When I splashed out on a brand new Neo Geo Pocket Color back in 2000 it came in an appropriate/unfortunate shade of blue camouflage (something of a then/now back there on my opinion of that particular colourway) and was accompanied by the excellent Samurai Spirits! 2 and the game I’m going to talk about today: SNK Gals Fighters.
A handheld fighting game brought to you by the developer responsible for Blazing Star doesn’t inspire a great deal of confidence no matter how much love you may have for that excellent sci-fi arcade shmup and its peculiar brand of slightly insulting on-screen messages, especially when all of the headline brawlers had already received excellent ports (Last Blade may have come after Gals Fighters, but there’s not even a gap of two months between them) and as lovely as the system was there just wasn’t the volume of fans there to support the usual array of sequels, “Special”s, or “Hyper Fighting”s that keep established series going. Luckily for all of us it appears that it’s literally impossible for anyone to make a bad fighting game for the system and it’s all very much business as usual on the quality front for Gals Fighters – which is to say any other handheld format before or since would give an arm and a leg to have such a fast paced and fully featured title grace their library. Like other Neo Geo Pocket bop ’em ups its designed to be equally entertaining whether you can only have a quick go or want to settle in for a longer session and thanks to the relatively substantial unlockables (three playable characters in this case – two unique fighters as well as the final boss) as well as the attention given to game-changing items and the brilliant one-off pieces of artwork found in everyone’s individual endings it always feels like you’ve had a good time and have something to show for your efforts even if you can’t remember all the special moves and picked your main based entirely on how cool their portrait made them look.
There’s a good chance even people who do know what they’re doing won’t be able to stop themselves from picking characters based on nothing more than their expressive portraits and visual style: It may come on a teeny-tiny cartridge but there’s a lot going on in Gals Fighters – everyone has a fun introductory animation, their own taunt, and a whole range of goofy blink-and-you’ll-miss-them reactions. Athena seems to change costume every time she breathes, her battle wardrobe filled with tributes to past versions of herself going all the way back to her original arcade game. Movements are deliberately exaggerated making them easy to read even under the less than perfect lighting conditions you’ll probably be viewing them under, and the attention to detail in the backgrounds with their simple but effective animations and palette changes all look fantastic. The only “problem” here is that every other fighting game on the system also looks good and Gals Fighters doesn’t appear to be visually too far off from other – and perhaps most importantly of all for fans of physical media – cheaper, titles. Some sprites have had every single frame redrawn (Shiki) to match the larger and more detailed sprites found in later releases for the handheld… while others are directly lifted from other games with little more than a minor palette change (Mai). Even then those characters have had their special effects polished up, but you would have to either compare the two side-by-side or be really familiar with the earlier releases to appreciate the difference. For all the money saving recycling that’s gone on there’s still more effort in here than Capcom ever put into making sure… let’s say… Morrigan, just to pull one example out of the air completely at random, fit seamlessly into their new surroundings.
So on the whole it’s the same as all your other pocket SNK fighting games but also a bit better, and if you have ever had a good time with any of those (Who hasn’t? I’ve honestly never heard of someone not enjoying them) then you’ll feel right at home here. Unfortunately there’s also an elephant-sized difference in the room that sets it apart from the others too: This is a special “girls only” fighting game.
That’s not a good sign. That’s either a pink game aimed at eight year old girls who think “glitter” is a personality type or a pink game that’s teenager-sexy in the “everyone has huge boobs and fits an obvious fetish” sort of way. In either scenario the mechanics will be cut back to basics to avoid scaring off either girls who have clearly never played a game before (of course they haven’t – they’re girls) or people who the marketing material will insist wish to play one handed because nobody can object to a joke about men having a wank in any context without being told they’re boring, and the whole thing becomes equally embarrassing for long-term fans and curious newcomers alike.
Thankfully that’s where Gals Fighters is different: It’s called Gals Fighters because its the fighting game where (almost) all the characters happen to be women, not King of Fighters: For Girls (although sadly that does now exist, word for word). For all the blimmin’ pink splashed around on the menus and the box it honestly doesn’t feel like it’s throwing women (as a target audience) an half-hearted bone: “Here’s a girly fighting game for girls to play while real gamers play real fighting games”. It never feels like there’s been an attempt to create a split between “real” fighting games and “something for the ladies” here – it’s just a really well made game that’s a lot of fun to play.
Why does that matter?
Well it shouldn’t, not really. But it does. In an ideal world there’d be more than enough games to suit everyone – mainstream games in all genres and for all ages and preferences with proper budgets and marketing, manufactured in such quantities normal people go out shopping and find them sitting on a shelf – in much the that same way that you can walk into a generic entertainment store in a town of no notable size and come out with a freshly-released slasher flick, the soundtrack to a romantic musical, an old kids TV show on DVD, and a shirt with the logo of a cool metal band you hope nobody ever asks you about because you’re a faking faker who still listens to Meat Loaf. Some niches are bigger than others, and some tastes are considered more “normal” than others, but by and large for anyone with non-gaming interests it’s easy to find material made by and for “their people” in common public spaces and just get on with enjoying whatever it is they like best.
Gaming isn’t like that. Gaming companies still think the original Xbox’s neon green colour scheme is a great look for “hardcore” tech, for goodness’ sake.
Nobody ever belongs everywhere, but it’s important to belong somewhere.
And that may come as a surprise to hear out of the keyboard-mouth of a woman who likes to spend most of her free time playing and writing about weird old videogames. I have forever been the outsider looking in, and in many ways I bring it upon myself – why hunt down PC-98 games when Overwatch and Minecraft are far more acceptable and easy to access? Why force my way into gaming at all when there are Taylor Swift concerts to buy tickets for or Louboutin shoes to drool over (yes, I did have to look both of those things up) and nobody would ever bat an eyelid at me in those spaces?
I like games. That’s all there is to it. I want to be normal within my preferred hobby, to be allowed to exist within that space simply by deciding I want to be there. Not an exception (or exceptional). Not apart. Not having to justify myself to random guys who think a tatty copy of Super Mario Bros 3 makes them the oracle of retro gaming.
And this is why Gals Fighters feels so remarkable to me: Because of how unremarkably it treats its cast. This isn’t a game on a righteous crusade to either extreme end of the scales – it’s just fighting women, fighting. Yes they’re pretty but the artwork never tries to push them towards either softcore titillation nor unnatural modesty – even Mai, whose whole everything can be summed up as “jiggly chest kittens” is presented in a way that makes her a fighter and a character first. Here’s a game full of beautiful women who look and dress in a conventionally attractive manner (“Show women actual respect” and “Make women dress like nuns and act demure” are two very different things) who still pass the (admittedly flawed) Bechdel Test – that’s women who talk to other women about something other than men (it sounds like a low bar, but you’d be surprised). Yes it’s all a bit sad that I boot up at a twenty year old 16-bit fighting game for the first time in a while and think “Hang on a sec, this is proper no-ifs-no-buts positive representation!” instead of “Whip’s amazing, isn’t she?” or “Akari’s a lot of fun”, but that’s just the way the hobby is.
None of this is meant to imply that other, more modern, examples aren’t out there either – just that it’s nice to see a game get it right without it being, y’know, A Thing. A lot of this is an accidental byproduct of The King of Fighters series the game so heavily bases itself on, which has always tended to have a good selection of women in interesting (actually interesting, not “interesting”) attire, and Gals Fighters is simply copying what went before. But isn’t that the point? Those earlier games set a good example, and Gals Fighters continued that fine tradition.
That’s it. That’s all it takes.