My favorite King of Fighters title is Capcom vs SNK 2 which says a lot about me and my relationship with the long running SNK fighting game franchise. I was first introduced to King of Fighters when I downloaded these excellent backgrounds and curiously classy characters for early M.U.G.E.N. releases back in 1999. I was familiar with Capcom’s fighters and was aware of SNK’s Samurai Shodown and Fatal Fury franchises but what was King of Fighters?
After playing through King of Fighters 98 and 99, I gained an appreciation for SNK’s marquee fighting game franchise. The franchise’s gameplay didn’t win me over with its heavy reliance on half circle motions but the design of the characters, wonderfully detailed stages and classy style of music created an aura of maturity compared to the other fighters I was familiar with.
Characters like Kyo Kusanagi were not throwing fireballs like Ryu. He chained fire imbued strikes together to inflict damage. He ran (not dash) across the screen, elbowed his opponent in the gut and lifted them into the air with one hand and sent them flying with an explosive blast. I was impressed with their flare for being cocky without being brash and moving beyond the mainstays of martial art fighters wearing gi. While the move set and fashion were intriguing, the catchy metal track he and Team Japan fought wrapped it all together to form a very unique package.
So after all that preamble, did I have any interest in King of Fighters XIV? To be honest: no. I found the art style in the reveal trailer awful. Subsequent trailers featured a few decent looking characters but most of my favorites returned looking at their worst. I understand polygonal character models are easier to develop and more a more fiscally responsible development option but did they need to render mainstays like Kyo, Iori and Mai so hideously? Returning favorites like the Ryo Sakazaki, Benimaru and the entire Ikari Team made the transition to 3D intact. And newcomers like the disturbing Sylvie Paula Paula and her mates in the Official Invitation Team made their debuts looking disturbing and intricately detailed as intended. So what happened to Kyo?
I’m sure it wasn’t easy for SNK to maintain a consistent quality across 50 characters. They did, however, managed to produce over 15 quality stages in the classic SNK style. They weren’t as lively as KOFXIII’s but they successfully invoke the feel and mood ones from the old Neo Geo titles.
The soundtrack was the standout of this game though. If there’s one thing that they absolutely nailed, it was this. As soon as I heard the Team Yagami’s smooth saxophone filled theme, I was immediately brought back to the arranged soundtracks of the older titles. This track perfectly encapsulated what I love about this series; a seamless blend of catchy beats, flare and style.
Street Fighter V caught a lot of flack for its lack of content, so it was nice to see King of Fighters XIV checking a lot of boxes by providing fighting game staples like an arcade mode, survival mode, trial challenges and online play from the get go.
At the time of writing, I wasn’t able to try the online. I dove into the story mode which turned out to be just a mislabelled arcade mode. I picked the Fatal Fury Team, beat up a ten sets of opponents and received an ending. I repeated that process with a handful of other teams and it was fine. Some endings were better/funnier than others but the trademark cheap SNK boss wasn’t standing in my way. A couple of endings seemed to relate to one another but most of the endings that I’ve unlocked were filled with hijinks. Mortal Kombat 9 won’t be dethroned by this effort but I rather play this than Street Fighter V’s disjointed “cinematic story mode”.
Add King of Fighters XIV to the growing pile of fighting games that don’t want to explain fighting games beyond the controls and systems. I wasn’t expecting SNK to include a robust lesson plan for new players but I would have heaped on the praise if they did. Trials introduced character specific combos that highlight how annoying some of the quarter circle back, forward motions were to execute on a directional pad. These inputs may be classic SNK but I was hoping they would have emulated Garou: Mark of the Wolves and simplified inputs. At least then, I would have been able tackle the game’s myriad of systems more quickly.
There were a lot of systems in play for SNK and I would be lying if I said I have a firm grasp on them. Between the different hopping options, evasive rolling and recovery options was a revised super move gauge system that enabled EX moves and super cancels. A talented player can easily wipe away 75% of a player’s health bar with a few bars of energy.
For casuals like myself who need to consult the command list on a regular basis and just want to see our characters do flashy moves once we land a hit, SNK gave us Rush Mode — a quick and easy means of unleashing relatively low damaging combo with flare. They remind me of Street Fighter’s target combos where a series of basic attack inputs will chain together to create a combo. SNK simplified it further and all I have to do is rapidly tap the light punch button. The tutorial warned that these combos aren’t as devastating as player created combos but having a reliable option to punish my opponents without having to invest any time with the character was novel.
Unfortunately, even with my relatively short time with the game, I noticed that I was relying on the Rush Mode combos far too often and not even bothering to retain the basic combos taught in the character trials. It’s quite the crutch and I hope it doesn’t hurt the development of aspiring players. But for those who only care about beating up the CPU, it’s surprisingly effective.
The SNK name returned to its former glory earlier this year and King of Fighters XIV is the first to wear that classic logo again. First impressions of this game weren’t positive but after giving it a fair shake, the classic King of Fighters gameplay and style was still there. Ultimately, that’s how I feel about the game as whole. There’s a lot to like but you’re going to have to approach the game with a vested interest or a willingness to dig deeper. For casual fans like myself, the single player offerings were nothing to write home and the classic SNK inputs felt like an unnecessary hurdle in the wake of titles like Street Fighter V moving to simplify. While it may not be made for those like me to pick and play, I look forward to seeing King of Fighters XIV in the hands of experts on the big stage at EVO fighting game tournament next year.
Thanks to Atlus for providing me a review copy of King of Fighters XIV.