Friday, January 4, 2013

King of Fighters Retrospective: 96

It’s pretty hard to deny that the first two King of Fighters games have aged about as well as the original Mortal Kombat games.  Maybe it was fun to play them with friends back in the 90s, but today we see them for the almost-unplayable mess they are.  I hardly even consider KOF 94 and 95 King of Fighters games, because they don’t carry the core values of what I love about the series.

With that, you may as well forget that King of Fighters 94 and ‘95 even existed, because King of Fighters 96 is where the quality titles truly started.

In The King of Fighters 96, The King of Fighters tournament is no longer a shady and private event, and has evolved into a nationwide spectator sporting event comparable to the Olympics in terms of popularity and significance.
This time nine teams have passed the preliminaries to enter, but there are quite a few changes in the teams from KOF 95.

Karate master Takuma Sakazaki is not participating this time, nor is the military man Heidern of the Ikari Warriors.  Heidern’s adopted daughter Leona has taken his place, while Takuma is replaced by his daughter Yuri, whose previous spot in the women’s fighters team is taken by The Art of Fighting’s Kasumi Todoh.

Iori Yagami, after…. Disagreements with his previous team, enters with a pair of mysterious women: the slinky grappler Vice and the fast, quick-cutting Mature, both of whom were formerly employees of Rugal and made brief appearances in the first two King of Fighters games.

But the participants really turning heads is the team of crime bosses Mr. Big, Geese Howard, and Wolfgang Krauser.  All three of them were bosses in previous SNK fighting games, and have now entered the King of Fighters tournament (not being held by them, for once).  Krauser entered because he wants to establish himself as a legitimate fighter by entering a legitimate tournament, and Mr. Big wants to show off his strength to show off his own skill and establish power.  Geese's motive, however, is a mystery until you play through the game with them.  Sadly, this is their only playable appearance in the series (canonically).

With so many new faces to play with, The King of Fighters 96 doesn’t have the underlying feeling of stagnation 95 had, but that’s only a small part of the fixes that make The King of Fighters 96 the turning point in the franchise.

As to be expected, the graphics and music got an upgrade, but the change between 95 and 96 is far vaster than the one between 94 and 95.  The stages are much more colorful and detailed, the entire game is in a higher resolution, animations are more fluid, and little touches like stage-specific opening transitions make King of Fighters 96’s visuals hold up even today, 7 years later.

One of my favorite visual features is the victory screens for each of the characters, in which after their opponent falls to the ground, they do a victory pose and detailed artwork of their pose then slides onto the screen.  I always liked how that let you better imagine how the characters would look doing all this if they weren’t somewhat small, stylistic sprites.  It almost makes me ponder what a King of Fighters live action movie that doesn’t suck could be like.

The soundtrack is just as good as the art.  Although some will probably prefer the arranged tracks, King of Fighters 96 has all sorts of catchy tunes, and there is not a single forgettable one in the bunch.

If you need further evidence of how much of an improvement the sound quality is, compare Athena’s theme from KOF 94 to the remix in ’96.

Sound effects in '96 are also much more satisfying, and the voices are the best they'd ever been.  Everyone’s lines are filled with vigor and energy, especially Joe Higashi, voiced by Nobuyuki Hiyama, whom gamers should instantly recognize as the voice of Link in The Ocarina of Time and that Link's other appearances.
Another voice worth noting is the voice of Krauser, who has the distinction of being the only character in the series that speaks fluent English audibly and is voiced by an English-speaking voice actor, with such lines as “You can get up by yourself!” and “Give it up, loser!”  It makes him stand out from the rest of the Japanese-speaking cast, and I imagine it must’ve been pretty cool to hear for Japanese gamers back in 1996.

But that’s all aesthetic upgrades.  The biggest, best, game-changing improvements were made in the controls and fighting mechanics.  I don’t just mean just a few tweaks here and there.  I mean almost a complete overhaul.
Several characters were given different moves, and some frustrating previous moves were given an easier way to input them (you still need to practice on those half circles though).  Of the new moves, many close the gap between players, cooldown times are shorter, and a system of short jumps and long jumps were added for extra versatility.  Furthermore, taunting was now assigned to pressing the strong punch and weak kick buttons at once, and instead of a dodge move, characters do a dodge roll that makes them invincible for a split second and lets them shorten or widen the gaps between them and their opponent by rolling forward or backward.
The result is a much more fast-paced, flowing fighting game in which players are constantly on their guard, thinking of split-second strategies and reactions using the many options they’re given, and that is exactly what a fighting game should be.

I'm shoryukan't touch his skills.
Unlike the last two games, wherein fights were essentially either jump kicking like crazy or spamming special attacks, ’96 (and, by extension, every KOF to come after it) has fights that can make a bystander whistle and say “Look at ‘em go."  Even against AI opponents.

You read that right.  Of all the improvements King of Fighters 96 brought to the franchise, the biggest, most prominent fix, bar none, is that
the AI opponents play f*%#ing fair!
No more mid-air grappling, no more button reading, and no more executing special moves with a button.  The AI opponents in ’96 play by the rules!  Or they probably do, anyway.  They have a noticeable tendency to be abnormally good at guarding, but not to the point of feeling like they’re cheating.  Besides, with the new combat system, it’s quite possible to break their guard with an onslaught of attacks.  Better yet, if you have more health than them, you can keep them at bay by spamming a special move until time runs out while they’re still guarding.

With the AI not scraping you off the floor before you can get a hit in, you can better appreciate the subtle touches of the game’s backgrounds that you couldn’t before, like your inactive team members, who give a positive reaction each time you land a clean hit or block a special attack and negative reaction each time you take a hit.

After all of that, I haven’t even touched on the much more interesting and fun storyline the game weaves.  You can see how the game's end plays out, along with what makes it so great, here.

I won’t give away any character-specific endings, but I will say that, in addition to better artwork, they have stronger characterization and a sense of resolution.

Even after having played the rest of the games in the series, The King of Fighters 96 is still one of my favorite entries.  That’s not to say the next game isn’t impressive either, of course, but being the first King of Fighters game I actually liked, and having one of my favorite bosses in gaming, gives it a special place in my heart.

The King of Fighters 96 is available on the Orochi Saga collection, the Wii's Virtual Console, and the Playstation Network.  I highly recommend it.

The first story arc came to an end in ’97…

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