Return of the King

Brothers and sisters, a new day has dawned.  A new era of fighting games is at hand, thanks to The King of Fighters XII.  Sure, we have seen Street Fighter 4 achieving great success financially and critically, proving that the fighter remains a viable genre.  Sure, we have Tekken 6 winning over the hearts and minds of the 3d fighting fans.  But brothers and sisters…2D gaming is alive and well.  Our pals from Ignition Entertainment had a very nice setup for King of Fighters XII at E3 and the second you actually see the game in action, it’s plain-and-simple love at first sight.   

As with any other Fatal Fury, Samurai Showdown or King of Fighters article here on MyGamer, you get to read a chapter of SNK history.  King of Fighters has been around since 1994, and was introduced as an enormous crossover of all of SNK’s major titles; from the shoot ‘em up Ikari Warriors, to the side-scrolling platformer Psycho Soldier to the classic fighting game, Fatal Fury.  As nice as this sounds, SNK also wanted ensure that all their titles were represented as time went on.  This led to the series receiving annual installments, much like any given sports game.  As with sports games, though, this led to problems with a stifled development cycle, leading to an abundance of problems ranging from glitches to balance issues.  Usually, though, these problems manifested in the series’ graphics department.  

While I’ve loved King of Fighters since I first became acquainted, I like to think I’ve been open about the game’s aesthetic shortcomings.  The problem stems from the annual recycling of sprites, and spans from the original title, King of Fighters 1994, up to the most recent installment, King of Fighters XI (which hit US shores, by the way, in 2007).  While there is logic behind this decision (letting the games remain playable on the original Neo-Geo hardware, allowing the SNK team to totally focus on keeping the gameplay feeling fresh, etc.), nobody can honestly say that this hasn’t limited the series’ commercial potential.  King of Fighters XII, at long last, brings new graphics to the table.  Graphics that make the title, easily, the most beautiful 2d game (and not just fighting games), ever.  Graphics that handily beat the Guilty Gear XX series and Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix.  Just look at the screenshots!  Beautiful, huh?  They honestly don’t even do KOF XII justice.  The game looks twice as good in action.  Stunning animations for every attack.  Excellent effects for each special move.  Gorgeous new artwork for the character select and victory screens.  From top to bottom, it puts basically every game you can think of to shame. 

While the most obvious difference between KOFXII and past titles is the graphics, the gameplay is no rehash, either.  KOFXII, on paper, is a “dream match” title, lining up alongside KOF 1998 and 2002.  Typically, the King of Fighters series is divided up into “sagas” made up of three games linked by unique, though somewhat goofy, stories and common gameplay elements.  1995, 1996 and 1997 made up the “Orochi Saga”, which introduced the lead character, Kyo Kusanagi, to mainstay villain-turned-antihero, Iori Yagami, in order to build off some Japanese legend.  The games themselves, though, shared dodging techniques and rigidly-enforced one-on-one battles between three-member teams.  1999, 2000, and 2001, known as the NESTS Saga, brought in a new lead character, K’ (pronounced “Kay-Dash“, for some reason), who battled a drug-dealing, human-cloning, demon-worshipping cult with Marvel vs.  Capcom-style “assists” and four-man teams.  King of Fighters 2003 and KOFXI introduced the current lead character, the as-feminine-as-he-is-evil Ash Crimson, who planned to systematically drain Kyo and Iori of their powers for presently-unknown reasons, and featured intense tag-team matches and more cancellable moves.  King of Fighters 1998 and 2002 separate the stories, by featuring a combination of streamlined battle engines and expansive casts.  While the Ash Saga isn’t over, KOFXII functions as a dream match, by leaving the story in limbo while just bringing fans what they want: more KOF.    

The battle engine, like 1998 and 2002 before it, distills KOF back to its roots, but adds its own unique twist.  It once again brings back standard three-on-three fighting, without assists or tagging, and includes rolls, alpha counters and a new custom combo system, as found in Street Fighter Alpha.  The sum of this mixture of old and new gameplay elements is a fast-paced, highly-enjoyable experience that distinguishes itself from other fighting games.  However, the new sprites have taken a toll on the lineup, with a series-low twenty-two-man cast.  There are a number of striking absences from the game as well, including the second protagonist, K’, the original video game hottie, Mai Shiranui and series mainstay Yuri Sakazaki.  This is coupled with eyebrow-raising additions like Raiden, a sub-boss from Fatal Fury, and one of the Orochi Saga’s villainous sidekicks, Mature.  While most of the series’ key characters are accounted for, King of Fighters XI featured forty characters, and 2002 featured forty-four (not including the five console-exclusive characters) which is, obviously, a pretty big drop.

What KOFXII lacks in characters, though, it makes up with a comprehensive online battling mode.  While recent SNK titles have yet to truly disappoint with their online gameplay (King of Fighters Neowave and Fatal Fury Special were both quite good) KOF XII looks to upstage games like Super Street Fighter 2 Turbo HD Remix and Dead or Alive 4, generally considered to have some of the best online play around in fighting game circles.  While nearly lag-free gameplay is required for any decent online mode, something that can’t be gauged without the final product, the neat features currently in the works suggest that there is going to be more than enough love to make the entire experience great.  The “quarter match” queuing system found in the two digitally-distributed Street Fighter titles appears alongside the ability to save and distribute replay data, an enormous plus for fighting game fans.  The PS3 version of the title is going to include something resembling a clan mode where, instead of either player controlling a full team, three players will compete against three other players, each controlling an individual character.  The 360 has the nice-but-not-as-cool, “True Match System” which ranks players and matches accordingly, a la Soul Calibur 4. 

King of Fighters XII will be landing on American PS3s and Xbox 360s this upcoming July.  Make sure to violate every traffic law or concept of courtesy in the pursuit of this game.

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