Review by discoinferno84

"Until my blood runs cold..."

Rugal Bernstein is dead. This time, there's no question about it. The mighty warrior wasn't killed by the hands of one of his many enemies. Ironically, he died attempting to harness the very thing that he thought would keep him alive: the power of Orochi. Rugal's end wasn't pretty; bloodied and broken at the hands of Kyo and other characters, he charged up his newly acquired strength and literally let it consume him. If there was any of his body left, it would have fried and spattered across the fighting stage. Despite such a fitting end, Rugal was not granted the battle to the death he had always wanted. Rather than easing the minds of all of those involved, his demise raised even more questions about the tournament itself. With the greatest villain in SNK's history gone for good, The King of Fighters should have ended...

But it didn't.

Actually, it became even more popular. With Rugal out of the way, the yearly tournaments lost that aura of mystery and became a mainstream entertainment venue. The entire thing was commercialized; between all the promotions, the sponsorships, and everything else, the King of Fighters gained a following comparable to most popular sports. Rather than duking it out in SNK's underworld, the contestants could openly travel throughout the world, dodging rabid fans instead of assassination attempts. But all the glitz and glamour aside, there was still a few things worth pondering: if Rugal was dead, then who the Hell sent out the invitations for this year's tournament? Profits aside, why had the King of Fighters been revived? What does the Orochi have to do with all of this?

Considering all the strange things are going on behind the scenes of this year's tournament, it's little wonder that the cutscenes are so text-heavy. One could argue that King of Fighters ‘96 is the most plot-centric title in the series; multiple storylines have been intertwined into something much larger, and veteran fighters have to deal with new challenges. While Kyo and his friends are still kicking ass, Iori has recruited two of Rugal's former secretaries to form his own team. Heidern has taken the backseat in leading the Ikari Warriors, letting his adoptive daughter Leona take his spot. Kasumi Todoh has come a long way since Art of Fighting 3, intent on kicking Ryo Sakazaki's ass and regaining her family's honor. Most importantly, however, is that Geese Howard himself has shown up to get in on the Orochi action himself. Combined with the might of Wolfgang Krauser and Mr. Big of the Fatal Fury and Art of Fighting series, Geese is more than capable of dominating anything the tournament can throw at him.

Just think about how awesome that is. An entire team made up of the toughest bosses in their respective series? The game's already better than King of Fighters ‘95. As tempting as it is to choose these three guys and slaughter everything, you shouldn't count out the rest of the cast. Several of the returning characters have been rebalanced and drastically altered in terms of movesets, supers, attack priorities, and all that other stuff that veterans of the series will be quick to notice. Take Kyo, for example. His ground-running shot was replaced by a flaming fist attack that could be easily utilized in his combos. While he can't sit at the edge of the screen and sling projectiles anymore, his newfound speed and emphasis on combos make him a dangerous opponent. The same goes with Andy Bogard, whose ridiculous-looking windmill uppercut and spring kick attacks offer enough range and multi-hit capacity to actually be useful. Taking these and the rest of the new movesets into consideration, King of Fighters ‘96 is far more intense and competitive than the previous titles.

Even if you can't pull off all the fancy moves (some of the inputs are pretty demanding for the uninitiated), you'll see the change by observing the pacing of the fights. The characters don't lumber across the screen or execute their usual combos in slow motion; these battles are quick, nasty, and decisive. The controls are remarkably responsive, which means you'll be able to mess around and figure out better strategies with the characters you thought you knew. Heidern (may God bless his eye-patched soldier-of-fortune soul) is utterly outclassed by his replacement. Leona's speed and combo capabilities demonstrate how these revamped fighting mechanics can be best used to their potential. Even the usual staples of the series have been retooled to fit the newer style. The sidestepping maneuver has been replaced by offensive/defensive rolling; rather than wasting animation frames staying in one place, you can either mount an assault or gain distance on your opponent. The energy gauge mechanics have been balanced as well; rather than chiefly relying on it to gain extra boosts of power, you can fill it up at a much slower pace and use the built-up strength to perform some highly Desperation supermoves. While this feature is a common aspect of the series, King of Fighters '96 takes things a step further by allowing you to execute ‘Super' Desperation moves when you're fully powered up but have little health left. With so many options and potential combat styles with which to work, fans of the series will be quick to notice the jump in gameplay quality.

The fighting isn't the only thing that got overhauled, though. All of the fighters have been recast with more detailed sprites and fluid movements. The characters are slightly larger, but aren't nearly as blocky or pixilated as their ‘95 versions. Iori pulling off his shockingly bloody Maiden Masher is always a sight to behold. Kyo can flow from one punch to the next with relatively smooth shifts in stance. Mr. Big's swagger is impressive; you can see him rolling his fighting sticks off his shoulders as he confidently strides across the screen. Even if Andy is nowhere near as powerful as his big brother, seeing him in his classic Fatal Fury outfit (not to mention how badass his hair looks when charges up) is definitely something the old school fans will love. Sometimes it's the little things, like how Kensou randomly chokes on the bun he eats during his intro sequence, or how all the bald fighters' heads shine with each victory. Leona is one of the best-designed new characters; you can see the way her hair falls in her eyes, or how gracefully she executes her combat knife attacks. Even the levels got the same treatment; you can see the characters' reflections in the puddles, the flowing water in the fountain centerpiece of a skyline restaurant, and the all of the cheering fans lining the backgrounds. Needless to say, this tournament has come a long way.

This isn't the King of Fighters you used to know. It's better. SNK took everything that made the last game unique and developed it into something far more fun to experience. The game marks the middle of the Orochi Saga; it's got a massive cast of characters, awesome endings, and revelations that will shake the series to its core. With so many characters to choose from - a nice blend of cameos from established characters and original creations - there‘s bound to be someone that fits your brand of fighting. The revamped combat mechanics (rolling and energy gauge features) and responsive controls mean that you'll be in for some intense, competitive fighting that outclasses any of SNK's previous efforts. The same could be said for the presentation itself, which displays all of the usual characters and settings in a whole new light. Rugal may have been the most memorable part of the start of the series, but his demise has led to something greater.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.0 - Great

Originally Posted: 11/17/08

Game Release: The King of Fighters '96 (US, 09/27/96)

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