“Ash forever!” is in my yearbook.
I'm beginning to think I've played way too many King of Fighters titles. The series has been around for over 15 years, so there have been a lot of them, and off-hand, I can think of six that I have right now (even R-2 for the Neo Geo Pocket Color... great system, BTW). You'd think I would have had my fill by now, but I keep coming back for more, over and over again. And now, I get to see SNK Playmore's go at completely rebooting the series for a modern audience.
[image1]The stunning first look of any screenshots shows that serious care has been taken in making this incarnation all-new. Instead of recycling the classic sprites from 1994, the artists completely remade each character, updating the pixel count along with the muscle bulges (Terry was big before, but those 'roids really did a number to push out that red jacket!) and new clothing choices. [Clark Still must be hanging out with Chris Redfield. ~Ed.]
Some of the choices I can't say I agree with... for one, Athena really looks to have lost her mojo with the regression back to the school-girl, non-pop-idol look. Iori simply looks more and more emo than before (which is really quite impressive, in a way), but the problem with it is that even with the updates, it still looks somewhat outdated. Because of the up-close nature of the actual combat, it's possible to see the little edges and lines that have been present on every sprite in the past 15 years... maybe an homage, but it's almost as if they were made to run on Neo-Geo hardware (which got its' start back in 1990).
The new look to the KoF franchise isn't the only difference between this XII installment and the prior versions of the game: the character list is lower. Much lower. One of the trademarks of the series is that you can get characters in bulk, and here there are only twenty. Now, that might still sound like a lot compared to many other modern franchises, but it's especially small since the original KoF involved 24 characters, making this the version with the lightest roster in King of Fighters history. That might not necessarily be a bad thing, since the cast has gotten severely bloated in the past few entries with not many interesting advancements to any possible story points. Still, there are a number of notable absences... where is Mai? King? Yuri? Billy? Geese? Rugal?
[image2]When you cut out over twenty characters, there are bound to be missing favorites, and maybe there are too many staples, but it's still a shame that some of the more colorful, androgynous fighters are nowhere to be found (and Elizabeth is here... and useless). At least Ash made it through. (Ash is so awesome. *le sigh*)
As far as controlling your character goes, it's lost a bit of its KoF feel; to me at least, the scheme has always felt a little stiff, unforgiving in moving around the screen. It was one thing I liked, really... it made me watch a little more closely, since the ability to cancel and be canceled can throw the fight back to neutral, and you'll have to start all over. That system is still here, but has more of a Street Fighter handle to it. In and of itself that could be nice for newcomers, but for veterans of the series it doesn't feel quite right. Combine that with the A.I. being as button-mashing dumb as a fighting game can get no matter the assigned difficulty (only easy, medium and hard, nothing special) and you have a complete lack of thrill in every match.
What stands out to me most is the absence of the little touches throughout - things like the before-match banter and poses are nowhere to be found. Throwing two characters with shared backstory together (say, Kyo and Iori) should force some kind of response from them, and would cause a fun little animation before the match started. Whether it was actual conflict between the two or just a blatant attempt to flirt (Joe and Kingl, FTW) it was a nice touch rarely found in other fighting games. With a re-vamp of the series, I expected these to come back into play and be even more interesting, but alas they're completely missing.
[image3]The optimist in me wants to push this as a pure arcade experience, focusing not on any of the advancements in play over the past few editions, but rather zero in on the original point of the game: pushing two players to beat each other up. But that just means there isn't much to this package other than playing versus or the arcade, which is as short as a fighting game has ever been, with only five matches – and no boss fight at all – before “Game Over”. Maybe I was hoping for a visual update to KoF 2003, the last in the line with any real attempts at moving forward, but it's more a new round of '94.
Don't get me wrong, the game does handle fairly well, and with friends this could be a fun one to share, but single-player is worse than most. Combine a three-player team with the smallest roster KoF has ever had, and you'll have your faves chosen like a routine in no time. I don't know what I would want in a true re-launching for this series, but this isn't it. As a fanboy, I'm crying on my keyboard.