Ruling in exile.
Back in 1994, SNK decided they would rule the roost of fighting games by combining warriors from all of their games and inserting them into one, fighting through one another to crown the King (or Queen) of Fighters. Arguably, the series really hit its stride a few years later—KoF ‘98 was damn good, KoF ‘99 was even better, and KoF 2003 was a beautiful blasty-blast. But since then, in that intervening 13 years (by the way, that’s a damn long time to see things go downhill), the franchise to end all franchises hit a series of roadblocks… the rise/re-rise/re-rerise of Street Fighter, the ascension of revamped Mortal Kombat, the sprite-based and very Japanese fighters like Guilty Gear and BlazBlue have taken much of Kyo and Terry and Mai’s fire.
In the past few years, the current incarnation of SNK—which hasn’t been as cool as it sounds—has decided to throw more weight and resources to rebuilding their flagship three-on-three fighting juggernaut. In KoF XII, the first major attempt to bring it back, they kinda fell flat on their face… it just didn’t have that spark anymore. The shine had worn off, the AI was a fighting game war crime, and with such a limited roster of only 20+ instead of the previous 50+ available fighters, many favorites were scrapped and left for dead. Things improved in KoF XIII but still weren’t up to snuff, with a still-limited roster (though not as limited as before) and still-problematic AI, but it was worth trying out again to see if it could work for enthusiasts still holding on to hope for the classic.
And now, we see the latest attempt to climb that fighting game mountain. KoF XIV has all the modes a fighting game should expect to include—a story/arcade mode, versus, online versus both arcade-style and ranked, time-attack, survival, tutorials. This new version even boasts a first for the 2D series—let’s do everybody a favor and ignore the not-terrible 3D Maximum Impact for now—and that’s fully 3D characters in the place of traditional sprites.
The original hand-drawn sprite animation has always been top-notch, so while I’m sad to see them go, the models they’ve used here are a fine replacement. Every character looks finely detailed and smooth, and with the dynamic backgrounds behind them, they blend seamlessly into the world without a hint of slowdown. Sadly, a few favorites have still fallen by the wayside, the big omission being Ash, but it’s still a robust line-up of three-character teams to choose and build piecemeal teams from.
As wonderful as it looks, with the charm of character faces tilting up or down to always lock eyes with the opponent across from them, it controls just as smoothly. Certain techniques are swapped around, like King’s Venom Strike being a single projectile with the Double Strike requiring EX mode (which is as simple as a button press with the super meter is charged a level), but feel largely untouched from earlier entries. That’s one thing KoF has always done right: It can feel stiff when pulling off special moves, but always feels like you’ve made the effort necessary to execute them. And XIV is no exception, with some of the more fluid feel that XIII did correctly while maintaining some of the unforgiving precision the series is known for.
Characters still have the same quirks and personalities they had before, with certain match-ups carrying storyline weight—Sie Kensou’s crush on Athena, Hein challenging King as a contest between two bouncers, the rivalry of Kyo and Iori going back to the beginning of the series, each with a flash into their conflicts with a conversation. It’s the nice touch that used to be expressed through little displays before the match, like Joe Higashi brandishing his belt to impress King. This is gone now that actual dialogue can be had, and that’s a little sad, but the spirit is still there, which is the point.
The biggest downfall from the previous two games seems to have been resolved: the single-player AI still doesn’t feel like playing against another player, but on average settings it still feels pretty dumb. Most of my fighting game time is spent practicing in story/arcade modes, so to get any realistic practice before I try multiplayer matches, it needs to be a realistic and scaling challenge, which is the case this time. No more jumping and kicking at empty air, thank the devs. It was pretty funny to watch them fight an invisible third opponent, just not in the sense that I wanted that opponent to win as they appeared to hold their own quite well.
Like every great fighter worth its salt anymore, the online matchmaking is fantastic. Even though I’m usually a player who gets annihilated as soon as I think myself as any sort of hot shit, it’s easy to find and set up a game, either in Free or Ranked mode against other players online. And it’s available for single-character traditional matches, three-on-three bouts, or even a team of three players on each side to fill out the ranks. So what happens if your best character is Mai, and your far-far-FAR distant second is Chang, and you don’t want to battle with anybody else? Feel free to sit in on the team with two friends and wallop on some jerks online, they’re good for it! Perfect for single-character specialists that like the idea of building a team with a team!
After all of that, there really aren’t many downsides to KoF IV. It’s pretty, but it does look like a top-end of the last generation as opposed to a visual overhaul designed to take full advantage of the hardware. And the matchmaking isn’t exactly fair—starting in at the opening rank I was paired up with obviously advanced players, like a "Rank 22, 90% win record" player. I got through one of their characters, but then was destroyed… which I say as a not-terrible, non-professional player. At least pair me up with some opponents at my level, game. You don’t throw a rookie boxer in with Muhammad Ali and call it “fair.” (Though it’s probably entertaining for somebody that isn’t, you know, about to be utterly squashed.)
Aside from some faulty matchmaking, the package is a fighting game worth playing. It looks good enough and runs smoothly, and even when lagging, the online play is nice and clean. And it doesn’t bring anything new to the table (besides Nakaruru from Samurai Showdown in her console KoF debut, along with one or two other new faces), but everything it’s doing is being done right. Finally, King of Fighters is beginning to summon that feel SNK had harnessed generations ago, and it feels damn good. It’s going to have to innovate further to reclaim its crown, but at least it’s back in the court.