Sunday, 17 April 2005
Simon battles his way through this rather shoddy beat-em-up that hardly deserves the 'King of Fighters' moniker.
Do you remember playing King of Fighters on Neo Geo? One hand glued to the joystick with the other patting down the denim of your jeans, feeling for that next credit? Well, that's how I remember it. This was 1994. With my best friend back then (and his dad always came with us to the arcade) I spent a fortune in the arcades. The two of them were my surrogate family for the weekend.
When the coins had almost run out, one of us would go and find my friend's father - he could normally be found near a fruity, in the part where only older kids could go. The two of us worked as a miniature team fatal fury of our own, ducking past the hairy lady in the change booth to enter the bandit area. When one of us caught him, my mate's dad would always say that he'd just dropped a jackpot and so could indeed lend us another pound.
On the way home, my mate used to beg his dad to buy him his own Neo Geo, just so he could play it in his living room on the big TV. That way, he'd say to his dad, you wouldn't need to waste your afternoons with us.
His dad would laugh and go back to talking about the bandit success he'd had. You see, whether it was that the Neo Geo itself cost close to a car, and that the games were the equivalent of a small holiday, or not, my friend never got his wish.
The try before you buy approach to console sales was a good idea. Nintendo did a similar thing with the SNES, but a coin-op that'd let you play a level or two of Super Mario then demand more money wasn't the same. Super Mario was 'ownable', even by kids. Terry Bogart, Kyo Kusanagi and friends were totally out of reach.
If they made any money from the Neo Geo, SNK should really invest it into a time machine so they can go back to 1995 and release King of Fighters Maximum Impact then as an arcade game to rival Tekken and Virtua Fighter. Or release it on PS1 in 1996, back when Tekken 2 showed that the arcade success of 3D fighters could successfully be transferred onto home systems. Or they could have pick 1997 when Dead or Alive first appeared on the Sega Saturn - or how about 1999, the year of Soul Calibur on Dreamcast?
Release this game anytime in the last millennium and you have a hit.
As it stands, it's taken SNK an age to make the step to the third dimension. As a result the fans of the series have grown up, and it is still hard to see how they will relate to this game. Hardcore fans are probably happy to stick in a two dimensional interpretation. Fans of 3D fighters will have left the KOF series a long time ago, and there is nothing here to bring them back from Dead or Alive Ultimate, or Soul Calibur 2. Even the quality 3-on-3 battles have been lost (except in a special arcade mode, in which it is very easy to beat all three opponents with your first man and you have to laboriously pick your enemies' team yourself.)
More annoyingly, the game has become rather simple over time, with plentiful chain combos and a guard meter that gets broken by repeated button bashing. This makes it easy to pick up and play, but also easy to get lazy and learn nothing from thrashing your opponent repeatedly on the lower difficulty settings. Some of the characters have much strength and little weakness, and having chanced across one of the chosen few someone who has never picked up a King of Fighters game before might happily beat you on their first go of Maximum Impact.
But it is still apparent that SNK care about their series. A selection of the fighters they so lovingly drew and animated in two dimensions are here and they look incredible with their added depth - even better when they move and circle around each other. The genuine smile from seeing your heroes fleshed out is checked by hearing them speak for the first time (a poor English dubbing job), but all the same it's possibly the only high point of the game.
The lows are the marked lack of originality that makes you feel you have played this game a hundred times already (you have), a story mode with an anorexic plot - obviously moving up a dimension in the main action had to be compensated somewhere else - and the culling of a large number of favourite characters (fifteen survive from previous games, when in the past anything up to forty has been de rigueur).
With such a level of competition and the real chance of ruining what has been an excellent 2D series, Capcom have wisely not taken their Street Fighter game into the third dimension proper. Thus it is hard to decide what SNK saw to make them take the gamble. Perhaps like my friend's dad all those years ago, they are deluding themselves - sure that success is just around the corner.
Indeed the groan-inducing survival of the final boss hints that this incarnation is going to see a follow up; if that's the case, we can only hope that SNK spend the meantime poring over the back-catalogue of 3D fighters so they can at least get up to par with their rivals. At present, the only impact this game makes on an already saturated market is decidedly minimum. It'll take a whole load of nudges to turn this spin of the wheel into a winner.