I got into KOF at somewhat of an odd time. I liked a lot of SNK’s earlier games like Fatal Fury and especially Art Of Fighting and Samurai Shodown. But when KOF94 came out, and after the initial cross-over appeal passed, I found the game to be a bit of a let down. The AOF characters looked less impressive than their own selves in AOF2, lacking the beautiful massive sprites, the impressive zoom camera effect, and other details like disfigurement and clothes tearing off. And even when looking at KOF94 on its own, it mechanically felt too pedestrian, essentially a SF2 clone, with not much to differentiate it beyond having pre-set 3vs3 teams. And the pre-set teams were a problem themselves, since it meant that you were forced to play with, say, Chang and Choi, if you wanted to play with Kim from Fatal Fury 2. And all 3 of them have wildly different play styles. KOF did quickly improve with the next titles in the series, but I never got the chance, since soon after I played Virtua Fighter and Virtua Fighter 2, and it was the end of 2D fighting games for me…for a while.
This intro blew a lot of minds, including mine. But once I got to play KOF94 for some time I just got bored quickly.
Cut to the the year 2000. An out-of-town cousin of mine moved into my city for college. And we both were into video games so we hung out a lot. And he brought his Dreamcast with a copy of KOF99. And the game for some reason clicked with me, when KOF94 didn’t. Maybe I felt nostalgic to play old FF and AOF characters again. Maybe I had a re-appreciation of 2D sprites at a time when they were starting to fade out of the limelight. I don’t really know why, but KOF99 turned me into a KOF fan. And after KOF99, me and my cousin kept playing each KOF release adamantly (even going back to playing older ones, 98 especially). We managed to hook up with a few other people who were also big into fighting games, and we had gatherings for KOF and other games every weekend or so. Me and my cousin even managed to pool our money to order a Neo Geo AES cart of KOF2002, which was well over 1000 Saudi Riyals in 2002 money. Point is, I was crazy into KOF by now.
The game that started it all. A fantastic port of what might be the prettiest Neo Geo KOF, with great music.
And in some other sense it was “crazy”. I remember mutual friends outside this “KOF group" being so confused that we were both so into this fighting game series that uses “nintendo graphics" on a (then) 12 year old system with games that cost about as much as a new PS2+a modern fighting game like Tekken 4. But we kept playing KOF, with 2002, 2003, XI, and side-entries and spin-offs of mixed quality like SVC Chaos, KOF NeoWave, Maximum Impacts, and Neo Geo Battle Coliseum.
So many hours wasted on KOF2002. It wasn't the prettiest KOF despite being one of the more popular in the series
For a majority of its life, mainline KOF had “dated” graphics. This is not a quality judgement, this is a fact. KOF’s visuals were never “cutting edge” or even in-line with graphics standards of its time, especially in the turbulent post-SNK bankruptcy & resurgence era in the 2000s. I mean the series itself started with KOF94, released the same year Virtua Fighter 2 was put out in arcades, a game which changed the landscape for video game graphics in the industry as a whole, let alone fighting games. Now I wanna make it clear this does not mean KOF ever looked bad. I personally think good art design lasts regardless of the hardware it was on. And KOF always looked great, with top-class sprite-work (especially with the higher resolution sprites of KOF XII and XIII).
Which is where we come to KOF XIV. If there’s one big criticism facing KOF XIV since its announcement, its the dated “PS2” graphics. Go to any KOFXIV trailer and read the comments (I know that’s never smart but just for the sake of argument) and you’ll find a few “lol is this a PS2 game?”. And they’re not really wrong. SNK historically were never gifted with 3D visuals. Their best attempts may have been with the KOF Maximum Impact games. But games like Metal Slug 3D or Samurai Shodown Sen/Edge Of Destiny are some of the worst looking on the consoles they were on. Yet for KOF XIV, SNK chose to go 3D despite their marred history in that visual field. And while the graphics for KOF XIV certainly improved since that horrible announcement trailer. And the low-poly models, bad aliasing, and sometimes weird animation do kinda give it a nice retrograde charm. I still don't find it to be anywhere near as pretty as any KOF, let alone KOF XIII (except maybe KOF2002, which was hella ugly, with an even worse soundtrack).
The first screenshots (shown here) and trailers for KOF XIV were rough. Visuals did improve soon after.
But there’s a big reason for that, one that SNK has been touting in nearly every trailer they put out since they announced the game: 50 characters, the biggest in mainline KOF history, and in a sense the biggest for any fighting game completely made out of original assets (as far as I know). Yes, It’s a shame that SNK had to switch to using 3D polygonal characters (of varying quality) instead of building up on the amazing KOF XIII sprites. But a new console generation, combined with a big company shake-up (with SNK being purchased by Ledo Millennium and exiting the pachinko-slot market to get back into game development) and brand change (return of the old SNK logo etc) meant that it was more apt for them to have a brand new from the ground-up KOF. And the more I play KOF XIV, the more I’m convinced this was the right choice.
This character select screen is still kinda insane.
Aside from being able to get back a lot of fan favorite characters into a new KOF, the ability to easily model characters means they can also create brand new characters, and KOF XIV has quite a lot of them: 18*. That’s huge, even for KOF. But it seemed like SNK is making up for lost time by creating so many new characters. See, SNK started working on high-rez sprites for KOF XII after KOF XI was put out in arcades in 2005. And after close to a decade of work across KOF XII and KOF XIII (and a major overhaul for the console port of XIII) , KOF hadn’t had a single brand new character aside from Saiki, who is just a head-swap of Ash. It’s kinda disappointing when you see all the new characters in story mode cutscenes and notice that they were clearly made with the intent of being playable characters, but aren't. Even with the opportunity of DLC characters, all SNK could muster up were “ex” versions of Kyo, Iori, and Takuma. It felt like a missed opportunity. New characters can help pull players from outside the KOF scene into a new game. And the response to KOF XIV’s new characters have been fairly positive, particularly with Sylvie Paula Paula, and King Of Tizoc….I mean King Of Dinosaurs.
A dino-masked wrestler named "King Of Dinosaurs". A dino-masked wrestler named "King Of Dinosaurs". A friggin dino-masked wrestler named "King Of Dinosaurs".
But aside from roster size, there is a more important reason for SNK to use 3D polygons instead of beautiful 2D sprites, one that affects all characters old and new. Because animating moves with 3D models instead of 2D sprites is an easier and more flexible process, the characters in XIV feel more “complete” and well-rounded compared to KOF XIII. One of the things KOF XIII didn’t have (which XIV does) is universal far and close standing normals for all characters. In KOF, every standing button (thats A, B, C, and D) has far and close variations, except KOF XII and XIII. In XIII (because lets ignore XII for now and ever), it was a case by case on just a subset of the buttons. For example, the only proximity standing button Kyo has was C with a close C and Far C, the other standing buttons stuck with either the old close variation (for A and B) or far ones (with D). Instead of 8 standing attacks, Kyo only has 5. Sure, not all 8 attacks were super useful, but Kyo did lose far B (a fast long poke, which now he needs to rely on the slower-but-still-good standing D as replacement) and far A (a great anti-hop button, now Kyo has to rely on the close A variant, which does the job, but not as well). This is the case with every character in KOF XIII.
Kyo's standing A attacks. Close is top, far is bottom. Note that far A is missing in KOF XIII.
Kyo's standing B attacks. Far B is missing in KOF XIII.
And it’s not just buttons, but special moves and supers as well. Most returning characters in KOF XIII have all their signature moves, but rarely do they have some of the more auxiliary situational secondary moves, which are of varying usefulness. For example, Ryo doesn’t have his qcf+K jumping chop attack. It was never as important as any of the other moves he has in XIII, but the the D version of that move was a good fast long range move that was great at punishing full-screen fireballs because it jumps over fireballs and gets to the opponent pretty quickly, faster than a super jump would. There’re issues like these all over the KOF XIII roster. Sometimes SNK deals with them in creative ways. Clark used to have his dp+K Frankensteiner move, an invincible delayed grab, which is an essential tool for a lot of grapplers in KOF. In KOF XIII he didn't have it. But when SNK were working on the console port for KOF XIII, they changed the B version of his Super Argentine Backbreaker to be slower and have autoguard, essentially working like his old Frankensteiner move but simply using the same sprites as his D-Super Argentine Backbreaker. They got lucky with that one.
Loved chopping people with this. Ryo is still very good in even without this move in KOF XIII (& XIV for that matter).
This was all predicated on the fact that KOF XIII used 2D sprites. Making beautiful high-rez 2D sprites for a massive cast is not easy. And you need a big cast for a team based game like KOF. Other “anime” fighting games out there may use 2D sprites with similar resolution, but usually the cast size is significantly smaller, or in the case of Blazblue, has been built up after years of almost yearly full-price releases on consoles, something which KOF used to do, as well as Street Fighter and other fighting games, but don’t do anymore for a variety of reasons. SNK was forced to cut corners here and there with KOF XIII, not to mention have to ship out a nigh-incomplete game in the form of KOF XII just to be able to recoup the costs to make KOF XIII. Using 3D polygonal models makes the process of creating and modifying moves more flexible, and with the burden of cost lowered, decisions to add or modify character moves in the everlasting process of balancing a fighting game become easier.
SNK’s approach to using 3D polygons for KOF XIV has freed them from the heavy constraints of high-rez 2D sprites. Sure, limitations can at times force people to find more creative solutions, which could lead to a better product. And KOF XIII is a fantastic game. But it’s a risk. And it doesn’t always pays off, as was the case with KOF XII. This doesn’t mean that KOF XIV is a better game than XIII as it is still way too early to decide that. But so far KOF XIV is looking like it’ll be a great KOF. And I have to credit a lot of that to KOF's transition to 3D polygons, even if the little part of me that loves SNK's 2D art hates that I admit that.
But I can proudly say that Violent Fighting Has Finally Come Again!
*This is counting bosses and pachislot characters. Sure the pachislot crew have been around for some time (Miu Miu was introduced in 2004!) but this is really their first debut not only in a genre they’ve never been in, but to a majority of the people playing KOF XIV