Review by discoinferno84
"It's the end of the world as we know it..."
Life. Death. Heroes and villains. Lovers and fighters. Sins and redemption. Hatred and compassion. Displays of bravery and cowardice. Budding romance and lust for power. Revenge in the absence of justice. Ancient curses that plague entire bloodlines. The ultimate destinies of the few, and how they affect countless others around them. Great and terrible forces, refusing to compromise for the fate of the world. Prophecies that foretell of an ultimate evil, and those willing to stand up to it. The end of times, and of humanity. These and so many other themes provide the basis for the stories, movies, and countless other forms of entertainment we enjoy. Such concepts are present in video games as well, though they are rarely explored with much depth. RPGs use them the most, though such stories generally boil down to the same cliches; how many angsty, spiky-haired, sword-wielding teenagers does it take to save the world, anyway? One of the greatest stories in gaming, however, comes from an unexpected genre: fighting.
Welcome to The King of Fighters, SNK's premiere fighting game series. Not content with having a bunch of the usual ensemble of stock characters existing in a practically non-existent storyline, the minds behind these games have always strove to create a unique cast and dynamic plot. Individual characters have extensive histories that often intertwine with others, offering a depth that other fighting series sorely lack. As a whole, the series is divided into three arcs, the Orochi Saga being the first and arguably best of them. At its most basic, the story is about a fierce, deadly rivalry set against a background of an impending demonic apocalypse. The showdown spans across several games, eventually ending in a last stand with three of the leading characters fighting for the fate of mankind itself.
You'd never figure that out if you just played The King of Fighters 94. In this first installment of the series, little thought was put into the story or anything else, for that matter. The original concept was simple: a crossover between Fatal Fury and Art of Fighting. While Terry Bogard and Ryo Sakazaki fighting each other was a novel idea in itself, it didn't make for a complete fighting game. Thus SNK decided to include characters from its other popular series; Clark and Ralf of the Ikari Warriors and Athena and other Psycho Soldiers made up the supplemental cast. The leading character, however, was a completely new creation named Kyo Kusanagi. Together with his two teammates, he defeated the evil mastermind/supervillain Rugal and won the first tournament. Though the necessity for teamwork has been one of the most constant aspects of The King of Fighters, it's barely explored in the first game; the team formation is determined by who you choose at the beginning of the game. If you have a favorite character, you have no choice but to have his or her relatively useless partners holding you back. The game also boasts an innovative energy-charging system that lets you build up a character's supermove meter by holding down the right buttons for a few seconds. When fully-powered, your fighter gains a flashy yellow aura and a massive boost of attack power. Needless to say, this system is broken; not only will it take you a few hits to destroy even the toughest opponents, but you'll spend all your time worrying about charging up as opposed to actually fighting. This flawed system, combined with the rigid team mechanics, makes The King of Fighters 94 the worst entry the entire series.
The next game fares slightly better, though . As the title implies, The King of Fighters 95 picks up a year after the events of the previous tournament. Rugal, now fueled by the oh-so evil Orochi power, returns to settle the score with Kyo and the other heroes. Not only does he get his ass kicked again, but lets himself be consumed by the Orochi and foreshadows events to come. While the circumstances of Rugal's death are important to the progression of the plot, there are a few other aspects to the game that mark an improvement in gameplay. The most fundamental difference is the team building mechanics; the game allows you to choose any three fighters you want, as opposed to forcing you to use certain characters. As such, favorites like Terry and Ryo could finally fight alongside each other. Unfortunately, the energy-charging system didn't get the same kind of revolutionary upgrade; you still hold down buttons, watch your character glow, and dish out some truly broken punishment. SNK tries to make up for it with fan service in the form of more character cameos. The Sports Team (aka the Crappy American Stereotypes) was scrapped completely in favor of bringing in old-school brawlers like Billy Kane and Eiji Kisaragi. Most importantly, however, is the introduction of Iori Yagami. The resulting rivalry/ blood feud between this red-headed, murderous psychopath and Kyo Kusanagi is one of the longest-running plots of the series. While it isn't much better than its predecessor, The King of Fighters '95 helps lay the groundwork from which the next few games are based.
The most drastic developments come with The King of Fighters '96. With Rugal gone, the tournament loses its reputation as a criminally-funded deathtrap. Instead, it is popularized as a major sporting event, gaining a following of countless fans and eager sponsors. A woman named Chizuru now leads the proceedings, but she's after much more than profits; she's using the tournament as a way to gain the attention of both Kyo and Iori in hopes of teaming with them to stand against Orochi. Other revelations include Orochi's influence on the individual characters and their pasts; both Iori and newcomer Leona have cursed blood running through their veins. The climactic showdown with Goenitz, awesome as it may seem, serves as nothing more than a teaser of a greater evil to come. That doesn't stop Geese Howard from making a rare cameo along with classic bosses like Krauser and Mr. Big. Heidern has been written out of the plot and replaced by Leona, whose fighting style best illustrates the massive overhul in combat mechanics. The King of Fighters '96 is all about fast pacing and close-quarters combat; many of the usual movesets have been modified and rebalanced to allow for various combos and strategies. Even the more technical aspects of the fights have been retooled; the sidestepping mechanics have been tossed in favor of offensive/defensive rolling. The horribly flawed energy system has been refitted to allow for a gradual charging, thus making it more balanced in terms of strength and usefulness. Even the presentation takes a huge leap forward; all of the characters are redrawn with more detailed sprites, allowing for animation frames that flow smoother and little details like hair blowing and defined muscles. Needless to say, it's hard to top this one.
The next game manages to pull it off, though. The King of Fighters 97 is all about that final, epic showdown for the fate of the world. Since Iori is still dealing with his psychotic Riot of the Blood rage, he makes for an unlikely hero and partner for Kyo and Chizuru. Do they have the power to stop Orochi? Can Iori be trusted? Who will be left standing at the end of the battle? All of those little doubts run rampant throughout the story. Leona's development and role in the scheme of things add to the mix as well. Though most of the characters from the previous title are present, there is a disappointing lack of Geese Howard; he sent Fatal Fury alumni Billy Kane, Blue Mary, and Yamazaki in his stead. While this is certainly a treat for the old-school fans, the players might be too distracted by the New Faces Team and their ridiculous premise as a teenage pop band. The game also revisit's the concept of the tournament as a popular event; camera crews diligently record all the glory details for all fans watching in both the stadiums and around the world. More importantly, the game boasts a brand-new energy system. You're given the option of either the Extra or Advance Modes for your team; the former represents the traditional and ultimately flawed concept of charging up and sidestepping. The latter allows you to build up energy by taking or receiving hits, storing it in a three-tired gauge, and releasing it to perform supermoves. Combined with tactical rolling, counters, reversals, and tons of other subtle stuff, The King of Fighters 97 satisfies in terms of both technical gameplay and the storytelling of the first series arc.
SNK doesnt stop there. Not content with ending things with the final struggle against Orochi, they decided to give the fans something even more special: a dream match. Since the story is essentially canonically finished, The King of Fighters '98: The Slugfest focuses more on the characters and gameplay mechanics while throwing out the story entirely. Nearly every character that has been playable in the previous titles is back for another round. Heidern, Takuma, and Saisyu Kusanagi have banded together to create their own team. The events of '96 apparently never happened, thus allowing for Iori to regain his old teammates. Even the American Sports Team is back and revamped with several new moves and strategies. Though Geese and his pals aren't around to thrash everyone else, fns will find solace in the fact that Rugal has been revived and has reprised his role as the final boss and a playable character. These and the rest of the returning characters have been recast with more combos, faster-paced combat, more balanced ranges and priorities, flashier supermoves, both sets of energy modes, and all that other good stuff that made the last couple of titles so damned fun to play. There are plenty of little in-jokes and fanservice to be enjoyed, like Mai showing up in a wedding dress before fighting Andy, Kyo's secret alternate moveset, or how Heidern and Leona salute each other. With so many different characters and playing styles, a high level of challenge, and a refined technical features, The Slugfest definitely lives up to its name and serves as the crowning achievement of the series.
Get all that? Good.
All five of these games are available in this collection and playable right from the start. That in itself is a double-edged sword, however; as much as most of these titles kick ass, The King of Fighters 94 and 95 are utterly obsolete. Unless you're going for the story (or youre a gaming masochist), there is absolutely no reason for your to play either of these; the games that come after them emulate the same features and improve upon them in every possible way. The later titles aren't without their flaws, however. There are some issues with control responsiveness and input recognition, which can ruin even the best of games. The in-game announcer is so glitch-ridden that it'll occasionally declare a perfect match just after the start of the fight or something equally absurd. The loading times are infuriaatingly long; you'll be staring at a blank screen for more than a few seconds before the action starts up. That's unusual, considering that the collection is made up of ports of the old arcade versions. Fans need to keep that fact in mind as well; all of the bonus features found in the previous console versions of these games (Omega Rugal in '98 comes to mind) are absent from the collection.
SNK tries to make up for such shortcomings by dishing out a ridiculous amount of fanservice. Weathered fighting vets will get a chance at completing one of many bonus challenges outside of the main games. They usually involve doing combos, defeating an enemy with certain handicaps or rules, and other little tests. Few of these prove challenging, but you'll be rewarded well for trying them. Completing these unlocks a plethora of bonus content that relates to all of the titles in the collection. You'll be able to listen to the themes of the various teams and their remixes based upon their yearly revisions. There's also a ton of promotional artwork and picture galleries to view, ranging from early sketches to full-blown renderings of all the popular fighters. There are even a handful of unlockable characters for the various games, which ought to make seasoned gamers pretty happy. By the time you've completed all the challenges, you'll have unlocked literally hundreds of music tracks, artwork, and other bonuses. Needless to say, this a King of Fighters fan's dream come true.
The King of Fighters Collection: The Orochi Saga is one of the best gaming compilations on the PS2. Period. It's got ports of the first five games of the series, showcasing the best and worst of SNK's greatest creations. The first two games aren't worth playing; even if they are part of the saga and essential to the progression of the story, there's no reason to indulge in them for the sake of gameplay. Instead, you'll likely spend your time mastering '96 through '98 and enjoying their unique offerings. While the last game is by far the most developed in terms of combat mechanics and technique, the other two have their charm with regards to presentation and boss fights. The problem is that, despite overflowing with quality, these games suffer from some lackluster porting; the controls are slightly off, the loading screens are abysmal, and the announcer is beyond help. But hey, at least there's a mind-blowing amount of bonus content. Besides, you get to play some of the best 2D fighting games ever made. It doesn't get much better than that.
Reviewer's Score: 7/10 | Originally Posted: 12/01/08, Updated 12/23/08
Game Release: The King of Fighters Collection: The Orochi Saga (US, 10/28/08)
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