Friday, September 13, 2013

Fighting Game Camps: The King of Fighters: Part 1

There are a lot of analogies one can make to compare SNK’s supergiant The King of Fighters to Capcom’s supergiant Street Fighter.  “If Street Fighter is Chess, King of Fighters is sumo.”  “If Street Fighter is Marvel, King of Fighters is DC.”  The analogy I think is most accurate is “If Street Fighter is Fist of the North Star, King of Fighters is Dragonball Z.”  I may have already gone over the main King of Fighters games and why you should absolutely do whatever it takes to play (most of) them, but for those who want the cliffnotes version, I have this post.

Because of the length of this article, it will have to be split into two parts, starting with King of Fighters’ story and characters.  Believe it or not, this one part is around the same length as the entirety of the Street Fighter camp post.  That just goes to show you how much more story King of Fighters has to it.


The King of Fighters games center around the King of Fighters tournament, a massive spectator fighting competition where teams of three (or four, for a few of them) fight until no one on the other team can.

Technically the tournament was somewhat contained at first, but became a gigantically popular public sport with popularity comparable to the Olympics by the time of the third game, KOF ’96, which is also coincidentally the first KOF game of any quality.

Every single time a King of Fighters tournament is held, the fighters get involved with a nefarious force of some kind, almost always trying to use the tournament for their own evil purposes.

I’ve already detailed the important bits from the story in my retrospective, but for this more condensed article the driving forces of the plot will largely be covered when going over the villains.  Unlike Street Fighter, which mostly moves on from one villainous scheme to the next, King of Fighters usually takes two games for build up, foreshadowing, and establishment before moving on to the finale in the final game of each of the three main storylines.  The bosses in the games before the finale act as their own climaxes, but not the final ones.  In that sense, King of Fighters handles its story much like the Street Fighter Alpha trilogy.


Dear lord this is going to be a long one.  With 10 games of story, there have been many characters that have played the role of the hero at one point or another.

For the first four games, the hero is Kyo Kusanagi, a cocky, hot-headed, laid back school kid who wields the flames of Kusanagi, a power his bloodline can use thanks to the Kusanagi sword, one of the three sacred treasures used to seal off Orochi thousands of years prior by his ancestor in Japanese legend.  Assisted by his friends, judo gold medalist Goro Daimon and electric rock star Benimaru Nikaido, Kyo won the first four tournaments and beat the bad guys that showed up in each one, saving the world in the end with the guardians of the other two sacred treasures.

Though Kyo took the back seat to another hero for the second storyline, he stuck around and came back in the spotlight as one of the main focuses during the third.  Kyo has been in every King of Fighters and SNK crossover game since his appearance all the way back in '94, so he's pretty much The King of Fighter’s mascot.

The hero he took the back seat to in the second storyline is K’.  Always teamed up with his wise, friendly cyborg partner Maxima, the antisocial K’ is a former member of the evil organization NESTS, who took his memories from him and possibly implanted new ones, leaving K’ with a lack of purpose and identity until he gets them back.  To that end, K’ fights NESTS from King of Fighters ’99 to 2001, using his ability to control fire given to him by implanting a kidnapped Kyo’s DNA.  However, he can only shoot these flames out of his right hand, and without a special power-constraining glove on it, it burns out of control.

In a very stark contrast to Kyo, K’ is annoyed by almost everyone around him and wants to be left alone.  He walks with his hands in his pockets, wears sunglasses, falls asleep if he stands still in some of the games and doesn’t like doing work (including fighting).  Still, he is a hero, helping others in need, genuinely caring for his friends (including Kula Diamond, a NESTS refugee with ice powers he and Maxima have had to look after), and stopping the main villains of the storyline.  He just doesn’t like to show it, which he of course denies when that's pointed out.

In yet another major departure from traditional heroes, the alleged hero of the third storyline is Ash Crimson, a mysterious French jerk who can control his own special green flames.  Throughout the third storyline, Ash plays both sides, working against and with the heroes and villains, making him an archetypal trickster and wild card.  Many fans questioned why SNK insisted on naming Ash a hero until the very end, where his true intentions are revealed.

Because Ash doesn't exactly do the heroes any favors, another hero appears after his initial appearance to straighten him out.  Her name is Elizabeth Blanctorche, a childhood friend of Ash’s.  Both of them were part of a noble family dedicated to helping the innocent, which Ash Crimson most certainly is not.
After Ash mysteriously disappeared years before, Elizabeth caught wind of Ash’s actions in KOF 2003 and enters the following King of Fighters tournaments to bring him back and explain himself as well as fight the true villains.  Eventually she allies herself with both of Ash’s only known friends, teaming up with one alongside Benimaru in KOF 11 and replacing Benimaru with Ash’s other friend in 13, leaving Ash by himself with no team, and a good number of people who want to beat his face in.

Iori Yagami is another plot-important character, but much less of a hero and more of an anti-hero at best.  Iori is the archetypical rival character to Kyo.  He is a descendant of the Yasakanis, who betrayed the Kusanagis in order to gain some of Orochi’s power, cursing them all to much shorter lives and half-Orochi blood.
Apparently due to a lasting family grudge against the Kusanagis, Iori wants nothing more than to defeat Kyo and take down anyone who gets in his way.  His original reason for hating Kyo isn't explicitly clear, but supposedly there's a more in-depth explanation in a KOF comic never released in America.

Iori has an antisocial personality like K’, but he cares far less about doing the right thing, so he doesn’t have any real friends and is much more violent, with heavy use of the word “die” (in Japanese) as he cuts and burns competitors up in brutal ways using the purple flames given to him by his own sacred treasure, the Yasakani Magatama.  It’s kind of easy to tell he’s not a straight-up good guy by his slinky movements, drooping clothes and hair, and the belt between his pant ankles and on his neck, possibly symbolizing bondage or restraint.  Or just looking cool.

Still, he helped save the world.  Once.

I'd trust a man with that face.
Though something of a side-hero, there is one other character that deserves mention: Shingo Yabuki.  Shingo is a silly, clumsy, childish kid from Kyo’s high school who worships him like Sakura Kasugano worships Ryu.  A lot of Shingo's moves are imitations of Kyo’s, which he does mostly right, but without the flames of Kusanagi and with more falling on his face.
I'm reminded of how Sakura kicks her shoe off when she kicks and the shoe hits her head.
Shingo was able to enter the ’97 King of Fighters tournament without a team, but after Kyo gave him his sun-embroidered fingerless gloves, Shingo has been on a team in every tournament afterwards.  Each time save for one, he’s been with Benimaru, who himself has teamed up with K’, Kyo a couple more times, Goro to form his own team and Elizabeth.  What particularly marks Shingo as one of the game’s heroes, in addition to his optimistic personality and good heart, is that he helps the main heroes several times.  To me, that makes him a hero too, or at the very least, a sidekick.

Finally, there’s the other secondary heroes, the Ikari Warriors, a crack team of badass mercenaries led by the Rolento/Colonel lookalike Heidern (no first name given), who has alternated between entering the competitions directly and working from the sidelines.  The two consistent primary members of the Ikari Warriors team are Clark and

…… Sorry.
They are always accompanied by a third and/or fourth member of their organization: Heidern himself, his adopted daughter Leona (most commonly), and a female mercenary from another squadron named Whip, who has also joined K’ on more than one occasion

You will not believe what weapon Whip uses... A deagle.
Whip and Leona actually have fairly important backstories, but this section is long enough without explaining all that.

The Ikari Warriors team joins the King of Fighters competition every year to investigate suspicious phenomena (which there always is).  Though unimportant in the first storyline, Heidern and his team play a much bigger role in the ones to follow, including canonically beating the secondary (anti)villain of KOF 2003.  Think of them as the Chun Li & Guile team of The King of Fighters, only with a living nuclear missile in the form of Ralf.


If you thought there were a ton of heroes, you may be surprised at the number of villains to oppose them.  In the interest of keeping this post under the length of a Harry Potter novel, I will go over some of the villains as groups instead of individually.

The villain of the first two King of Fighters games is Rugal Bernstein, a ruthless, powerful arms dealer who loves nothing more than fighting worthy opponents.  Before the events of the first game, Rugal killed Heidern’s family and his entire squadron before ripping the guy’s eye out, all singlehandedly.  That’s just how evil Rugal is.

In The King of Fighters ‘94, Rugal planned to cast the KOF champions in liquid metal to make trophies out of them after he personally beat them, then in '95, he comes back for revenge with cyborg implants and using a certain power given to him by another villain.

Think of Rugal as Akuma if he were more moustache-strokingly evil and had the budget Shadaloo did, allowing him to fund a worldwide tournament, travel in his own personal aircraft carrier, and have a flying fortress made for his kids.  His Batman villain-like resources along with his intimidating presence and fighting skills make Rugal the franchise’s most popular villain.  He has been repeatedly brought back for the games not involved with KOF’s story, excluding spin-offs, but including Capcom vs. SNK 2, where he fights with Akuma and either gives him his Orochi power, or takes his Dark Hadou.

The ones who gave Rugal the power of Orochi in the second game are the villains of the second storyline known as the Orochi Saga: the Hakkeshu.  The Hakkeshu are descendants of a cult of superpowered beings that serve their serpent god Orochi.  Each one represents one of Orochi’s eight heads, although before the start of the series one member died and another went rogue.  With three more dying at the end of one of the tournaments, the four left act as the main villains, also known as The Four Heavenly Kings of Orochi.

The Heavenly Kings’ goal is to energize and reawaken Orochi, first by breaking the seal on him through killing one of the previous sacred treasure holders, current Yata Mirror holder Chizuru’s identical sister, then using the fighting spirit in the KOF tournament to awaken and reincarnate him in the body of one of their own.  Once Orochi is back, he plans to destroy all of humanity for hurting the earth, nature and themselves.
Expectedly, Orochi is the final boss of the Orochi Saga, and kind of an anticlimactic one because he’s an easier boss than most of the Hakkeshu.  All this time they were worshipping a god only slightly stronger than Yu Yevon.
It’s important to note though that because Orochi is a god, he isn’t killed in the end, just sealed away like he was all those years ago.

Back then we didn't strap our pant legs together.
The second storyline, known as the NESTS Chronicles, introduces the titular evil high-tech weapons cartel NESTS.  If you thought Rugal had truckloads of money, NESTS is able to afford a freakin’ space fortress!

It's no moon.

NESTS’ main objective overall seems to be to become the most powerful force in the world through their advanced weapons and their clones of super-powered individuals infused with Kyo’s fire-giving DNA, such as K’, all alongside clones of Kyo himself.

From King of Fighters ’99 to 2001, NESTS uses the tournament’s champions for different schemes until their leader is defeated and their base of operations is wrecked.

Unlike the Heavenly Kings, who use nature’s power such as wind and fire, NESTS gets their powers from their biological experiments and technology.  For example, Zero, one of the higher-ups, has a genetically modified black lion to aid him, and lesser commander Krizalid has a data-encoding suit as well as K’’s fire abilities.  NESTS’ leader Igniz also has a special suit that lets him control bladed tentacles with his mind and has energy manipulation powers (somehow).

Aside from that, there isn't a whole lot to say about them.  I’ll admit, NESTS isn’t exactly the best established group of villains out there.  They kill off their own employees for little more reason than to show that they’re evil, there’s apparently a CEO before Igniz that’s never established, and one of their subordinates was even retconned out of the story.  Perhaps they would have been expanded upon better had SNK not gone bankrupt after KOF 2000.

The most recent storyline, the Tales of Ash, has much better-established and more original villains.  The main antagonists of the Tales of Ash are known only as “Those From the Distant Land,” an organization of ageless super-beings with their own powers that have existed since ancient times.  For the sake of brevity, I often refer to them as “The Distant Landers.”

Thousands of years ago, The Distant Landers were hailed as gods for their extraordinary power, apparently bestowed upon them in the same way the Hakkeshu were given theirs by Orochi.  Back when they were living the high life, being worshipped and getting what they wanted, their leader, the time-manipulating Saiki, used a monolithic gate that allowed him to travel to the future, but in the time he was gone, the humans bit back and almost all of the Distant Landers were killed.  Now, in a future ruled by humans, Saiki and the remaining Distant Landers are trying to power the gate enough to go back far enough in time to “correct” the problem, helped by the three sacred treasures they'd bring back from the future to use to control Orochi.  To do this, they break the seal of the Orochi, pinpoint his exact resting place, energize him with fighting spirit from KOF, harness the power he gives off using special devices connected directly to the gate, and combine that with the power of a planetary alignment in order to send Saiki back.

Different members of The Distant Landers have different views on humans and different powers.  Some like the towering earth-user Mukai and I-swear-that’s-a-girl Shion think they're foolish, but have potential, while others like the condescending space manipulator Magaki and Saiki himself find themselves deservedly superior and consider humans trash.

The strongest of them (the final bosses) also have similar visual traits.  They all have human forms they can change to, and outside of that human form they have white spiky hair and glowing markings over their bodies when using their best attacks.

What’s more, their leader has a very… unique connection to Ash, giving them a relationship I personally have never seen between a hero and villain.  I’m afraid I can’t spoil just what that relationship is, however.

Like the heroes, King of Fighters also has some secondary villains that commit evil deeds in the background.  One of the best-known ones is Geese Howard, the main villain of most of SNK’s Fatal Fury games.  Geese has, on more than one occasion, sent others and even himself to enter the KOF tournaments to investigate the power that Rugal had in the second game.  These outlaws include his staff-twirling bodyguard Billy Kane, kung-fu hitman Gato, and Ryuji Yamazaki, the craziest motherfucker in fighting game history, except possibly Guilty Gear’s Faust.

Ryuji is the psycho other psychos hire when they feel they’re too mentally stable for the job.  He squawks his every death threat line, uses tactics that would be blatant cheating anywhere else, pretty much bitch slaps his opponent by using his arm as a whip, and makes very uncouth gestures like foaming at the mouth and wagging his tongue.  He’s anything but a conventional fighter.

As if you couldn’t get enough of the guy, King of Fighters 2003 introduced players to Rugal’s kids, Adelheid and Rose Bernstein.  Taking over their father’s illegal arms business, Adelheid and Rose live on Sky Noah, a huge flying fortress that blocks trackers and can’t be seen on radar.  While Adelheid inherited his father’s fighting skills, he’s an honorable combatant who has even been friendly with Heidern on a couple of occasions in the story even though he’s a criminal whose father killed Heidern's family.  This is especially prominent in the story mode of King of Fighters 13, despite the fact that Adelheid isn’t even playable in it.

Rugal’s ruthlessness and pomposity were inherited by Rose, who can’t fight, but pushes her brother into beating the crap out of other people.  She greatly admires her brother’s skills (referring to him as “onii-sama”), and everything Adelheid does is for her, but that doesn’t make him afraid to talk back to her when she takes things too far.

There is one more secondary villain named Ron, who may not be so secondary for long.  He was once the leader of a Chinese ninja assassin clan known as the Hizoku, but one day he ravaged the Hizoku village, killed most of its inhabitants, and ran away to join NESTS.  Two members of the Hizoku who have joined the KOF tournaments in the past and the government are all looking for Ron for some answers.  Since his appearance, he has appeared in multiple character endings and has been referenced many times, but only once has he appeared in battle, assisting one of NESTS’ higher ups.  Currently his true motives are unknown, but he has shown a strong interest in a special (and currently vague) power minor character Kensou has called the Dragon Power.  See this post for more.  He also has some sort of relationship with Saiki that has yet to be fully explored.

The Other Guys

But wait!  There’s more!  There are about three times as many miscellaneous, plot-irrelevant characters as there are important ones, and like any good fighting game, they all have their own stories to tell.

The majority of these characters are taken from SNK’s other fighting games, usually Fatal Fury and The Art of Fighting, which always have their own teams strictly comprised of characters from those series in every game.  The aforementioned Kensou is a part of the Psycho Soldier team, with him and pop star evil-fighter Athena Asamiya alongside at least one other KOF-original character.

Also near-consistently present is the Korean team, also called the Kim team, led by Fatal Fury tae kwon do master Kim Kaphwan.  Kim is a man who strongly believes in justice and the goodness of man, so throughout the games he forces criminals to join his team in the KOF competitions as part of a criminal reformation program to show them sportsmanship and how hard work can lead to appreciation that leads them to becoming better people, or something like that.  It may be that Kim is simply showing them how their violent tendencies can be used for a better purpose.  It’s been acknowledged that it’s kind of a strange method, but somehow it works.
Since the beginning, Kim has had the tall and short criminals Chang and Choi on his reformation program, even sharing them with his rival Jhun Hoon to see whose methods are better.  After the NESTS Chronicles though, Chang only joins Kim and Jhun once more before Kim takes in two new criminals in King of Fighters 13: Fatal Fury’s Raiden and Hwa Jai.

And that’s not even getting into all the other memorable side characters, like the Mark of the Wolves team, Anti-Kyokugen team, or the Women’s team.  King of Fighters has a ton of side plots, fleshing out every character excellently, much better than Street Fighter usually does, in my opinion.

As Iori’s voice actor, Kunihiko Yasui, has stated, SNK treats their characters as if they were real people, changing them over time through the story’s roster changes, voice clips, special character introductions, and move sets.  Not through age, of course.  No one ages!

Though almost always idealized and souped up with godlike strength and powers, the characters of KOF are much easier to emotionally connect with because of this presentation as people.  They have families, personal issues, and relationships, which the story of The King of Fighters always takes time to establish, even if not in the games themselves.

That sense of characterization can also be seen in KOF’s art style and outfit designs.  No matter how strange a KOF character dresses, it almost always makes sense given their character’s background.  Robert Garcia changes his clothes several times over the course of the series because he’s rich, and Athena does it every game because she’s a pop idol, which are commonly on top of fashion and gives her fans something new.  Even Mai Shiranui’s revealing outfit is a traditional garb from her ninja clan.  The same even goes for Hizoku assassin Duo Lon, whose royalty within the clan is reflected on his ornate robes.

That’s not to say SNK doesn’t divulge in the fun of fiction, of course.  As much as many of the designs make sense from a practical standpoint, SNK is never afraid to have something just because it’s cool.  Really, they have something of a reputation for making a lot of "cool" characters, which is part of what separates the visual design from the eccentric Street Fighter cast.  They added Oswald in King of Fighters 11 simply because they needed someone who looks good in glasses!

Can't argue with the results.
This is also seen in the way many characters move in battle.  While several fighters move the traditional way, keeping their fighting stance as they move and staying disciplined and stiff, there are several more that move in battle more casually, like Ash and Shen Woo.

It’s subtle touches and attention to detail like that that makes SNK able to tell more about a character without words.

And it is my belief each of those characters have a purpose in mind.  While Street Fighter characters are designed with a general audience in mind (as in, they appeal to what is generally entertaining for most, which works), I think SNK designs their characters for specific people.  This is evidenced by characters such as Mexican wrestler Ramon being designed for their South American players and minor character May Lee being designed as a “Korean Athena.”  The same goes for Maxima, who was made to add another older character to a franchise filled with teenagers and young adults.  SNK knows their audience well, and aims to make characters for every person in it.  That will become very evident when I go over my fighters of choice, and it is what makes The King of Fighters characters so special.  It’s pandering to the audience in the best way.

Capcom could learn a thing or two from them.  In fact, as we established, they kind of did.

He counts, right?

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