Just when we thought ultimate pop culture arcade game obsession had come and gone with Pac-Man, a game called Street Fighter II came along to siphon countless quarters and hours from people set on proving or developing their kung fu joystick skills. The Street Fighter clones rolled in the years thereafter, one of these being the fighting franchise titled King of Fighters, first released in 1994 for the NeoGeo arcade system. Annual versions of King of Fighters (KoF) followed, and although the 2D fighting game phenomenon faded as 3D graphics took over, the KoF/NeoGeo loyalists continued to enjoy the KoF franchise.
Now that publisher/developer SNK has revived itself from the corporate ashes, they’ve released a KoF collection for the PS2 that includes the 2000 and 2001 versions of the game. While graphics and presentation are overshadowed by today’s 3D fighters, KoF retains the fun inherent in 2D fighters and may surprise gamers who give it a try.
The story for each game involves respectively parts two and three of the “Tale of NESTS.” Can’t say it made much sense, and the spotty translation makes the stories funnier than may have been intended. The more enjoyable story comes from the characters personalities as shown by their moves and their post-fight statements. When first confronted by the tiny thumbnail pics of 35 and 40 different fighters on the selection screen, most of whom looked like pretty normal anime tough guys and gals – with not an immediately eye-catching (e.g. Blanka or Dhalsim) character to be seen – I didn’t imagine how quickly their personalities would grow on me. But grow they did.
Both KoF games play like other 2D fighters, although the team aspect involve alternating members and one-shot striker characters instead of two fighters jumping in and out of a match. Its identity comes from this Striker system, where one to three members of a team can be called to deliver a quick hit.
Ah, 2D fighting games, was there ever a gaming genre that called for more zen-like controller skill, smooth timing and perfect execution? Both KoF games translate this fun and challenge of fighting games nicely, with little distinction between the two discs in terms of features and controls. The 35 – 40 different characters each feature their own unique moves delivered by pressing the D-pad/button combos. A power gauge increases during the fight allowing the character to call on a striker, execute super moves or enter special combat modes.
The D-pad controls work well enough for moving or jumping, but they’re also the only choice for moves requiring combos like up-diagonal-left-diagonal-down-diagonal-left-diagonal-up, since neither game supports the analog stick control. Thus, D-pad skills and/or some intensive mashing are required to execute more elaborate moves. Pulling off a move that requires “rotating” the default DualShock D-pad was difficult even for intermediate moves, and pulling off the special super moves became almost random. Granted, some players may be used to D-pad controls in fighting games, but at this point in game console history, the lack of analog stick support makes KoF practically archaic in terms of control. Consequently, it’s less appealing for casual gamers or those new to 2D fighting games than it otherwise would have been.
This control issue is a shame because both KoF editions capture the 2D fighting game rhythm and combinations perfectly. Even relegated to the D-pad, the matches were consistently challenging and fun as was trying to figure out effective combos. Though I’m way too inept at fighting games to pull them off, it’s apparent that the games rely on combos for ultimate mastery, with an unlockable available in 2000 for a player who pulls off a 30-or more hit combo. These challenges in KoF 2000 – including an hours of play requirement – open unlockable movies from earlier KoF games.
Both games feature two main modes: team mode and single mode, each offering a one player option or two player versus option. In team mode, players choose four characters to fight or act as strikers. KoF 2000 only allows a three fighter plus one striker option, but 2001 offers more team customization options as the player can choose fighter/striker combinations. Single mode pits one fighter and one to three strikers against against another. Both also have a “party” mode, which is essentially an endurance match, with unlockable striker characters and other goodies rewarded for players who fight well. For some reason, the opponent doesn’t fight back in most early party mode fights, making it less of a challenge than it first seems. Practice modes are available as well. Both games have a number of options for match parameters, backgrounds, as well as an 8-level difficulty setting for more or less challenge.
KoF 2000 graphics are primitive-looking, reminding me when the NeoGeo arcade system was cutting edge and how far games have come in four years. Backgrounds in 2000 tend to be grainy, making the more colorful but still pixilated characters stand out.
KoF 2001 has improved graphics, particularly in the character selection screen where each character has a nice-looking stylized portrait. Backgrounds in 2001 are high resolution, losing the graininess but appearing somewhat blurry. Characters in 2001 look about the same as in 2000, pixilated but effectively animated.
I had forgotten how funny it was to hear fighting game characters shout out stuff in Japanese before and after the match. KoF is loaded with powerful or cutesy Japanese exclamations (performed by an extensive cast, in fact). Whether a player finds that funny, nostalgic or just silly, the other chop socky sound effects add excitement as does the fast-paced electronic/jazz music.
Two relatively recent games for one price is a good deal – a positive gem for fighting game fans. The unlockables are likely only going to appeal to hardcore KoF fans, but the huge number of fighters and team combinations can keep players in search of D-pad kung fu mastery playing for a long time. Also, much of the 2D fighting game appeal comes from versus mode, so add some friends to the mix and the game is even more fun.
FINAL SCORE: 76%