A revised version of this article, with pictures, can be found here.

Ganbare Neo Poke-Kun teaches us an important lesson: If you think someone is not working hard enough, you should consider burning their house down.

Title: Ganbare Neo Poke-Kun
Developer: SNK
Publisher: SNK
Date Published: 8-6-2000 (Japan only)
Platforms: NeoGeo Pocket Color
Out of print

Mention the name SNK and the first thing that comes to mind is probably of the seemingly endless procession of 2D fighting games that this venerable company produced up until their untimely demise in 2001 1 . (A tradition that has since been carried on by their inheritors, Playmore.) When it came to providing software for the NeoGeo Pocket Color platform (their 16-bit challenger to the Game Boy Color), true to form SNK started out by methodically working their way through faithful adaptations of their well-known arcade franchises, generally leaving other genres to be filled out by third parties. So it came as something of a surprise when they announced that one of their key titles for Summer 2000 was this... oddity.

Ganbare Neo Poke-Kun 2 can be (very) loosely categorised as a 'virtual pet' simulation with a collection of around thirty minigames thrown in. The premise is rather unconventional, even by the surreal standards of Japanese video games. The main character, the eponymous Neo Poke-Kun, is a little man who lives inside your NeoGeo Pocket Color. (The main scene in the game is a view into his single room apartment in the innards of the machine.) Neo Poke-Kun is a slightly gormless figure with a thin orange body, stick limbs, and a potato-shaped yellow head with antennae and a large orange nose. He likes to sleep and play in his home. The player has no direct control over his actions. However, by manipulating the controls in certain ways they can cause events to occur which affect Neo Poke-Kun and his environment. The game's central theme (pressing buttons to make weird things happen) as well as its cartoon-like visual style are strongly reminiscent of a game for the Mega CD/Sega CD called Switch.

Home Sweet Home

Neo Poke-Kun's room has little in the way of furniture but is packed with tiny details. The left wall is taken up by the bathroom door. The right wall is taken up by the front door. Towards the rear of the room is a small tea table and a side cabinet with a phone. The back wall is in semi-darkness, and there are flashing lights, electronic components and a girlie poster visible on it. The floor (where Neo Poke-Kun sleeps) is strewn with (at different times) books, magazines, videos, and a games console. A large, bare lightbulb hangs from the ceiling. The time within the game world is linked to the internal clock in the NGPC, changing the appearance of the room (and altering other aspects of the game) depending on whether it's morning, evening or night.

The virtual pet aspect of the game allows the player perhaps the most indirect and limited range of controls ever seen since Dragon's Lair (and yet still manages to be surprisingly addictive). Tilting the thumbstick in different directions causes small things to happen in Neo Poke-Kun's room that seem to have no obvious effect on him 3. Spinning the thumbstick rapidly will cause an accident (or worse, a disaster) to befall Neo Poke-Kun. These can range from things falling on him (including a goose embedding its beak in his head), to the bathroom flooding, a hole opening in the ground and swallowing him, or even the room being burnt down or destroyed in an earthquake. After the calamity has passed, Neo Poke-Kun and his room will be restored to normal but Neo Poke-Kun will be a bit upset.

Ding-Dong...

Pressing button 'A' causes the doorbell to ring, signalling the arrival of a visitor. Most of the time spent observing Neo Poke-Kun is taken up with summoning visitors and watching what they do. Each visitor's actions have a specific effect on Neo Poke-Kun (making him happy, angry, confused, scared, or embarrassed). There are many, many visitors who can drop in on Neo Poke-Kun and most of them can interact with him in a number of ways. Usually they enter the room, do something and leave (through the front door or the bathroom door). Some cause so much chaos that the 'video feed' cuts out for a second and when it comes back things have returned to normal. These are some of the more notable ones that I have encountered so far (the names are my own invention):

Sideshow pervert: One of the most versatile characters is this rather effeminate Japanese man dressed in a posing pouch. He runs into the room and gestures excitedly for Neo Poke-Kun to do something, for instance tie the ends of his absurdly long moustache together. He will then perform a (often distressingly biological) trick, in this instance (the tamest), skipping with his moustache. His greatest acheivement that I have witnessed so far could be called 'the human party popper'. (Don't ask.)

Pep talk man: A man in a suit who approaches Neo Poke-Kun and slaps his cheeks with both hands in a rousing, 'hang in there, son' fashion. Sometimes he pats Neo Poke-Kun's crotch instead, or some combination of the two, before leaving with a smile and a wave.

Space Hero: A space adventurer (who looks a bit like David Byrne) who leaps into the room, performs a heroic pose and then flies out of the room. This makes Neo Poke-Kun very happy.

Stickman: One of the most annoying characters, a featureless yellow stickman who enters the room, and draws a pattern in the air which causes Neo Poke-Kun to become frozen. Sometimes he enters the room with a friend (the pink stickman), and teaches his friend how to draw the pattern.

Old man: An old man with an IV drip stand. He causes Neo Poke-Kun to go into a trance. When Neo Poke-Kun gets close to him he flies into a rage. Sometimes he enters the room and dies, and his ghost floats out of his body. When Neo Poke-Kun approaches his body, the ghost jumps back in and the old man gets up and flies into a rage again.

Bat: A large bat enters the room while Neo Poke-Kun is asleep, flies around for a bit then hangs from the lightbulb and makes a loud, bizarre noise which wakes Neo Poke-Kun up and makes him angry.

There are loads and loads of others (the rabbit, the disgusting dog, the giant nose, the bikini lady, the spy, the tornado, the crocodile, the turtle, the caveman, the drag racer...).

Pressing 'A' too frequently can cause the door to 'break', temporarily being boarded up and unable to allow in visitors. Sometimes the door becomes fitted with a large megaphone, and pressing 'A' causes different sounds to be played (including an extract from Beethoven's Fifth, a pneumatic drill, a cat, and many more, all of which have a different effect on our hero). These events are designed to put the player into a 'time-out' from calling new visitors, to prevent them repeating too frequently and instead turning the player's attention temporarily to either playing minigames or causing accidents.

Minigames

There is another side to the game quite apart from interacting with and observing Neo Poke-Kun. What I have neglected to mention is that Neo Poke-Kun is in fact a programmer. If the player consciously tries to keep Neo Poke-Kun happy, Neo Poke-Kun will in turn be more willing to go to work on programming minigames that the player can then access. Pressing 'B' while Neo Poke-Kun is idle will replace his lightbulb with a flashing siren, compelling him to run towards the front of the room. The minigame menu will then be presented. You can then chose to play any minigame that Neo Poke-Kun has finished writing, and see how near the rest are to being completed. Cancelling the minigame menu returns to Neo Poke-Kun's room (and, if he's in a good enough mood, prompts Neo Poke-Kun to pick up his tools and leave for work).

The minigames are divided into six 'generations' of five games each. Each generation is more technically complex than the last: the first generation are based around Pong and Breakout, the second includes parodies of Shinobi and Galaga, and so on, leading up to some games with polygonal 3D elements. If the player can acheive a high enough score or last a certain number of rounds in a given minigame, they get a congratulatory message and an award (usually a crown, with exceptional performances getting a plum, bamboo, or pine medal). It is unclear whether awards translate to any differences in Neo Poke-Kun's behaviour or environment.

Regardless of how well the player treats Neo Poke-Kun, the rate at which new games can be unlocked is effectively time-limited. Sometimes the game will only throw up negative visitors and/or Neo Poke-Kun will be unreceptive to positive events, steadfastly prefering to sleep rather than going to work.

Summing up

Ganbare Neo Poke-Kun obviously can't be judged against games with more conventional styles of gameplay. The minigames vary in quality: some are simplistic and frustrating, with unresponsive controls, while a few seem to have had a lot more effort put into them and are reasonably addictive. Interacting with Neo Poke-Kun manages to hold the player's interest by the sheer number of possible events and animations that can be triggered (the game's determination to flout logic and convention means that the player is continually surprised), although the minimal interaction and occasional bouts of repetitiveness mean that this side of the game can't really be 'played' for extended amounts of time.

The game has minimal Japanese text (one-screen descriptions of each minigame, and occasionally large dialogue boxes with extracts from the credits fly through Neo Poke-Kun's room). It is equally inexplicable in any language. You should be able to track down a copy through importers or eBay. Failing that (and bearing in mind that the game is no longer on sale, should that salve your conscience), the current crop of NeoGeo Pocket Colour emulators can run the game acceptably well.4


1. Or perhaps Metal Slug. Or if you're old and/or deliberately trying to be obtuse, Athena.

2. The title can be translated as "Do your best, little NeoGeo Pocket man!" (roughly speaking).

3. UP: Turns the light on and off; LEFT: Causes small pictures and animations to flash in the bank of lights on the back wall; DOWN: makes tiny bugs pop out of the floor for a moment; RIGHT: makes a beckoning hand (or foot) poke through the letterbox on the front door.

4. Or possibly not. The emulator 'NeoPop' v. 0.62 crashes the game when trying to run some of the more technically ambitious minigames (e.g. the Star Wars clone).

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