title["I often import games from abroad and play them. On such occasions, my imagination is sometimes stimulated more as I don't understand the language.” – Fumito Ueda, creator of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. 'The Gaijin Restoration' is a weekly examination of underappreciated Eastern games that never cross to Western shores. This week's title is Ganbare Neo Poke-Kun released for the NeoGeo Pocket Color in 2000.]

(Click through to read the full column, including more on this cult portable title.)

A History in 2D
no alt textWhen Sony and Nintendo decided that the Third Dimension was the future (with Sega trying to split the difference with the Saturn) a little company was breathing in the sprites of 2D. SNK, Shin Nihon Kikaku, literally New Japan Product, was plodding on in the arcade and boutique home markets with the NeoGeo. With prices (with inflation an almost negible bullet point) that would make the PlayStation 3 blush, SNK asked the hardcore to put their wallets were their GameFaqs message posts were and succumb to the 2D majesty.

The NeoGeo hardware was all about the animation, enough to make any cel buff hope for Bluth to kick the Laser disc habit and start working on fluid, if low res, exquisite minutia. The anemic 2D of the PlayStation saw stunted Castlevania's and late generation Metal Slug ports, dropping frames. The N64 made some valiant if flawed forays with Mischief Makers and Yoshi's Story. The Saturn rocked the 2D for the generation, but little else. Not until the DreamCast dropped in with Capcom's Street Fighter 3 variations and the beautiful high-rez Guilty Gear did we start seeing consumer level 2D delights. The NeoGeo's ancient RAM carried it for over a decade, before falling to the bump-mapped blade, yakuza business 'pressure', and perhaps Sony's Third Party Approval Process... to be reborn as SNK Playmore.

While my lifetime of spent tokens still do not reach the price of NeoGeo-cum-Metal Slug X, I was an early adapter for the NeoGeo Pocket Color (NGPC.) With a generous endcap at EB Games, the rabid SNK fanbase online, and a steady stream of first party titles (made by the very people who designed the hardware) and a generous big brother library to pull from, the NGPC enjoyed a miserly 3% market penetration and ended up doing a Dreamcast pullout.

But along the way I had pulled in a few imports - an Ogre Battle, the fabled British version of Faselei! and most importantly, the post-modern, genre critical, primordial Wario Ware/Tamagotchi-esque, vaguely homosexual collection of minigames Ganbare Neo Poke-Kun.

The Urgame's Game

In a gilded nutshell, Ganbare is the story of a little bug who lives in a one room apartment. He likes to clean, play a little NGPC, and if he's in the mood, get out for a stretch and build some minigames. The minigames are a pure survey of electric screen ludology, starting out with various Pong clones (Space War may get shunned, but its grandchildren represents in spades.) But they aren't straight up Pong or Breakout. Little tiny subersive subversions have been rippled into all of the simulacrum, small What-If scenarios.

As expected, there's only so much you can do to Pong, but as the history of gaming continues, we see the snark come out a bit more as the 8 bit era erupts; the ninja side scroller gets replaced with a facsimile, except the ninjas are replaced with mobsters, whose shuriken are in turn replaced with bullets. A personal favorite is a cross and crossfire between Laser Blast and Galaga, with our little bug friend (as the games evolve, so does his appearance in the minigames) caught in the middle! Three waves, and even a boss fight, were you dance across the city skyline just trying not to get hit.

Get to the King of Fighters parody and relieve the sad days before Street Fighter II, when the only move that mattered was the JUMP KICK. Round it off with an RPG parody (and you thought WarioWare's Dungeon Dilemma was amusing) and even a level with vector graphics and gameplay reminiscent of Space Harrier. Plus, all levels have various point or time goals to aim for, which may or may not adjust the little bug's happiness. And his joy, in turn, is reflective of your own in this game.

Keeping House

The real puzzle of this game is the unlocking of more game. When not battling through the epochs of videogame history, you are playing a sort of Corey Haim Double Switch! role as you spy on Mr. Ganbare. Leave him to his own devices. Observe his OCD for cleaning and playing with blocks. Press on the cardinal D pad and watch as lights turn off, smaller bugs spring up from the floor, and two other mundane actions as the room changes other time. Press the A button to summon a guest to the door, from a speedo wearing pompadoured man, to a pooping dog, another bug, a giant penis, alligators, old men, game show hosts, super heroes, the spirit of autumn and so on and so forth.

Most of these guests just seem to want to use the bathroom, or grab a crotch, give the flu, or dance around. Mostly, these have a negative influence on our little friend's feelings, and he'll sit, back to the screen, possibly contemplating becoming a cutter, or goes to take a walk with a hobo pack, not building me any more damned minigames. Go overboard on the doorbell and you'll find it boarded up for a few minutes. Many a theory was struck, from keeping the lights on during the night, unless he's sleeping (the game used the NGPC internal clock and calendar. Yes, Santa shows up.) Others said to focus on highscores on the minigames and lay off the door.

Amidst all the speculation, there has never been a unified theory of Ganbare Neo Poke-Kun happiness, and progress in the game can become stagnant. Unfortunate, since the minigames, even the simplest, are well thought out, the apartment is alive with high quality sprite animation and hilarity.

Ganbare Neo Poke-Kun isn't the easiest game to get a hold of these days, but with the great NGPC bundles out there, this is a game for gamers, importers, the sadistic, the nihonphile and anyone who enjoys high production values. The box and manual are awash with beautiful clay/3D representations of the denizens of the game - perhaps a pointed telltale of era, or perhaps I'm just waxing poetic for a brief closing paragraph about a videogame.

[Ryan Stevens is the associate producer on the various Cinematech shows on G4TV, which showcases many of the games written about here. He's been known to do the collaborative blog thing at That's Plenty.]