After years of gradually being pushed to the margins for their arcade sensibilities, fighting games are once again en vogue. As if it were 1993 all over again, Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter are riding high on the sales charts, with nostalgic sequels selling millions of copies. But for all its success, the once great King of Fighters franchise is hanging on for dear life.
SNK painted itself into a corner. In releasing such a long series of incremental updates, the company had set the bar too high to reboot gracefully, but commercially it could no longer survive with a graphical foundation forged in the 16-bit era. King of Fighters XII may have brought the series into HD with gorgeous, towering sprites, but its grueling development cycle resulted in the longest hiatus the series has taken, with half the roster of its predecessor, skimpy move sets, only five unique backgrounds, no boss, and no story. The simpler, less technical gameplay was designed to invite new players, but served only to alienate the hardcore audience that might have overlooked its other flaws.
The sprite work and animation make The King of Fighters XIII the best-looking 2D fighter in the world.
King of Fighters XII was a flop, and an expensive one at that. It addressed the series' one fatal flaw (graphics) beautifully, but it came at the expense of nearly everything else. Now, SNK is effectively rebooting again, rethinking just about everything else except those wonderful sprites. With a head start on the graphics, it's in a much better position to not only deliver a more complete game this time, but one that gets the gameplay back on track. King of Fighters XII may have been a $60 beta test, but the feedback from its failure has been a learning experience.
The series has weathered its costly misstep, but it can't afford two in a row. This time, the character roster has been beefed up by more than 50%, with thirty-one characters in the arcade, and a growing list of thirty-four (at the time of this writing) confirmed for October's console release. This has been padded with a handful of "head swap" characters: modern-day equivalents of Mortal Kombat's rainbow of ninjas that are redrawn based on existing characters. Fortunately, as in Mortal Kombat, these characters actually play quite differently despite their physical similarities.
As with XII, many of the returning characters in The King of Fighters XIII have been rethought and don't necessarily play much like their classic counterparts, even if their move sets are superficially similar. Sometimes this works out well; in other cases it can hurt a bit. Mai's much anticipated return is wounded by her diminished fighting prowess, but others, like Shen Woo and Vice, have returned in top fighting shape. Every combatant from XII has made the cut, and virtually all have been given new special attacks, be they basic or desperation (super) attacks.
Gameplay has been refocused to more closely resemble the fast, technical, combo-driven gameplay of the series' mid-2000s incarnations. It still retains the classic elimination match style of the pre-2003 series, but all of XII's new systems have been dropped in favor of rethought gameplay that feels more like King of Fighters XI. The days of a stripped-down system are gone. The super meter now goes up to five levels like in XI, and it's joined by a new Hyperdrive meter and a guard meter.
Building meter is an important part of the strategy now, since the moves that spend it can be dished out more liberally. Putting characters that build meter up front can make combo-heavy characters deeper in the rotation quite deadly. Cancels also make a return, at the expense of the Hyperdrive meter allowing you to cut off certain multi-hit moves in order to chain them into a larger combo. The fighting just feels much more like the KoF series fans have come to know and love.
Of course this also means, at least at the high level, The King of Fighters XIII is very much a hardcore experience. Performing combos is not just a matter of doing moves in the right order, they take timing and execution, and it can be a difficult game to master. This is a big part of what makes the series so appealing to its core audience, but it also probably accounts for some of why it's never been able to penetrate the mainstream in the way that Capcom's games have. SNK claims it is putting a great deal of work into the tutorial mode this time, and the strength of this mode is going to be critical for bringing new players - even those experienced with other fighters - into the fold.
The quality of the artwork is virtually identical to the last KoF, but the presentation has gotten a nice shot in the arm. Each round begins with a little banter between combatants and cut scenes highlight the (thin) story halfway through and before the boss fight. The backgrounds are easily the best in the series, full of boisterous (and usually fat) spectators cheering wildly for no one in particular. There are plenty of them this time, too, a relief after the threadbare selection of stages in XII. The camera has been pulled back a bit, and the zoom locked in place, closer to the classic KoF view, but the smaller scale flatters the not-quite-HD sprites in a way the close-ups in XII never did. While it may not have the resolution or crisp, clean look of BlazBlue, the sprite work and animation make this the best-looking 2D fighter in the world.
The developers seem to be making all the right moves this time around. They have a game that not only looks good, but plays well and packs enough content to stay competitive with other games on the market. What they've done so far is nothing short of a return to form, but a solid home conversion and, perhaps most importantly, smooth online play are going to be absolutely necessary to bring back those scorned by its predecessor. King of Fighters never had the fan base of Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter, and it may be more difficult to reclaim a fanbase that has already been slowly diminishing for years before XII chased away the rest. SNK has an uphill battle, but if XIII doesn't make it, at least the series can go out with class.