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SNK's handheld classics work just brilliantly on the Switch

The future is now.

It feels like ancient history now, but you might remember that Sony's last dedicated handheld gaming machine went by the codename NGP - or Next-Gen Portable. I don't know if it was intentional or not, but it always felt to me like a little nod to that other handheld NGP that launched just over ten years prior. SNK's Neo Geo Pocket was handheld royalty, a brilliantly sturdy little thing defined as much by its limitations as anything else, and complete with a microswitched stick that felt like the best thing in directional control since the d-pad. It was somehow fitting that Sony's Vita would end up joining the Neo Geo Pocket in the handheld elite.

And it seems sort of fitting too that the Neo Geo Pocket is being kept alive on Nintendo's Switch, which took handheld hardware in a new direction. SNK Gals' Fighters came out a while back, and last week it was joined by Samurai Shodown! 2 and King of Fighters R-2. Forgive me for lumping them all together - they're all worth checking out individually, and all boast their own unique charms - but they're all very much of a type, and all at the very heart of what made the Neo Geo Pocket special.

Back when the Neo Geo Pocket was first released - and more specifically the Neo Geo Pocket Color, a hardware revision made a year after the handheld's initial release in 1998 - SNK's reputation had been forged in the arcades of the 90s, which were so often about technical muscle and dazzle. The Neo Geo Pocket, though, was a relatively humble thing - with its initial monochrome screen it wasn't that far removed from Game Boy, which released some ten years prior, SNK's screen offering some 160x152 pixels of real estate while Nintendo had offered 160x144.

Forget frame counting - in King of Fighters R2 you can quite easily pixel count too.

The very best thing about the Neo Geo Pocket was how SNK leaned into those restrictions - indeed, they almost seemed liberated by them. These were the original demakes - something like King of Fighters R2 doesn't really look too much like King of Fighters 98, the game it's based upon. Instead, it's a stripped down chibi take on the form, those super deformed characters not just heart-swellingly cute but also brilliantly readable in their action thanks to oversized limbs. Combine that with the microswitched stick and a moveset that's been smartly pared back to match the two buttons available on the Neo Geo Pocket and you've got an entirely satisfying spin on SNK's flagship fighters - and it's fascinating to contrast and compare to Gaibra's effective if more direct interpretations for the Game Boy.

In short, these are wonderful games that play just as well now as they ever did, and they've lost nothing in the porting process to Switch. Thank Code Mystics for that, who've done a great job not just of doing justice to that 160x144 screen but also to the Neo Geo Pocket itself. The screen's framed by impeccable recreations of classic Neo Geo Pocket Color shells - I always had a soft spot for the carbon model myself, though they're all beauts - and the ability to use the touchscreen to operate the handheld. There's even a multiplayer mode that neatly fits two Neo Geo Pocket Color screens onto one Switch screen that can be shared between two players.

These ports are worth the asking price, essentially, and with three titles on the slate already and SNK making noises that they're keen to explore doing more, the only question really is what's next? If we're lucky and Sega and Capcom play nice maybe we could get Sonic the Hedgehog Pocket Adventure and SNK vs Capcom: Card Fighter's Clash, but even if that doesn't happen I'd be more than happy to see Metal Slug 2nd or Neo Turf Masters make an appearance. Or - and here's an idea - how about a collection in a similar vein to Digital Eclipse's Samurai Shodown and SNK 40th Anniversary compendiums? Now that could be something really special.

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