Jalexbrown reviews King of Fighters '96, now available on PSN.
Let’s start with a little history lesson. SNK released their first fighting game, Fatal Fury: King of Fighters, in 1991. The following year they released Art of Fighting. After that they released Samurai Shodown in 1993. Then, in 1994, they released what would begin their most popular fighting game series: King of Fighters. It was named after the subtitle of the first Fatal Fury game, rotating around the same tournament featured in SNK’s inaugrial fighter. The series would get an annual release every year until its mysterious absence in 2004, ten years after its initial release. Because they were releasing a new game every year, they simply titled each with the year of its release. So here we have King of Fighters ’96, originally in arcades and on the Neo Geo, now available on PSN. Has this game survived the test of time? Read on to find out.
The gameplay in King of Fighters ’96 will be pretty familiar to fighting game fans. The objective is to beat the hell out of the other guy or the other team of guys depending on which mode you’re playing. You can do this with regular moves in you’re not too good at the game, but if you want to be a top-tier player then you’ll have to know the ins and outs of the game’s many special moves and techniques. The special moves are pretty balanced, although I felt that projectile attacks were a bit more useless than in other fighting games. If you’re a more defensive player, you can master the roll-in/roll-out technique to evade attacks and set yourself up for awesome counter moves. On the whole it feels pretty fair; it definitely seems more skill-based than luck-based, and mindless button-mashing won’t get you far even against a CPU opponent.
There are 29 characters in King of Fighters ’96 (including hidden characters), and amazingly there are no palette swaps. This was an amazing lineup for the time, and even by today’s standards it’s a pretty fair number of fighters. The characters also feel unique from each other. Some are big, bulky guys that move slow and hit hard; others move faster but don’t strike so hard; and all of them have their own special moves. If you’re a fighting game fanatic, you’ll get hooked trying to find the best strategy for each fighter. There’s a pretty amazing variety here for a game from 1996.
(A very good selection of characters.)
There are two ways to play King of Fighters ’96: one-on-one or three-on-three. One-on-one fights work exactly how you’d expect – beat your opponent a number of rounds to win. Three-on-three is a bit more awesome, though. Each side will have three characters; when one side beats a character, a new character will be brought out for the next round. The goal is to defeat the entire opposing party before they can beat your party. There is no tagging in or out, though. It still feels a bit like a one-on-one fight except with different fighters every round. It should also be noted that, if you're the winning fighter, you'll start the next round with only a little bit more life than you had at the end of the last round. It's an interesting touch that means you can't rely on just being able to play well with your first character.
Each character has a special move that can be performed when their special bar fills up, and there’s a super special move that can be performed in the special bar fills up and their health falls too low. These are the moves that turn the tides in the midst of battle, so learning to use them can become quite important on higher difficulty levels and especially against a live player.
The controls in King of Fighters ’96 are surprisingly smooth. I was able to do special moves with minimal effort, and I didn’t notice any sort of input delay. I will admit that it took a while to get used to the fact that square is the select button on menus, but it’s a minor issue and you’ll quickly get used to it. I personally took preferance to the d-pad over the PS3’s analog stick, but if you have a fighting stick that would definitely be ideal.
Unfortunately King of Fighters ’96 just doesn’t look as good as Metal Slug 2 on a high-def television. It’s incredibly pixelated, and while it does manage to remain some of the same charm that Metal Slug 2 does, it’s simply less excusable when games like Street Fighter 2 were looking so good before this game’s release. There is a smoothing option that you can turn on, and I did think that it helped slightly with the pixelated fuzziness in some areas. Performance, on the other hand, is exceptional. There was no noticable framerate dipping and the game constantly felt smooth.
(It really isn't very pretty, is it?)
The sound is a mixed bag. The music is perfectly acceptable and the sound effcts are adequate for this era, but the voice-overs are beyond annoying. The annoying digitalized Asian voice when the round ends or begins is just laughably bad. Half the time I’m not even sure if the names were being pronounced correctly because it sounds like it’s been ran through so many sound filters.
Much as with Metal Slug 2, I wasn’t able to find a single match in King of Fighters ’96. It’s a shame, because this is the kind of game that needs online for longevity. Nevertheless I did have a good time playing with friends, and the computer offers 10 different levels of difficulty to keep you busy. The difficulty levels do become noticably better at higher levels, and you’ll have to be a top-tier player to not at least sweat during a computer match with the highest difficulty level. The AI does add a little bit of longevity, but hopefully by the time you’ve mastered the AI you’ll actually be able to find an online match.
If you’re a fighting game fan that’s never tried a King of Fighters game (like I was), this is a great way to see the series in its root days. And if you’re a fighting game fan that, for some reason, missed this even though you did play other King of Fighters games…well, shame on you, and you should definitely add this game to your PSN collection. Either way you win, because King of Fighters ’96 is quite simply a great fighting game.
(I'd like to thank Goukijones and Gouki.com for giving me my copy of King of Fighters '96 for review.)