The King of Fighters XIII: Steam Edition
When Street Fighter II first arrived in arcades in the 90’s to forever revolutionize the fighting game genre, many copycats and challengers came and went over the decades only to fall into cultural obscurity. Only a select few fighting franchises remain from that decades-long battle, with Mortal Kombat often considered the closest competitor to giving Capcom’s flagship fighter a run for its money (at least as far as the West is concerned). For Japan, it was SNK’s King of Fighters series that stood opposite Street Fighter in the arcade ring while also maintaining a strong cult following in the West. Whereas Capcom kept their Street Fighter universe (mostly) self-contained, SNK would utilize almost every single original property under their company to create a wildly diverse cast of characters (including the ones that did not originally begin as fighting games), thus making KoF the very heart of their company.
It is for that reason that KoF has been in danger of falling into obscurity these last few years. The year 2000 saw SNK’s closure of its American division, while 2001 nearly led to the company’s complete collapse as it filed for bankruptcy. Despite surviving the downfall with their newly rebranded company SNK Playmore, their landmark fighting series reached a new low with the critically disappointing King of Fighters XII, which featured newly redrawn sprites and characters at the cost of a meager roster, a missing story mode as well as an unplayable online multiplayer mode.
Fortunately, SNK seems to have learned its lesson with the release of The King of Fighters XIII, a proper return to form that features a much larger return of fan favorites (including Mai Shiranui, beloved by fans everywhere for her enormously bouncy, uh, personality) as well as an expanded Story Mode, complete with the type of quarter-guzzling super-frustrating final boss that the series is infamous for. Fortunately, you’ve got unlimited continues on console, but your pride will continue to dwindle with every K.O.
As for people new to the series, the bad news is that the Story Mode will be completely lost on you. Continuing a decade-long storyline involving the revival of Orochi and the mysterious Ash Crimson, KoF XIII expects fans to be up-to-speed on the story without offering any sort of primer for newbies. Longtime fans are further rewarded by the continuing development of the cast, who actually go through several stages of character evolution that is rarely seen in a fighting game; whereas Street Fighter features the same clothes and move sets for its list of fighters (even keeping younger characters like Sakura permanently young no matter how many years have passed), King of Fighters has steadily progressed its cast in interesting ways without completely changing up their play style, offering an appreciated balance between evolution and nostalgia.
While the game’s story may not cater to new players, the fighting mechanics are thankfully more approachable. This is thanks in part to the series being more grounded with its flashy fighting; rather than go for infinite air juggles or screen-filling super attacks, KoF feels firmly rooted in its 90’s mechanics without feeling outdated, while also including a few modern trappings such as drive cancelling, dodge rolling and powered-up versions of special attacks.
All of these systems can be learned in the in-depth tutorial; while some of the terminology may prove daunting to learn, not all of it is necessary to pick up and play the game. Even against seasoned veterans, KoF is simplified enough that even the most amateurish players can stand a reasonable chance. Depending on which franchise you hail from, however, some of the input commands in KoF may prove confusing, since few characters share a dedicated command pattern like in Street Fighter. For example, a charge character like Guile would exclusively feature charge-based commands, while an offensive mid-range fighter like Ryu would feature traditional down-down+forward-forward+attack commands. In KoF, there are characters that have both kinds of attacks, which may prove more difficult to wrap your head around. The more powerful move lists (such as the Desperation Attacks) require even more obtuse directional inputs, which means PC players may want to invest in a quality joystick for their online skirmishes.
Speaking of which, the PC version’s netcode is a drastic improvement from the console’s originally spotty multiplayer. It isn’t perfect, but it works without much issue. The visuals remain unchanged, but that is hardly a bad thing as the game features gorgeous, 100% hand-drawn sprite work for both its characters and background. While not as intricately detailed as other fighters like Blazblue or Persona 4 Arena, KoF still impresses with its lumbering characters and hilarious background stages. Nothing beats watching a crowd of overweight women rapidly bang their heads around like some sort of rock concert. Another nice touch is the pre-fight dialog that is unique to every character stand-off, whether it be friendly rivalries, acknowledgements of strength, or intervening for Mai to put on more modest attire.
As a modern reinvention, The King of Fighters XIII is everything longtime fans could hope for, and a sufficient cleansing of the disappointing KoF XII. It’s too bad that SNK couldn’t cater more to newbie players just tuning in, but even with the confusing third act storyline, the tight gameplay and character variety might prove enough to make those late bloomers into newly converted fans.