The King of Fighters ’94
It’s just another boring day at the office. As a mass murderer and leader of the international black market, Rugal doesn’t really have the time or patience for conventional fun. When he’s not busy slaughtering innocent people or conducting illegal operations, his life is pretty dull. His only real hobby is collecting trophies. Of course, they’re not the kind of brass cups and miniature figurines that you might think of. His trophies are the cast-ironed carcasses of all the fighters he’s killed in combat. He takes pride in his morbid collection; it allows him to revel in his prowess as a warrior. The problem is that he’s annihilated nearly all of the world’s greatest combatants; there just aren’t enough of them to go around anymore. That’s why he’s sponsoring the latest King of Fighters tournament; not only will he get his kicks by watching other people massacre each other, but he’ll get the victor all to himself.
Rugal isn’t going settle for just a jumbled assortment of random fighters, either. This guy wants to murder the most highly skilled fighters (at least those created by SNK) in existence. Accordingly, the stars of SNK’s most prominent franchises have been cobbled together for some awesome crossover action. Joe Higashi and the Bogard Brothers have left Southtown, Athena has assembled a team of Chinese psychics, and the protagonists from Art of Fighting have come up from their famous cafe in Mexico. Even the Ikari Warriors are in on the action. Of course, there are plenty of new faces. Between flame-wielding Japanese schoolboys, metrosexuals, Korean prisoners, and a miniature Freddie Krueger, it’s pretty clear that these newcomers can kick some ass. Or if you need a laugh, you can always pick the American Team, which is comprised of three hulking monstrosities designed to look like an backyard football player and a couple of Harlem Globetrotter wannabes.
Who says basketball and Kung Fu don’t mix?
Regardless of whom you choose, be prepared: this game doesn’t play like the old SNK fighters. Instead of the one-on-one fights of yesteryear, you’ll get to choose a team of three fighters and face off against other trios. Though you’ll get to play one character at the start, you’ll also be able to choose amongst the two secondary characters that are on his or her team. Instead of just playing as Art of Fighting’s Ryo, you could opt to play as Robert or Takuma, then leave Ryo as a backup in case your fighter gets knocked out. You aren’t rewarded for individual battles; you have to beat all three enemies to advance to the next area. You can’t tag between characters either; you’re stuck with whichever fighter you choose to perform first. Thus the competition is more about which team can eliminate the most enemies the fastest; choosing the order of your fighters’ appearances is the underlying strategy of the game.
Or, at least it’s supposed to be. You’re not allowed to create unique character combinations, which means that you’re stuck with some pretty unbalanced teams. Take the Ikari Warriors. All three of them (with the slight exception of Heidern) thrive on powerful punch combos, grapples, and throws. Not very helpful when you’re up against projectile-happy guys like Terry or Kyo, is it? Some teams just aren’t crafted as effectively as the others, which means you’re going to be in for quite a challenge if you don’t know what you’re up against. Since the game doesn’t have a training mode, you’ll likely have to endure a few Game Over screens (especially when you face the wonderfully cheap Rugal) if you choose a character you’re not comfortable with. It can be frustrating, but at least it offers more variety than what other fighting games could muster at the time.
But if you prefer something a bit more direct (and horrible abusable), feel free to learn the mechanics involved with your character’s attack energy. In a feature that’s become a staple of the King of Fighters (and a few of the later Street Fighter games), you character will be able to build up energy in a little gauge at the bottom of the screen. Once it’s been completely filled, your character will start flashing yellow and have their attack power drastically boosted. There are several problems with this, however; since the gauge can only be filled if your character successfully blocks attacks or charges up, the fights become a contest of how well you can avoid the other character and how quickly you can get things fully powered. Once your character attains quasi-Nirvana, he or she will be able to annihilate the opponents with only a few unblocked attacks. While there is a certain degree of strategy involved, the energy gauge system is far from perfect.
That’s a sharp contrast to the basic gameplay mechanics. The King of Fighters ‘94 sports the same tried and true directional pad and button controls that any post-Street Fighter II fighting game fan should know. Each character comes with a wide array of punches, kicks, throws, and flashy special moves with varying degrees of strength and range. While the older characters feature the same moves from their original games, the attacks have been modified with better range, button responsiveness, and combo capabilities. Gone in the multi-plane hopping and zooming camera from the Fatal Fury and Art of Fighting games; the gameplay is more focused on straightforward combat than old gimmicks. Both old and new characters have been designed to be better than anything their previous versions could have achieved.
You can tell just by looking at them. Gone are the horribly pixilated costumes and ridiculously stiff movement animations; these new versions look pretty darned nice for a game that came out in 1994. You can see how Terry’s shirt flapping as he moves, or how his cap goes flying off when he loses. The heroes from Art of Fighting look like regular characters, not a bunch oversized statues with poorly drawn uniforms. Some of the characters look a little goofy, though; Brian Battler looks like an overweight frat boy with a football helmet grafted to his shoulder, and Joe Higashi looks like he’s suffering from a Viagra overdose. It’s worth noting that even the non-participating characters remain dynamic on the sidelines; they’ll react with cheers or groans depending on if you dish out or take damage. Interestingly enough, the stages offer their own interactions; there’s nothing quite as awesome as seeing Rugal crush you into the nearest wall and watching the background electronics sizzle and burst from the impact. It’s little details like these that make The King of Fighters ‘94 so much more appealing than its Capcom rivals.
Of course, that doesn’t make this a perfect game. Far from it. Yes, there are tons of playable characters with unique movesets. Yeah, there’s plenty of variety and challenge. The problem lies with the mechanics that make the game unique. The three-character system might have been a fresh idea for the time, but its severely limited options and obviously unbalanced teams are a detriment overall. The energy gauge is indeed a worthwhile feature, but its poor design means you’re going to spend more time playing keep-away than actually trading punches. All things considered, The King of Fighters ‘94 is a decent, but flawed beginning of one of the most famous fighting game franchises around. All good things have to start somewhere.