Monday, January 21, 2013

King of Fighters Retrospective: '99

The Orochi Saga is probably the most loved King of Fighters saga for starting the series off with its staple characters and mechanics.  I also think it's because the saga’s urban fantasy storyline and diverse characters resonate well, the same way shonen anime like Yu Yu Hakusho, Bleach, and, for a more skewed example, Yu-Gi-Oh do.  It certainly did for me.
And like those three series, King of Fighters would get stagnant if it didn’t have a shift in focus to make things interesting.

Yu Yu Hakusho had the Dark Tournament, in which focus shifted to the fights and the plot became a tournament structure with many things happening behind the scenes.
Bleach had the Soul Society, in which Ichigo and his friends entered an entirely new, unfamiliar world with several new key characters.
Yu-Gi-Oh had both Battle City, where the rules drastically changed, and the Millennium World, which, in addition to the setting of ancient Egypt, featured very little card-playing.

In the case of The King of Fighters, focus was shifted to sci-fi element instead of the previous saga’s mystical elements.  That was the beginning of the NESTS Chronicles in 1999.

Notice that the opening says the game is the fifth episode, officially acknowledging that King of Fighters ‘98 isn’t canon.  That means in the storyline there hasn’t been a King of Fighters tournament since ’97.  After the whole human-destroying god debacle, it’s not hard to see why funding was pulled.

But in 1999, the tournament comes up once again, and this time participants enter in teams of four.  Three team members fight, while the remainder acts as a striker, who can enter the fight for a few seconds to perform an attack.
Mysteriously, the event this year is largely a private affair, and each of the fighting venues are places where the Ikari Warriors have failed a mission in the past, prompting them to investigate once again.

The participants in the '99 tournament are a healthy mix of both old and new.
Since '97, Kyo & Iori have both gone missing, and Goro has gone home to be a family man (something that’s explained in a Japanese-only portable KOF game).

That leaves Benimaru in need of a team, but thanks to the mysterious benefactor running the tournament, he gets one in the form of Shingo Yabuki and two more fighters supplied by the benefactor: the large cyborg man Maxima, and flame-shooting K’ (pronounced “K-dash”, for some reason).
Benimaru is pretty dang trusting considering he lets two teammates from an unknown organization join his team.  They could be spies, saboteurs, or even assassins for all he knows, and I wouldn’t immediately trust a guy with a gun built into his arm who analyzes everyone he meets with a built-in scouter.  I guess Benimaru is naive like that.

K' and Maxima
K’ and Maxima take the spotlight as the heroes of the NESTS Chronicles, and they’re both strong enough characters to carry it.  Maxima is a great character, somewhere in my list of top 10 King of Fighters characters.  He’s always serious about completing missions, but usually is a very friendly, laid-back, caring guy.  His nice guy status doesn’t go as far as to let people walk all over him, of course.  SNK said he was designed to be an older character, I suppose to balance out all the young ones all over the place, and if that was their intention, then it worked.  He's much more rational than a lot of the other fighters.
K’, on the other hand, is not so friendly.  He’s constantly annoyed by everything around him, including the KOF tournaments he keeps getting dragged into, but when he has to fight, he tries to keep calm and cool in battle, putting on and taking off his sunglasses and standing like he’s falling asleep.  I swear he’s showing off.

K’ has control over his own flames he shoots out of his right hand, a power given to him by the evil organization NESTS by infusing him with Kyo's DNA.  However, he can’t control it without wearing a special red plated glove on his right hand.  Without it, the flame simply burns out of control.  Imagine the pain he feels, being unable to shake hands, high-five, brofist, or play any video games other than the Kinect.

I like the way K’ fights and the way he plays off of other characters, but I don’t like K’ himself as much.  He’s kind of a jerk, which leans him more toward being an anti-hero.  He has a good sense of right and wrong, which is a redeeming trait, but righting the wrong is something he’d rather not do.

With the four-member team rule in place, other teams needed their own stand-ins and extras.
Mai joins the Fatal Fury team, and Yuri goes back to the Art of Fighting team, as does her dad, Takuma.  With Chizuru leaving the series for a while after KOF 97, the gaps in the Women's team are filled by Kasumi Todoh (from ’96), Blue Mary (who cut herself off from the Geese's men), and Fatal Fury character Li Xiangfei.

She’s a very minor character with little establishment, but I always liked Li's playfulness, energy, and cheer.  It shows how SNK strives to cover all the bases when it comes to making characters.

Other team slots are filled with a young woman transferred from another platoon named Whip for the Ikari Warrior’s team, little shotaro boy Bao for the Psycho Soldiers, and Kim’s rival Jhun Hoon for the Korean team.

I should point out that the character of Whip, in addition to her namesake, uses a f%^#ing desert eagle!  Are there no regulations on firearms?  I guess it doesn’t matter if there are, because she only ever points it at the ground!  The fights could be over if she just shot her enemies at the word go!  Even though she doesn’t, her whip gives her all the range she needs anyway.

She uses her whip instead of punching most of the time.

There are also two teamless clones of Kyo Kusanagi you can play as.  They have no place in the story and only exist to give players the option to play with the Kyo Kusanagi move set from KOF ’94 & ’95, and the one from ‘96 & ‘97.

Moveset changes are not something new to King of Fighters, and a strong number were made for the new saga.  Blue Mary controls very differently from ’98, Robert had his special move commands changed, and (most notably) Kensou lost his psychic powers after Bao joined.  Other characters had new super special moves added or outright changed.  Benimaru, for example, now has a super move in which he strikes his opponent with afterimages of himself, a far cry from his close-range super moves.
When I mentioned big changes at the end of my '98 post, I was not using the words lightly.

This shift may understandably have turned some people off, but the fighting system and many of the characters we all know and love are still present, just with a few alterations (as per usual).

New strikers, new characters, new outfits.
In addition to some altered move sets, there's the obvious gimmick of the strikers mentioned earlier.  By pressing the strong punch and weak kick button at the same time, and at the cost of a gradually-regenerating striker stock, you summon whoever you chose as the striker to do one attack and then leave.  Most of the time though, their attacks require the enemy to be close, and if they aren’t, the striker will only taunt and leave without doing anything other than annoying the enemy (the lazy jerks).  Strikers also can be hit to end their attacks prematurely, and against some attacks, act as a human shield, so using them strategically is important.
Strikers add a fun, if experimental, layer to an already great combat system.  Some characters don't work that well as strikers, but when they're used right, they can lead to some great moments.  There's something satisfying about hitting an opponent with your strongest move while Benimaru, Shingo, or Maxima are holding them in place with a grab attack.  That's teamwork.

The computer rarely uses them though.
The special move system also underwent changes.  There are no longer any choices of play style like in ’97 & ’98, and relationships aren’t a factor anymore.  You still build up to 3 stocks like in the previous game’s advance mode, but those stocks do not carry over.

Instead of two play styles, there are two super modes.
Your special move gauge stocks can be used for two different super modes, each at the cost of two super stocks.  After their effects wear off, you can’t use your gauge for a few seconds.
By pressing the two weak attack buttons and strong punch button at the same time, you enter counter mode, in which your attacks do more damage and you can use a stronger version of your super move.  It’s the same super mode as in the last game’s advance mode, for the most part.
By pressing the weak kick button and two strong attack buttons at the same time, you activate armor mode, in which you take less damage and don’t stagger when hit.

Personally, I rarely use either of the super modes.  I prefer to use those stocks for special attacks.

Moby Games?  That ain't no striker I've ever heard of.

Finally, on a more minor note, is the way character order in KOF 99 is selected and how the continue bonuses are done.  Starting with KOF '99, players no longer choose their team order with the control stick, and instead use buttons and hide the order so the opponent can't see.  As stated in the '98 post, the continue bonuses were also no longer a roulette, but instead a choice between three options or none at all.

Once again, King of Fighters mixed their fighting game up just enough; enough for people who have played the previous games to quickly adjust, at least.  The striker system, new characters, and four-man team system was a great way to give the NESTS Chronicles an identity of its own, and using the strikers allows for many more possibilities.  It could be seen as little more than a gimmick, but the striker system is still another feature to play with and adds depth.  It’s a shame one of the most useful mechanics got borked.

In the previous two games, you could evasively roll away from and toward the opponent to both dodge and adjust the distance between the fighters.  In KOF ’99, rolling away from the opponent causes the character to immediately jump back slightly in front of where they started rolling from, defeating the purpose of having it in the first place!  It terribly hampers what is otherwise a strong fighting system, and was promptly put back the way it was in every game to follow.  In KOF ’99, rolling away is almost never a good idea.

Rolled backwards, then jumped right back into the fire.

On the presentation side of things, the technological advancement shows off '99’s stronger points with what I think is the best in-game character artwork in the series until King of Fighters 11.  It hardly looks like pixel artwork as much as it does something somebody hand-drew entirely.  King of Fighters 98 looked almost as good, but I thought it was hampered by some questionable victory art.

I'm like motherf*$#ing Indiana Jones!
And the soundtrack kicks ass.  You should expect nothing less.

The excellent music and character designs both combine at the end of the game to form one of my favorite, yet most infuriating, final bosses in the franchise.  See just why that is here.

King of Fighters ‘98 was a pretty tough act to follow, but by introducing new elements and characters, as well as kicking off the new storyline, King of Fighters 99 kept it fresh, and with great presentation and combat, it stands up with the best of them.
It's actually one of my favorites because it fills a certain niche the games before it didn't.  KOF 97 had a good story, but few character music, and KOF 98 had character music, but no story, while KOF 99 has the best of both.
It’s another worthy entry in the franchise, and well worth any gamer’s time.

Though there aren't as many as in '98, special intros return.

The PS1 version of King of Fighters 99 is available on the Play Station Network, and a more arcade-accurate port is on the Wii's Virtual Console.  Both have upsides and downsides.

The PS1 version has to load before every match, before every cutscene, before every round, and at one point, before a loading screen!  The loading times aren’t long enough to be a deal-breaker, but they hurt the flow of the game’s matches.  The PS1 version also does not let you use the control stick for some baffling reason, so you have to make those circular movements on the control pad and get blisters all over your thumbs.

I suppose it does kind of add anticipation.

On the plus side, the PS1 version uses the arranged soundtrack and has several menu options, like the standard selectable difficulty and color edit modes, in which you can customize the colors of character sprites.
The best thing the PS1 version has going for it is the art gallery and end-game art.  The art gallery shows off various concept art pieces, special illustrations, and alternate sprites, displaying ideas that didn’t make it into the final product.
End-game art is displayed after beating the game with a specific set of characters in the PS1 version.  They’re wonderful to look at, vary in style, and were not in the original arcade version.  The PS1 version is great for fans that have an adoration of the series’ artwork, if nothing else.

The Wiiware version has standard modes and options like selectable difficulty and single play.  It also takes out hit flashes (the screen flashing white to emphasize damage), apparently because of some kind of fear Nintendo has of causing seizures.
You'll have to get one of these digital versions, because they're the only way you’re going to play the game short of owning a Dreamcast and spending an unreasonable amount of money for that version (which has many enhancements of its own).

With the new storyline underway, SNK moved on in the year 2000, which was almost their last.