Featuring 13 entries in the core series, The King of Fighters has been around in one form or another for almost 20 years. Dating all the way back to the arcade renaissance of the early nineties, KoF has had its ups and downs, but remains one of the most cherished fighting game franchises in history. Where did it all begin though? That is exactly what I aim to answer with this series.
The King of Fighters is a very unique series because it isn’t its own stand alone release. There’s a reason the first game in the series is called The King of Fighters ’94, and that’s because the tournament actually took place a few times before that game. On top of that, SNK had taken many gameplay elements from other fighting games and sort of created a dream match with the first KoF, but I’m getting ahead of myself. In order to really understand the roots of the series we need to go back in time to when fighting games first took of…
Rewind the clock to February 1991, when Capcom’s Street Fighter II had taken over the arcade scene. Not only was it single-handily responsible for saving the arcade business, but it helped usher in a genre that was largely ignored, the one-on-one fighter. SNK had been in development of their own fighting game before the launch of Street Fighter II. Their first ‘modern’ fighter was a game called Fatal Fury: The King of Fighters. Over in Japan the title was Garō Densetsu Shukumei no Tatakai, which is important to note for later on in the article. Interestingly Takashi Nishiyama, the original creator of Street Fighter (1987), was the lead creative director on Fatal Fury. The game was in development at the same time as Capcom’s SF II, although because it was released after (November 1991) it was largely considered a SF II clone upon its release.
Fatal Fury was quite a different beast when compared with Street Fighter II. For one thing Capcom’s fighter placed an emphasis on combos, whereas FF was more about the timing of special moves and on storytelling. Much like SF II, special moves in Fatal Fury require the player to move the joystick around in a certain sequence and press a series of buttons in order to execute. An interesting idea was to actually show players the special moves after each bonus round, instead of having the input command written somewhere on the game’s cabinet. This was most likely done because of the very nature of the MVS arcade cabinets, which allowed up to six different games be played on a single machine. As for the bonus rounds, after every two matches against the CPU players would take on an arm-wrestling mini-game, which required players to mash on the A button like crazy.
The core gameplay felt different too thanks to the inclusion of two distinct planes, a foreground plane and a back plane, or lines as they’re often called. Only the CPU-controlled characters could switch between planes on the fly, whereas players could only swap planes when the other character had already done so. Another interesting addition was that of the versus mode. Unlike in SF II, when another player would enter a quarter in the arcade machine, the person who was playing wouldn’t have their game cut short. Instead the new player would actually join the original player against the CPU for a nice 2-on-1 match. Afterwards the two players would battle. It was very unique, and some joked it was the only way to actually beat the single player game.
One criticism placed on Fatal Fury was the minimal number of playable characters. In this groundbreaking fighter there were only three different characters to chose from, and while each had their own distinct fighting style, three characters was far from ideal considering Street Fighter II featured a roster of eight unique characters. Some fans also disliked that Fatal Fury only had three action buttons, one for punch, kick, and throw compared to SF II‘s six action buttons (light, medium, and fierce punch and kick buttons).
Gameplay differences aside, one of the major reasons players became interested in Fatal Fury was because of its excellent, yet simple storyline. It goes something like this. Ten years ago crime lord Geese Howard murdered a rival martial artist by the name of Jeff Bogard, who was part of the trial against Geese. Fast forward ten years and Jeff’s two sons Andy and Terry seek revenge. Geese decides to hold a street fighting tournament called the King of Fighters in order to prove he’s the strongest one there is in the fictitious American city of South Town. Andy, Terry, and their friend Joe Higashi enter the tournament and the rest is history. These details may be off a bit, as I’m writing this from memory, but the general storyline is something like that.
One cannot simply talk about the history of The King of Fighters without spoiling the main plot lines of several classic games, so if you’re interested in experiencing the story for yourself, there are no shortage of ways to play these gems. From Nintendo’s Virtual Console, to the Neo Geo X, and the PlayStation 3’s Neo Geo Station, pick your poison and enjoy. You’ve been warned.
After Fatal Fury, SNK got hard to work on two different fighters, The Art of Fighting, and a follow-up to Fatal Fury, appropriately enough called Fatal Fury 2. Both games took place in the same universe though, which was a really unique move on SNK’s part. First we’ll look at the follow-up to Fatal Fury, and I’ll tackle The Art of Fighting in the next installment in this series.
Released to the arcades in December 1992 in Japan, Fatal Fury 2 improved on the original in every way possible. Players now had four action buttons (Light and Strong Punch and Kick), and a much-needed and appreciated dash back move (executed by tapping the joystick back twice). Gameplay was also tweaked so players could move between the two planes whenever they wanted, and the game was one of the first that I know of to introduce environmental damage. Some stages featured hazardous environments in the background plane so if the player did a Power Move their opponent would be shoved to the back plane, and perhaps a stampede would occur causing extra damage. There was also a stage with electrified fences if I recall correctly. Players could even perform special plane attack moves, which would allow them to continue to attack even if the player wasn’t on the same plane.
Further enhancements were made to the fighting system allowing players to perform counter attacks after blocking an incoming attack, desperation special attacks once their health dropped below 25%, and even taunts. Mini-games were still present, but were now featured after every four battles instead of two.
For a game released only a year after the original, Fatal Fury 2 featured a wide assortment of improvements, but the biggest has to be the increased character roster. There were now eight playable characters including fan favorite Mai Shiranui. This marked her appearance in a videogame, and she would become SNK’s most popular female character across all their franchises.
This time around the King of Fighters tournament is held by a mysterious nobleman who is hellbent on finding out who killed Geese Howard, and destroying them. The tournament is no longer just about one city, instead it’s a worldwide event, which explains the additional characters. Each character has his or her own reason for joining the tournament, and the story was greatly fleshed out as a result.
Fatal Fury 2 was a big success for the company, but they weren’t entirely satisfied with the way the final game turned out, so they released an updated version called Fatal Fury Special in September 1993. It introduced an entirely new combo system, which greatly increased the speed and movement of the game. The four non-playable boss characters were now playable, as well as three non-playable characters from the first Fatal Fury. That increased the roster to 15 playable characters, and a new hidden boss was added, Ryo Sakazaki from Art of Fighting fame. Many new moves were added as well, but for the most part the game was considered a much more refined or deluxe version of Fatal Fury 2, which is exactly what it was.
That concludes the Fatal Fury portion of this tale, but the long winding road leading up to the first King of Fighters isn’t done yet, next up is a look at SNK’s other fighting series, The Art of Fighting. The Fatal Fury series would continue for many years up to 1999’s incredible Garou: Mark of the Wolves (called Fatal Fury: Mark of the Wolves on the SEGA Dreamcast), but the purpose of this series is to zero in on the beginnings of The King of Fighters so perhaps one day I shall return to discuss what happens next in the Fatal Fury series.