Review by discoinferno84

"You started this fire down in my soul..."

One year. That's how long they had to prepare. Under normal circumstances, a year might seem like plenty of time to plan ahead. But they‘ve got to take down Orochi. The biggest, baddest demon of them all, the one whose arrival will herald the end of the world. The consequences of Orochi's return have been made all too clear; Rugal's death was just the beginning. After the revelations of The King of Fighters ‘96 - including the destinies of the many characters involved - things are looking grim. Especially considering the how mankind's only line of defense is seemingly fractured beyond repair. Iori Yagami has succumbed to madness; after murdering his former teammates, his presence has been sorely missed. Kyo and Chizuru, the other two warriors fated to challenge Orochi, have spent the last year training for what will likely be the fight of their lives. Without Iori to complete the trio, their chances of victory aren't much. Rumors suggest that he has regained some degree of sanity and is now lurking the grounds of this year's tournament…and that Orochi's followers aren't far behind. With no other choice, Kyo and Chizuru enter The King of Fighters ‘97, resolved to face their doom.

They're not making their stand alone, however. They've got all their friends (and some foes) to back them up. Benimaru and Goro, the other two members of the original Japan Team, have decided to stay with their leader. Chizuru has recruited Mai Shiranui and King for some much-needed backup. The Lonely Wolves, the Sakazakis, and their allies have left Southtown yet again, ready to take on an evil that surpasses anything they could have seen at home. The Ikari Warriors are out in full force; Leona is also back in action, but still badly shaken by the discovery of her connection to Orochi. The Psycho Soldiers and the Korea Team have also arrived to help, even if they don't contribute much to the overall storyline. Surprisingly, Geese has held off his return to The King of Fighters and has sent Billy Kane, Blue Mary, and Yamazaki in his stead. There's also some punk named Shingo Yabuki running around, but no one is taking him seriously. The same can't be said for the New Faces Team, though. While they're supposedly a bunch of teenage pop-stars, there's something about these newbies that doesn't seem right…

Of course, no one else seems to care. As predicted, The King of Fighters ‘96 was a huge financial success. Looking to capitalize on the public's devoted following, the sponsors funded entire stadiums to be built just for people to watch the fights live in this year‘s tournament. Thousands of people have now pour into these places, not knowing that they might not make it out of there alive. Cameramen now lurk just beyond the reach of the fighters, capturing every last gory detail for the audience at home. There are even girls holding up placards to display the current round in play. While all of this is to be expected for a major sporting event, it's also kind of morbid; if Orochi decides to show up, all of these people will die. Period. In order to keep the fans from panicking, the fighters involved have disguised their fight for mankind by giving them exactly what they wanted: yet another tournament with identical rules to that of the previous years'. Three characters are chosen to make a team, and then systematically defeat all of the other contenders in hopes of finding the real villain. However, this particular tournament is fraught with a few more surprises; between the complex plotlines and special boss fights, this showdown even wilder than the last.

The biggest change has nothing to do with the story, though. The King of Fighters ‘97 operates on the basic mechanics of the previous games: light and heavy punches and kicks, special attacks and combos, Desperation supermoves, convoluted button inputs, and plenty of other stuff. Many of the techniques present have been around since the original tournament. This game, however, takes a closer look at the characters' energy bars and their effects in a fight. In previous games, all you had to do was hold down the right buttons and watch as your character charged up energy. All of that power could be converted in using supermoves or boost speed and attack power while sacrificing defensive strength. It's an innovative, but ultimately broken feature that cheapens the overall gameplay. While it's still present in this title (dubbed Extra Mode on the character select screen), veterans of the series will be pleased to see another option available. The Advanced Mode allows you to build up energy by dishing out or receiving hits rather than charging it up on your own. The energy can be stored up to three tiers, all of which can be released at any time and lets you perform multiple supermoves at will. This method allows you to focus more on the combat as opposed to powering up; rather than standing around and charging, you'll be ble to manage your energy in a more balanced manner.

One of the most vital differences between the Advanced and Extra Modes is the defensive tactics involved. As per the older gameplay style, characters using the Extra style will be able to sidestep and dodge oncoming attacks. The maneuvers don't lend themselves well to the fast-paced style of The King of Fighters '97; not only does your timing have be nearly perfect, but you waste several animation frames that could have been used for combat. While it is balanced out with the simplified energy charging mechanics, it just doesn't stand up to the other option. The Advanced Mode utilizes an evasion system similar to that of the previous title; characters are able to perform offensive/defensive rolling during a fight. This allows your fighter to not only dodge certain attacks, but get close enough to set up an assault or gain distance from an enemy. That allows you to focus more on strategy of the fight as a whole, as opposed to merely evasion. Such abilities, combined with improved countering, critical hits, guard crushes, reversals, and several more subtle features, makes this game by far the most technical of all the titles that came before it.

It's a shame that the characters didn't get the same kind of overhaul. There was a huge jump in presentation and style between The King of Fighters ‘95 and ‘96. While many of the fighters look awesome and move just as fluidly this time around, they remain essentially unchanged from the previous game. You'll still get to see Kyo's badass flamed fist attacks or how Leona's hair falls down the side of her face every time she does one of her specials. The newer animation range from humorous to all-out awesome; Mai confronts Andy in a wedding dress (much to his obvious chagrin), while both the usual Iori and Leona has some badass-looking Orochi counterparts. As for Orochi and its cohorts…well, just beware pretty faces that sling purple fireballs. Veterans of the last game will definitely be glad to get a piece of Iori while he's in his berserker mode. The story leading to the final showdown is remarkable as well; between all the cutscenes, plot-driven endings, and dramatic music, you'll be able to see how the battle for mankind unfolds. The last fight definitely lives up to all the buildup it's gotten from the other games. Combined with all the other aspects and details, The King of Fighters '97 has the most complete and satisfying presentation in the series.

Thus ends the first arc of The King of Fighters series. The Orochi Saga went out with much more than a bang. It must have been a huge treat to all the diehard SNK fans to see the storyline come to a such an epic close. The intricate plot is nicely wrapped up, portraying the characters' individual struggles in the bigger conflict. The game boasts over two dozen characters with unique fighting styles and abilities. The gameplay mechanics have been overhauled with new features, allowing for more technical combat and strategy. Not only does it satisfy the old-school fans with the inclusion of the usual energy charging style, but also draws in newer and competitive players with the improved system as well. It's got everything needed to make it one of the greatest 2D fighting games ever made. If there were ever a game to make The King of Fighters live up to its name, this would be it.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 11/20/08

Game Release: The King of Fighters '97 (US, 09/25/97)

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