Long Live the King: 20 Years of King of Fighters

By on September 16, 2014 at 10:20 am
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The King of Fighters has a publishing record that would make even Call of Duty publisher Activision jealous: 20 years, with an average of more than one game a year. The series has seen high and lows, but has always managed to maintain a dedicated fanbase of people who enjoy its unique gameplay and characters. To examine the series a bit closer — and hopefully hear people argue a bit — I rounded up series veterans Matt “LordBBH” Hall, Giby Zia, and Jeff “Zerpin” Liu. Together they talked about the franchise’s draws, lows in the series, and its possible future.

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Paul Dziuba: What is it that attracted you to the King of Fighters series originally? What keeps you coming back to it with every new release?

Matt “LordBBH” Hall: My first experience with KOF goes back to the very beginning, when ’94 hit arcades (I’m old). I’d always been a fan of the Neo Geo and had played lots of Fatal Fury 1/2/Special and Art of Fighting, so seeing a game that brought those characters together was exciting. Sadly, there weren’t many people that played it at my local arcade, but even though I was forced to play the CPU a lot of the time, I knew there was something special there and couldn’t wait for a new installment where you could make your own teams (remember that ’94 only let you pick the eight preset teams).

From there I was a huge fan of the series all the way through ’98, then I kinda fell off. ’99 was an obvious disappointment after ’98, and I didn’t care much for 2000 either (although after playing it some online I have a greater respect for it now). It wasn’t until the local Tilt got King of Fighters XI that I truly “came back” to [the series]. I know some people don’t really care for XI, but to me it was pure fun and made me interested in the series again for the first time since ’98. So maybe I’m not the best example of someone who’s come back to every new release.

Giby Zia: I started with King of Fighters ’94. I’ve been into SNK games since the ’80s, so when I saw my old arcade roll in a MVS cab with a SNK logo on it, I played everything on it. I was a huge fan of the Fatal Fury games, played Art of Fighting and everything else that came out for the Neo Geo. Naturally I played KOF, especially when I read previews for it saying the game featured characters from non-fighting games. I wanted to beat people down with the Ikari Warriors.

Thankfully, my location had a good chunk of players to play, so we had a scene for it at a few different arcades. Family Fun Arcade was one of the bigger places to play the game when it first came out, but people slowly transitioned back to Samurai Shodown, especially when SS2 came out a about two months later. The same happened at Fun Factory Arcade, but there was a slightly larger player base for ’94 after SS2 came out. KOF ’95 helped the small scene grow since it allowed you to pick your own team rather than a set team. That’s when most people who played really got into the series…that and Eiji. People love ninja for whatever reason. I stuck with it because I enjoyed the series and characters; however there was a “dead” period for me between ’99-’03 where I didn’t care much for the new titles. I continued playing ’95/’98 as my main KOFs as well as other SNK titles, while only casually playing post-’98 KOFs on the side while still running events for them.

Jeff “Zerpin” Liu: Since I’m a little baby compared to these other guys, my exposure to fighting games was mostly on home consoles such as the Super Famicon and the modded Sony PlayStation at my cousins’ place in Taiwan. During my summer breaks, my family would have a big family reunion. The adults would have their little chats while my cousins and I would load up the newest fighting game that they would have. After playing Street Fighter II and Dragon Ball Z Hyper Dimension for a few years, my cousins eventually got a PlayStation and we started playing King of Fighters together. I’m pretty sure we were playing KOF ’95 since I do remember playing Eiji and liking that character a lot. The loading times were atrocious on the PlayStation, but that didn’t stop us from playing.

I think we skipped ’96 and ’97 since we were playing ’95 pretty late in 1997 and played ’98 and ’99 when they came out. I’m also not 100% sure if I either played King of Fighters – Kyo or just read the manga (which I have somewhere in Taiwan) but I do have some sort of weird memory of Kyo’s girlfriend even though she wasn’t really brought up in the game at all. I didn’t really play any of the other KOFs after ’99 since the PlayStation 2 came out and my cousins started to get different games outside of fighting games. When I started to take fighting games a bit more seriously in 2009 (*gasp* ’09er), I was pretty excited about KOFXII coming out after playing Street Fighter IV for a few months. I had a nostalgic feeling as I watched match videos on DandyJ’s account only to be burned by the game when it finally came out.

Giby: You were let down by KOFXII? There was a movement to get KOFXII into Evo in 2010. You obviously are wrong to be let down when so many people insisted the game deserved to be in Evo. This is why children get yelled at in the fighting game community, Zerp.

PD: Zerp, you and Giby both mentioned Eiji, and Giby specifically mentioned the Ikari Warriors. It certainly seems like the characters and lore featured in KOF are almost just as big of a draw as the actual games themselves, if not bigger. Why is that, and how would you all say King of Fighters is different than other fighting games in terms of promoting its own universe?

BBH: I think one aspect of King of Fighters that you sort of take for granted is that there have been a lot of characters that have made appearances over the years. Everybody latches on to different favorite characters, but there are some that have only appeared in one or two games, which isn’t a very good percentage when you consider how many games have been released (even more so if you count “non-main” games like the Maximum Impact series). The fact that there have been so many makes it impossible to put them all into one game – The King of Fighters 2002 Unlimited Match has come the closest in terms of roster size.

I don’t really know what it is, but KOF always seems to attract people that are downright fanatical about their favorite characters and want them in every new game, even though it’s impossible to please everyone. Look around forums and you’ll always see people making their own “Dream Match” threads about what characters/teams would be in their own dream game.

When KOFXII came out, there were a lot of people disappointed in the small roster, but it seemed like there was a very vocal bunch making “NO MAI NO BUY” comments. Then of course KOFXIII comes out, Mai gets added to the roster…so are they happy now? Are they still playing the game? Did they even buy the game in the first place? I’ve never seen too many Mai players in XIII, but that might have something to do with her not being very strong in that game. Then again, I always doubt the people making a huge fuss about these things are tournament players in the first place. Some people really do love the lore though, I guess; there’s a “Story Guide” FAQ out there that’s a 656k filesize, going into detail about the ongoing storyline and backgrounds of all the characters, and it only covers the series through 2001! That’s crazy.

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Zerp: I almost forgot that Mai was in XIII until I had flashbacks of the free t-shirts that Atlus gave away at Evo. The KOF franchise is essentially a “Dream Match” every time a new game comes out. It takes many characters from many different SNK franchises and shoves them all into one game. I don’t think any other games at the time had huge crossovers of that scale until Capcom teamed up with Marvel and when Nintendo created Super Smash Bros. Also, KOF had an ongoing episodic plot split into sagas throughout the games. Only other SNK games had engaging plots at the time, at least until Street Fighter Alpha came out.

Giby: Many fighting game players get into the games because they see a character they like and want to try them out. I know Liu Kang and Fei Long got plenty of people playing Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter just so they could use Bruce Lee. This is very prevalent in SNK games for some reason. Players and fans are more loyal to their characters than they are the actual game/series. The characters were a bigger draw for the series in the old days. Players would wait each year to see if their favorite character from other SNK games would be in the latest KOF just so they could use them. It slowed down a bit in the late ’90s/early ’00s, but became an even bigger thing shortly after KOF2003 came out.

Many fans were displeased with some of the newer characters and wanted older ones to return, so wish lists ran rampant all over the net. You couldn’t go to a fighting game forum where KOF was discussed without coming across hundreds of wish lists. SNK was really big on sticking to the story and trying to keep some kind of continuity in their games. The majority of their old fighting game storylines connect in some way, and this is something that pulled more people into their games, specifically KOF, since it merged characters from different games. There are plenty of people who played KOF just for the story, and wrote story guides breaking down every little detail. This is one of the reasons you hear people say KOF is the first anime game.

The most vocal people have been over a character was definitely Mai when she wasn’t part of KOFXII. The whole “No Mai No Buy” campaign was one of the lower points in the scene’s history. Sad thing is, those same people I knew who refused to buy XII because Mai wasn’t in it, don’t use Mai in KOFXIII.

PD: Speaking of continuity, King of Fighters itself is a culmination of many different systems and gameplay features from other SNK games along with new ideas thrown in. What are the major influences seen in the series, and what was brand new?

Giby: King of Fighters took a lot from other SNK series while adding some new feature of its own each year. The base gameplay is very similar to Fatal Fury Special. They took the taunting to reduce meter from Art of Fighting, Desperation Moves from FFS. The Super meter is a mix of AoF and Samurai Shodown, where you can charge it by holding buttons and once full you gain access to your DMs and your normals also do more damage, similar to SamSho’s rage gauge. Dodging in older KOF games was something new, as were dodge attacks. Rolling, which was introduced in KOF ’96, was new, but Samurai Shodown 3 had a similar mechanic where you would side step around the opponent and end up behind them.

The blowback mechanic is something that was kind of in FFS. You can hit f+A while blocking and get an attack with a small amount of invulnerability on it to escape pressure. Some mash attacks can be canceled by hitting ABCD, I don’t remember this in other fighters but I could be wrong. Jumping is one of the more popular features in KOF, mainly due to the fact that people tend to believe KOF is all about jumping and “has no footsies.” KOF has several different jumps that are key to the series gameplay. There are too many mechanics to go into, so I’ll leave the rest to Zerp and BBH.

Zerp: Don’t forget about the transition from dash hops to running from ’95 to ’96. Then SNK also implemented Extra and Advanced mode in ’97/’98, which allowed players to either have ’95 dashes/dodges/charge or ’96 run/meter stock/roll. Nobody used Extra mode anyway unless they were running Kyo or Brian, I’m not too sure about ’97 but then again you would only see Terry doing his Power Charge infinite. I remember trying ’99 for the first time a few years ago and just felt disgusted at what they tried to do with the roll system; they implemented some sort of hop back then run forward system. Regardless, they put something new in every game that they released: strikers, armor/counter modes, tagging in/out, Max mode, etc.

BBH: With the first two incarnations of King of Fighters, ’94 and ’95, there was definitely a more concentrated effort to retain gameplay aspects of characters’ respective games, like Giby said about the “Sway” attacks that Fatal Fury characters could do by pushing f+A when in a blocking animation. FF characters also had the ability to crouch walk by holding down-forward. The Art of Fighting girls (Yuri and King) could have their tops blown off by special moves in an homage to that game, something that just recently got brought back in KOFXIII. With ’96 they threw all that unique, game-specific stuff out the window—it felt like going forward with the series, they wanted the game to be its own thing. The series had already become a success and the concept of bringing SNK superstars together was no longer a draw. From then on they focused on doing new things with the game—but usually major gameplay changes didn’t go over very well the first time around; it usually took at least one more game to “get things right.” I suppose that’s the stress of a yearly release schedule?

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PD: A lot of modern gamers lament the almost yearly release schedule of many AAA games, but King of Fighters basically had at least one game every year for 20 years. How did that schedule help the series, and how has it hurt the series?

Giby: SNK pretty much released a new title for all of their franchises each year until 1999 with the exception of Art of Fighting. This seemed to work well with the Fatal Fury series, but it was a mixed bag with King of FIghters. Players jumped on each new KOF when it was released until KOF ’99. ’99-2001 were all looked down upon by most of the community, and were only played as jokes in certain parts of the world. Most players would still focus on playing ’97 or ’98 while just messing around in these to kill time.

2002 did away with the Striker system and players flocked to it in the beginning, and in some parts of the world, specifically Latin America, the game still lives on. 2003 didn’t do very well due to Duo Lon. Neo Wave was a modified 2002 in some ways, and was treated worse than ’99-2001 by the majority of players. KOFXI may have been the most well-rounded in terms of fan acceptance and consistent player base. It ended up bringing in players from other games to play, which is something that KOF hasn’t done since ’97/’98. For the most part, players have always stuck with ’98 or 2002. You have small pockets of the world that would play all the games, but the biggest games in the series have always been those two (and ’97 because China outnumbers us all).

Zerp: The problem with releasing one game a year is that they are really restraining themselves from making something really good. They’re bound to release one good game right? ’98 was pretty good, people liked 2002 a lot, but there were a lot of games in between those games that were not very well received.

BBH: Going back to what I said about ’96 – that game is proof of what happens when you have to rush things out to meet a yearly schedule. So much was changed in that game – all the sprites redone in addition to all the engine tweaks. It was the first KOF with rolls, but rolls in that game had almost no invulnerability and were thus very limited in use. Taunt-canceling to reduce the opponent’s meter was so fast that it completely eliminated the usefulness of the ABC charge up. And perhaps out of the rush to get all the sprites done, all “command normals” were taken out of the game entirely – overhead attacks, slide kicks, etc. The command normals returned in ’97 along with a new system of being able to “chain” into them off normals though. It’s very clear looking back that games like that were a complete rush job to meet the expected yearly release date. Anyway, the whole “yearly release” thing died when they moved the series away from the Neo Geo, since after 2003 they decided to go with numbered releases instead.

PD: It seems like some of these half-finished King of Fighters releases have done harm to the competitive scene in the United States, especially games like King of Fighters XII. Meanwhile, King of Fighters XIII has had the most consistent player participation of any SNK game in many years. What gave KOFXIII the opportunity to have this following?

Giby: King of Fighters XIII came out in a time where the community was asking for more games due to the fact that Street Fighter IV was the game to play. Most games that came out post-SFIV did well and had/have maintained a scene on their own. A large chunk of KOFXIII players came from SFIV. Either they didn’t like SFIV, they didn’t like SFIV players, or were just bad at the game so they tried out other games, and many ended up latching onto KOFXIII. We still have a fair amount of core players from the old days, but the number of old players is relatively small compared to the newer names. The good thing about the new players is that many of them want to learn and improve. They’ve also done a good job of growing local scenes in areas where there was nothing.

BBH: Yeah, it was SFIV that made fighting games big again, but people did want alternatives. There were people who had heard of KOF and might have been interested in playing but never really had a local scene to play with, maybe because their arcades didn’t carry the games. So KOFXIII was the perfect opportunity to jump into the series and have a new game to play. With the game’s terrible netcode on the Xbox 360/PlayStation 3 versions, though, it put people in a situation where if they actually wanted to play the game they needed to go to offline sessions, so anyone fiending to play the game needed to support their local scene instead of being an online warrior.

I think it just had the advantage of being released at a time when it’s easier than ever to find local fighting game meetups, what with arcades dying and all…back then, if your arcade didn’t carry the newest KOF (or nobody played it while you were there), what could you really do? Most people just stuck to playing whatever was at the arcade, there wasn’t as much motivation to practice games you only had access to on console. Now, it’s a completely different time.

Zerp: What’s funny to me was that I had little interest in KOFXIII (arcade version) when it first came out since I heard a lot of negative things about the game from some friends (random crossups/huge damage/jump normals too strong/dropkicks/K’). But the console release came out at a high point in fighting games. Many games came out in 2011 (Arcade Edition, BlazBlue Continuum Shift II, Arcana Heart 3, Mortal Kombat 9, both versions of Marvel vs. Capcom 3), streaming was one year old (for fighting games), and the scene was bigger than ever. People were willing to try new fighting games at the time and some of them gave KOFXIII a chance.

What definitely helped KOFXIII’s exposure was the first Evo it was at. I recall many spectators saying that “it was the best top eight” at Evo 2012. With information and videos easily accessible, players could get into KOFXIII rather quickly. The timing was crucial and perfect. Take, for instance, ’98 and 2002 Ultimate Match: these games only came out a year or more before KOFXIII but they never really took off outside Asia.

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PD: With King of Fighters XIII’s success came the hopes of a new game, but nothing like a new Dream Match was immediately in the works. Now, there are rumors that a new Maximum Impact game could be coming out in the future. What are all your thoughts on that possibility?

Giby: It would be easier to make than a 2D game since working with 3D models would be cheaper and more time efficient than working with sprites. The issue is its Maximum Impact, which never had a good reputation outside of very small pockets of players. It did have a huge casual scene, and players from other gaming scenes played the hell out of it. I don’t think a MI game would be a good follow-up to KOFXIII, as many of the fans and players are expecting something along the lines of a dream match featuring characters from the current saga (KOF2003-KOFXIII). Fans are already upset with SNK Playmore due to the fact that they haven’t done anything new in three years, but dozens of rumors have been floating around about a new King of Fighters done in ’98 style or XIII style. It seems fans latch on to these rumors and hope they come true, so once the rumors get debunked the fans just turn their displeasure to hatred towards SNKP.

BBH: Yeah, SNKP’s in that unenviable situation where they’re not going to be able to please everyone unless they make some colossal Dream Match with every character ever, which isn’t going to happen because of all the time it would take to redraw all those characters. Anyways, my experience with the Maximum Impact series is pretty limited, I wasn’t too keen on what seemed to be an abundance of ground chains and OTG hits; it just didn’t “feel” like KOF to me. However, if SNKP were to release a new MI, I would definitely go into it with more of an open mind and give it a fair chance.

Zerp: I know rumors have been tossed around recently, but I’m really not excited for another MI. I was never a big fan of those clunky 2D/3D sidestepping fighting games; JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: All Star Battle was a huge disappointment for me. If you’re going to go 3D, then focus on making it 3D all the way similar to Virtua Fighter or Tekken. The system in MI was very strange to me since the characters would have all the same moves, buttons, and gameplans. But on top of that, there would be chains, sidesteps, funny juggles, and wall splats. My theory is that SNK could just be using the Maximum Impact name to make another 2D game…or another pachislot game.

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PD: In closing, because it’s a retrospective, I have to ask: what is each of your favorite King of Fighters games, and why?

Zerp: Even though my views on King of Fighters XIII have changed over the last year or so, I still have to put it in my list of favorite KOFs since it brought me back into the series. The game is frustrating at times, but it’s still fun to play. I have to say that ’95 is probably my favorite one due to nostalgia and the fact that you can do some busted up stuff in that game. The game was still a little buggy at the time, so you would get some weird crossups such as a meaty DP crossing up randomly.

My runner up would be King of Fighters 2001. Even if the music sucks, if the art design’s a bit off, or if the inputs buffer was broken, the game cracked me up. No idea why, but a couple of us decided to go in on that game for a few months. Doing combos with strikers that weren’t with King of Fighters 2002 Joe feels strangely satisfying. Also, they made Heidern a motions character instead of a charge character, let that settle in your mind for a minute.

BBH: I’ve played a lot of KOF over the years, but at this point in time if there’s anything I’m craving more of, it’s King of Fighters XI (oops, I already mentioned that at the beginning of this). Yes, it’s unbalanced as hell, but there’s a lot of fun things that the rest of the cast can do. A KOF game with tagging didn’t seem right at first, but after you spend some time with it you realize what a fun engine it is, with all sorts of crazy combos becoming possible with tagging. It’s just such a raw, aggressive game, even by KOF’s usually aggressive standards. If it ever got an HD re-release with godlike netcode…oh baby.

Runners-up, I’ll second what Zerp said about ’95 – there’s a lot of nostalgia there for me, but watching match videos of it recently has given me a new respect for all the crazy setups possible in that game. And of course you can’t go wrong with both ’98 and ’98 Ultimate Match; a lot of people prefer the original, but I’ve always wanted to spend more time playing people in Ultimate Match. I loved the new flexibility and variety that people could use the “ultimate” gauge for to fit their style of play.

And I can’t ignore all the hours spent over the last few years playing KOFXIII. I have my issues with it but it was great to see a KOF finally gain a level of acceptance in the United States (although still small time compared to Street Fighter IV and Marvel).

Giby: Mine is definitely ’98. Great buttons, high damage, and not all about landing combos like most later KOFs. I know the game isn’t the most balanced thing out there, but it’s great to play, and there’s so much that goes into it. Short, high-damaging combos with great pokes. I would love to finally give ’98 Ultimate Match Final Edition a solid try since it improves upon everything in ’98/’98UM. The high damage is gone and a good chunk of pokes have been toned down, but I want to give it a shot to see how it compares to the original.

As for my runner-up, it’s hard to argue what BBH and Zerp said about ’95. The game holds so much nostalgia for me and just seeing some of the silly things that can be done in the game is always great. 2001 is also up there for me mainly cause it’s so bad it’s good. And KOFXIII has to get love from every KOF fan mainly due to the fact that it brought KOF into the limelight in the states thanks to getting into Evo and having a great showing in top eight each year.

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What are some of your favorite King of Fighters moments over the past twenty years? Feel free to share in our comments.