ever fun for like six seconds, and I’ll take purchasable DLC over “you have to beat the final boss with two perfects on the third of the month while E.T. is flying across the moon” any day.
- Did you know? There is a game for the Neo Geo Pocket called “Melon Chan’s Growth Diary”. I’m afraid to even google what the hell that could be.
- Would I play again: Assuming I want to re-power my Neo Geo Pocket Color, it’s definitely happening. Anybody got a watch battery lying around?
What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Castlevania! What? Just Castlevania? No harmonies, symphonies, or rondos? Just original flavor? Huh. Been a while. Well, please look forward to it!