I still remember the day I received my first handheld video game console. It was April 15th, 1990, and my parents and I made our annual trek to my grandparents’ house for Easter Sunday (there's something ironic about Easter falling on tax day, but I digress). I'm not ashamed to admit my grandmother spoiled me rotten (God rest her soul), and she rarely missed an opportunity to shower me with gifts*. Easter was no exception, and I was always guaranteed a large, colorful basket brimming with jelly beans, Marshmallow Peeps and Cadbury Crème Eggs. As I wandered their house munching a peep (slowly working my way into a sugar coma), I discovered a far more interesting surprise waiting for me; resting neatly on my grandfather's computer chair was a brand new Nintendo Game Boy. An avid computer user even to this day, my grandfather loves technology and was quick to stoke that interest in me. The Game Boy was still relatively new then (US launch was August 1989), so perhaps my aunt and uncle clued him in (tech savvy themselves, they each held a post at Microsoft at one time). Whatever the reason, my grandfather decided it was an opportune time to get me one and to say I was excited is a bit of an understatement. The package included Tetris, arguably the most addictive game of all time (sorry Angry Birds), and so the rest of the events of that day are pretty fuzzy. I do remember crouching in the corner of their basement, pumping the contrast way up to see the 2.6" monochrome screen under the dim office light. It was an amazing gift, only my 2nd video game system overall (after the Sega Master System), and I practically played the buttons off that thing.
Why do I mention that now? Roughly two weeks ago, I scored a NeoGeo Pocket Color handheld off EBay, and it finally arrived Monday night. While it’s true I’m still enjoying my shiny, new PlayStation Vita, I never miss any opportunity to collect another defunct video game console (particularly if it's inexpensive). My NeoGeo arcade cabinet helped me develop a fondness for SNK properties, and I was naturally curious to see what games like Metal Slug and King of Fighters would be like on the small screen. Although largely ignored by US consumers and ultimately eclipsed by the Gameboy Advance in Japan, the NeoGeo Pocket Color was a portable powerhouse when it released in 1999. Sporting a full color screen, the 16bit console had extensive battery life (40hrs+ on 2 AAs) and a respective library of games. It even offered connectivity with the then newly released Sega Dreamcast.
My expectations upon receiving it were tempered, but I was eager to test it out. When I turned it on for the first time, however, I knew something was wrong. The music was loud and clear, but the screen was barely visible. I was also staring at the system/settings menu; the included game (Sonic the Hedgehog Pocket Adventure) wouldn't load. Past experience with cartridge-based consoles gave me the foresight to clean the contacts and re-seat the game. This eventually got Sonic going, but the console mascot known as the blue blur** was exactly that; very hard to see. I swapped the batteries to no avail, and then finally hit the web assuming it was a bad backlight. It was then that I discovered the horrible truth; to preserve the long battery life, SNK did not include a backlight. Rushing back to the console, I turned it over in my hands to find a contrast dial/button; to my surprise, there was none. Perhaps years of backlit screens have spoiled me to a point where I can no longer go back to squinting, but this seems like an obvious design flaw. The 2bit olive-green graphics of the original Game Boy were undoubtedly hard to make out in low-light, but the contrast control made it usable.
|...Now You Don't.|
My eyesight has never been good, and it would be easy for me to blame them. That said, I think I understand now why the console failed to supplant the Game Boy in the portable gaming space. While I don't regret the purchase, I am certainly disappointed in the end result. My Neo Geo arcade cabinet is a loud, boisterous, backlit mecca of gaming goodness. The NeoGeo Pocket Color is like its shy, reclusive younger brother.
(*I was the kid who got presents on Valentine’s Day. Seriously.)
(**Sonic junkies should check out http://www.blueblur.org/, a website dedicated to all things hedgehog.)