I still remember the day I walked into my local arcade and discovered The King of Fighters ‘94. As my (far) younger self headed toward the fighting games, one of the regulars told me they’d gotten in this new title where a bunch of SNK characters squared off against one another (an idea that seemed surreal at the time). Much more than its previous attempts at the genre, The King of Fighters was the fighting franchise that I believe cemented SNK’s legacy, becoming to the company what Street Fighter had become to Capcom. With the release this week of The King of Fighters XIV, the series has seen twenty mainline entries spanning decades and gaming platforms—and it’s been a road that hasn’t always been a smooth one.
The days leading up to KOFXIV certainly were rough. One piece of media or announcement would come out that filled fans with excitement, and then the next would instill worry again. My hands-on with the game at E3 really left a sour taste in my mouth, but the following public demo alleviated some of that concern. Now, after having spent what is admittedly still a short amount of time with the full final game, my current mode can be summed up with two words: relieved and hopeful.
Way back at my introduction to The King of Fighters ‘94, the exciting part of the game was the roster of fighters it offered, and that’s just as true twenty-two years later. More than almost any other franchise, fans put a lot of demands on who SNK includes for every outing, and KOFXIV’s roster goes in a rather interesting direction. There’s plenty of faces here that you’d expect for the first chapter of a new era—Kyo, Iori, Terry, K’, Mai, Athena, Kim, Ryo, Yuri, and many more—but it’s who we didn’t expect that’s the most noticeable. Eighteen of the game’s 50 characters are totally new to the series, and that’s crazy! Offhand, I can’t remember the last time a game in the series got such a large influx of new talent. So far, I’ve been equally divided in finding characters I’m having fun learning for the first time, and wishing that some of those slots were instead filled with other classic favorites. By the time we hit The King of Fighters XVI and fans see their requests satisfied, we could easily break 100 character choices and end up with a selection screen that looks more like something you’d see in MUGEN.
If some of the new cast just isn’t hitting it off with me, I think it’s because of how they look, which leads into one of the biggest topics of conversation over KOFXIV. SNK has always had a flair for character design and cultural diversity, and what made them so endearing—at least on some level—were their sprites. SNK’s artists were master craftsmen when it came to pushing pixels, able to craft backgrounds and characters that were brimming with personality and flair even at resolutions that seem downright barbaric in 2016. Playing KOFXIII again, even though those sprites stillweren’t proper HD, I remembered just how much a part of the series that sprite work was, and how gorgeous and alive its stages were, and it’s hard to know that that era is probably gone forever.
As the result of SNK trying to finally make a full jump into the world of 3D (a world they aren’t used to), the effort required for the first proper fully-polygonal King of Fighters, and a desire to make sure the framerate stays at 60fps at 1080p, the graphics here are—in a word—disappointing. That’s not to say that they’re terrible, but they’re too often boring, or generic, or almost amateurish, and that’s hard to accept coming from a company whose fighters were so well known for their beautiful, detailed, and unique visuals. Additions like Luong and Bandeiras and Hein and Muimui exude promise, but they’ve got this kind of “budget fighting game” stink on them. Really, the entire game does. Games aren’t about the graphics, but they also are, and KOFXIV is the heart and soul of SNK in a body I still can’t fully recognize.
The thing is, after playing for a short while now, I’ve come to be okay with that. It could very easily have been that the franchise died with KOFXIII, because so many things have been against both SNK and fighting games for a while now—including those costly and time-consuming 2D sprites. So, for now, I can be okay with it not looking the way I want—even if it does mean having to see Andy Bogard’s win portrait, a sight human words can’t properly explain.
On the gameplay side, as part of my review, I went back and replayed releases from the three previous eras of The King of Fighters: The King of Fighters ‘98, a perfect example of the classic 2D Neo•Geo golden years; The King of Fighters 2006 (aka Maximum Impact 2), the point at which SNK was testing the waters of taking its games 3D; and The King of Fighters XIII, the second of two (sadly failed) attempts to move 2D KOF into a more modern era. Playing those three titles again solidified a very important decision for me: The King of Fighters XIV is “legit” KOF. For many of us old-school fans, there was a point in time when we were sure that our beloved 2D fighters would be ruined by the industry’s obsession with 3D, and games such as Maximum Impact, Street Fighter EX, and Samurai Shodown 64 showed visions of a world where our favorite franchises had turned into bastardizations of themselves.
Recent years, however, have proven that 3D visuals and core 2D mechanics can co-exist, and KOFXIV now joins Street Fighter VI / Vand Guilty Gear Xrd Sign in proving that to be true. If we put aside the visuals for a moment—and no, that isn’t always easy—this feels, strangely, almost more like a continuation of the legacy of KOF to me at times than KOFXII and KOFXIII did. As with every iteration, there are certain changes that have been made to the ground-level gameplay, but what results from those mechanics feels like it could have existed as one of the offerings on a four-slot Neo•Geo cabinet in some pizza joint or laundromat back in the day. In fact, I think that SNK got those beloved classic fundamentals more right here than Capcom (and Dimps, a team started by a number of ex-SNK folks, by the way) did in SFIV. The number one priority for KOFXIV was proving to fans that what we loved about the series in 2D could be translated over to 3D, and that has happened here to a fantastic degree.
There is a downside to that, and this is the point where some of my fellow Neo•Geo Freaks may vehemently disagree with me (or just think that I’m crazy). The King of Fighters XIV feels like KOF—and that includes the quirkier parts that come with that. Months and months of Street Fighter V have dulled my skills at SNK fighters somewhat, because I’d forgotten just how strict move inputs can be in these games. In layman’s terms, there’s a certain level of precision that every fighting game requires in reading the directions a player is pushing on their controller, with certain titles being stricter or more lenient than others. Seasoned players know there are certain shortcuts you can take when pulling off special moves, but I fear that KOFXIV—like its predecessors—can be a tad rough for newcomers. I’m not ready to say that SNK should make their games more un-SNK-like, but I also wonder if now wasn’t the right time for the studio to start making their games more inviting to a wider audience. (Seriously though, so far I’ve tried the DualShock 4, Hori’s Fighting Commander 4, and Mad Catz’s TE2 stick, and none of them feel “right” to me for KOFXIV—if only my PS4 could use Saturn pads.)
That’s not to say that SNK hasn’t found ways to make gameplay friendlier to players on all levels. For example, new Rush combos allow you to unleash flashy strings of attacks by simply hitting the same button multiple times in a row. I’m not a fan of such ideas, but in damage testing, proper combos seem to win out every time—so this should be something only used by more casual fans who just want to have fun. For more serious players, MAX mode returns—allowing you to burn meter for unlimited EX specials for a limited time—while cancelling out of moves in supers and climax attacks feels easier (and more exciting) now. KOFXIV’s tutorial mode is there to teach you all of this stuff and more, and while the mode does a decent enough job at this, it’s admittedly a little basic and dry. Blame Guilty Gear Xrd Revelator for ruining it for the rest of the genre, I suppose.
Speaking of modes, how much a game has—or lacks—has become the hot topic in the fighting game scene this year. Here, KOFXIV doesn’t break too much ground, but it also doesn’t disappoint. Story mode is your classic KOF arcade option, with a few cinematics sprinkled throughout as the tournament plays out. It’s heartwarming to still have moments where set characters interact with one another pre-fight—an idea that has sadly been lost in too many other games—and team endings provide a nice (and at times fanservice-y) cap to the fights you’ve gone through. Though, to get to those endings, you’ll have to battle one of the worst SNK end bosses I’ve ever seen (not in difficulty, but in design). Versus provides local 1v1 fights against friends or the CPU, while Mission mode offers up character-specific trials, time attack, and survival. Playing in those various modes unlocks a plethora of art, video, and audio in the Gallery, from both KOFXIV and the series as a whole.
And then, there’s online—the part of an SNK review that every fan fears. The verdict? I don’t know yet. Both pre- and post-launch, playing against people from my region to across the ocean, I’ve had everything from impressively smooth matches, to lag fests, to battles that swung back and forth multiple times. Remember that input strictness I mentioned earlier? Network instability plus drops in framerate when online can add an extra layer of complexity in that regard, to a degree at times that you’ll be ready to throw your controller. At this point, SNK has said it’s discovered some bugs in the netcode, and that a fix should be coming soon. The problem is, we’ve heard that before with its other online fighters. If the netcode doesn’t get polished up, it’ll be a real shame, because KOFXIV offers some legitimately neat online features. Players can pre-set their favorite teams and solo characters, you can train together over the internet with friends, and Free Matches have a really cool room system where up to twelve players can be in one lobby and queue up at various “stations”—which includes a great variant where six players fill each team member slot under standard KOF 3v3 rules.
What the team had to accomplish in this release was getting the foundation and gameplay right in order to have something worthwhile that they could then build off of, and they’ve done one heck of a job at that here. SNK still has quite a bit of polish and user-friendliness it can give to the fighting engine and the overall experience, and it’ll have to come up with better ways to render these characters in successive releases. For today, however, I think fans (and hopefully newcomers) can enjoy The King of Fighters XIV for what it is, find enjoyment in this latest reminder of what made SNK one of the top fighting game creators around, and have hope for the future of the series—something that we’d all but lost after KOFXIII.
Though its visuals still betray the legacy of SNK’s rich and gorgeous 2D sprite work, The King of Fighters XIV revives the glory of the franchise where it counts most: gameplay and core mechanics. This will hopefully be the first step in a better future for the series, but even this unpolished first entry is worth the time for longtime fans and newcomers alike.
T - Teen
|The King of Fightes XIV is available on PlayStation 4. Primary version reviewed was for PlayStation 4. Review code was provided by Atlus for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of one to five stars.|
Mollie got her start in games media via the crazy world of gaming fanzines, and now works at EGM with the goal of covering all of the weird Japanese and niche releases that nobody else on staff cares about. She’s active in the gaming community on a personal level, and an outspoken voice on topics such as equality in gaming, consumer rights, and good UI.