As has been known for a while now, Code Mystics have started and continued the unearthing and reintroduction of various Neo Geo Pocket Color games on the Switch, starting with the surprise pack-in bonus release of Samurai Shodown! 2 late last year--since released individually--that seemingly opened the floodgates to what one hopes will be a torrential downpour instead of a mere trickle. What unifies the so far released games is their emulation frontend that by all metrics is a tremendous piece of kit, feature-filled and professing quality every which way. There might also be another unifier in that the library is so far comprised of fighting games only, and the NGPC SNK fighting "engine" carries with it an unmistakably consistent gamefeel and aesthetic presentation, usually for the good of any given game because of how appealing these games are to look at and have hands on on an universal basis. Nonetheless, Gals Fighters as a representative entry into the pocket-sized fighting world is what I'd like to highlight over the others because of how its existence frames it as an all-too-fleeting, special entry in its genre and maybe for all video games. Some individual points of discussion:
- there have been many all-women fighting games before Gals Fighters's release in 2000, and many since, but rarely has this game's tonal specificity been achieved elsewhere. What this game does is take a parent series(s) that for all its relative profusion of interesting female characters is still operating within the confines of a male-dominated genre in terms of playable character representation (the first thing I do with every fighting game is count the ratio of women vs. men in the roster--if this stuff gnaws at you like it does me I don't recommend it) and does its own compact crossover with a range of luminaries from shared company history within the genre. And... that's it. The characters are themselves; they look themselves, play themselves, act themselves (if exaggerated for the purposes of caricature). The sheer unremarkability of Gals Fighters paradoxically sets it apart from later tries at a similar concept, like the rancid and exploitative-in-the-worst-way SNK Heroines: Tag Team Frenzy, the closest direct successor this game has.
I'm not altogether comfortable or complimentary of everything the game is: as funny as the execution of superdeformed comedics here can be, the interpretation of "women doing things in a focal role" and how often that's treated synonymously as a cutesy farce in media is one thing; the role of the ultimate antagonist being reserved for a crossdressing Iori Yagami instead of a woman with import and presence like the rest of the cast is another, and defangs the reading of the game as a fighting game exuding parity with the rest of the line and again gives license to dismissals of the work as a lesser-than punchline. These things are in the back of my mind when I try to reason out a way to approach Gals Fighters as what I want it to be and what it is most of the time: a fighting game from a major developer in their premier series, featuring some of their most famous characters who are not reduced to a fetish or otherwise warped in presentation to cater to more unsavory niche audiences. It's just the latest in a long line of great fighters, with a cast that highlights the women who have been there all along and its respect for the material is such that it encourages and enables the player to reciprocate in turn as they interact with it. It's mindboggling how rare of an approach this is, and how uplifting.
- part of what made Tag Team Frenzy so fundamentally offensive was how its sexism wasn't expressed just through visuals and the entire narrative premise itself, but how it was rooted in so deep that it found release in the game mechanics themselves. This subject intersects with the longstanding difficulties fighting games have struggled with in making the genre accessible to newcomers while maintaining the iterative depth that serves as its lifeblood--Tag Team Frenzy's crimes were plain to discern as they were born from a mentality of not giving much of a shit about the mechanics of a game that featured prominently women. The expectation wasn't even so much that "women will play this, because there are women in it" and so we must simplify for their sake (itself a fucked up thing to do) but "men will play this because there are women, but they sure aren't playing for the mechanics", and thus we had a game that arrived fetish-ready for that mode of consumption and professing "simplified" mechanics that ensured that even people who could exist in the minefield of what the game at its core was trying to be could not treat it as a game to learn, practice, master and play against others with, because the verbs were deliberately limited so as to allow (or rather, force) the developers/players focus on what really mattered, which was degrading women. It was a game designed to be looked down upon.
That "simplifying" of game mechanics is often the tightrope the genre walks, especially if it intersects with gendered game design and risks potentially coming off as condescending in purpose. Many are the attempts at trying to make fighting games easier to internalize and even to explicate to people unfamiliar with their bizarre specifics, and often what developers land on are the streamlining and making consistent the inputs required for various maneuvers within the games--easier on both the brain and fingers to retain and execute. Gals Fighters is special because it does not seem to embody such an ethos out of a deliberate play to distill, but comes to exemplify it regardless naturalistically because of the system limitations in play. Again, we're talking about aspects that are shared between all Neo Geo Pocket Color fighters, but in the context of a women-centric fighting game highlight most keenly the aspects that are appealing about how these games work: they're just as complex and "legitimate" as the elder siblings on home and arcade hardware, which is just a ridiculously impressive feat for their time or any other, and elevate the experience of interacting with them if you're invested in the reading of a women-first video game being treated with the respect afforded to its masculine counterparts.
As such the "brief press for light attacks, longer press for strong attacks" input set-up is both a stroke of genius for working around the limitations of a very limited control scheme without coming across as having made any compromise at all (in fact it is so intuitive that other, more "advanced" fighters may have benefited from experimenting with the concept later), as well as communicating nuanced play systems within the context of a game that frankly has no idea how to even contemplate condescending to its audience--if anything, the movesets here for all characters are some of the most versatile and extensive any incarnation of them has ever seen, often exceeding what's seen in their home games (the manual only covers a fraction of the total). Gals Fighters does not "dumb itself down" for anyone, to borrow a phrase from famous thespian Scott "Big Poppa Pump" Steiner, nor does it overwhelm them with interlayered systems, meters and insular terminology that so often gatekeeps the genre even as it's intended to open it up. It works in total unison with its medium of delivering the best, most understandable and legible fighting game experience it can, plays to all corners of the crowd, and always succeeds.
- it's rather impossible to play a game like this without marveling at the presentation of it all. What sets it apart is again the consistency in which every visual element of the game is portrayed, from HUD elements to the character designs and how they're adapted, to the central spritework and its endless treats in slapstick body language and mechanically relevant visual gags. Games with far larger teams and workloads have their independently discernable elements where quality or creative intent can fluctuate and sometimes act at odds with one another, but Gals Fighters is so compact and focused on being what it is that such compartmentalization becomes arduous--everything is so complementary of the game's individual voice that disassociating its construction isn't even a critically interesting thing to do. You're just left with appreciating all the subtlety expressed in interweaved design points--stronger attacks animate with exaggerated, enlarged frames for the offending body parts, visually communicating the added oomph of the strikes in a humorous way, while also affecting the hitboxes in turn--and how the game is so adept at impressing an aesthetic through how its characters move and react to one another while never making a particular divide between flavourful asides and the fundamentals of play. It is perhaps the most fun fighting game in how it carries itself without sacrificing its lightness of being at the altar of outright parodic sensibility--it is just deeply attuned to a holistic sense of design and what kind of stylization best works in accentuating its individual strengths. As a result it never supplants or replaces why people like these characters to begin with; merely it pokes fun at the intensities of their personalities while still presenting them as serious participants in a fighting tournament. This, too, is nearly unique for the balance maintained.
~~~Not sure where else to take this. Others could talk about Code Mystics' work overall, or the Neo Geo Pocket Color and the promise in making its library available to much larger audiences than twenty years ago, but I'm content in finding and trying to express why Gals Fighters is one of the best fighting games I've ever played.