Review by Matt S.
Fighting games tend to age poorly. There’s a lot to the genre, from the need for intricate animation and precise physics, through to the consumer demand for expansive rosters and characterisation. That means it’s a rare fighter indeed that hasn’t been completely superseded a console generation or two down the track. SNK Gals’ Fighters, however, is one that is still well worth your time.
It’s initially very humble. Originally released on the Neo Geo Pocket Color back in the year 2000, the developers had almost nothing to work with – very limited hardware and all of two buttons on the face of the console. So it’s testament to the talent that went into this title that it does everything right. For example, those two buttons are used in remarkably intricate ways to enable each character a wide range of attacks and special, and the fluidity that has been built into the engine belies the humble hardware that it was created for. SNK’s teams have always known how to do this stuff, and the Pocket Color was built around exactly these kinds of experiences. That shows here. Gals’ Fighter is fast, furious, and mechanically very tight, to the point that you’ll soon forget that you’re doing everything with “only” two buttons.
This is backed up with some lovely presentation. Backgrounds are always important for setting the scene in a fighting game, and these are particularly vivid. Whether it’s at a sandy beach, with the pyramids in the background, or within sight of a giant Ferris wheel, the developers took the time to make sure that each battle dripped with as much detail and presentation as possible. To this day those environments are gorgeous examples of pixel art, and making a little go a very long way. Throw in a soundtrack that is equally as tonally spot on through its simple midis, and you’ve got one of the better presented games that was produced across the first couple of decades of handheld gaming.
I like that as primitive as this game is they still made sure to get Mai’s boob bounce in >_> #NintendoSwitch pic.twitter.com/0wCjdhpN47
— Play Final Fantasy VII Remake. For Jessie. 🇯🇵 (@MattSainsb) May 2, 2020
The character design is just as inspired, too. The chibi, big-headed characters are all easily recognisable to fans of the long-running SNK fighter properties, and the comic way that they move around the screen allows for crystal clarity personality. While there are only 11 fighters in total, it’s worth remembering that, firstly, that was a surprisingly generous roster for back in those days, and secondly, each of the characters is entirely distinct to one another. Many older fighting games simply had characters with similar move-sets and slight variations in speed, but with SNK Gals’ Fighters, you’ll want to pick a favourite and master her, because she is going to be different to the others in the roster.
The two-button control system does allow for SNK Gals’ Fighters to offer a clever multiplayer option – split screen on the one device, with one Joycon each for control. Unfortunately, while the quality of the emulation is top notch in terms of giving you plenty of screen size, background, and skin options, there has been no effort to create a virtual multiplayer link to allow online play, and this is a real pity given that fighting games live and die by the quality of the multiplayer experience. It’s also worth noting that there’s very little by way of narrative and additional gameplay modes. All you’ve got in single player is training and an arcade mode. Yes, you can unlock items that can add a bit of variety to those matches, but lacking survival modes, time attacks, and all the other “value adds” that we’ve come to expect from fighting games is a distinct reminder of how good we have it today with our games.
SNK Gals’ Fighters does work as SNK fan service, though, in a way that, ironically enough, SNK Heroines almost two decades later wasn’t able to achieve, despite having nearly infinitely greater capacity to work with. There’s an authenticity to the characterisation and design in SNK Gals’ Fighters which helps you connect to your favourite characters. Sure, Athena doesn’t wear a bikini in this one like she does in Heroines, but her “pop idol” special attacks, ditzy little animation at the start of each bout, and silly 5-6 word quotes with each victory are so much more akin to the Athena I’ve loved from the King of Fighters series. I enjoyed Heroines for what it was, but that game’s approach to fan service didn’t do much to enhance the property and, primitive as it is, Gals’ Fighters does.
This new release of Gals’ Fighters is, of course, a game with a very specific audience. You’ve got to really love your fighting games to get much long term value out of it. And yet, for something so “retro”, Gals’ Fighters feels incredibly modern, with few of the quirks and design flaws of yesteryear that you generally expect going in to an “old” game. Rather, this feels like something produced by a team that deliberately limited themselves as a creative challenge. You may not get long play sessions over extended periods of time from this one, but as a curiosity, it is fascinating… and so much cheaper on Nintendo Switch than trying to track down a physical copy for your actual Neo Geo Pocket Color.
– Matt S.
Find me on Twitter: @mattsainsb
The critic was provided a copy of this game for review.