SNK has been going on a bit of a spree lately, releasing their back catalogue in compilations and over the various consoles’ online networks. The releases have been of varying quality, but this is definitely one of the more interesting ones. King of Fighters: The Orochi Saga puts together King of Fighters ’94 through King of Fighters ‘98: Dream Match, with the actual orochi story taking place in the middle three releases. PlayStation 2 buyers are in for a treat. PlayStation Portable owners, well, not so much.
The King of Fighters series was unique for its time. SNK took characters from across their library – Fatal Fury, Art of Fighting, and Ikari Warriors – and tossed them together with new characters into a team-based tournament. Groups of pre-made, 3-fighter teams eventually evolved into teams of any three fighters, chosen from an ever-growing roster. The series soon eclipsed the other titles from which the character were picked its and has become a key franchise for the company. It has since grown into 3D, but I still prefer the style and feel of these earlier, 2D releases.
I am actually struck by just how playable the titles are today. Granted, the first two are so difficult as to be infuriating, but the others are absolutely fantastic. I was actually humbled when I found that the game defaults on difficult 1, the lowest setting, and I still couldn’t make any headway in King of Fighters ’94. Just take my advice and skip to ’96. Once you hit that third release, though, you’re off and running. You’ll encounter strange characters that are S&M lite in name and appearance – Vice and her leather trench coat – and lumbering giants that can barely kick, all in their pixilated glory. PSP owners have the option to view stretched, smooth stretched or original pixel, the latter of which I prefer, but make no mistake that the characters will always look pixilated. The game’s appearance does change, just the characters can only be smooth so much, though nothing helps the shoddy looking stretched menu screen. Keep in mind that the newest of these games is a decade old, and SNK slowly focused more on animation than anything else. But I actually prefer for them to be left as-is – okay, you can fix the flickering shadows – rather than going with the recent popular HDifying route, which never works out. Warts and all, the collection is better for it.
The PS2 version got worn out for the review. I couldn’t get enough of it. The PSP version, with its horrible directional pad (original PSP) and numerous, lengthy load times, I didn’t enjoy nearly as much. The former is the one you buy to have a blast, and the latter to buy when you have no choice. So not only do you save money going with the console version, but you get the superior version. Sold. The game also has a plethora of unlockables, from characters to art and the original soundtracks for all of the games. Via the radial menu system a Challenge model can be accessed, through which a series of trials of varying difficulty are selectable with victory resulting in a number of unlocked goods. It’s a healthy package, and fans will be hit with a wave of nostalgia whenever they check out some of the old promo art. I remember seeing some of the posters and ads back when I was checking out info for the release of ’97 on the Sega Saturn, and it was like I was refreshing NCSX.com all over again.
Newcomers will no doubt wonder what the big deal is. By now, they have most likely played one of the later releases, and it’s true that the changes are largely incremental tweaks that can be pretty trivial to all but the serious fan. That doesn’t stop the games from being awesome though, and I really couldn’t get enough of them. The focus on close combat is still refreshing and will most certainly find a warm welcome today. It could have done with a better menu system, for selecting the games and in the bonus material, and the inclusion of King of Fighters ’99: Evolution would have rounded the title off nicely. As it is, Dream Match is a good gimme and stands as a solid end piece, while the menu is serviceable.
I have read some complaints from those more in the know. Apparently there are missing sound clips and animations, though I don’t remember the titles well enough to recognize the omissions. Others have complained about the controls, and it’s true that the dualshock will destroy your thumb and some special moves will go unrecognized, but on the whole I didn’t have a problem with them. I found the PS2 version much more playable than the PSP version, with the latter being nearly impossible to do special moves. There was a good bit of loading for each, however, though much more for the PSP version. I still say that, aside from the MVS/AES and Sega Saturn import release with the expansion RAM cart, this is your best bet to experience King of Fighters.
It might seem strange to gush over games that are at least ten years old, but that just speaks to the quality of the material. The King of Fighters: Orochi Saga is a great way for longtime fans to get an affordable all-in-one convenient collection while new players will get an introduction as to how SNK was able to shoot up the ranks in the fighting genre. The PS2 version is a great buy, especially at its bargain price ($19.99). The PSP version, on the other hand, is a pained experience that I was pretty disappointed with. The excessive loading and controls aren’t really a fault of the game, but they bring the experience down nonetheless, but the poor look and feel of the menus certainly is. The PSP version is the more expensive of the two and far inferior. Grab the PS2 version and have a ball, and go with the portable one if you’re in a pinch or need to have a fighter on the go.