Saturday, April 27, 2013

King of Fighters Retrospective: 11

A few months ago, I was at a big gaming get-together with our college’s anime club and was given a TV all to myself.  While many of the others were in the main room having a Catherine tournament, I was playing fighting games.  I played some King of Fighters 98 and a little bit of Capcom vs. SNK 2, but for most of the time, it was nothing but The King of Fighters 11.  I played through KOF 11’s arcade mode countless times, watched other people play arcade mode, and fought other people in many different matches.  It was almost nothing but King of Fighters 11 all night for 6 hours without getting bored and I had a blast, because the game is just that good.

You may be wondering why SNK suddenly gave their King of Fighters game a traditional numbered title instead of their usual year numbering.  Well, King of Fighters 2003 was the last game to be made on the Neo Geo system, and SNK Playmore made a significant butt-ton of money after winning a lawsuit against another gaming company, Aruze.  With all that money to spare, SNK Playmore made the next King of Fighters game bigger and better, but that also meant it took longer to make, as it wasn’t finished until 2005 (though making a spin-off before that, KOF: Neowave, may have been a factor).  If they were to simply name it King of Fighters 2005, people would go searching for the nonexistent King of Fighters 2004, so to avoid that whole mess for the present and future, they gave their long-running series the Final Fantasy number treatment from then on.

In the previous game, a mysterious organization called Those From the Distant Land made themselves known, Chizuru had her sacred treasure along with her powers stolen by Ash Crimson, and the seal on the dreaded Orochi was broken as a result.  Now, a new King of Fighters tournament has begun, and participants are stupid enough to join while an evil organization is present.... Again.

Actually, that’s not entirely fair.  Some of the entrants are joining so that they make sure the Orochi power doesn’t get into the wrong hands or to make sure Orochi doesn’t awaken at all.  Others weren’t there for the 2003 tournament, and some of the goings-on at the end may not have been reported, so they can be forgiven for being oblivious (Bonne Jenet is one such oblivious participant).

Get ready for a long character introduction.  There are so many changes in the teams, it’s best I just go over each and every one.

After the last tournament, Chizuru was hospitalized, even seen in a wheelchair in KOF 13.  In the hospital, Chizuru told Shingo, of all people, to protect the other two treasures by taking her place in the 3 sacred treasures team from the Orochi saga.  To keep his promise to her, Shingo had to make Kyo and Iori put aside their differences and make a team.  Don’t ask me how he did it.

Chang and Choi told Kim to take a break from his criminal reformation program and enjoy himself by forming a new Fatal Fury team with his friends Terry and Duck King (another Fatal Fury character).
Franchise long-runner Joe Higashi couldn't join in this one, as he had a conflicting schedule with a muy thai title match.  Mai, another omnipresent figure in the franchise, is also absent story-wise, taking a vacation to spend more time with Andy.

Duck King is a decent replacement though.

He's kind of like Street Fighter’s Dee Jay, only American.  His fighting style is all about jumping, spinning, and rolling around the arena like the hyperactive break dancer he is.  Even his idle animation is a dance.
He was shuffling every day before it became a thing.
It reminds me of the Simpsons episode where the family goes to Brazil, and the flamingo in the weird parade says “You cannot run from Carnivale!  Because even running is a kind of dance!”

Duck King also has a small little mohawk-sporting chick/duckling in the foreground that imitates his moves and reacts to what happens to Duck.  He doesn't affect the fights in any way, but he's just the cutest thing.

Having come back from his training, Kensou joins Athena, who found a new teammate gifted with psychic powers like theirs: a little girl named Momoko.  Momoko doesn't shoot balls of psychic energy like Athena or Kensou, but she's a small and nimble physical fighter who presumably uses her psychic powers to defy gravity.  Together, the trio forms the Neo Psycho Soldiers team.

Eiji Kisaragi (From all the way back in KOF 95) joins the tournament to exact his vengeance on the school of Kyokugen.  To help in his quest for revenge, he recruits Kasumi Todoh and Athena's former teammate Malin, who wants revenge on Kyokugen (Yuri in particular) for insulting her use of weapons, calling them dishonorable.

So I guess Whip, Foxy, Heidern, Leona, and Mai are all dishonorable too then.  It's funny how Yuri never shows any problems with them.

With the Fatal Fury team full and with Yamazaki and Billy absent, Gato and Tizoc were left without a team.  That is until B. Jenet decides to get in on the action and have them join her to form the Mark of the Wolves team.

Robert Garcia, yet another mainstay, left to manage his father's company (he has a job?!), and since the women’s fighting team is sitting this tournament out and Takuma is in the hospital, King has nothing better to do than join Ryo and Yuri in the Art of Fighting Team.

In a bit of overkill, Heidern sends 3 different teams to infiltrate the tournament this time.
That's got to be unsettling  That’s like being in a class where a quarter of the students are all spies.  I know it helps to be thorough, but in a secret investigation like this, doesn't more agents mean more of a chance to get their cover blown?
For this mission, Heidern sends K’s team, with K’ himself, Maxima, and Kula, who has regained  her powers since 2003.  He also sends his usual Ikari Warriors consisting of Ralf, Clark, and Whip (Leona was barred due to an incident in their 2003 ending).  His third team is composed of the arguably more qualified special agents: Ramon, Vanessa, and Blue Mary.

But what about Seth?  Seth is no less a badass secret agent than Vanessa or Ramon.  In fact, he might be even better.  Why didn’t Heidern let him enter?

It can't be the mohawk.  Duck King has one.

It can't be that the suit isn't proper fighting attire.  Oswald and Vanessa wear suits.

Or maybe it’s because he’s

Joking aside, Seth does make a playable appearance in the KOF: Maximum Impact spin-off games whereas Ramon and Vanessa don’t, so I guess that makes them even.  There must not have been enough room for Seth to be in The King of Fighters 11.

Most of the teams I just described are of nominal importance though (save for the Japan team).  The big new character KOF 11 introduces is the Frenchwoman Elizabeth Blanctorche, who (it must be said) has the all-time stupidest outfit I have ever seen in the series.  It’s a good thing she got a better attire following KOF 11, because even Yashiro didn’t look that dopey.

Elizabeth is the sole heir to the Blanctorche family, whose duty it is to protect the innocent.  Apparently, the Blanctorches have fought Those From the Distant Land over the generations, greatly reducing their numbers, and either Ash or the Crimson family as a whole have shared the Blanctorche duty.

Prior to the events of the game, Elizabeth invited Benimaru and Duo Lon to her mansion in Paris.  After she foiled a bank robbery nearby, the two told her about what happened at the 2003 tournament, including Ash’s theft of the Yata Mirror.  All three agreed that Ash can’t be trusted and formed a new team to find out what he’s up to and stop both him and whatever Those From the Distant Land are planning.

I guess you could say she's whipping Ash into shape with that riding crop.

Benimaru really gets around.  After being on the champion team in the Orochi Saga, he has been teamed up with Lin, K’, Goro & Shingo, and now Elizabeth.  He doesn’t just tag along with his pal Kyo every year, he goes his own way and stays at least tangentially relevant to the plot.  He's quite the dynamic character.

With Duo Lon leaving him for Elizabeth, Ash was in need of a replacement.  In place of his Chinese assassin, Ash settled for an Irish one.  Enter Oswald.

Oswald uses razor playing cards for his attacks.  He’s searching for a miracle medicine of some kind called the dragon pill… That’s really the most that’s known about him other than a few vague win quotes from Ralf and Clark that show they recognize him.
Ash recruited Oswald into his team by beating him in a poker game, something that is not easy to do.  Said poker game had Oswald folding with a hand consisting of two kings and three aces.... Dumbass.  Shen tried his hand at beating Oswald too, but lost.

Poker Face.
The hell are these?  Cards?  I can't punch cards!  'Cept... Y'know... Punch cards.

It’s not exactly his character or personality that makes Oswald so awesome, especially since most of it is shrouded in mystery.  Oswald is awesome because he is a badass in every definition of the word and looks excellent while he fights.  He’s got a slick suit, cool red shades, well-groomed hair, a swift playstyle with his card-slashing, and even a unique fighting stance, all while looking somewhere in his 60s.

Oswald is all badass, all the time!  Maybe not quite as much of a badass as Ralf, but even being compared to Ralf is badass.

Finally, Adelheid joins the tournament as a single competitor and acts as the default miniboss in the middle of the game.  Before the question comes into your head, he is just as hard as in 2003.
If I were speaking instead of typing, I would now take a deep breath from an oxygen mask after the exposition dump.  King of Fighters 11 is only beaten out by King of Fighters 2002: Unlimited Match as having the biggest character selection in the franchise.

Why is Mr. Big there?  I’ll get to that.

For the most part, the rules haven’t changed since KOF 2003.  King of Fighters 11 still uses the character tag-team system just like the previous game did, but with two minor adjustments: In 2003, players started with three super stocks, but in 11, they start with one.  In every game before this, health determined who won a match when time ran out, but in 11, it's dependent on a meter beneath the round timer that sways in a player's direction the better they're playing the game.  The rules are just about the only thing that didn’t change significantly, however.

The controls are different, for example. Since the PS2 version is the version you’ll inevitably play, see this nice little chart of how KOF 11 is controlled, courtesy of Gamefly.  Keep in mind that by “thrust attack”, they’re referring to the knockdown move, and that the R2 button can be used to dodge roll.

The buttons also play into simple character selection.  In order to use a character’s default color scheme, you need to select them using the R2 button.
What game started that stupid fad?  I've seen the same thing in Guilty Gear, Capcom vs. SNK 2, and Tatsunoko vs. Capcom.  Why can't you just choose their color beforehand like Super Smash Brothers or after selecting them like KOF 13?
Team leaders are selected manually in 11, as opposed to the leader being the first character selected like in 2003.

Alongside the super gauge, KOF 11 added a new gauge that allows you to use cancels.  A cancel is when you use a special/super move while in the middle of another super or special move, allowing you to extend your combo.  It’s very difficult to pull off, and I do just fine without using them, so I wouldn’t worry about it unless you’re an extreme tournament player like these guys.

The changes to 2003’s fighting system is all technical.  The biggest improvement by far is the game speed, which is faster than KOF 2002, but slower than 2003, hitting that sweet spot of fast-paced challenge with time to think.  The fighting system overall runs much smoother, resembling the games before 2003 with quick jabs & kicks and slightly slower heavy attacks to chain them with, as opposed to the slightly delayed normal attacks in 2003.  It’s the 2003 system, but perfected, and it never gets old.

But that’s nothing compared to the presentation upgrade.  Gone is the pixilated artwork of past King of Fighters games.  Aside from the character sprites (which have been touched up themselves), everything is hand-drawn with no pixel art.  The cutscenes, the backgrounds, and the victory screens are all sharp, slick, and boast SNKs outstanding artwork to their fullest potential.

And more character-specific win quotes!  Yay!

Just look at how much detail went into the background for this installment.  Notice how much sharper and wider they are, giving fighters more space to maneuver around and fight in.

As an added touch, the game has many more special character introductions than 2003 or even 2001 did, though the chances of seeing them are still low, due to the tag team system only allowing for one intro per match.

The music too got a push in the right direction.  There are some forgettable music tracks in KOF 11, but for every underwhelming one, there’s an awesome one to make up for it, with guitar riffs aplenty.  Not only that, but the sound quality took so much of a leap, the music almost sounds like they’re arranged tracks rather than music limited by the Neo Geo’s capabilities.

To top it all off, KOF 11 continues the Tales of Ash with a great finale consisting of two of my favorite bosses in the franchise.  See a recap of it in all its glory here.

But it gets better!  Unlike the Honus Wagner card that is KOF 2003, King of Fighters 11 is readily available on the PS2, and copies are relatively easy to find for cheap prices!  I’d say you can probably find it for 5 dollars or 10 at the most, depending on where you look, and it is worth every penny, because the console version adds even more polish to a King of Fighters game that's already one one of the absolute best.

The PS2 version has a treasure chest of extras the arcade version doesn't have.  These extras include:

  • A small art gallery with illustrations of the new characters and Ash.

  • Special ending artwork for using specific character combinations, much like in the PS1 version of KOF 99.

  • An endings viewing gallery.
  • The option to customize the colors of every character and their attacks.
  • The option to use the arranged music.
  • The option to play an arranged version of the arcade mode with new 3D stages and balance tweaks; many of the new stages have cameos of previous KOF characters in the background.
There's Leona, Hinako, and even Fio.

  • The option to fight a best-2-out-of-3 series of matches with a single fighter or go back to the Orochi Saga’s elimination-style rounds.
  • Additional music tracks for specific characters that start off a match.

  • A challenge mode that allows you to unlock some of the…
  • Many characters exclusive to the console version.  These characters include past KOF participants (Mai, Mr. Big, & Robert), Fatal Fury characters (Hotaru & Tung Fu Rue), and characters from entirely different SNK games (Silver from Buriki One & Sho Hayate from Savage Reign).  These characters make what was already an extremely impressive character count a staggering, awe-inspiring character count.
Sadly, despite Mr. Big and Geese both being unlockable, Krauser is not, which is disappointing because he was my favorite member of ‘96’s boss team.

The King of Fighters 11 is an absolute must-own for any and all fans of fighting games of any kind.  Its content, story, character count, character variety, and presentation holds up even by the standards of today’s fighting games.  It's polished to a shine and I've yet to play any fighting game of the previous generation that can surpass it.  This is one PS2 game they have got to release on the PSN!

The gang's all here.  Now fight!
That high recommendation makes quite the contrast to its sequel.  After reaching an all-time high with The King of Fighters 11, SNK Playmore dropped the ball big time with what is their absolute worst game since KOF 95.  I was considering skipping The King of Fighters 12, but I believe it deserves more of a verbal beating than it already has.  Expect to see a lot of complaining in the next post, because while King of Fighters 11, is one of my favorites, King of Fighters 12 is my most hated in the entire franchise.  King of Fighters 94 & 95 have the excuse of being limited by the technology of their time, but King of Fighters 12 has no excuse at all!

I’ll just type this up front ahead of time to make sure you don’t make a regretful decision: Do not buy The King of Fighters 12.  Buy The King of Fighters 13.

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