God bless the 90s.
We can’t have a continuous SNK retrospective leading up to Retro DNA’s showcase this October without doing a King of Fighters article now, can we? Ask and you shall receive.
Here are the past SNK retrospectives:
Back on August 25, 1994, a company called Shin Nihon Kikaku (aka SNK) thought it was a good idea to combine characters from their Fatal Fury and Art of Fighting games, along with those from outside of their fighting games titles, into one mix-mash fighting game.
And thus, the King of Fighters series was born, with top fighting game directors and producers like Takashi Nishiyama (a former Street Fighter developer), Eikichi Kawasaki, and Masanori Kuwasashi at the helm. From its 1994 debut, it became so popular, going so far as to be a perennial favourite against the likes of Capcom’s Street Fighter series.
Then again, the series also had its tragic moments as well, with the company’s bankruptcy back in 2001 it had to sell off its properties to South Korean companies like Eolith whose take on the KOF series did not do them justice. Still, it wasn’t all bad as the company came back again as SNK Playmore, which then became just SNK again in April 2016.
To further celebrate SNK’s 40th anniversary, let’s look back at the series and find out why it’s still a favourite among old-school and new-school fighting game fans.
#1. Its Roster Is Ginormous
To say that the selection of fighters in the KOF series is huge is an understatement. Fancy a beginner type character? You have human flamethrower Kyo, purple flamethrower nemesis Iori, and American cap bearer Terry Bogard. Need someone more advanced? Try out the white-haired well-endowed brawler Angel who plays sort of like a 3D fighting game character.
SNK also dug up their old games for alternate characters. Ikari Warriors Ralf and Clarke appear in KOF as full-fledged grappler & bruiser archetypes. Athena and Kensou from arcade shooter Psycho Soldiers are your modified “shoto” fireball-tossing uppercutting teenage combatants with slight variations.
This is very noticeable in the dream match King of Fighters titles like KOF ‘98 and KOF 2002, where they disregard story canon to bring in all the characters they can cram in for one fighting game fiesta. Players and newbies will be spoiled for choice over what their favourite team combinations are, let alone who their favourite character is.
And with KOF XIV already out, the roster now spans over 40 characters of varying styles and looks. We get to see Taekwondo expert Kim Kaphwan’s teacher and his nubile wife, as well as guest stars like Nakoruru from Samurai Shodown and Mui Mui from that one SNK pachinko game. If you want the ultimate in fighting game rosters, KOF can’t be beat.
#2. It’s Got A Long-Spanning Story Arc
Speaking of story, the King of Fighters series span a huge epic of a tale unheard of in fighting games. The only caveat is that you have to do a lot of digging from outside sources unless you can read SNK’s brand of Japanese-translated English because it’s a whole new level of its own.
What started out as a simple fighting tournament run by a rich and ripped German criminal escalated into a conspiracy revolving around an ancient ritual of reviving a demon god loosely based on the Yamato no Orochi folklore from Japan. Major key players change up their fighting styles based on the story, and characters get ousted because they end up dead at the end of each KOF entry.
Then it takes a 180-degree turn with the sci-fi N.E.S.T story, where secret organizations are creating their own brand of flame-throwing Kyos with one of them rebelling against his masters and “siblings”. It then caps off with a French guy named Ash Crimson stealing flames and sacred treasures from past characters with an agenda of his own. Pretty riveting stuff, that.
With KOF XIV, we’re also getting a new story about interdimensional travel and even some old friends like Orochi making a comeback. The fight is far from over for the KOF series, story-wise.
#3. It Revolutionized Fighting Game Mechanics
Fans and fighting game aficionados who like fast gameplay usually bring up The King of Fighters series. Every character in the roster can short hop, do a big jump, roll & dodge to avoid oncoming attacks, and run. Even if you’re the slowest grappler around, every character in the series is mobile.
These are just a few of the many mechanics each KOF title introduces to set it apart from its peers. While not completely original, it was executed very well. Watching a fight between pro gamers with three fighters on their team is like watching an artful ballet of pyro kinetics and all-out beatdowns.
Even the basic character selection is an art of its own as you need to figure out which character to place first in your team so that he or she can build up the meter you want for your second and last character to use. No wonder a lot of the fighting game pros declare the KOF series a rather high-level game as compared to the Street Fighter series.
#4. It Crossed Fists With Its Major Competitor
…and we were elated it happened!
The KOF series was so big during the 90s and 2000s that fans were arguing over whether it was better than the Street Fighter series. So both SNK and Capcom were like decided to do a crossover title…for the fun of it. Enter the SNK vs. Capcom series.
These games were awesome because they allowed fighting game fans to pit Capcom fighters against SNK fighters. Who was the better blonde: Ken or Terry Bogard? Who was the bigger boss: Geese Howard or M.Bison? Coupled with a fighting system that blends the best of both worlds, the Capcom vs. SNK series was a love letter to everyone who grew up with 2D fighting games.
#5. It Has Awesome Music & Sound
Let’s compare KOF’s music side-by-side with Street Fighter. Whereas Ryu’s theme is still very prominent, it’s been remixed far too many times.
One can argue that it’s a classic theme that doesn’t need much change, but somehow KOF’s many themes share a cohesive sound motif and feel despite using different instruments & tempos in early entries.
These examples below are from Iori’s team. Note the dominating saxophone in each track to highlight the team’s music with each iteration. They sound different yet still similar.
While we are on sound, the SFX is also spot-on, with bone-crunching hits and slashes sounding like they really, REALLY hurt. Designer Eiichiro said in an interview on the book Insert Coin that he asked his sound guys and programmers to act out how hits are done and performed in a real fight so that they know how to transcribe that into a “mega Shock” video game.
Aesthetics-wise, the earlier entries of KOF back then, and arguably KOF XIII, also boasted detailed backdrops with personality. Every round of a match will signify a slight weather or time change from daytime to nighttime.
#6. It Has A Dedicated Fanbase
We’ve brought up our own reasons on why the series deserves its place in history. Pro gamer Xian (EVO 2013’s Street Fighter IV champion) got his start in fighting games with the King of Fighters series. He has mentioned time and again in various fighting game sites that the series is dear to him.
“Because the series allowed me to make many friends when I was younger. I also learned a lot of different fighting game skills that could be applied today.”
Xian said that the actual gameplay in a fighting game is more important, hence he learned a lot from starting out fighting games with the KOF series.
What did he learn best from these fighting games? “Spacing and execution,” he said. “These two techniques allowed me to understand fighting games better now as they are not as complicated.
Just this year, SNK finished its Neo Geo World Tour which features KOF 98 and KOF XIV tournaments for worldwide players to join in and fight. The finals took place in Hong Kong where thousands of fans gathered to see the best while also reminisce the fun times they had with the legacy series. So yeah, there is no shortage of KOF love anytime soon!
The Crown Jewel Of Fighters?
KOF isn’t a perfect diamond in the rough. SNK has made some missteps with the franchise back in the 2000s and even arguably now. Remember how broken KOF 2001 and KOF 2003 was? Remember how unnecessary KOF Neowave was in the grand scheme of things except for maybe showcasing Geese Howard in his Art of Fighter 2 getup?
Remember that KOF 98 UM mobile cash-grab of a turn-based RPG title? And remember the well-meaning-but-probably-won’t-age-well China-produced King of Fighters Destiny YouTube series?
Nonetheless, the King of Fighters series will have a special place in most fighting gamers’ hearts all across Asia. Its colourful and personality-heavy cast, its fast gameplay, its lovely music & backdrops, and how it all gels together makes this fighter a king-of-the-ring material.
Here’s to a few more sequels and iterations, SNK. Don’t stop believing.