It's not so good to be the king.
The King of Fighters series started back in 1994, right towards the end of the 16-bit console era, when people still actually bought basketball shoes with pumps. The Neo Geo ruled the arcades (remember those? Probably not) and busted out with the MVS, an arcade system that boasted replaceable cartridges for their hardware. Year after year, this hardware would be updated with the latest and greatest the arcade scene had to offer.
Somehow, SNK managed to eke out a decade's worth of King of Fighters from their aged 24-bit beast. As memorable as the times have been, it is indeed time to move on, and King of Fighters: Maximum Impact is not the way to do it. This is an average, unimpressive 3D fighting game without any of the quirks and charm of its 2D forebears.
Nonetheless, most of your favorite fighters from the KoF series are included here, with some fine, nerdy new details that should appeal to the hardcore fan base. For instance, Terry Bogard sports both the classic red hat and jacket and the Mark of the Wolves bomber jacket costumes. Old standbys such as Kyo Kusanagi, the always vibrant Mai Shiranui, and the Ikari team are still here. Fans will likely point out some of the lesser fighters they wish were in here as well, since by the end of the KoF series, approximately one million fighters have made an appearance. This time, the total maxes out at a much more reasonable 20 or so.
In addition to the old-school crew, there are a slew of new fighters in Southtown. You have the brothers Meria: Alba, an angry looking guy in shades, and his opposite twin Soiree, an effeminate fella with a little toreador hat on his back. Charming. There's also Chae Lim, a spunky Korean martial artist and perhaps the only female character in the game without any overt sexuality. On the far end of the hoochie scale is Lien Neville, a spy in the vein of Sam Fisher, only with gigantic boobs in place of night vision.
Perhaps the most standout new fighter for all the wrong reasons is Mignon Beart. She is quite possibly the single most annoying character in a fighting game ever, the culmination of every bad anime clich" in one cloyingly disgusting package. She apologizes after she throws a punch, squeaks when she walks, and hits herself when she loses a fight. Yes, this girl has problems, and they're not just in her terrible design.
The game offers a pretty bare assortment of modes: Story mode (if you could even call it that), Vs. and Practice modes, which are pretty self explanatory, and Mission mode, which puts you through the paces of several tests of skill. It's challenging, but there's not much reward for doing well.
When you first enter the tournament in Story mode, the announcer glibly warns you that there might be underhanded things afoot behind this year's King of Fighters tournament (as if there aren't underhanded things afoot behind every year's tournament). Apparently, the tournament is being run by a gang called Mephistopheles. Gee, I wonder if they're evil. Incidentally, the game's main boss is named Duke. Evil indeed!
Suffice to say, the story is no good, but that's par for the course when it comes to fighting games. King of Fighters: Maximum Impact's plot is a complete hodgepodge of obtuse, stupid drama. Can we please just have a fighting game with a competent story? Even the earlier games in the series had gratifying endings, but here, the endings just stink.
At least the fighting still manages to be competent. The basics of the classic 2D fighting style have been transferred over into the 3D world, creating a 3D game that still plays and feels 2D. Like most fighting games, there are standard moves, specials, and advanced moves that deplete a Special meter. King of Fighters is a fast-paced game, requiring a good amount of twitch skill in addition to being able to pull off the Specials quickly. The three-dimensionality is summed up in a side-step move. But while there are strengths in transporting the dynamics of the tried and true four-attack KoF system (two punches, two kicks), not much has been done to give the game a new feel to complement the new look. It's pretty much the same old gameplay.
When it isn't moving, King of Fighters: Maximum Impact looks like a much more detailed version of earlier games. The textures are intricate and sharp and each of the characters has survived the 3D transposing quite intact. But once you start swinging away at each other, the game just doesn't look as good as it should. The animations are stiff and unpolished and the fighting environments are bland and pedantic. Maximum Impact simply doesn't stand up to the vibrant 2D of Guilty Gear or the silky-smooth 3D of the Dead or Alive series.
The subpar graphics are brilliant compared to the sound, however. The music is terribly generic and the English voices are awful. Yuri Sakazaki's voice sounds like a five year-old boy instead of a bubbly cutie-pie. Bad localization ruins everything.
Although the fighting is decent and fans of the series will enjoy the new look of the characters, King of Fighters: Maximum Impact isn't nearly as interesting as it would have you believe. The game tries to get by riding the coattails of its 10 year legacy, but it doesn't offer enough to compete with the likes of Soul Calibur 2 or Virtua Fighter and has lost any edge it might have had over 2D games like Guilty Gear. The series is already dramatically dated, and unfortunately, this isn't the game to usher the tournament into a new age.