Monday, January 7, 2013

King of Fighters Retrospective: 97

With only a year between releases, following up on the major turning point that was KOF 96 with another overhaul was pretty much impossible.  So, as one would expect, SNK simply made the sequel much like its predecessor, but with its share of additions and omissions.  In some ways, The King of Fighters 97 is an even more solid game.

Despite the supernatural stadium demolition and villain intervention in 1996’s KOF tournament, it was a massive success, with the events of the finale blamed on terrorist activity.

Yeah.  Terrorists with whirlwind powers and only a single member.  I imagine that'd be a pretty tough one to explain.  Why are terrorists so often scapegoats for supernatural destruction?

Chizuru officially participates in the '97 tournament, replacing Kasumi Todoh on the women’s fighting team.  The heroes of the last game must’ve beaten her to the point of crippling though, because she has less health and does less damage.  That's not the last time we'll see Chizuru crippled.

Along with Kasumi and Iori’s female partners, the boss team is also absent this year.  Instead, Geese Howard has hired his own team of Fatal Fury mercenaries to infiltrate the tournament: 95’s returning staff twirler Billy Kane, grappling girl Blue Mary, and resident psychopath Ryuji Yamazaki.
Geese hired Billy to keep an eye on Iori Yagami, who displayed an interesting power at the end of the '96 tournament.  Blue Mary, meanwhile, is assigned to keep an eye on Ryuji (who has been promised double the prize money if they win), but her employer is a fake company owned by Geese, only using her to have her on his team.

New to SNK as a whole is the mysterious and fittingly-named New Faces team, comprised of the three dance battlers Chris, Yashiro, and Shermie.  All three of them make up their own rock band, and entered the ’97 tournament (after fighting the American sports team for their invitations) to show up Iori, who showed them up on a gig originally planned for them.
Well, they already showed him up just by entering, since Iori doesn’t have an official team this year, after… Disagreements with his last two teammates (he does not have the best luck making friends).  Ioro's still an entrant in '97, just a "seeded" competitor.
All three members of the New Faces team have methodical, swaying moves much like a dance.  Yashiro, the big guy, wrecks with his fists, Shermie, the girl, grapples and spins, and Chris, the kid, is fast and hard to predict.

Also teamless is new character Shingo Yabuki, a high school kid who idolizes and imitates Kyo and his fighting style even though he can't shoot flames (don't tell him that though).
Shingo is essentially a comic relief badass.  He's a classmate of Kyo's, who has showed Shingo some of his moves at school in exchange for lunches.  For hours Shingo practiced his moves on the tree Kyo and he met under until he was offered a place in the KOF '97 tournament.  When it comes time to throw down, Shingo does imitations of Kyo’s moves, often clumsily executes them, but always remains optimistic and confident.
For reference, his antics throughout the series include constantly checking his notebook (including in the middle of performing an attack), singing his own victory songs, and accidentally falling on his opponent mid-attack.  In one game, he can even assist your team by tripping and grabbing an opponent by their heels whilst kicking his legs in an undignified fashion.
But Shingo hits hard.  He’s the only character in the series who can land critical hits, and with his well-rounded moveset, he’s a deadly force in the right hands.  Get used to him, because he sticks around for quite a while after ’97.

ビシ! バシ! ドカン!(Onomatopoeia)

King of Fighters 97 has a unique aesthetic from the other games in the series.  It really sells you on the fact that KOF is a televised sporting event through its details in the transitions and stages.  The stages show several camera crews, massive crowds, security personnel barring off the arenas, girls holding up signs to show what round it is, and giant KOF logos in the middle of each floor.
The transitions are simple and short, but flashy.  They display information on the next stage before focusing on it.  As an extra touch, just to really drive home that it’s being broadcasted, the KOF logo is displayed on the bottom right corner of the screen until the first round starts.

Halfway through the game, they even show a tournament bracket as an intermission.  They’re very nice context-builders that the other games are lacking, except maybe KOF 2001.

Special character introductions, triggered by specific characters fighting each other, are also a minor, but significant addition.  There were a couple of them in ’96, but ’97 put in several more in an effort that would carry on into future games.  They’re a great and subtle way to showcase personality and relationships without having to divert from the fighting.

The in-game visuals as a whole got a touch-up to make these additions look nice, just not significantly.  In fact, it’s almost difficult to notice.  Textures and small details were added, and KOF 97 seems to try and pull off that pseudo-realistic style KOF 94 tried.  Unlike ’94, however, the stronger technology and higher resolution doesn’t make it look grainy, and it looks rather impressive at times.

The big change to the gameplay, apart from assigning taunts to the start button, was in regards to the special move system.  Now there were two modes to choose from: advanced and extra.

In advanced mode, you need to stockpile power by using special attacks and taking damage in order to use super attacks.  Advanced mode lets you execute the evasive roll like in ’96 too.  By pressing the two punch buttons and weak kick button at the same time, you can use a super stock to power yourself up to deal extra damage and enable yourself to execute a stronger super attack.
In extra mode, the gauge system from ’96 is used, and instead of the evasive roll, you do the dodge move from the first two games.
The new special attack system adds more versatility and makes it so that players don’t need to stop the action to charge, further letting the game’s combat flow, but the option for the more traditional style is a welcome option for those who can’t quite get used to the stock system.

In another character-establishing touch, both play styles implement characters’ relationships with each other.  If a character loses, and the next character on his/her team has a strong relationship with them, that next character can get a bonus super move stock.  If their relationship is neutral, nothing changes, and if the characters dislike each other, stock is taken away.  In extra mode, rather than giving free power stocks, the charge gauge is partially charged.  It’s a very subtle way to implement story into the gameplay, and it's easy to miss if it's not pointed out..

It’s a good thing there’s so much added to the super move system, because ’97 upped everyone’s arsenal.  There are more special attacks, more versatile normal moves, and more super moves.  In KOF 96, a character got one or two super moves to use, but in ’97, two or three is the norm.

But as much as there was added to ’97, a couple of the more prominent aesthetics from the previous game got the axe.  Namely, team-specific stages and music.

With a few rare exceptions, almost every stage from this game onward (other than boss fights) is selected at random from a pool of different locales around the world rather than a specific locale for fighting a specific team, and along with the personal stages went most of the character/team musical leitmotifs.  Only major and new characters got a theme this time around.  Everyone else uses passive background music from the stage.

This is the only one I found catchy.

The stage music doesn’t grate on the nerves, and it does emulate the feeling of watching a sports match on TV (you don’t hear a rock band playing during a game of golf), but it takes out the impact and flair you would get from the other games.  I remember the new characters and Billy in ’97 more than anyone else (other than the bosses) not because they were new, but because they had catchy themes.

SNK seems to have missed the character themes too, so they did away with stage-specific background music in almost every game since (character-specific stages were kept out though).

Also missing are win quotes.  When you win a match, the game shows a portrait of each of your team members, but doesn’t give the winner one more line like the other games.  All that does is take out character fluff.  I get the feeling there were time constraints when ’97 was being made.

Me Clark.  Big tree.

Regardless, The King of Fighters 97 is still a decent game in its own right.  It may not be the turning point ‘96 was, and the next game beats it out in terms of multiplayer potential, but it’s another enjoyable, polished King of Fighters game.

It’s at least worth playing for its conclusion to the Orochi saga, which is one of the most awesome, action-packed finales in the series.  See it here.

The King of Fighters 97 is available on the Orochi Saga collection and on the Wii Virtual Console.  [Update: now on iOS devices too.]  With the Orochi saga over, SNK gave the premiere storyline a last hurrah with their next game.  Nothing’s going to stop when it’s 1998.

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