This is gonna sound crazy if you don’t remember what life was like when area codes mattered, but back in the rosy-pink halcyon days of the late 90s/early 2000s, hardware manufacturers other than Nintendo sometimes made a run at the handheld video game market. It didn’t even have to be one of the big three companies, either. Sometimes it was one of the little guys — take for instance the Neo Geo Pocket and subsequent Neo Geo Pocket Color from SNK, which made an honest go of it between 1998 and 2001. Despite the short-lived shelf life of the brand, both the Pocket and Pocket Color were home to some genuine, certified bangers, including a few of the best handheld fighting games ever made, such as Gals’ Fighters.
Available as of today (and out of completely nowhere) on the Nintendo Switch eShop, Gals’ Fighters is a genuinely fun, great-feeling game with a surprising amount of depth and some awesome animation work, especially considering the Pocket Color’s minuscule 160×152 screen resolution. As the name suggests, Gals’ Fighters features an all-women cast of 10 fighters (including two secret characters) from various SNK franchises, including such fan favorites as Mai Shiranui of Fatal Fury, Athena Asamiya of Psycho Soldier, and Nakoruru of Samurai Shodown. As with the rest of the first-party fighting games on the Neo Geo Pocket and Pocket Color, Gals’ Fighters makes use of a chibi art style that, at first glance, looks like it would be a little clunky to actually play with, but in motion it totally works.
Granted, “best handheld fighting game” is a pretty low bar to clear, but it’s definitely worth the $7 entry fee in my personally honest IMO, provided that you have someone to play local versus with. The sell is a little harder if you’ll be flying solo (unfortunately there is no online support, can you imagine?), but for people that have affection for 90s anime aesthetics, chibi character designs, women from the annals of SNK history, or retro handheld video games, there’s a lot to love here for not a lot of money. You can even pick from an assortment of Neo Geo Pocket Color borders to match the one you had as an esoteric youth, should you have been so lucky!
With emulated retro releases like this, my first inclination is always as follows: “I could spend $7 on this I guess, or, I could go buy a Neo Geo Pocket Color and this game off eBay and experience the real thing!” This is technically true, and you can do this, but it will require a significant investment. A Neo Geo Pocket Color in good condition can go for anywhere from $75 to $200 (or more!) depending on the completeness of the package, and maybe you’ll get a copy of Metal Slug with that if you’re lucky, but don’t count on it.
As for procuring a copy of Gals’ Fighters, this, too, is technically possible. But considering that Gals’ Fighters came out mere months before the end of the Neo Geo Pocket Color’s life in these United States, its North American print run was limited. This has made it one of the most rare games for the Pocket Color, with cart-only auctions routinely closing out at $100 or more. Gals’ Fighters is good, but is it several hundred dollars good? Friends, that is a decision that you must make for yourselves — but maybe spend $7 and test the waters first.