Does The King of Fighters XIV have what it takes to bring SNK back from the brink
Alright, I have to be honest here and lay my cards on the table from the outset of this piece. I’m a bit of an SNK fanatic. I’ve been hopelessly hooked to the onetime arcade juggernaut’s lineup since the first time I stumbled across a two-slot Neo Geo MVS arcade cabinet at my local pizzeria as a kid. After plunking my first quarters into the machine for some quality time with Sengoku and Baseball Stars 2, that was all she wrote. After all, the appeal of playing a game that lets you take control of pink cowboy hat wearing samurai who battles spectral ninjas in the heavens is a hard thing to shake. And the moment my hulking, ‘roid-raging batter first clobbered a pitcher for peggin him with a curveball I knew I had reached the pinnacle of entertainment. Simply put, the Neo Geo had blown my 8-year-old mind with its amazing gameplay, detailed sprites, and crisp “Sphero Sympony” audio. Those who frequented arcades in the early ’90s will understand what I mean when I say there was simply nothing else like the Neo Geo in its prime. It was the Ferrari of home and arcade hardware, and it ensnared the hearts and thumbs of all who played it thanks to its unrivaled sprite-pushing power and stable of unforgettable software.
Like many of today’s thirty-somethings, my parents weren’t about to shell out the $649 – in 1990 dollars, no less – for me to bring the arcade experience into my living room. That said, I had to get my fill of SNK’s arcade classics when I was lucky enough to come across them in the wild. After awhile, my ears became trained to listen for the telltale jingle of the Neo Geo’s splash screen. My addiction was fierce! Whenever I spent summer vacation with my family at Rehoboth Beach, Delaware and Ocean City, Maryland, I’d exchange countless bills for quarters to hack down my adversaries in Samurai Shodown or blast the evil General Morden’s forces in Metal Slug II before it was time to take the long northbound drive home.
While it’s been nearly 20 years since those glory days when SNK dominated the arcades and tantalized millions of players with their ultra-expensive home hardware, I’ve managed to live much of my adult life like some kind of Southtown refugee. I finally got my mitts on my first Neo Geo AES home console back in 2005, and shortly thereafter got into the arcade scene as well, amassing a sizable collection of Neo Geo cabinets and cartridges.
Simply put, I have to be honest and admit that I’m hardly unbiased when I say I think it looks like The King of Fighters XIV looks like it could have what it takes to put SNK back on the map.
After all, I’ll be the first to admit that the first glimpse we got of The King of Fighters XIV wasn’t the prettiest. The initial screenshots of the game looked barren and lacked that signature personality found in previous iterations of the long-running fighting game series. However, things have come a long way since we first saw series stalwarts Kyo Kusanagi and Iori Yagami fighting in that lifeless arena. Every new batch of screens and trailers we’ve received since the game’s unveiling last year have looked considerably better than the last. The King of Fighters XIV sports a burgeoning 50+ character roster that’s home to a wealth of familiar faces from the franchise, and they’re all brought to life with stunning animations that rival the lush, hand-drawn style of the original games. These polygonal pugilists return to the fray with their signature repertoires of glowing projectiles, stylish combos, and flashy Desperation Moves that fill the screen with vibrant effects as your character punishes their opponent. Familiar arenas, such as Geese Tower and a dusky truck stop that looks like a re-imagined version of The King of Fighters 96‘s sleepy desert town look better than ever in their full 3D splendor. Sure, it might not feature the painstaking level of detail as that found in Capcom’s Street Fighter V, but glossy visuals aren’t everything. For what KoF XIV’s cast and locales lack in raw polygonal prowess, they make up for with tremendous personality and a fighting engine that looks as tight and fast-paced as the finest entries in the franchise.
One area where The King of Fighters XIV seems poised to edge the competition is in the amount of content it delivers right out of the box. SNK and ATLUS are doing away with the current trend of offering DLC characters to round out the roster of combatants when it comes to XIV, making the entire roster available from the moment you fire the game up for the first time. This is a huge plus for players, as they won’t be forced to shell out extra cash or play through the game’s main story over and over again in order to take control of their favorite characters in the game’s online arena. Considering SFV launched with a relatively paltry 16 playable characters (though more have been added on a regular basis), this is a huge bonus, granting fans a massive stable of fighters to master from the outset. Hopefully SNK’s decision to make the game’s full roster from the outset pays dividends, as fans won’t have to worry about waiting several months before their favorite brawler is added to the lineup. Giving players the ability to make full use of the cast from the beginning should give the game’s launch a considerable boost towards pulling in as many players as possible to lay the groundwork for a solid online community with some serious staying power.
Ever since the series’ original protagonist Kyo Kusanagi set off on the Orochi Saga, The King of Fighters series has enjoyed a pretty entertaining backstory compared to many of their contemporaries, filled with proud heroes, contemptuous villains, and a fair number of lovable goofballs pulled into the fray for their own motives. These stories have pit the game’s global gladiators in battles to overthrow wicked international arms dealers, mighty megalomaniacs, and even wicked gods. While we haven’t heard too many details on the story that frames The King of Fighters XIV‘s tournament, SNK has confirmed the game will feature one of the series’ most ambitious single player stories yet. While some would dismiss this as something every fighter should have, the sad fact is story modes have become an afterthought in fighting games these days. If SNK is able to build off the franchise’s cast of compelling characters in a meaningful way, this could be yet another leg up on the competition.
While it remains to be seen if The King of Fighters XIV has what it takes to climb to the top of the fighting game throne, it definitely looks to bring a lot of value to the table in terms of content, especially when you considering what the competition has been doing. Here’s hoping the game can live up to the high expectations of SNK’s demanding fanbase and inject new energy into SNK, as the company has had some serious trouble both finding its footing and pleasing longtime fans of their properties since Playmore acquired SNK following its bankruptcy in 2001. If The King of Fighters XIV does manage to turn things around for the beleaguered company, there’s more hope that we could see other classic franchises, such as The Last Blade and Mark of the Wolves see proper sequels on modern hardware. I’m certainly pulling for them, and sincerely hope that KoF XIV delivers a real revolution that modernizes the series while retaining the ferocious fighting spirit the franchise is known for.
Only time will tell, and as SNK says, “The Future is Now.”
So, do you think The King of Fighters XIV could have what it takes to breathe new life into SNK? If so, what other franchises would you like to see the company revisit next? Be sure to sound off in the comments section below and let us know.