In this, the fourth review of my trip down memory lane with the Neo Geo titles that have been released for the Xbox One, I’m going to be casting my beady eye over The King of Fighters (KOF)’94. As you can probably tell from the title, this game was released back in 1994 for the ever popular Neo Geo home console, and was an amalgamation of two of SNK’s popular fighting games – Fatal Fury and Art of Fighting. It took characters from these two games, mixed them with a few characters from Ikari Warriors and Psycho Soldier, along with some original characters, and created a three on three tag team style game out of it.
Initially their idea was to draw fans of each franchise and get them to play KOF, and in that sense at least it was a success, so much so that SNK was able to go on to release games almost yearly right up to KOF 15 in August 2016. So the big question is this: does the mixture blend harmoniously, or is it a sunken souffle of a game? I strapped on my (virtual) black belt and got to grips to find out.
First up, once again, is the familiar mode selection screen. Original mode, in either Japanese or English, allows you play the arcade game with unlimited continues. Hi Score mode gives you one continue, and challenges you to achieve a high score, which can be registered to global leaderboards. And last, but not least, Caravan mode takes the fun of score chasing and gives a strict five minute time limit to defeat all in your path. As with other games in this series, there isn’t any choice of difficulty, it comes in only 90’s difficulty, i.e very hard indeed. Still, I used to play Street Fighter 2 in the arcade when I was a nipper, how hard could it be? I was to soon learn…
The available characters, when you start the game, are divided into countries, each represented by three fighters. Confusingly, the countries on offer, and the characters that are fighting for them, don’t bear any kind of resemblance to each other. As an example, Team England (which I picked to begin with) comprises of Mai Shiranui, from Fatal Fury 2, and Yuri Sakazaki and King, both from the Art of Fighting series. Other countries that feature this mix of games are Mexico, Italy, and Korea. The characters from Psycho Soldier are in Team China, while Brazil is represented by the guys from Ikari Warriors. Team Japan and Team USA meanwhile are composed of entirely original characters. The game is structured in such a way that, instead of being the best of three rounds, like a traditional fighter, there is only one round, but each team has three fighters, and the first team to have its team eliminated loses. SNK dubbed this the Team Battle System, and it is an interesting way of doing things, as it ensures that the bouts are fast, furious and non stop.
Gameplay is absolutely front and centre, as you would expect in a game of this pedigree and history. The controls are tight, fast and responsive, while the tactics that are open for the fighters are almost limitless. Does your team of fast agile ladies have the edge over the slow but powerful Team USA, for example? I vaguely remember playing one of the Art of Fighting games in an arcade as a much younger man, and thinking it was ok, but not as good as Capcom’s powerhouse. With the introduction of the Team Battle System, KOF’94 managed to carve out a niche for itself, as it was different from the other fighting games around. Today, the system still works well and the game is still fun to play.
The controls for KOF’94 are based around the four buttons on the face of the pad, allowing for light and heavy punches, or light and heavy kicks. Combined with some Street Fighter-esque directional inputs, you’ll soon be throwing fireballs, hurricanes and generally jumping about bringing the hurt. That is until you get to about the fourth tier of enemies.
With my aging fingers, I was able to kind of button bash my way through the enemies until I suddenly hit a brick wall, where the skill level required to win a bout seems to take a vertical leap upwards about two stories. I’m not kidding, I can’t remember the last time I had my character defeated perfectly by the computer, but Team Brazil absolutely shredded me and my characters. I still haven’t managed to shatter that glass ceiling either, and I imagine it will take many more hours of practice before I get to the credits. With none of the modern pandering happening, like a practice mode, the only way to get better is to keep getting your ass kicked by the AI, and gradually you’ll begin to see what works.
Graphically, the game is still perfectly adequate, even by today’s super high standards. Obviously, Killer Instinct isn’t going to be having any sleepless nights, but the sprites here are more than sufficient to portray what is happening on screen. SNK even managed to make the female characters, er, jiggle when they are stood still, which when you think about it is an achievement in itself given the limitations they had back in the day. All of the cliches are present and correct, and not just in regards the moving body parts either as the swooshing attack noises, and the screen at the end of each bout, which, win or lose, features the three winning characters in an incredibly camp pose, comes with some ridiculous slogan under it.
In conclusion then, KOF’94 stands up to today’s scrutiny, and in many ways provides a purer arcade hit than many of the current fighting games.There’s no practice mode, no easy mode, no nothing – it’s just you, your controller and your wits against a seemingly psychic AI that knows attacks are coming almost before you do. If you like 2D beat ’em ups and are looking for a stiff challenge, you could do a lot worse. And for only £6.39, you couldn’t do a lot better.