Back in August 25, 1994, a company called Shin Nihon Kikaku (aka SNK) thought it was a good idea to combine characters from their Fatal Fury and Art of Fighting games, along with those from outside of their fighting games titles, into one mix-mash fighting game.
And thus, the King of Fighters series was born, with top fighting game directors and producers like Takashi Nishiyama (a former Street Fighter developer), Eikichi Kawasaki, and Masanori Kuwasashi at the helm. From its 1994 debut, it became so popular, going so far as to be a perennial favorite against the likes of Capcom’s Street Fighter series.
Then again, the series also had its tragic moments as well, with the company’s bankruptcy back in 2001 it had to sell off its properties to South Korean companies like Eolith whose take on the KOF series did not do them justice. Still, it wasn’t all bad as the company came back again as SNK Playmore, which then became just SNK again last April.
With a new King of Fighters XIV coming out, let’s look back at the series and find out why it’s still a favorite among old-school and new-school fighting game fans.
Its Frickin’ Huge Roster
To say that the selection of fighters in the KOF series is huge is an understatement. Fancy a beginner type character? You have aforementioned human flamethrower Kyo, purple flamethrower nemesis Iori, and American cap bearer Terry Bogard. Need someone more advanced? Try out the white-haired well-endowed brawler Angel who plays sort of like a 3D fighting game character.
SNK also dug up their old games for alternate characters. Ikari Warriors Ralf and Clarke appear in KOF as full-fledged grappler & bruiser archetypes. Athena and Kensou from arcade shooter Psycho Soldiers are your modified “shoto” fireball-tossing uppercutting teenage combatants with slight variations.
This is very noticeable in the dream match King of Fighters titles like KOF ‘98 and KOF 2002, where they disregard story canon to bring in all the characters they can cram in for one fighting game fiesta. Players and newbies will be spoiled for choice over what their favorite team combinations are, let alone who their favorite character is.
Epic Storyline (if you’re diligent)
Speaking of story, the King of Fighters series span a huge epic of a tale unheard of in fighting games. The only caveat is that you have to do a lot of digging from outside sources, unless you can read SNK’s brand of Japanese-translated English because it’s a whole new level of its own.
What started out as a simple fighting tournament run by a rich and ripped German criminal escalated into a conspiracy revolving around an ancient ritual of reviving a demon god loosely based on the Yamato no Orochi folklore from Japan. Major key players change up their fighting styles based on the story, and characters get ousted because they end up dead at the end of each KOF entry.
Then it takes a 180-degree turn with the sci-fi N.E.S.T story, where secret organizations are creating their own brand of flame-throwing Kyos with one of them rebelling against his masters and “siblings”. It then caps off with a French guy named Ash Crimson stealing flames and sacred treasures from past characters with an agenda of his own. Pretty riveting stuff, that.
Game Mechanics Up The Wazoo
Fans and fighting game aficionados who like fast gameplay usually bring up The King of Fighters series. Every character in the roster can short hop, do a big jump, roll & dodge to avoid oncoming attacks, and run. Even if you’re the slowest grappler around, every character in the series is mobile.
These are just a few of the many mechanics each KOF title introduces to set it apart from its peers. While not completely original, it was executed very well. Watching a fight between pro gamers with three fighters in their team is like watching an artful ballet of pyro kinetics and all-out beat downs.
Even the basic character selection is an art of its own as you need to figure out which character to place first in your team so that he or she can build up the meter you want for your second and last character to use. No wonder a lot of the fighting game pros declare the KOF series a rather high-level game as compared to the Street Fighter series.
The Eventual Crossover With Capcom
The KOF series was so big during the 90s and 2000s that fans were arguing over whether it was better than the Street Fighter series. So both SNK and Capcom were like decided to do a crossover title…for the fun of it. Enter the SNK vs. Capcom series.
These games were awesome because they allowed fighting game fans to pit Capcom fighters against SNK fighters. Who was the better blonde: Ken or Terry Bogard? Who was the badder big boss: Geese Howard or M.Bison? Coupled with a fighting system that blends the best of both worlds, the Capcom vs. SNK series was a love letter to everyone who grew up with 2D fighting games.
Music & Aesthetics
Okay, so this part is subjective. Let’s compare KOF’s music side-by-side with Street Fighter. Whereas Ryu’s theme is still very prominent, it’s been remixed far too many times.
One can argue that it’s a classic theme that doesn’t need much change, but somehow KOF’s many themes share a cohesive sound motif and feel despite using different instruments & tempos in yearly entries.
These three examples below are from Iori’s team. Note the dominating saxophone in each track to highlight the team’s music with each iteration:
While we are on aesthetics, the earlier entries of KOF back then, and arguably KOF XIII, also boasted detailed backdrops with personality. Every round of a match will signify a slight weather or time change from daytime to nighttime.
Its Fervent & Huge Community
We’ve brought up our own reasons on why the series deserves its place in history. Pro gamer Kun Xian Ho (EVO 2013’s Street Fighter IV champion) got his start in fighting games with the King of Fighters series. “KOF is very dear to me. Because the series allowed me to make many friends when I was younger. I also learned a lot of different fighting game skills that could be applied today.”
Xian said that the actual gameplay in a fighting game is more important, hence he learned a lot from starting out fighting games with the KOF series. “The two most important things I learned from KOF that I use today are spacing and execution. These two factors allowed me to understand fighting games better now as they are not as complicated.”
Xian also believes that the next KOF will have more new players because it is easier to get into as compared to previous titles. “A lot of players do not like KOF XIII’s HD system, so I think the new game will garner in more new players as a result which is interesting.”
Even with the missteps SNK took with the franchise, the King of Fighters series will have a special place in most fighting gamers’ hearts all across Asia. Its colorful and personality-heavy cast, its fast gameplay, its lovely music & backdrops, and how it all gels together makes this fighter a king-of-the-ring material.
Hopefully with the 14th game already out for PS4, SNK and fans will get to start afresh and garner new fans for future generations to come.