Little Jimmy, have a seat and I will tell you a tale- a tale of a long lost, beloved fighting game franchise. You see, back in the “hay-day” of arcade-based fighting games, there were many contenders scramblin’ for a chunk of the young, naive arcade-goer’s change. Back then, developers from all over the globe tried to cash in on the genre that Street Fighter created. In the west, we had Mortal Kombat, Killer Instinct, and Primal Rage – violent, gimmicky games that struggled to maintain serious fanbases.
But, my child, in the East the ground works for several prolific fighters were founded. Street Fighter, Fatal Fury, Samurai Showdown, and Marvel Vs Capcom sprang up from these roots, yet despite their popularity here in the USA, there was one franchise that rose to even challenge the throne of our prolific Street Fighter. That lineage was known as King of Fighters.
King of Fighters has lived in relative obscurity here in the USA, no doubt due, in part, to the rarity of the Neo-Geo arcade systems throughout most of the states, despite being one of the single most played fighting game franchises in the world. In countries like China, Brazil, Vietnam, and Korea, King of Fighters is a common staple at the arcades. This is a franchise with a long, rich history, a well developed system, lovable characters, and traditional bread-and-butter mechanics. Later this month SNK will be launching King of Fighters XIII for consoles, and in a world of comeback mechanics, 3d graphics, and gimmicky nonsense, KOF is exactly what the fighting game community needs right now.
In 2009, SNK launched KOF XII, the successor to the long running, sprite based, 2d fighting game franchise. Despite featuring beautiful, high resolution sprite art, the game was considered a flop by the Fighting Game Community at large. The console version was embarrassingly light, in both play modes, features, and cast. Drawing from SNK’s entire video game roster, characters from a huge number of classic games found a spot in the franchise’s past.
Character selections were not limited to fighting franchises, either. SNK’s entire video game library was free open for recruitment, including shooter characters, brawlers, and side-scrolling heroes. So then, it came as a surprise when SNK revealed XII’s lackluster roster. KOF 2003 had a roster of over 30 characters, and XI had close to 40. When KOF XII was announced, they settled on only 20 characters, enraging fans who were counting on favorites to return.
Gameplay wise, KOF XII and XIII share more than a passing resemblance to Street Fighter, focusing on timing based link combos and direction based special attacks. What separates KOF from SF is the inclusion of more mobility abilities, such as the rarely seen super jump, short hop, and dodge roll. These abilities make KOF a much more mobile game, one where spacing and zone control are extremely important, more so than even Street Fighter and its footsie (long range pokes) based game.
KOF is a team based fighter, not unlike Capcom’s own VS series. What separates it from Capcom’s offerings, though, is that there is no tag system. Instead, players have a team of three separate fighters who battle, one on one, in single elimination matches. Choosing a well-rounded team isn’t always as strong a strategy as counter-picking your opponent, and, without tags and the concern of team synergy, players are free to focus on each specific character, allowing them to pick their favorites without penalty.
Though mastering three characters at once can be difficult, the system encourages players to be more versatile, and to try out the gamut of characters the game features. Suddenly, it makes sense why players would be upset with XII’s paltry selection of fighters – considering that each team needed three combatants, there was too much overlap and a lack of versatility.
KOF XII launched with a poor selection of game modes, a tiny roster, and poor netcode. The game was almost immediately condemned by long time fans, and the failure was a huge blow to SNK’s reputation. Thankfully, KOF XIII is looking to repair fan expectations and push the franchise back towards its original, pristine quality. The game is peddling a crazy amount of polish and features, thanks in part to recycling assets from King of Fighter XII, including the gorgeous, hand drawn backgrounds and painstakingly detailed sprite art. These sprites are something of legend, featuring a sickening amount of frames and minute details, making each character move with a fluidity rarely seen in even the most expensive cel animation.
Speaking of sprites, the game now features an amazing Sprite Edit feature, which allows you to recolor your characters and personalize their appearances. Some preliminary runs through this mode have created some hilarious color combination, and I look forward to seeing what competitive players do to personalize their teams for tournament play.
Also new is a robust, multi-branching story mode that tells the narrative from a multitude of character perspectives. Even better, the storyline shifts with player performance and battle results, meaning each playthrough may yield different results. SNK has promised a healthy amount of new animations, artwork, and additional visuals to tell the story – something not even Capcom has delivered with its recent single player offerings. Though the game most likely will not be on par with Mortal Kombat’s excellent single player storyline, it’s still welcome progress from a Japanese developer.
Ok, so color edits and storylines are great, but what about competitive modes? This is a fighting game after all. After XII’s abysmal online offering, SNK has reworked its entire product to fall better in line with what the competition is offering. Ranked, Player, and Friend matches are available, as is the standard, yet SNK didn’t stop there. XIII also features the ability to save and share replays, and the player matches feature a multitude of custom rules for more casual, fun matches.
Additionally, since the game was released in arcades a year ago, SNK has implemented sweeping balance changes to the entire cast. The list of balance changes are quite extensive, and though the game was largely considered “well balanced” before the patch, certain characters have been brought more in line with the rest of the cast. Though tiers will no doubt surface someday down the line, SNK has shown a healthy interest in keeping the game competitive and fair while avoiding the knee-jerk balancing seen in certain other fighters.
King of Fighters XIII launches for PS3 and Xbox 360 on November 22nd in North America. If you’re an avid fighting game fan, you owe it to yourself to try this game out. And to those casuals, who have only played SF and MK, you would do well to at least try KOF. If it’s impressive visuals do not hook you, it’s flexible, high mobility gameplay will.