The concept of retro gaming can be a fuzzy business at times, but here’s something that comes with a laser focus; a 2D fighter that harks back to that small handful of games released on the Neo Geo Pocket, SNK’s beautiful late-90s handheld. Cardboard Robot’s Pocket Rumble has finally emerged from a prolonged development on another handsome handheld, Nintendo’s Switch, and it’s a most curious exercise.
On the surface, this is an eerily accurate facsimile of the likes of King of Fighters R-2 or Last Blade: Beyond the Destiny, from its limited pixel count and cut-back colour palette. It apes the chibi style of those games, and even takes the two-button control scheme necessitated by the Neo Geo Pocket’s layout and goes about making a virtue of it, all in the name of accessibility. It’s a cute idea, executed with no small flair and imagination, though more often than not it can come across as something of an awkward fit.
Part of it’s that slight mismatch between concept and hardware. The games that inspired Pocket Rumble were built around the limitations of the Neo Geo Pocket – that chibi art-style was the perfect way to maintain that SNK character with a fraction of the processing power – while also playing to its strengths. Who can forget that exquisite microswitched digital d-pad on the Neo Geo Pocket – as close an approximation of a joystick there’s ever been with on a controller of its ilk, and something that’s sadly rarely been replicated since. Certainly not by the Switch, anyway, whose JoyCons always come up short when it comes to fighting games.
Pocket Rumble’s solution is neat enough, with Cardboard Robot doing away with quarter circles and allowing specials to be pulled off simply by combining one of the two attack buttons with a diagonal input. Even then – and this is a damnation of the Switch’s design more than it is of Pocket Rumble – there’s a fuzziness that doesn’t feel quite right when playing on JoyCons, and a little of the flow of a good fighting game seems to be lost in the blunting of special executions. Still, with a decent fight stick it works, and works well too.
It does go some way towards highlighting a contradiction that’s at the heart of Pocket Rumble, though, and one that runs through the whole thing. This is a fighting game that purports to allow all-comers to play, but it’s one that’s almost impenetrable from the off. The tutorials are ferreted away in a sub-menu, and the single-player offerings are slim and brutally hard. You’d be forgiven for walking away having been repeatedly beaten in the arcade or survival modes, or the career mode that’s not much more than an offline approximation of the online experience, with a succession of fights with random AI fighters.
It’s no-frills and more than a little frustrating, but stick with it and you’ll find a fighter with no small amount of charm, and a fair number of neat tricks of its own. It’s an eminently readable fighting game, the health bar broken into twelve distinct chunks that are whittle away with each attack, and success comes from being able to chain together attacks as effectively as possible (even though, in one of Pocket Rumble’s many contradictions, that accessibility is undercut by an input window that can seem punitively small). There’s real variety here, too, even if that might not be instantly apparent given the slim roster of eight fighters. What’s important is that those eight fighters are totally distinct, and each is a real joy to play.
There’s Parker, a besuited brawler who can parry or lay down orbs across the stage, setting up traps for opponents to fall into. There’s the hulking Quinn who can cling to walls before leaping in with his claws, and can turn into a werewolf; Hector, meanwhile, can heal after pulling off a special and then there’s Keiko and June who seem to have stumbled in from BlazBlue, one drawing on a cat that explodes, the other teleporting across the stage and able to summon up a mirror image of themselves.
The interplay between them can be delicious, and I love how they draw upon other fighting series, mashing together the works of Capcom, Arc System Works and, of course, SNK, in one fascinating whole. There are some inspired moments, and it’s a more than worthwhile effort that has one other significant problem; it finds itself on a platform that’s not short of fighting games, and one that plays host to some truly exceptional examples, not least of which are SNK’s Neo Geo originals, all handsomely emulated and looking splendid on Nintendo’s handheld.
Should that stop you playing Pocket Rumble? Not at all – it’s a neat little curio, full of splendid touches and a cute identity of its own. It’s not without a handful of its own problems, though, and it’s hardly the most full-featured of fighters. Just know that, as much fun as Pocket Rumble can be, there are plenty of better options out there.