Thursday, December 27, 2012

King of Fighters Retrospective: 94

The King of Fighters games all have one common plot point for the sake of fun simplicity.  No matter which game you’re playing, the story (if there is one) is that someone is running the King of Fighters tournament.  In The King of Fighters 94, the very first game, contestants from around the world get a fancy invitation from an unknown host who only refers to himself on the invitations as “R”.  It’s kind of sketchy that the guy doesn’t even give his name, but who cares about details like that?  We get to fight people!

You may have noticed in the opening the words “this year,” even though this is the first King of Fighters game.  That’s because although it’s the first King of Fighters game, it’s not the first King of Fighters tournament to be held.  The King of Fighters tournaments were originally held in the Fatal Fury games, SNK’s other flagship fighting series, from which King of Fighters takes a few plot elements.  The host of this tournament based his on the ones held by Geese Howard and Wolfgang Krauser from Fatal Fury, except made the three-member team rules to give it its own identity.

Speaking of identity, the majority of the characters in 94 are originally from other SNK games.  It was like SNK’s Super Smash Brothers of the time.  It has Ralf and Clark from Ikari Warriors, Athena and Kensou from Psycho Soldier, Ryo, Robert, Takuma, King, and Yuri from The Art of Fighting, and most prominently, Mai, Andy, Terry, and Joe from Fatal Fury.  The Fatal Fury character count would only drastically increase as the series went on.  Original characters were put in alongside old ones, such as Ralf and Clark’s commander Heidern and Kensou & Athena’s drunken master Chin.  Since early SNK games before '94 were much like other arcade games at the time, in that characters had no character, the new characters were a welcome addition to the story and roster.  In other words, there was no continuity to ruin with their informed relationships.

Two particular KOF-original additions are Chang Koehan and Choi Bounge.  The two are criminals caught by Fatal Fury's justice-seeker Kim Kapwhan.  Rather than arresting them, Kim forced the two into his reformation program consisting of training and fighting in KOF.  Kim believes doing so will have them start to respect others, which, over the course of the series, they do become good people.  And believe it or not, that works.

The original teams, made up soley of characters debuting in The King of Fighters '94, are the Japan team and American sports team.  The Japan team consists of the hero, high school student Kyo Kusanagi, and his buddies Benimaru Nikaido and Goro Daimon.  Kyo has the blood of his clan that gives him the ability to shoot flames from his hands.  Goro, the big guy, is a grappling judo master who can shake the earth, and Benimaru, the guy with the Polnareff haircut, is a rock star with lightning powers and quick kick attacks.
How exactly Benimaru has lightning powers is never explained.  Maybe he just scootched all over the carpet for years as part of his training.
Never mind.  There's my answer.
The American sports team doesn’t get as much attention as everyone else in the series, but still has something of a fanbase, presumably because A: they’re clearly American and America rules, and B: they have a very unique theme of American sports.  The leader, Heavy D!, mainly uses conventional boxing, Lucky Glauber utilizes deadly basketballs and slam dunks for a grab, and Brian Battler is a football jersey-wearing muscle-bound powerhouse.  It’s a pity they’re only playable in two games.

Main characters get all the glory.
King of Fighters '94 plays much like the other 2D fighting games out there.  Starting out, it wasn’t all that complicated.  There are 4 buttons: two for a strong and weak punch and two for a strong and weak kick.  Using them in conjunction with quarter and half-circle movements allow you to use special attacks; standard for 90s 2D fighting games.

King of Fighters has a few extra commands compared to Street Fighter 2 though.  Pressing the strong kick and strong punch button at the same time performs a knockdown move.  The knockdown move takes a half-second longer to execute than basic moves, but it knocks your opponent on their back when it connects.  Pressing the two weak attack buttons at the same time lets you dodge, making you invincible for about 75% of a second.
To taunt, you need only press the strong punch button while the control stick is unmoved when you’re at a distance from your opponent.  You can imagine that leads to frustration, but thankfully it was given its own button commands in later games.  Taunting not only makes fun of your opponent, but also decreases their power gauge, which is needed to use super special attacks.
To use the super special attacks, you must first charge the power gauge to its maximum by dealing damage and by holding down both weak attack buttons and the strong punch button at the same time (though that leaves you defenseless).
To win, you need only deplete your opponent’s health bar or have the most health when time runs out.  Whenever one of your team members is beaten, the next one takes their place, and the winner recovers a bit of their health.

It’s simpler than it may sound.  Believe me, it's one of the simpler games in the franchise.  It only got more complicated in subsequent installments.

Like any other arcade fighting game at the time, your team goes around the world to defeat all the other team members (please keep in mind that where you fight them isn’t indicative of their nationality).  When that’s accomplished, you meet the man running the tournament, and it is at that point the intensity reaches its peak.

You can see my own rundown of what happens then here.  There are spoilers, but, as I said in the introduction, there isn’t much to spoil.

KOF 94 is an important game that set the groundwork for the rest of the King of Fighters games… However, that does not make it good.  Sometimes, when I tell someone I love the King of Fighters series, I backpedal and say “I love the King of Fighters games…. Except for the first two... And 12.”

As its own game, King of Fighters 94 is, to put it bluntly, outright garbage.  Just about everything about it is dated and woefully limited by the weak technology of the time.  There’s so much wrong with it, I wasn’t sure where to begin when writing this.

First the graphics.  I know it was the early 90s, but that doesn’t change the fact that the game’s graphics are a pain to look at.  The art style and character sprites seems to try and look realistic and grainy, and it blends poorly with the similarly grainy, and often dark, stages.  There are some stages that stand out and are genuinely pretty, like Britain and Italy, but for the most part, they’re just dull with a brownish, dim look about them.

The animation doesn’t help matters either.  If I didn't know any better, I'd think there are only three or four frames per second for each animation.  It’s all robotic and janky, which really takes you out of the experience.  I can honestly say I’ve seen SNES games that have better animation than this.

The audio is hardly better.  The whole thing sounds muffled, there’s very little voice acting, and what little is there sounds like the characters are dull and bored.  The sound effects are almost laughable too.  The glorious sound of someone being hit should have punch and gravity, but in 94, it often sounds more like someone serving a tennis ball in an echoing room or slapping two cooked steaks together.

King of Fighters 94's only redeeming factor is its soundtrack.  If the chiptune genre of music has taught us anything, it’s that the greatest medleys can be made even on the most inferior technology.

Not even the core gameplay is competently executed.  Special attacks tend to be unbalanced, the bad animation and limited special moves makes the flow of fights feel clunky, and it’s far too easy to jump when trying to walk.

But as bad as a lot of the game is, I could probably bear it were it not for the hideously broken enemy AI!  Even if you’re playing a version with selectable difficulty and set it to 1 (out of 8), the computer will kick your ass up and down the screen!  They’re inhumanly perfect!  They’ll block every attack, dodge every projectile, and execute special moves and react with microsecond timing no human (not even an expert-level player) could ever hope to do!  They outright cheat!

I’ve heard people say that the game is beatable if you utilize a tactic in which you constantly jump kick the computer or some such nonsense, but that’s not fun!  You do not see the main character of a martial arts movie jump around like he’s on a trampoline and kicking like crazy to win every fight!  That’s boring and stale!
94’s AI doesn’t give any room for experimentation or ease you into the game’s combat, and when you consider that all this is on the lowest difficulty, there’s nothing you can call the AI other than broken.

Kim can slip on a banana peel and still look cool.

But that’s King of Fighters 94 for you.  It’s an unrefined mess of a game from before the series actually got good.  If you really want to play it, King of Fighters 94 is available in The King of Fighters Collection: The Orochi Saga on the Wii, PS2 and PSP, as well as on the Wii virtual console.  It is also included with a lot of SNK’s early games in the SNK Arcade Classics Collection Volume 1, which is also available on the Wii, PS2, and PSP.

It’s only the first game and already I’ve gotten wordy, but I have only just begun.  The series kept on rolling in ‘95…


  1. You DO realise that you're judging a VERY old game,do you?
    I mean,from the 90's,what else did you expect?

    1. I look at games with a modern day perspective. "For its time" and "back then" do not fly with me. I can appreciate older games if they still deliver on what makes a game nice and fun, but this one is neither. I know that's harsh, but it's what I think.