Between 1994 and 1998 Takara Co., Ltd. brought some of SNK’s most successful Neo Geo arcade hits — Samurai Shodown, The King of Fighters, and Fatal Fury 2 — to the humble Game Boy via a series of ‘demakes’; streamlined and simplified releases of the infinitely more powerful arcade originals rebuilt from the ground up exclusively for Nintendo’s world-conquering handheld.
A quick glance over some screenshots reveals a strong similarity to SNK’s fantastic Neo Geo Pocket Collection of fighters as both share a preference for clean lines, big pixels, and cartoonish graphics over a vague stab at crunchy arcade Neo Geo stylings. But these Game Boy titles by-and-large predate SNK’s own portable efforts by several years and officially include one major feature their Neo Geo Pocket neighbours lacked until modern-day emulation stepped in: single-cartridge multiplayer support.
You need a Super Game Boy to access it but if you’ve got one at home, Takara’s games not only display pretty borders and colourised character portraits, they also allow a friend to play against you using nothing more complicated than a second SNES pad.
But how good can these ports really be? The Neo Geo was famed for its graphical prowess; there’s just no way battery-powered hardware that could only handle four shades of green was ever going to come close to the look of the the originals. Cleverly, the developer’s didn’t even try and instead hoped to capture the spirit of the games they were porting rather than aiming for a level of accuracy they could never hope to achieve — they aimed to represent rather than recreate.
Thanks to this novel approach everything from Ukyo’s cough to Joe’s Tiger Kick and Ryo’s distinctive fighting stance are still instantly recognisable even though their entire bodies are made up of fewer pixels than their arcade equivalents spent on someone’s hair (probably). Samurai Shodown’s flag-brandishing referee is still present (and working) even if they have to be squeezed in between health bars at the top of the screen, and although these handheld titles were never going to have mid-battle speech samples, Nettou Garou Densetsu 2 (AKA the Game Boy port of Fatal Fury 2) gets around this limitation in the most adorable way possible by giving each character little speech bubbles instead. Seeing Terry ‘say’ “HEY COME ON” as he taunts his opponent is a lot of fun on the Game Boy’s small screen, even if it is, strictly-speaking, ‘wrong’.
Embellishing these battles are miniaturised takes on all victory poses, character portraits, minor touches and fantastic full-screen artwork you’re already familiar with, the developers well aware that SNK’s arcade games are brought to life not just by raw quality but fine detail, too. It’s just incredible to think how they were able to have Nakoruru’s faithful hawk Mamahaha and Galford’s dog Poppy present on screen at all times, or for a squished-down port of Samurai Shodown III to bring the beauty of the Neo Geo’s lantern-lit cherry blossom stage to on-the-go gaming at a time when portable colour screens — though available — were a battery-devouring joke.
Inevitably, compromises had to be made along the way, and some characters were lost in the transition to Nintendo’s thin grey carts. It is disappointing but on balance it would be unreasonable to expect a Game Boy cartridge — their files sizes so small that there’s a very real chance you’ve casually snapped single Switch screenshots that take up more memory space — to faithfully reproduce every member of every game’s cast, especially when some of them, such as The King of Fighters ’96, have well over twenty different participants in their arcade versions.
Although the rosters have been trimmed down, the characters available are unlikely to leave anyone feeling short-changed, offering anything up to fifteen fighters by default and a few unlockable bonus faces too, from good old playable bosses to unexpected crossover characters from other games. You’ll find The King of Fighter’s Iori squirreled away in Nettou Real Bout Special (the GB version of Real Bout Fatal Fury Special), and Samurai Shodown’s protector of nature Nakoruru within the Game Boy port of The King of Fighters ’95. Their presence may not entirely make up for what was lost in translation, but there’s still a certain specialness around playing as someone you feel you were never supposed to have at all — a true extra rather than just one more person pulled from a box-ticking list of expected features.
Once you’ve decided what to play and who to play through it as (or which team to play through it as in the case of The King of Fighters), the only thing left to do is dive in and get on with pummelling a game’s worth of opposition into submission. Experienced SNK players will find the first few battles flying by on muscle memory alone, the Game Boy’s two-button system doing an admirable job of standing in for Neo Geo’s four and making special moves, rage gauge charges, taunts and Real Bout’s retained ability to shift lanes — something SNK didn’t manage to keep in their own handheld port — a breeze. The end result is consistently fluid gameplay that, just like the graphics, accurately captures the sensation of their arcade equivalents’ throws, slashes, and fiery punches. It’s pick-up-and-play action that, appropriately enough, always feels like it’s punching above the humble Game Boy’s weight.
Which ones would we recommend from the ones we’ve mentioned? Well, all of them, really — they’re all remarkably faithful to the amazing arcade games they came from in their own miniaturised ways, and even though some of these are Japanese exclusives, much of the menu and setting text is still in English, and the rest will only take a few jabs of the ‘A’ button to get through. Most importantly of all, they’re different enough to be worth a look even if you’ve already long exhausted the Switch’s impressive range of arcade and pocket-sized Neo Geo titles. They’re good quality portable fighters whether you’re familiar with the source or not, making fantastic use of limited hardware and fitting the pick-up-and-play nature of the Game Boy like a glove.