Iori had that look way before it was cool.

It’s been more than two years since the last King of Fighters entry. April 2009 saw the wildly heralded debut of King of Fighters XII, a title that earned a massive amount of pre-release hype almost entirely based on its gorgeous, hand-drawn 2D animation.

Unfortunately, that was really all the game had going for it.

Fast forward to the present and we see developer SNK Playmore (backed by publisher Atlus) ready to take another shot at this whole “virtual pugilism” thing with King of Fighters XIII. “We can do better this time guys, honest!” the pre-release hype seemed to say. “Yeah, XII was a mistake, but we’ve learned our lesson and you’re gonna love this new game!”

Having been burned by the last game, I dropped KoFXIII into my Xbox 360, eyebrow raised and cynicism at the ready. I’ve always liked SNK’s underdog spirit, so I was willing to give the company one more chance. “But this is the last time SNK. Screw me again, and we’re through,” I muttered.

A quick history lesson for those just walking in the door.

The King of Fighters series was first launched in 1994 by the company then-known simply as SNK. It was (as most of the gaming industry’s efforts in those days) an attempt to unseat Capcom’s Street Fighter II as the reigning king of the arcades — or, at the very least, to ride its coattails to a sizable profit. The game included characters from SNK’s biggest games; Fatal Fury, Art of Fighting and Ikari Warriors were all represented in that first tournament, and later KoF games would add fighters from Kizuna Encounter, Buriki-One and Psycho Soldier, among other games you’re vaguely aware of. Tying this esoteric cast to the first team-based fighting system players had ever seen made the KoF games a hit, and while it never toppled Capcom’s empire, it would quickly become SNK’s flagship series.

Unfortunately for SNK, this success came just as arcades were dying. Unlike Capcom, SNK had never developed a major foothold in the home console market, so when the arcades collapsed so did a large part of the company’s primary business model. The first decade of the new millennium was a rough time for SNK, and while the details are largely irrelevant to this review (though laid out nicely in this Gamespot article), just know that when the company began promoting KoFXII in 2008, it was seen as a resurgence for a brand that most mainstream gamers had long ago presumed dead.

As I said before however, KoFXII wasn’t exactly the fire needed to reignite worldwide passion for the series. Why? Two key reasons. First, in an era where online gameplay was finally viable and perfunctory for fighting games, attempting to play KoFXII over the ‘net was an exercise in frustration. It wasn’t so much that the game experienced lag spikes, as it would simply freeze up for seconds at a time.

Second, and most crucially, in a series known for its huge cast of fan-favorite characters, KoFXII only included a paltry 22 fighters. Granted, they were all re-drawn in a gorgeous, 2D style that contrasted daringly with the 3D animation seen in Capcom’s then-recent Street Fighter IV, but compared to the 47 fighters found in the PlayStation 2 version of King of Fighters XI, the new game came up laughably short.

With that in mind, one can see why I approach King of Fighters XIII with a wary eye. One of my earliest arcade memories was pumping quarters into KoF’94, long before I knew who any of the characters were, and this series, more than any other, instilled in me an early love for the esoteric, notably Japanese games that, for whatever reasons, never quite earned the affection from American audiences that one might expect. It’s something like falling in love with an obscure rock band and following their success despite your friends’ utter bewilderment at what the hell you’re listening to. That spirit of “ownership” made the failures of KoFXII almost personal for me, and likewise make the excellent bits of KoFXIII that much more impressive.

Yes, Mai is as bouncy as you remember.
  • Atlus/SNK Playmore
  • Yes, Mai is as bouncy as you remember.

Let’s start at the top: As I already mentioned, the one key redeeming feature of KoFXII was the game’s gorgeous animation and hand-drawn character sprites. SNK — now SNK Playmore, but for the purposes of brevity this article will continue to refer to the company by its original name — obviously acknowledges this aesthetic grace as its singular success in that game, and has thus opted to keep the art style. Only in KoFXIII, the cast has been massively expanded, to a very respectable (but not unprecedented) 35 fighters. This includes all 22 characters from KoFXII, 9 fighters from earlier King of Fighters games, and classic iterations of fan-favorites Iori Yagami and Kyo Kusanagi to be released as downloadable content. Again, that’s not an unheard of number of pugilists, but for a modern fighting game that’s a pretty solid slate of combatants, especially given that each has been completely redrawn and reanimated for KoFXIII’s modern, high-definition graphics.

Likewise, the fighting arenas (11 in all) sport cutting-edge aesthetics, combining 3D elements and classic 2D animation. What they lack in interactive features, they more than make up for in detail, with cheering spectators, unexpected cameos from tangentially-related SNK characters and hundreds of small graphical flourishes that are only apparent after spending multiple fights in each location. As with the fighters themselves, the overall impression to a player who has spent years with these kinds of one-on-one fighting games is one of awe at the immense artistic effort poured into each location (though one wonders if neophyte players are likewise impressed by such effort, having no experience with the history of the genre).

If the series has one eternal constant, it’s the classic King of Fighters-style gameplay. Though certain entries in the series added minor tweaks, fans of the earlier games will find themselves right at home with KoFXIII. It may not be as flashy (or as immediately accessible) as the latest Street Fighter games, but for those willing to put in the effort to learn the nuances of the fighting system, the combat in KoFXIII is both thrillingly dramatic, and quite well-balanced. As with all SNK games, the final bosses are wildly unfair, though once you know what tactics work best against them, they offer little challenge and are merely a sideshow to the game’s true draw: versus play.

Sadly, this is the bit where I have to sigh and admit that SNK still hasn’t quite got a grasp on how to make the perfect fighting game. Don’t get me wrong, if you’re sitting on your couch with a friend and a pair of controllers (or fighting sticks if you’re fancy like that), the game is a perfect outlet for competitive aggression. In this regard it stands shoulder to shoulder with Super Street Fighter IV AE (and, on purely technical terms, slightly above Ultimate Marvel vs Capcom 3), but when it comes to online play KoFXIII stumbles a bit.

The hard truth is that while KoFXIII’s online gameplay modes are better-coded than those found in its predecessor, the ‘net play still sports an unreasonable amount of lag. It’s not game breaking, but it is bad enough to quell any hopes of spending hours and hours punching people from halfway across the globe. Atlus has issued word that SNK’s programmers are hard at work on a patch to clear up the lag problems, but as it stands the game’s online woes can’t go unmentioned.

On the opposite side of the spectrum however, KoFXIII offers an unparalleled level of single player gaming, given its generally multiplayer-focused genre. Not only does the game include the de rigueur Arcade mode in which you select a team of three fighters and work your way up through a tournament full of like-minded pugilists before facing off against the aforementioned totally unfair boss characters, but it also includes an honest-to-Orochi Story mode in the form of something akin to a Japanese visual novel. You’re shown a number of cutscenes comprised of static images accompanied by subtitled plot information, while periodically making choices that affect which direction the story takes. Every once in a while you’ll be asked to fight a relevant team of fighters until eventually the story leads you to the game’s final boss. In sum it’s like an expanded version of the Arcade mode, but it offers a lot more plot than your average fighting game, and the art throughout is superb.

Inexplicably, none of these characters are actually playable.

Less surprising are the game’s Tutorial and Mission modes, which train you in playing the game. The Tutorial covers the game’s basics, while each individual character has his or her own set of Missions that task players with pulling off increasingly complex combo attacks. You’ve seen this kind of thing in Street Fighter IV and Marvel vs Capcom 3, but the KoFXIII iteration trumps both simply because SNK had the foresight to include the actual button press commands on-screen in each Mission. It’s a small touch, but given how frustrating it was in Capcom’s fighters to have to pause the game every time you needed a refresher on how exactly to pull off a certain maneuver, it’s incredibly welcome. A gold star to whoever green-lighted that feature.

I’ll admit that my interest in covering this game originally stemmed from my affection for SNK as a company, and fighting games as a genre, but after spending time with KoFXIII, I realize that I’m more interested in offering the title praise not because it’s an excellent fighter, but because of what may be SNK/Atlus’ biggest blunder in the creation of this thing: its launch. Atlus, as usual, has done a spectacular job marketing the game — the gratis 4-disc soundtrack including tunes from throughout King of Fighters history offered for pre-ordering KoFXIII was a brilliant touch — but releasing a game of this caliber at the tail end of 2011 is, in hindsight, insane. In the last three months we’ve seen more brilliant AAA-caliber titles than we did in the entirety of 2010, and I worry that despite KoFXIII’s marked return to the quality standards that made the King of Fighters series the heir apparent to Capcom’s fighting game throne, it will simply be lost in the deluge.

So consider this not so much a review as a plea to any of you with affection for fighting games as a genre, or SNK as a classic brand: Seek out KoFXIII and have a look at the effort and clever design choices that went into the creation of this title. King of Fighters XIII won’t win game of the year, but it is a welcome homecoming for a series that has spent the past few years as a punchline.