Pocket Power: Pocket Tennis Color

Coming out in the wake of the Game Boy Color and only two years before the Game Boy Advance, it’s no secret why the Neo Geo Pocket Color enjoyed limited success in America. While largely ignored on its original release, gamers have since picked up the handheld console and begun to experience the unique features it has to offer — and for good reason. Much like its arcade/home brothers, Neo Geo Pocket Color games have aged incredibly well for a fourteen-year-old handheld system. As the majority of its library can be picked up loose for under ten bucks on eBay, Pocket Power is devoted to guiding new and old NGPC collectors alike before prices rise and availability lowers thanks to nostalgia-hungry collectors

Tennis is underrated. While most other sports take either tons of equipment or multiple people to play, a game of tennis can be accomplished with just a few rackets, balls and bodies. Even though it’s simply bouncing a ball back and forth, it captures athleticism and sportsmanship at their most core elements, a formula solid enough in real life that it’s been adapted countless times in video game formats. When thinking of tennis games, Pocket Tennis Color probably doesn’t instantly spring to mind. After all, it was a one-off on the Neo Geo Pocket Color and never spawned a franchise as was likely intended. Even with a meat and potatoes name and basic gameplay, however, the game proves to be more enjoyable than many a modern tennis game.

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Pocket Tennis Color is not a tennis simulator. While the Top Spin and, to a lesser extent, Virtua Tennis series offer a plethora of customizable options and gameplay finesse that takes hours to master, Pocket Tennis Color has one joystick and two buttons. As such, it goes back to 8-bit style simplicity in its gameplay, recalling one of the most underrated SNES games, Super Tennis. When serving, the A button hits a fast serve, the B a slow serve and the joystick determines the direction. When in play, the joystick controls the character movement and ball direction upon hitting, while the A button hits a Stroke (strong volley) and the B button a Volley (weak volley). A shot becomes a volley automatically when near the net, high balls can be smashed into the opponent’s court and lobs to throw off close-to-net hogs. If your opponent fails to return the ball, you get a point. If you hit it against the net or fail to return their ball, they get a point. First to successfully get over 40 points (4 winning bouts) wins the game, 6 games wins a set and possibly the match depending on how many sets are played. That’s it.

While it’s tennis at its most basic, it’s undeniably fun. Not having to worry about variables or special moves or any of that nonsense (albeit realistic nonsense) simply allows the player to sit back and hit balls past their opponents. The controls are incredibly tight, especially thanks to the Neo Geo Pocket Color, perfectly utilizing the responsive joystick to make player control a breeze. Of course, while simplicity can lead to addiction, it can also lead to boredom (usually in that order) and while it’s the sort of game that could easily monopolize your time for a month or so, the mechanics may eventually grow tired no part in thanks to the limited gameplay options. Two modes are included: Exhibition and Tournament. Exhibition allows players to select the number of sets, opponent and court and simply play tennis with no real endgame. There are four courts including Stadium, Downtown, Jungle and a Canyon area. A fifth court is playable only in VS Match Play, which is actually quite fun. One issue with the game is that it’s not difficult enough. After the ebb and flow of things is mastered, it becomes a rare occurrence to actually lose a game so long as enough attention is payed. VS play, however, adds a whole new dynamic when there’s two skillful players, leading to some intensity and long battles in a match.

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The centerpiece is certainly the Tournment mode, however, which organizes matches into a tournament of three opponents, leading to a trophy and saved recognition in the “Records” screen. Core tournaments include the Oriental, Ordovician and Delta Cup. While these three cups are available at anytime, there are at least eleven other tournaments that become available based on the Zodiac. If you were play on July 26th, for instance, the Leo Cup would become available. It’s actually a very novel idea that helps extend replay value, but has a few flaws. The first is that the date in your Neo Geo can simply be changed (but what’s the fun in that?) to a date that reflects a certain Zodiac cup and the other is a lack of a selection screen. When Tournament Mode is started, it randomly selects one of four cups. As there’s no back button, pause menu or return to main menu option, the console must be power cycled until the desired cup appears, which can be quite annoying. Throughout the Tournaments, two additional characters can be unlocked: Kaoru, an overweight tank-top, sunglasss-wearing, mohawk-sporting, power-hitter and Amiba, a giant slime with no hands and arms. Both are pretty hilarious in action, especially Amiba, and add a welcome sense of playfulness to the proceedings.

Even fourteen years after its release, Pocket Tennis Color remains a blast. Unlike more modern tennis games, which have grown dated thanks to outdated graphics or gameplay, the mechanics of Pocket Tennis Color are so basic, solid and simple that it will likely never go out of style. With limited options and modes, however, it’s the sort of game you’ll have a blast with for a short period of time, but then only likely return to infrequently. But with a pocket game, that’s sort of the point — a random time waster at opportune moments. As this is a wholly original game and not an adaption of a Neo Geo AES/MVS title (a rarity for sports games on the console), it remains a unique little tennis game that’s hard to hate and easy to kick back with and pass a slow Saturday afternoon.

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