The Neo Geo Pocket Color Selection release list keeps hopping up and down the hardware’s original timeline like a TARDIS with a major fault in its timey-wimey gubbins, resulting in Fatal Fury: First Contact, one of the handheld’s earlier fighting games, turning up on the Switch roughly two months after one of the very last.
Now, this normally wouldn’t be too much of a problem with a retro re-release (what does it matter when you’re dealing with games that can both be described as “about two decades old”?) but it does show here, the additional modes and amusing extras found in the already-ported SNK Gals’ Fighters, Samurai Shodown! 2, King of Fighters R-2 and The Last Blade conspicuous by their absence, First Contact is left with nothing to offer paying customers other than vanilla one or two-player battling.
Fortunately, a lesser Neo Geo Pocket fighter is still going to be one of the best portable examples of the genre money can buy, and just like most of its on-the-go stablemates, there’s a clear link between this and a more famous arcade title – in this case Real Bout Fatal Fury 2: The Newcomers. First Contact’s roster may be smaller than the Neo Geo game it’s based on (this pocket fighter has just thirteen characters in total, compared to the arcade game’s twenty-two), but in practice, you don’t miss the ousted characters too much as everyone you’d expect to see is in there, from fan favourites like Smash Bros. cap-wearer Terry Bogard and Mai Shiranui to the more unfamiliar but equally interesting faces of the arcade game’s titular newcomers Li Xiangfei and Rick Strowd.
This trimming was inevitable (the game was designed for hardware intended to compete with the humble Game Boy Color, after all) and ultimately the surviving cast is so much fun to play as and so well defined by their wide range of unique moves you don’t miss the rest too much once you’re past the character select screen.
In battle, these characters are transformed into bold sprites bursting with personality, their instantly recognisable shapes a twin tribute to the strong designs that form the basis of some of gaming’s most iconic fighters as well as the Neo Geo Pocket team’s ability to turn chunky pixels into easily-read attacks, the exaggerated size of the fists and feet only serving to keep the action fun and flowing on such a low-resolution display against the shockingly lavish background art.
Just like the rest of its Pocket counterparts, this game uses a two-button fighting system with quick taps for a light attacks and longer presses for strong ones, a simple solution that allows casual players to dive straight in while still retaining the fine level of control that old masters of SNK’s finest works need to reliably perform First Contact’s array of special and super moves, throws, back steps, forward dashes and quick recoveries.
Even taunts survived the portable porting process, executed by pressing the option button (by default the + button on Switch) in tandem with either forward or back. The lack of Fatal Fury’s line system – meaning characters can no longer leap between “lanes” or get knocked into the background – does leave the game without some of the series’ signature charm, but within its original context as a strictly portable game that was never even attempting to directly compete with the fully-featured arcade/console title it’s based on, this is a forgivable omission that’s soon forgotten when Geese’s imposing portrait shows up against a fiery pre-bout background or Terry throws his cap into the air after another victory.
All of this is wrapped up in all the same thorough range of features we’ve come to expect from these ports; the handheld so faithfully reproduced it’s possible to go back into the emulated system’s settings and set the language, date, and time to the same perky little tune you can hear on the real hardware – even though doing so makes next to no difference to the game itself. There’s also the usual selection of bezels, adjustable zoom, pixel filter (sadly the separation appears more pronounced than on a real Neo Geo Pocket screen and doesn’t always perfectly fit the pixels), as well as the ability to rewind the gameplay.
It’s even possible, if playing in portable mode, to use the bezel’s virtual joystick and buttons to control the action, effectively giving you a pretend handheld the same size and shape as the real thing to play with… for a few seconds before the awkward novelty wears off and you go back to good old Joy-Con. And then there are the extras even those who own an original cartridge may not have access too, such as a clean scan of the game’s manual or perfectly executed link-up battling. There’s very little in here to pick fault with, the options on hand striking the right balance between modern convenience and faithful reproduction of a game that’s now over twenty years old. It’s just a shame that other bonus elements couldn’t have been included to really bolster the package further.
On Switch, Fatal Fury: First Contact is forced to fend off worthy alternatives on two fronts as anyone interested in this title has probably already bought one of the more fully-featured Neo Geo Pocket fighters available on the eShop, and Hamster has provided a painstakingly accurate portable version of the game its based on as part of its Arcade Archives series, but that still leaves us with a fast-paced and fluid scuffle-’em-up that’s easy to enjoy in short, commitment-free bursts, making it perfect for a quick round of lunch break gaming.