The King of Fighters-i 002
The King of Fighters XII was one of the most anticipated fighting games in recent memory. Finally, SNK was getting back to business, giving its followers a game completely reworked from the ground up. The gameplay footage showed off some absolutely stunning combos and new maneuvers. The graphics looked amazing; each character model was lovingly recreated with absurdly high-quality animations. This was the perfect chance for the franchise to gain the attention of a whole new generation of gamers and reestablish itself as one of the premier series in the fighting genre…Then it failed miserably. Now that XIII is only a couple of months away from a console release, fans can only hope that the previous title was just a horrendous fluke and SNK has learned from its mistakes. If The King of Fighters-i 002 is any indication, they certainly have.
It doesn’t look like much at first. There are only fourteen contenders, which is just a fraction of what the series normally offers. It’s got four of the most iconic groups: Kyo, Benimaru, and Daimon representing Japan, Terry, Andy, and Joe hailing from Fatal Fury, King, Mai, and Yuri paying homage to the classic Women Fighters Team from ’94, and K’, Kula, and Maxima making the transition from ’99 and later installments. Then there are Ash Crimson and Billy Kane, the latter of which hasn’t been playable since 2006. In fact, half of these playable characters are using the updated gameplay engine and graphics for the first time. While the roster lacks some obvious choices – the Psycho Soldiers and Ikari Warriors especially – it works well as a teaser for XIII. It’s also worth noting that SNK is offering free DLC in the upcoming months; judging by the achievement list, fans are going to be reintroduced to Iori, Elisabeth, Shen, Duolon, Mature, and Vice sometime in the near future. Even if that only adds up to 20 characters, it still looks promising.
The game makes up for its lack of variety by providing you with some surprisingly complex and demanding gameplay mechanics. Each character can perform light, medium, and strong punches and kicks. By using different directional and button commands, you can trigger your character’s special attacks. Stuff like King’s Venom Strike projectiles, Kula’s icy kicks, and Ash’s flaming backflips are all present and accounted for. That also goes for the super moves, which require you to charge up an onscreen meter by racking up damage. Amassing enough power lets you activate the Neo Max maneuvers, which can completely decimate your opponents’ health if they connect. If you can get the timing down, you can chain your attacks together into lengthy combos and utterly devastate your opponent. You can even cancel attack animations and link everything together, which adds even more depth to your strategies. There’s also a huge emphasis on character positioning; by using the evasion techniques, you can perform tactical rolls to dodge oncoming assaults and get closer to your target at the same time. The most impressive part is the pacing; despite all the chaos, the game runs just as quickly and smoothly as its console counterparts.
Needless to say, i 002 requires a lot more finesse than the average fighter. Mashing the buttons will get you killed on the easiest difficulty settings. Despite the decent tutorial (which includes a cameo from fan-favorite Nakoruru from Samurai Shodown), learning everything might seem daunting. It’s much easier than it looks, though. Rather than utilizing a directional pad or fight stick, the controls are integrated into the iPod’s touch screen. Since there aren’t separate buttons for the varying attack strengths, the game determines inputs by your proximity to your enemy and which way you’re holding the onscreen stick. A crouching punch creates a light jab, while a forward punch will unleash an uppercut. Triggering super moves and Neo Max maneuvers simply involves tapping the energy meters and character mug shots in the upper corner of the screen. There’s also an option that lets you activate special attacks by pressing a single button and pushing in different directions. It’s an excellent way to get people into the game; while hardcore fighting enthusiasts can probably pull off the moves and combos without blinking, the alternate scheme makes things far less demanding for the newcomers. Even if you’re well-versed in traditional controls, you’ll find that the touch screen-based design is remarkably refined.
That doesn’t mean you’ll have to master everything, though. Despite all of its complexity and depth, the combat mechanics fall prey to one of the biggest flaws in any fighting game: balancing. To their credit, SNK did a great job of fleshing these characters out. The fighters might not have their extensive movesets and tag-team abilities from XI and the previous titles, but at least they’ve got the fundamentals down. The problem is that some of them are ridiculously overpowered. Billy Kane is the worst offender; one of his specials is so broken in terms of distance and stunning power that he can take down whole teams by himself. You can link Kyo’s special attacks and super moves with little effort whatsoever, and Joe’s speed and damage output is insane. Meanwhile, Yuri has only a handful of weak, multi-hit combos, and Daimon has no range whatsoever. While the AI can give you a serious run for your money on any setting, the characters need a little tweaking to keep things interesting.
The biggest oversight, however, is the lack of a multiplayer. While it trumps Street Fighter IV Volt – its only real competition – in every other aspect, i 002 doesn’t have an online versus mode. That’s a huge oversight, considering what the handheld is capable of doing. If you want to play with anyone else, you’re forced to use the Bluetooth Mode and search for opponents locally. But unless you’ve got another iPhone owner/fighting game fan hanging around, it’s a completely useless feature. The game tries to make up for it by including an Endless Mode and player data, but they’re bland and generic. You’ll spend the majority of the time in the Gallery, which has a decent variety of features and extras. You can view the trailer for XIII, read up on the extensive background stories for each team, and view the art you’ve unlocked by completing the Arcade Mode enough times. There’s also a shop that lets you spend bonus points on over a hundred character portraits and drawings done by different artists. Since items are unveiled randomly and frequently duplicated, it’ll take hours before you finally get everything.
If the artwork doesn’t impress you, the in-fight graphics will. Since this game was designed as a port of XIII, it’s not surprising that SNK would try to emulate its visual style. What’s impressive is just how well the transition went. The 2D character sprites retain all of their incredibly detailed animations from the console version; Ash doesn’t just retreat from an oncoming attack, he saunters out of range, idly brushing a stray hair out of his eyes. Mai’s triumphant return as a playable character is underscored by her enormous breasts, which have the most ridiculously well-drawn and fluid movements of anything else in the game. On the other hand, the stages are completely dull and static. Despite showing vivid images of a horde of elephants, mysterious temples, a street in Paris, and nine other places, the battlegrounds look washed out and have no motion whatsoever. It’s understandable; given the effort that went into perfecting the character animations and the limitations of the iPhone, something had to be sacrificed. At least SNK was good enough to include tons of references to the rest of The King of Fighters and its extensive history; Geese Howard is mentioned frequently, Terry has grown wiser with age, and King’s relationship with Ryo is played for laughs. Little things like those make the game seem more like a true addition to the series as opposed to a throwaway title.
That’s the thing about i 002. It’s one of those games that gets tons of love from its creators, but will go completely unnoticed by all except the hardcore fans. That’s a shame, considering that this is easily one of the best fighters on the iPod. It takes a lot of the ideas from the console versions and scales them down into a perfect handheld rendition. The roster is only decent at best, but it’ll get better once the free DLC starts coming out. The combat is a surprisingly complex blend of timing, combos, and character placement; there’s a lot more strategy and precision involved than you’d expect. The superb controls and alternate command options make the experience easy to get into. A few horrendously broken characters kill some of the entertainment value, though. The lack of an online multiplayer is a huge blunder as well. Should SNK bother to include some patches and updates, however, this could be something awesome. If i 002 is a preview of what’s to come, then the The King of Fighters is making a comeback in style.