Review by JIrish

Reviewed: 09/24/02 | Updated: 09/24/02

The series begins to hit its stride

Perhaps the third time really is the charm, because King of Fighters 96 was where we really began to see what this series was capable of. Much was overhauled in this edition of the series, and the efforts of the programmers really showed. We've got a lot to talk about, so let's hop to it.

Rugal is only a memory now to many of the KoF veterans, so we have a new host with a new purpose. But before any of our teams can get to her (yes, her), they have to contend with each other. The Japan Heroes team, Fatal Fury team, Korea team and the Psycho Soldier team are all the same line-ups as you remember them from the last two years, but this year would prove to be a year of change for KoF. Takuma Sakazaki and Heidern have retired, and Eiji Kisarigi and Billy Kane are also out of action this year. Replacing Takuma in the Art of Fighting team is his daughter, Ryo's sister, Robert's lover, and Joshi team veteran Yuri Sakazaki. Filling the empty spot with King and Mai is SNK newcomer Kasumi Todoh, who only recently made her debut in Art of Fighting 3. Heidern's replacement to join the Ikari Warriors, Ralf and Clark, is a woman simply named Leona. She's quiet, blue haired, and downright deadly in combat. She also carries with her one hell of a shadowed past. Iori has found a pair of new teammates, as well, in the form of the sultry former secretaries of Rugal Bernstein, Vice and Mature.

Perhaps most notable to SNK fans is the inclusion of a ninth team, made up of 3 of SNK's most infamous personalities: Art of Fighting boss Mr. Big, and Fatal Fury's terrible two-some of Geese Howard and Wolfgang Krauser! Just the inclusion of these three heavy hitters alone, and as playable characters, should set off an alarm in one's head. If they're here as mere competitors, what the heck is at stake this time?

The hostess knows. Her name is Chizuru Kagura, and she's made one noticeable change to King of Fighters from the last two years: sponsorship and media coverage. You'll know what I mean when you reach the Old School Boss team's stage, and especially when you hit her stage. She's also protecting the seal of an ancient evil that Kyo and Iori's ancestors fought off. Someone out there is looking to undo the seal, though... and this guy's power will blow you away, both literally and figuratively.

Gameplay is pretty much the same as the previous two years. Teams of three fighting it out to win the tournament. Same style controller motions, same means of powering up your super meter, the game is only a bit longer this time thanks to the inclusion of the 9th team. Quite a few of the super moves have been simplified this time around, however, so this game is a little more friendly to the less hardcore player then the last two installments. It's also worth noting that practically every projectile move except for King's Venom Strike, Iori's 108 Yamiharai and Wolfgang Krauser's Blitz Ball have been redone to shorter range versions of the same moves. In fact, Kyo loses his projectile move entirely in exchange for a chain series of moves where he attacks the enemy with fists of fire! Nice! This was an important step in making him seem less like a Ryu clone and more like a leading flagship character for the series. Ralf and Clark are also continuing to evolve into their own styles: Ralf a napalm-fisted punching machine, and Clark a superb grappler.

Graphics... woah, baby did we get an overhaul this time! EVERY character who returns to the series from 95 has been redrawn, and the change from 95 to 96 is night and day in this regard. Many characters enjoy new cosmetic changes as well. In addition to Athena receiving her third costume and voice actor change, Ryo, Daimon and Andy all have new stances. Chang and Choi have traded in their old outfits for ones that match Kims, probably at his insistence. Robert Garcia also has changed his threads to a blue shirt and white slacks, but he still looks like he hasn't gotten out of the 70s. King's outfit has also been switched from purple dress shirt to purple vest. New intro poses, particularly first round poses for Mai and Leona, have been added, and Kensou's ''Meat Bun'' pose is now at it's comedic peak. Finally, the win-pose count has been upped this time to three, with the third appearing alongside the win quote. The stages are at their usual excellence, and the cameos haven’t stopped, either. Watch for Blue Mary, Jubei Yamada, Sokaku Mochizuki, Tung Fue Rue, Ryuhaku Todoh, Billy Kane, John Crawley, Heidern and Saisyu Kusanagi, not to mention other oddball surprises.

All the character voices have been re-recorded for the game, as well. This means plenty of new things for the characters to say and do. More noticeably, this is the game where the music really begins to make you notice just how good it is. From the new remix of the “Psycho Soldier Theme” to the Iori Team’s “Arashi No Saxophone 2” to the Ikari Warriors’ “Rumbling in the Streets,” this is what KoF music is all about. Goenitz’s theme “Thrash Head” is in a class by itself, a true end-boss classic. The only song I don't care for is the Fatal Fury team theme. Other sounds are crisp and clear.

Folks, King of Fighters came of age in 1996, though the next two chapters would take the gameplay to newer directions furthering its evolution. This is also one of my favorites to just pick up and play right through, along with 98. If you’re a KoF fan and you don’t have this version of the game, get it. If you’ve never played a KoF game before, this is a good one to start on, though given a choice between this and 98, I’d honestly take 98. Still, this is the best KoF of the three first releases.

Rating:   4.0 - Great

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