There’s a certain strain of 2D fighting games that, perhaps unsurprisingly, has largely fallen into obscurity. It comes down to hardware. The Neo Geo Pocket Color was a glorious handheld gaming device that, sadly, not enough people owned. Part of what made it so great was that it was the only place that you could find arcade-caliber fighting games that were designed to be played on the go, including revered SNK series like King of Fighters and Samurai Shodown. It was like an arcade cabinet you could put in your pocket. With the NGPC’s untimely demise, this particular breed of fighter died out — until now, that is, thanks to a wonderful throwback for the Nintendo Switch and Steam aptly named Pocket Rumble.
On the surface, Pocket Rumble looks like yet another pixel art fighting game. But what makes it distinct is how it emulates the limitations that the NGPC imposed. Most notable is the fact that you only have two buttons to attack with. In a way this simplifies the experience; pulling off combos or special moves doesn’t require memorizing a needlessly long string of button inputs. But this doesn’t mean the game is simple. Instead, Pocket Rumble’s designers have found creative — and more importantly, easier to remember — ways of performing special attacks. Usually this means combining a button press with a specific directional input, or holding an attack instead of tapping it for a different result.
Everything about the game feels designed to make it easy to understand. Not only are the controls simple to pick up, the game also features a lifebar that displays exactly how many hits a character can tolerate. This is combined with a robust training mode that really eases you in. This kind of streamlined experience will be instantly recognizable to anyone who played games like Gals’ Fighters on the NGPC. Pocket Rumble even looks like a NGPC game, with slightly deformed characters sporting oversized heads and hands. This all makes it a great fit for a playing on the go; the game reads well on a smaller screen, and the bouts are over very quickly.
And though it’s clearly inspired by other games, Pocket Rumble definitely has its own unique flavor, especially when it comes to the roster of fighters. It may only feature eight characters, but they’re a wild and eclectic bunch. There’s a woman with a cat familiar that can perform outlandish special attacks, and a secret agent with an uncanny ability to avoid attacks. My favorite is June, a dead girl who can shoot out spiky tendrils, turn invisible, and even throw her decapitated head at opponents. Each character feels completely different from the next, which is one of the few issues I had with classic NGPC fighters. Pocket Rumble also, it should be noted, has an absolutely killer chiptune soundtrack.
For those nostalgic for a particular kind of portable fighter, Pocket Rumble scratches that very specific itch. For everyone else, it’s a slick and creative game that serves as a great entry point to an often intimidating genre. It won’t take long before you’re able to successfully boss around your own demonic cat in battle.