It may not be immediately apparent, but for all the seemingly minor iterations King of Fighters has gone through over the years, it is actually a deeply sophisticated series. Sure, it may have garnered a bit of ﬂak for having reused so many of the same character sprites and animations for as long as it did, but itʼs important to remember that King of Fighters spent most of its life as an annual series. Thus, each game was made under very strict limitations time-wise and came out on hardware that, by the time the last annual game in the series was released, was pushing well over a decade—nearly unprecedented in the gaming world at the time. While it may be true enough that the series did begin to show its age near the end of its existence as a yearly series, the concept itself—evolve within its own framework as much as possible within a year, on the basis that small changes can make a big difference—really is pretty clever. From this standpoint, Iʼm pretty hard pressed to think of any yearly series in gaming history that has done more with itself in the same limited time span as King of Fighters.
But if it feels like itʼs been a while since weʼve seen a proper entry in the series, itʼs because it has. A lot has happened regarding the way the series has been manufactured and distributed when a missed deadline (King of Fighters 2003 actually came out in 2004) caused SNK to rethink its way of creating the series, giving it a number instead of a year, and shifting it off the Neo Geo platform after a decade. We last met the series with King of Fighters XII, a game which spent much of its life in development hell of sorts, suffering numerous delays until it was finally released as a woefully incomplete, but gorgeous product. The roster was the smallest in seriesʼ history, an egregious amount of special moves were M.I.A., and the game didnʼt even have a proper arcade story mode OR last boss. So coming into King of Fighters XIII, SNK had a lot to make up for, but thankfully this time the new King of Fighters is not only gorgeous but the ﬁrst proper follow up to the series in ages—and a solid game in its own right.
Rather than attempt yet another new facelift, King of Fighters XIII is basically a “complete” King of Fighters XII— by which I mean itʼs the game XII was supposed to have been. This time, you get not only an arcade mode but a dedicated story mode, expanded roster, more levels, and the SNK trademark impossible last boss Iʼm sure youʼve been wanting. Movelists, thankfully, have been expanded and SNK went all out with levels of character interaction and pre-ﬁghting banter. It is, practically in every way imaginable, an actual, solid next-gen entry in the series. Yet despite the addition of new combo systems, cancels, and overdrives, gameplay wise King of Fighters XIII is not really changed from its predecessors all that much at its core. Rather than pretty visuals, all the series really needs to be successful is a framework to build off of—working within limitations and making big changes by doing minor tweaks has always worked well for SNK. Ultimately the question is not whether King of Fighters XIII is a worthy follow up for the series, but rather, in 2012, what is the appeal of King of Fighters in general over other ﬁghting games? Letʼs discuss what rules about KoF.
In a word, style. King of Fightersʼ style IS its substance. And though the graphical overhaul did seem to have an immeasurable cost regarding time and money (it DID take two games to get to where we are now, after all), the game is gorgeous. Not only is the character animation unrivaled for 2D ﬁghters in general but the backdrops themselves look practically like animated paintings—drenched in color and constantly moving. “Style” in King of Fighters has never been limited to just a pretty facelift, though. At heart, the character designs, moves, and costumes are a lot ﬂashier than those of its peers, but in a way that exudes good sense. Compared to say, Street Fighter, in which each character is essentially an archetype or trope, King of Fighters' cast is far more varied both in terms of personality and a pronounced sense of style that continues to separate it from its brethren—ESPECIALLY when it comes to costume design. And while it may not seem like a big deal, character relationships and banter are a big part of what brings King of Fighters to life. Each character has a distinct personality and certain charm that is lacking in most other ﬁghting rosters, and choosing a team is something youʼre going to base less on effectiveness and more on which characters simply “click” with you more than others.
Bizzarely, and to its credit, King of Fighters XIII seems almost stubborn in how it adheres to its own conventions. Whereas even Capcom has made Street Fighter IV a far more user-friendly game than its last ﬂagship title in the series (the excellent but painfully complicated 3rd Strike) and even actually added English voice acting, King of Fighters is content to stick with its combo and roll gameplay and forced Engrish quips and hokey dialogue. This may seem like sheer negligence, but itʼs like everything—from the gameplay to the graphics to the hallmark completely unfair last boss ﬁght, and even the intentionally (one presumes) cheesy dialogue and character banter/interactions—are part of a deliberate, heroic method of deﬁantly sticking to its guns. King of Fighters XIII has a ﬁrm grasp on its identity, and even if certain win quips make you cringe, you canʼt help but admire its dedication to being itself.
Though SNK seems more intent on giving its long-running series a graphical facelift than gameplay tweaks, the time investment for sprites this sexy comes at a price. While the upgraded roster and graphics are welcome, the character movesets themselves still seem a bit low compared to earlier entries in the series. If youʼve been playing the series for a while, picking up the controller and messing around to ﬁnd that one move essential to your old favorite combo is no longer there can be kind of a big deal. And even if King of Fightersisnʼt the deepest part of the ﬁghting game ocean gameplay-wise, competitive gaming today needs decent online play and my experiences so far have been kind of a disaster. In the ﬁrst case, the user interface is just cumbersome, and regardless of PING Iʼve yet to have a lag-free match with anyone.
It took them a while following the series' annual incarnations, but with King of Fighters XIII SNK ﬁnally built a solid framework for new installments of the series as well as an actual game that holds together on its own terms. The aesthetic facelift is much appreciated and looks impressive, but now that theyʼve built a set of limitations they can work within, I look forward to seeing them expand on it and see what they can do in the future rather than attempting another complete overhaul. In terms of gameplay depth King of Fighters XIII isnʼt going to rival, say, Street Fighter or even SNKʼs own superb Garou: Mark of the Wolves, but it was never meant to. King of Fighters' aim has always been to evolve what it can in a limited time and budget—always emphasizing style and grace above all else. Itʼs about evolution within its own limited framework. I admire SNK's ambitions regarding the graphical changes, but I just hope the next evolution wonʼt take quite as long, even if the series is never to go back to its annual incarnations.
Developer: SNK Playmore
System: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360