ARE YOU OKAAY? BUSTA WOOLF!
Ah, the 1990s! Fighting games were at their prime as SNK, Namco, Midway (haha), Sega, and Capcom literally fought it out to become the top developer after Street Fighter II overtook arcades at a fever pitch. Few, however, had as close of a rivalry as SNK and Capcom. By the end of the decade, countless versions of Street Fighter II and King of Fighters were already released, and frankly, everyone was sick of them - the same looks, the same sounds, and the same gameplay.
[image1]Happily, both companies decided to try out their luck with an upgrade - Capcom finally released Street Fighter III, and SNK revived their Fatal Fury series with Garou: Mark of the Wolves (or Fatal Fury 4: Mark of the Wolves). Both games presented redrawn sprites, new gameplay additions to the fighting formula, and curiously enough, both took the same approach in terms of story and characters, and introduced practically an entirely new cast of characters with very few re-invitations to "old" ones.
I'll skip talking about the changes brought on by Street Fighter III, mainly because they are incredibly difficult to grasp, and well, this is a review for Garou. Years have passed since the demise of Geese Howard - the main baddie from the KoF series - leaving his only son, Rock, under the care of baseball-capped hero Terry Bogard. Terry wasted no time with the kid, teaching him how to fight and thus quickly making Rock a capable fighter. For some reason or another - why would we need an excuse? - a new tournament has begun, bringing in a flock of fighters from around the globe.
To be honest, most of the new characters in Garou are really re-imaginings of past King of Fighters characters, taking on their father's/brother's/cousin's place in the roster, but most manage to keep a personality of their own in terms of moves and visuals. One of the better designs in the fold is B. Jenet, who has managed to move on from Garou into newer SNK fighter titles. At first look, she might seem like another hot video game chick, but her fighting moveset keeps up. Even the weirdest of Garou's cast manage to keep their unique style of fighting, even if a few feel unoriginal in some spots (Freeman, what did you do to Iori?!). Terry, the only remaining "old" character even ditched his classic baseball cap in favor of a leather jacket and shorter hair, and learned new moves to boot.
[image2]For innovation, Garou introduces a new element that seems pointless at first, but is nothing of the sort: the Tactical Offense Position (T.O.P) system. While your character's life gauge is in a specified zone, stronger, special moves can be performed and life power can be regenerated as long as the character's life doesn't dip below the zone. Using T.O.P correctly and effectively in fights is one of Garou's key gameplay secrets, providing a lot of depth to the fighting.
Add the concept of "Perfect Defense" to the mix, and a lot of button mashers will definitely have a hard time against a skilled Garou player. "Perfect Defense" works similarly to Street Fighter III's parry, giving time for a special move if an incoming attack is blocked at the moment it hits your character. In fact, this move is so important to Garou's core fighting system, that in this XBLA/PSN version, some of the Achievements/Trophies are tied to it. There's also a special move counter that fills as you take hits and attack, similar to other counter gauges in most 2D fighters that came out before the original release of Garou. As with most SNK games, it also carries over the hilarious "Engrish" translation, especially in the more detailed background story bits.
Mark of the Wolves was one of the last NeoGeo carts ever to be released, and thus became one of the more expensive ones to acquire, jumping to exorbitant prices. It showed the quality of the games for that system, with smooth character animations, great music, and tight controls, which survive this translation intact, making perfect use of fighting sticks and special controllers. That's not to say you'd have to track down a NeoGeo cartridge and console in order to play this in the past. There were Dreamcast and Playstation 2 ports too; however, these have become also become rare.
That makes a release for a mere 10 dollars seem like a steal, especially considering there's an added online portion. Even though the online mode is barebones and sluggish, there's plenty to enjoy (assuming your fellow player doesn't quit out mid-match or just plain kick you out of the lobby as soon as you join in).
[image3]This makes playing Garou online a mixed bag - while playing it is a mostly lag-free blast, it's the people you'll meet who will prove to be the biggest obstacle. Luckily, SNK Playmore mostly limited the problems of mid-fight quitters by awarding a win to the remaining player and a loss, of course, to the one who left. This, however, won't impede users from boosting wins by repeatedly kicking random players off their ranked match lobbies, since the online mode seems to be in a rather slow start to begin with, with very few matches going on at any time.
It's hard not to recommend Garou: Mark of the Wolves to just about anyone with interest in fighting games. It's one of the best and more detailed fighters from the past decade, with deep, tough-to-master characters and an overall balanced fighting system that awards skilled, dedicated players. While no one cannot predict how long Garou's online leg will stay viable, it's safe to say it has certainly found a perfect home on the Xbox Live Marketplace and Playstation Network. Let the immense power battle of wolves begin!