What is King of Fighters? It's a valid question. The long-running 2D fighting game series, which began a whopping 15 years ago with the release of King of Fighters '94 for the Neo Geo, has never enjoyed the global popularity of Street Fighter, Tekken or Soul Calibur. It was originally conceived as a coming together of the most popular characters from SNK's Fatal Fury (yay!) and Art of Fighting games, among others. Fatal Fury's Bogard brothers and Japanese Muay Thai mentalist Joe Higashi, along with Ryu rip-off Ryo Sakazaki and Robert Garcia from Art of Fighting, combined with a couple of new characters to form one of the strongest fighting game line-ups of the time. Cocky high school student Kyo Kusanagi, designed to be the series' poster boy, is one of the most popular video game characters in Japan.
KOF '94's fighting game system is a relatively simple affair that has remained the same, at least on a basic level, with every subsequent release. It's standard 2D stuff, with back and down back used for blocking, and up and its variants used for jumping. Four attack buttons are used: light punch, light kick, strong punch and strong kick. Special moves are reminiscent of Street Fighter II. Quarter circle and half circle stick movements with punches and kicks usually make something happen, as do traditional back forward/down up charge motions. There's a power gauge at the bottom of the screen, which, when maxed, can be used to power a super special move. So far so very fighting game.
Where KOFXII, and indeed the series as a whole, differs is with its three versus three matches. You can't play the game any other way. You have to pick three characters to fight with in elimination-based rounds. Unlike games like Marvel vs. Capcom 2, you can't switch characters whenever you want, so the order of your team is of some strategic importance. When one is knocked out, the round ends. The victor gets a bit of life back and round two starts with the next character. This repeats until one player's entire team is eliminated. It's a cool, fun, simple to grasp system that worked in 1994 and works now.
15 years on, KOF retains a loyal, hardcore following predominantly fuelled by a burgeoning tournament scene. But on home consoles the series has endured a somewhat barren spell. The last game, KOF11, was released in Europe in October 2007 for the PS2 and didn't exactly set the world on fire. Perhaps because of that, KOFXII has enjoyed a surprising amount of scrutiny during its development, no doubt fuelled by the "rebirth" tagline. Fans have been watching. The pressure was on.
The home console versions include two new characters: Mature, from The King of Fighters '96, and Elisabeth Branctorche, from KOFXI.
The first thing fans will notice is the redrawn art. Unlike the 2.5D Street Fighter IV, SNK Playmore's decided to go for a distinctly retro look and feel, retaining an old school 2D anime-inspired art style. Each of the 20 character sprites has been painstakingly hand drawn down to the last pixel. The end result is a game with wonderfully detailed animations.
The backgrounds, too, stand out. Every stage is as striking as a pack of Starburst and as detailed as a da Vinci, but some of them are, frankly, borderline racist. One in particular, a blood red Egypt stage filled with hundreds of worshipping silhouettes bowing outside a temple, is a racial stereotype that should never have made the cut.