The King of Fighters XI
PlayStation 2 (SNK Playmore 2006, Europe: Ignition Entertainment 2007)
The big G-S-G-S-G
General opinion: Among the best 2D fighting games
Story: Good enough, for a fighting game
Graphics: Well animated, but poor resolution for PS2
Sound: Nothing to complain about
Gameplay: Fast and fun, like a fighting game should be
The King of Fighters is one of the best known fighting game franchises in the world. As of this writing the eleventh title is the latest in the series, the first game released as far back as 1994. I'm a newcomer to the series, though, as I've only gotten into fighting games in general over the last couple of years, so I can't compare this game to its predecessors, nor delve very deeply into the finer points of its fighting system. A newbie review for other newbies, one might say.
The King of Fighters XI has all the features that a good 2D fighting game should have: fast action, cool super moves, flashy characters. Basic gameplay, for the layman, differs very little from other similar games. The only major difference is that, unlike most fighting games that feature one on one battles, this game features three on three tag matches. There are no rounds. Once a character's health is depleted, the next one jumps right in. You can also switch between characters at any time. Of course this isn't the only tag match fighting game out there, nor the first, but it's still a nice variation on the usual two round, one on one matches.
You have five basic attacks to use and the usual array of special moves, executed with the usual stick movement and button combinations. Like most games of this type, you have a super bar which is depleted when using super moves. A special feature of this game is the 'skill gauge' which is used for advanced techniques like super cancels and switching characters during special circumstances. There's plenty to learn here before you can really master the game.
In addition to the regular arcade mode, you can play the game in three on three elimination match mode or in the regular one on one, best of three rounds format. And of course you can play all of these modes with two players. There is also a survival mode, a challenge mode and a practise mode. Bonus features include the normal artwork galleries.
The characters are divided into preset teams of three, each of which has its own story, but you can also choose characters freely. There is a very large character roster, which makes the game a little daunting for a newcomer to the series, as it's not enough to pick one character to learn to play with, you need to learn at least three to be successful. The characters are more realistic than those of some 2D fighters (like Guilty Gear and Darkstalkers, to name a couple of my favourite series), but most of them still have supernatural abilities and are quite cool.
The King of Fighters series is unique in that its storyline has advanced over such a large number of instalments. If you're not familiar with the events of earlier games, it might be hard to gather what exactly is going on. The story of each game revolves around a fighting tournament, naturally called the King of Fighters. However, as a rule, this tournament is a cover for more sinister activities going on just beneath the surface. The story of this game carries on themes begun in the previous title, The King of Fighters 2003. A mysterious organisation is trying to release an ancient demon called Orochi. There's not a lot of dialogue in the game, but, particularly with the context of the entire series behind it, it is interesting enough for an arcade fighting game.
Perhaps the weakest point of this game is its graphics. The sprites aren't bad, and they're well animated, but their resolution is quite low. The look of the game hasn't really changed since the mid 90s. When compared to the likes of Guilty Gear XX, probably its biggest competitor, it looks rather stale and dated. Of course it's the gameplay that counts here, not the number of pixels used, and if the game had been released just a few years earlier I wouldn't pay it any mind. But we are talking 2006 here, after all. The music isn't bad, but isn't particularly memorable either, at least when compared to the amazing music in the Guilty Gear series.
Also, if you're in Europe, you'd best make sure that your TV supports 60 Hz mode. Not only is the 50 Hz view small and letterboxed, it is very buggy. For one thing, the bottom bar is not black, but blue. And reportedly there are other problems, like slowdown and graphics corruption in some stages. That a game should be released in this kind of condition is unforgivable. Luckily the 60 Hz mode works without problems.
Another grudge I hold against this game is the difficulty level. On the easiest setting, most normal matches are a piece of cake. The bosses, however, are a whole other matter. There is a name for this: SNK Boss Syndrome. The end boss in particular uses very cheap attacks that make it very difficult to even get near him. An arcade game should be challenging, but challenging is not a synonym for frustrating. Even a relative newbie like me should have a fair chance of beating the game and enjoying its ending when it's set on the easiest difficulty.
The number of characters, having to learn to play with several of them to succeed, and the frustrating bosses mean that this isn't perhaps the best choice for a complete newcomer to the fighting game genre. It is, however, surely one of the very best 2D fighting games available for modern consoles. There's lots of depth here, and challenge, for those who have the skill and patience to really learn it. And of course, like all fighting games, it's most fun when played with a friend.
Ben B. Bainton, 1 July 2008