Remembering… Art of Fighting
SNK’s stamp of quality meant a lot in the ‘90s. The eccentric Japanese developer was unparalleled in bringing the arcade experience to home consoles. Their trademark quality came in the way of crispy sprites and crunchy sounds. These high points were accompanied by tight, arcade-perfect controls and a sense for making every quarter inserted into the machine worthwhile. Their emblematic style and quality-over-quantity approach enabled SNK to amass a sizable cult following in the ‘90s, one whose nostalgia is tied into that arcade experience and a love for the craft of videogames. Art of Fighting exemplifies the care and quality of their arcade-centric brand. This is what SNK was about.
What set Art of Fighting apart is the design. A fighting game is only as strong as its characters and Art of Fighting spans a broad range of fighter styles across a humble, yet personality-driven roster. There isn’t much in the way of storytelling and doesn’t need to be. The character design of each fighter conveys the discipline and character well enough.
The story is the same with all ‘90s videogames. Save the girl. Main character Ryo’s sister is kidnapped. As Ryo or his sidekick friend Robert, there are a handful of colorful fighters to face in the linear path to Ryo’s sister. These characters make it worthwhile. The enemies specialize in different disciplines and are given scenery to match the motif of their character concept. There’s Todo, an older man training his own form of karate in an oriental dojo. King, a tomboyish Muay Thai fighter. Mr. Big, a large man with weaponized sticks and nifty background music. Mr. Bigg’s theme sounds like music about hitting people with sticks. The motifs work well and are informative that way.
The real shame of Art of Fighting is in the lead character concepts, which are effectively ripped from Street Fighter to feign some kind of familiarity with players in the arcades. Drawing from Street Fighter’s Ryu and Ken, Art of Fighting’s Ryo and Robert are best friends and sparring partners. They train in martial arts. What differentiate the titles are their premises. Street Fighter is about over-the-top action and the story’s about a self-serious fighting tournament. Art of Fighting is about relatable action and the story’s about street fighting. Between the two, there’s probably a perfect game concept in there somewhere.
Moves are performed in flurries of quarter-circle and punch/kick combinations. It’s all simple and mechanically good. In terms of innovation, Art of Fighting also introduced a spirit meter and charged special attacks. This required players to think more carefully, as moves would deplete energy from the bar, depending on their complexity and strength. This creates a unique risk/reward scenario where experienced players aren’t necessarily able to jam out infinite combos and must occasionally recharge, leaving them open to attack.
What elevates the content further, however, is art of a different kind: The art of The Art of Fighting is truly unique. It comes by way of illustrator Shinkiro, the man responsible for so much of SNK’s identity and style. His work in titles like Metal Slug brought a renewed sense of style to genres previously limited to crude sprites, paving the way for the future. Shinkiro worked primarily in blending colors, providing a striking look for so many Neo Geo covers and games. He stayed on board until SNK went bankrupt in the early ’00s alongside most companies that relied upon arcade games. Shinkiro has since joined Capcom and contributed to notable projects like Bionic Commando: Rearmed and Marvel Vs. Capcom 3.
Although SNK’s still active, what was once a studio that only created gold has since become inconsistent and largely incapable of letting go of their arcade identity. They’ve given up on creating videogames for the market in order to keep their soul. Yet, we’re left with a fond nostalgia for Art of Fighting, a title which excelled at delivering a more conventional fighting experience in an aesthetically appealing way.