It’s been so long. So, so, so long. I’ve been living off of King of Fighters: Neowave for such a long time now, I’d nearly forgotten that there are other, newer SNK games. And boy, are they good. King of Fighters XI, at long last, is here in America, and it is probably the best fighting game of the year (beating out even Virtua Fighter 5). After hitting Japanese arcades all the way back in 2005, it’s been a painfully long wait for King of Fighters fans who don’t own a Japanese (or modded) PS2, and when we found out that Sony Computer Entertainment America was barring its release in America, there was a sudden spike in the suicide rate among gamers (even those who did not play World of Warcraft). And, after over a year and a half’s wait since the Japanese console release, and even after seeing a European release ahead of an American release, for me, the anticipation for this game never died, and the game is worth the patience that fans of the series have been forced to show.
I’m not going to delve into the story of KOFXI. It occurs after the events of KOF 2003, following Ash, the third lead character in the series, which pulls together the Japanese legend of the Orochi (which took place in KOF95 to KOF97, and will soon be released in King of Fighters: The Orochi Saga for the Wii, PS2 and PSP), and a silly story about weapons dealers who get into genetic engineering and cloning (which occurs in KOF99 through KOF2001) with Ash’s yet-to-be-revealed agenda targeting the Three Sacred Treasure holders (Kyo, Iori and Chizuru Kagura). The story is nonsensical, and the series has always been one to put out the games first, then clarifies the story later. Coupled with the simple fact that it’s a fighting game, which focuses on competitive versus fighting rather than single-player story, makes it unimportant. Instead, I’m going to focus on the gameplay. And the gameplay is great.
KOFXI can best be described as a distilled KOF2003. For those who don’t know, KOF2003 took the series in a very new direction. After KOF2002 brought the series back to its roots after the Marvel vs. Capcom 2-type gameplay from 99-2001 (which had the “striker” system, similar to MVC2’s assists), SNK went in a different direction, which allowed for all three characters from each team to fight in a single match together, through a tag system that allowed for huge, gaudy combos that did massive damage with minimal effort. While it took fairly standard KOF gameplay, jamming everything in everything from past games (save strikers) and fitting it all into the super bar, which filled faster than the cup for a small soda at Burger King made it questionable from the start, but after being coupled with simplistic execution and overly-powerful, easy-to-do leader moves (that often did up to half an opponent’s health, on their own) and topped off by all sorts of bugs, it had more problems than a really great game should. While it was exceedingly fun at times, between the glitches, the craziness, the bad balance and the general ease (oh, and it was packaged with KOF2002, one of the best games in the series), it ended up feeling fairly shallow and remedial. KOFXI fixes these problems, while still maintaining fast-paced fighting and on-the-fly tag-teaming. While the game initially burned one bar (of three) from the super meter to swap in somebody mid-combo, KOFXI introduces the “skill stock,” which is separate from the super meter. The various tags draw from one of the two bars. Offensive attacks like super moves, “guard cancels” (or Alpha Counters for the Street Fighter players out there) and tag attacks (where a character does a hard attack, which shifts in another teammate for an easy combo) draw from the super meter. The Skill Stock is drawn upon for the more defensive and finesse moves, like guard evasion, where a blocking character can roll after blocking, avoiding some pressuring, saving shifts, a less-silly version of (C-c-c-c-c-) Combo Breakers a la Killer Instinct, and finally, Quick Shifts, which allow for chained combos that aren’t stupidly easy and damaging. There are now three types of cancels. Empty cancels return from the past, but are accompanied by super cancels, which allow for certain special moves to be cancelled into a super at no cost to the meter (outside of the cost for the super), nearly identical to the ones found in Street Fighter 3. The other is the Dream Cancel, which allows supers to be cancelled into a Leader move, a stronger version of a super that costs two bars, but is usually stronger or seriously buffs up a character. All of this is held together by effective damage scaling, which keeps insane, 100% damage combos from running rampant. Sounds complex? It is. But anybody who is familiar with any 2d fighting game of worth will be able to quickly pick up the many features.
KOF is distinguished from other fighting games for being team-based, which naturally emphasizes the importance of the cast, and fans of the series will instantly notice just how different KOFXI is from any other game of the series. Many, many mainstays in the series are gone (Joe, Yamazaki, Leona, Mai, Robert, Billy, Andy, Chin, Jhun, Chang, Choi and Takuma, to be particular). Additionally, two of the teams that have been in the series ever since it began in 1994 have been axed; the Female Fighters team (or whatever it’s called, depending on the year) and Team Korea, while the on-and-off Outlaw team also got the boot. Because of this, there is a major shakeup in the cast, which has brought several characters from SNK’s past into the modern days. Duck King, the break-dancing foul monger, joins the cast after a decade of vacationing after Fatal Fury 3, while Eiji and Kasumi return from KOF obscurity with KOF2003’s Malin to form the Anti-Kyokugen Team, something not seen since Art of Fighting. Additionally, three new characters (Momoko, Oswald and Elisabeth) have been added and a full team from Garou: Mark of the Wolves made up of Tizoc, B. Jenet and Gato has been formed. The remainder of the cast is made up of a heavily-shuffled set of other characters. There are a load of unlockable characters as well. There are seven unlockable boss characters, including Silber and Gai from Buriki One and Sho Hayate and Jyazu from Kizuna Encounter, two near-unknown SNK fighting games, which are accompanied by two new bosses, Shion and Magaki, who both really shouldn’t be played as, since they didn’t get their boss powers effectively removed, making them strictly for fun matches. There are also seven other characters taken from NeoGeo Battle Coliseum, which brings back Mai and Robert, as well as a more classical “EX” Kyo, along with Tung Fu Rue and Geese Howard from Fatal Fury, Mr. Big from Art of Fighting and Hotaru Futaba from Garou: Mark of the Wolves. This adds up to a whopping forty-seven playable characters, optimized for characters that play differently, with excellent balance, making it one of the best casts in the series’ history.
The major shortcoming in pretty much all the KOF games from the past eight years is that the graphics are pretty much the same. This remains true, and is actually compounded by the fact that the characters newly introduced to the series have elaborate, well-animated sprites while everyone else remains pretty much the same, and SNK players can’t help but give a disappointed sigh when looking at KOFs compared to Guilty Gear or the upcoming Super Street Fighter 2 Turbo: HD Remix. SNK announced that KOFXII would receive a complete graphical overhaul…but this isn’t KOFXII. The voice acting is a fair degree better than it was, but remains fairly mediocre, while the music has improved, but remains generally unimpressive.
While the game is aesthetically lacking compared to other fighting games as old as Street Fighter 3 (1997), it makes up for it with refreshingly unique, well-refined gameplay. At the budget price of $20, there’s absolutely no excuse for anybody who even tolerates fighting games to not rush out right now and buy this game. While there is a lack of online play (which is a given with PS2 games), it’s still a great game worth picking up for anybody who has somebody to play with. So, go out and buy it for Christmas, all you last-second shoppers! It’s one of the best games for the holiday season.