A Storm of Many Ports
Since last April, SNK has quietly released six ports of Neo Geo Pocket Color games on the Switch for about eight bucks each, starting with SNK Gal’s Fighters in April. All six have run on an admittedly cool emulation platform courtesy of Code Mystics, complete with customizable margin art, pixelated filters, high-definition scans of the original games’ manuals, and all the other bells and whistles you’d expect from a modern retro revival.
That’s been leading up to this month’s Neo Geo Pocket Color Selection Vol. 1, which belatedly opens the door for the part of the NGPC library that weren’t fighting games.
For $40, you get all six NGPC ports so far, including SNK vs. Capcom: Match of the Millennium and Last Blade Beyond the Destiny, along with the action-RPG Dark Arms: Beast Buster, the sports title Big Tournament Golf (also known as Neo Turf Masters), and the two Metal Slug NGPC games, 1stand 2nd Mission.
It is, admittedly, a love tap to the teeth for completionists. Releasing these games one at a time might have been a trial balloon for the eventual compilation, but if you’ve been keeping up on the collection over the course of the last 10 months, this requires you to double up on all the fighting games. On the other hand, if you’ve only just now found out about the NGPC ports or you’ve been waiting for the lot to get collected before buying in, four bucks per port isn’t a bad overall price.
Bustin’ Makes Me Feel… Okay, At Best
Dark Arms: Beast Buster has been in my backlog for about 20 years, and I’m shocked to see SNK remembers that it exists. It’s a strange crossbreed of SNK’s top-down shooters like Ikari Warriors with a 16-bit-styled action-RPG, made as an out-of-genre sequel to a 1989 rail shooter.
Playing it in 2021, Dark Arms does feel a little ahead of its time. At the start of the game, you’re handed a “Catcher” (read: gun) by what appears to be the Grim Reaper, then sent out to hunt monsters. By collecting enemy souls, you power your weapons up from your initial default peashooter to shotguns, rifles, and the occasional death tentacle. As a result, Dark Arms has got some proto-Monster Hunter jank on it, combined with a Gothic horror setting that’s about as effective as it can be for the platform and period.
That does make it sound more exciting than it is. Your starting gun runs out of energy quickly and takes a long time to recharge, which means you spend a lot of Dark Arms’s early game running around a tiny 16-bit map waiting for your chance to shoot unthreatening zombies. The game picks up dramatically once you’ve gotten the chance to upgrade your arsenal, which gives you access to a total of 31 different guns, but then it’s over almost before you know it.
There are germs of a decent idea here, like SNK was trying to make its own Resident Evil for a 16-bit portable system, but it’s got a weird curve. By the time you’ve gotten far enough into it that your weapons aren’t horrible, Dark Arms is almost over. It’s worth a look for horror fans and historians, and might be a useful blueprint if you’ve ever wanted to make a retro-styled horror game, but it’s hard to recommend.
The two NGPC Metal Slug games feel like the result of a divergent form of evolution. They’re still recognizably Metal Slug, with the bearded prisoners, startled enemy soldiers, and pudgy li’l vehicles that are a franchise landmark, but they don’t accelerate into Contra-style one-credit-clear insanity the way the overall series did after 2001 or so.
You actually have a life bar in 1st Mission, and a few life points in 2nd, which makes them more forgiving off the hop than a lot of the Metal Slug arcade games. That isn’t to say they’re easy, as bosses can still one-shot you and enemies can pop out of almost anywhere, but they’re not quite as murder-crazed as the rest of the Metal Slug franchise. They feel a bit more like the kind of vertically-oriented platformer that showed up a lot on the Genesis, back in the day.
Both Metal Slug games in the collection are also direct ports of the original games, without gimmicks or additions, so the big problem with 1st Mission—having to hit the option button to switch weapons so you can toss grenades—is only made worse by emulation. 2nd Mission fixes it, but that leaves you with the traditional emulation problem of not being sure which button is “option” (It’s the + button by default).
If you’re used to the more frantic pace and less forgiving difficulty of the full-color Metal Slug games, then the NGPC entries might feel vaguely quaint at best. If you’re looking for a way into the series, though, 1stand 2nd Mission are Metal Slug with training wheels, presenting all the traditional challenges of the series without the breakneck pace.
The Rest of the Roster
I’m not much of a golf player. Big Tournament Golf seems all right, with surprisingly elaborate mechanics for the time and hardware, but it’s not what would bring me to the party. If anything, it’s in the wrong compilation; it would’ve made a lot more sense to hold off on porting Big Tournament Golf until it could be released as a sports compilation with Neo Geo Cup ’98, Dynamite Slugger, Pocket Tennis, and/or Cool Boarders.
That leaves Selection Vol. 1 with one sports game I could take or leave; one underwhelming but interestingly flawed action-RPG; two solid 16-bit shoot-’em-ups; and the six previously-released fighting games, which includes at least one all-time classic. 8 out of 10 isn’t bad, I suppose.
(As far as the fighting games go, SNK vs. Capcom is #1 with a bullet, followed by Last Blade and SNK Gals’ Fighters. Samurai Shodown 2 is let down by a surprisingly half-assed translation and one of the worst all-time “SNK bosses,” Fatal Fury: First Contact is just kinda there, and King of Fighters R-2 is let down by a truly bizarre roster. If you’re omitting Ralf, Clark, Robert, King, or even Benimaru in favor of cramming Saisyu, Shingo, and Orochi Chris into your KOF game, you have erred on a fundamental level. A priest would give you penance.)
But wait, there’s more?
It does create the question of what you’d even put into a theoretical Selection Vol. 2. The CCG-themed Capcom/SNK crossover Card Fighters’ Clash is waiting in the wings, naturally, as are the first Samurai Shodown and King of Fighters games that SNK released for the NGPC, but filling out another 7 games for a second selection gets trickier. There was a Sonic game on the NGPC, as well as a decent Bust-A-Move, Puyo Pop, and an untranslated strategy game called Faselei by the guys who made Shadow Hearts, but at that point you’re appealing to an even narrower niche than Vol. 1 already is.
Just the same, it’s good to see SNK digging out the parts of its back catalogue that aren’t fighting games. The Neo Geo Pocket Color never got the chance it deserved, much like SNK itself, and preserving some of its hits on the Switch is a great way to keep these older games in circulation. I’m a little concerned that SNK might have blown through most of the gold on the NGPC a little too early, but for what it is, Neo Geo Pocket Color Selection Vol. 1 is a solid cross-section of the lost hits for a dead system.