Hello once again, Retroware followers! This is Franchise Fatigue, the continuing saga of one man’s solemn quest to chronicle, with astute wit and astute-r critiques the bizarre ups and downs of gaming’s biggest franchises.

Over the past few columns, I’ve mainly been featuring oddball titles that are otherwise mediocre – games that do a disservice to their legacy, but are otherwise unmemorable. This week, I thought I’d feature a game that not only does its franchise proud, but is probably one of the very best games of its type ever made.

The King of Fighters R2 for the Neo Geo Pocket Color!

I should mention that I’m a big fighting game guy. In high school, I had big designs to compete in local fighting game tournaments, rack up some wins, and eventually make it to the grand stage of EVO and display my Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike and Capcom Vs. SNK 2 talents to the world. I even made 3rd place at a local tournament for my Chun-Li in 3rd Strike! My prize that day was a worn, disc-only copy of Jet Grind Radio.

Then… I got into college and quickly became too busy with school and work to spend all my time obsessing about frame advantages and hitboxes. Also: a good friend of mine (who later toured the country as a pro Super Smash Bros. Melee player) defeated me EVERY SINGLE TIME in every game. I thought I would have the edge over him in King of Fighters – he was much more of a Street Fighter player, after all – but that also proved to be fruitless. Our saved replays from the Sega Dreamcast version of King of Fighters 2000 prove as much.

Now, the fact that any of us even cared or know about this game itself is kind of miraculous. SNK chose perhaps what was kind of the worst time to possibly release a new handheld system, pre-iPhone. This was 1999, folks. The last time there was any competition for the Game Boy’s thunder was the Sega Game Gear, which had quietly slid into obsolescence by the mid-90’s. Pokémon fever had gripped the entire world, rejuvenated by the release of the Game Boy Color; meanwhile, the Game Boy Advance was only a year and change from release, which would again devour the entire worldwide handheld gaming market for years to come. I remember watching an episode of Icons on G4TechTV (sniffle!) where the former head of SNK USA called the Neo Geo Pocket Color a “success,” because they hit their target goal – 10% marketshare against the Game Boy Color. Not the Game Boy, just the Game Boy Color.

Still, 10% of Game Boy Color’s marketshare was nothing to sneeze at, especially because the NGPC came at an incredibly tumultuous time in SNK’s life. The company had been losing ground through the entire late 90’s; Arcades were dwindling, and SNK’s 16-bit powerhouse couldn’t compete with Nintendo, Sega, and Sony; and the Neo Geo CD system, while a cost-friendly alternative to expensive Neo Geo AES home carts, was plagued by some of the worst loading times in gaming history. Watch that video before complaining about your PS3’s and Wii U’s, folks. All told, SNK was hanging their hats on the NGPC’s success to save the company, but that “successful 10% marketshare” was too little too late – SNK was quickly bought by Pachinko giant Aruze in 2000, signaling the death of the NGPC abroad, as SNK USA and Europe closed up shop and headed home. The remaining systems were sent back to Japan, where the system limped onward until 2001, when SNK officially filed for bankruptcy, and the Neo Geo was officially no more.

So, SNK released a new handheld system in the midst of Pokémon mania, in the midst of a financial situation that ultimately ended the company. Certainly a bold move, but ultimately not the sort of thing that makes a system memorable. People love the NGPC, in their heart of hearts. The Atari Lynx was released under similar circumstances, but who among us would defend to the death the Atari Lynx? (I jokingly ask on Retroware, as certainly several of you would undoubtedly do so.) No, the NGPC persists in the warm love of us retro nerds because of AMAZING SOFTWARE.

I know the system gets most of its love from their stellar Capcom vs. SNK entries, SNK vs Capcom: Card Fighters Clash and the other great fighter, SNK vs Capcom: Match of the Millenium. Those are great games, and I shudder to think about the insane amount of time I poured into Card Fighters Clash. I retroactively apologize to my AP English teacher for the amount of time I snuck my NGPC out of my pocket for a few rounds of that game during class. Those are great games, but my heart will always go out to the very first NGPC game I ever bought – The King of Fighters R2.

Without putting too fine a point on it, KoF R2 was the first time I played a handheld fighting game that worked. It played just as well as every other KOF game out there, thanks to the NGPC’s marvelously tactile thumbstick, with those soothing click-clacks it made as you perfectly executed KOF’s notoriously laborious “Desperation Moves.” It also synced up to unlock bonus content for my Dreamcast copy of The King of Fighters Dream Match 99! (Y’know, the cool port of KOF 98, not KOF 99, just to make things confusing for no real damn reason.) Except that I could never find the link cable anywhere (I was a young’un without my own credit card at the time, so ordering online was off-limits). Still! I could theoretically unlock nifty art galleries. It had most of the characters from KOF 98, my personal favorite KOF game, along with most of the stages and special moves and things.

I mean, SNK vs Capcom had reams of neat bonus content and things, but – blasphemous though it might be to admit – I’ve always been a bigger fan of King of Fighters overall, compared to Street Fighter. I’m not exactly sure why, though. Maybe the characters have a bit more of an edge to them, without going completely overboard a la Mortal Kombat? Maybe the mere pretense of a recurring story (albeit an insane, convoluted one) was enough to keep me interested? Look, who knows.

The King of Fighters series has had its ups and downs over the years. And, to be brutally honest, the downs have been some of the lowest lows on gaming recordThe King of Fighters R2 belongs as one of the series’ best and brightest achievements; a crackling, fun, accurate rendition of the series’ highest point, on a handheld system that was doomed to failure almost instantly.

It sure would be great to play this game again. Dear D3 Publisher and Nintendo: Please get Neo Geo Pocket Color games on the Nintendo 3DS eShop. You’ve got awful Game Gear games on there; no reason I can’t play KOF R2 again.