Pocket Power: Cool Boarders Pocket

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 (using only original hardware/software) is devoted to guiding new and old NGPC collectors alike before prices rise and availability lowers thanks to nostalgia-hungry collectors.

When delving into the Neo Geo Pocket library, there’s a lot of “only”. We kicked off the feature with the only tennis game, followed-up with the only soccer game and now we have the only snowboarding game. While it’s a travesty that the console never had a chance to build on its genres, it’s also part of what makes its limited library so appealing. Instead of five football games or twenty first person shooters, the NGPC library is incredibly diverse, with a wide range of genres that rarely overlap. One of the last games released on the console in mid-2000, Cool Boarders Pocket was also the second to last game in the series and only time it went portable. Once a popular series on the PlayStation, the series quickly fizzled around the time Pocket came out, doing little to draw people to the console (which is sad, really, because getting a PlayStation exclusive on a handheld system was actually a huge accomplishment at the time). Never released in the U.S. and hardly distributed anywhere else, Cool Boarders Pocket proves to be a nice little gem that offers an addictive, albeit simple, extreme sports experience.

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Cool Boarders Pocket does not play like the console versions. While they were all about pulling off tricks and simulating snowboarding, Pocket is a game more about patterns and timing. In fact, the snowboarding aspect of it proves irrelevant, with the same exact game possible with skateboarding, skiing or “anything plummeting down a hill” assets swapped in. After choosing a character (Male “Ken” or Female “Jun”), you hit the slopes presented from an isometric viewpoint. You’re constantly in motion going down a hill, with pushing forward on the joystick speeding your character up. The goal of the game is to reach the finish line without losing all your health. While it may sound easy enough, the game constantly presents obstacles such as polar bears, seals, thin ice, snowballs, ice walls, rival snowboarders and oh so much more to throw you off. Besides dodging things (frequently by using the A button to drift), there are also pits of lava and ditches that need to be jumped over. This can be done with a tap of the B button, while larger canyons need a longer jump to be performed, which is executed by holding the B button before jumping and then spinning the analog stick around a bunch in the air. These jumps certainly prove the biggest hazard, somewhat due in part to the button controls being unresponsive, making it hard to nail them correctly. While the game would be much easier if there was a third button on the NGPC devoted to this, it doesn’t get that annoying and adds some extra difficulty to the game.

While the basic goal is to get to the finish line without dying, the real goal is to beat a pre-set best time on each course. Doing so will unlock new sets of courses, of which there are four in all plus a special “EX Stage”. Each course features twenty different stages, culling unique assets from each course to design tracks. Course C, for instance, might feature the same lava flow pattern multiple times, while Course B could feature two polar bears charging at you simultaneously repeatedly. This was done to make use out of the console’s limited storage and while at times it can make stages feel too repetitive, it’s commendable in the fact that they were able to squeeze so much gameplay out of such little material.

With limited assets and only two characters, Pocket is certainly a no frills experience. The menu design is basic, courses and stages don’t have names but instead letters and numbers (making it a hard to get excited about unlocking new ones), track design is identical besides obstacles, there’s no way to enter initials in the high score system and there’s only five songs . Hell, this is a game where the tagline on the back of the box is “FEEL SO MORE SPEED” with literally no other descriptive text. It was likely designed by a very small group of non English-speaking people in a very short amount of time and was rushed out before the Neo Geo Pocket was completely defunct. But for all of its simplicity and repetitiveness, it’s amazing just how much darn fun the game is. It’s a simple gameplay concept, but incredibly addictive in execution. Like the best games of its era, it allows you to shut your brain off and concentrate on memorizing patterns and perfecting eye-hand coordination. With 80 stages, a bonus EX Stage that’s unlocked after beating the best times of every stage, an unlockable “Snowgirl Mode” that allows you to play as a snowman for whatever reason and a “Freeride” mode that allows you to snowboard as long as you stay alive, challenging you to constantly go back and hone your skill, there’s a ton of replay value here. I’ve played the game at least fifteen hours the past two weeks for this article, never losing interest enough to not 100% the game.

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Ask a Neo Geo Pocket Color enthusiast to list the best games on the platform and Cool Boarders Pocket probably won’t be on the list. It has received criticism over the years due to its simple gameplay, repetitiveness and lack of assets, but its reputation does not match its quality. In all honesty, it probably developed a bad rap due to its scarcity (it was never released in the U.S.), high value (copies routinely go for over fifty dollars when an average loose game on the console can be had under ten) and difficulty. The controls came natural to me and its rarity was part of its appeal, so both points were moot (as I suspect will be the case for most collectors). With 81 stages, an unlockable character and an endless, randomly generating “Freeride” mode, Cool Boarders Pocket offers a ton of replay value that may even make its price-tag worth it. Quite honestly, there’s never been a game like it and there certainly won’t be again, so if you have a knack for something radically different on the platform, don’t listen to the negativity and track down a copy. After all, it’s the only way to FEEL SO MORE SPEED.

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