King of Fighters XI

Shamelessly retrograde

Where were you in 1994? Where were you when arcade games ruled the waves? Where were you when arcade conversions were the order of the day for measly home consoles?

If you were to be found huddled in a dark corner, crowded round an upright cabinet hoping to prolong your winning streak as friends kept their 10p's lined up on the glass in anticipation of their turn, then perhaps you remember the first King of Fighters. SNK's fighting game stood out from the crowd by featuring characters from other franchises of the day such as Fatal Fury, Art of Fighting, Psycho Soldier and of course the legendary Ikari Warriors. Such was its success that it led to a string of yearly releases until 2003.

More recently things have cooled-off somewhat as Fighter's day in the sun slowly dimmed. Therefore it is likely to be with some excitement that fans of the series will receive two releases from the King of Fighters stable, King of Fighters XI and King of Fighters Maximum Impact 2. Having already looked at the impressive Maximum Impact, we now turn our attention to the former game. King of Fighters XI

King of Fighters XI continues the series' story in which Mukai had stolen the Orochi seal and Ash had stolen the Yata Mirror. Although there had been plenty of water under the bridge since those (I assure you) dramatic events, a new fighting tournament manages to get the old gang together again for one last round of pain, anguish and angst.

XI is a more straight-forward release than Maximum Impact, mainly because it is happy to plough the same furrow that has done the series proud for all these years. Not that there is no innovation, rather it accepts that the argument has been settled about what a King of Fighters game requires. This primarily revolves around the array of attacking and defensive movements; running, rolling, short jumping, guard canceling, empty canceling and finally quick emergency rolling. Quite a bewildering list, but one that makes increasingly good sense as you piece together strategies for your chosen fighter. This is a process that requires just as much imagination and ingenuity as it does a photographic memory, there is much more required than to simply memorise complex movements and button presses. You need to combine unusual chains of attacks, find the patience to cancel your opponent's as well as putting your hard earnt power and skill stocks to good use.

Innovation this time around has been focused on the defensive moves. Four new moves, quick shift, saving shift, skill bar and dream cancel all provide additional ways to thwart the oncoming attacks. This defensive focus is also reflected by the introduction of a new currency to the game. In addition to power stocks that are used for offensive moves, the new skill stock bar now puts a price on some of the defensive moves such as guard evasion or saving shift. This serves to edge the action towards the more thoughtful player and further undermines the success of mash-and-hope chancers.

King of Fighters XI provides the expected modes of play for a fighting game: story, arcade, challenge, endless or tag. Online play, the holy grail for console fighting games, is again absent due to the technical difficulties of network contention versus the quick reaction times and high frame rates demanded by the genre. The first game to successfully crack this chestnut will earn themselves much notoriety and not a few sales amongst the fighter community. It is worth noting that Soul Calibur IV is the latest title to be slated for true online play, although those with much of a memory will remember other games that have made that same promise but not delivered. Therefore, it may well be for the best that XI stays clear of this hot potato for now. King of Fighters XI

Graphically, King of Fighters XI delivers what you would expect from a PS2 2D fighting game. The two dimensions and pixel art obviously limit the visual impact to some degree, but the game still manages to present some pretty zesty action. One advantage of this constrained art style is that there seems to be no issue keeping the frame rate nice and high, and having plenty of action on screen at any one time. This is all helped along with a healthy dose of background music, sprinkled with the appropriate sound effects. These, joking aside, do a pretty good job of making the whole experience a little more visceral.

All in all this is essentially a game for fans of the series. Its innovations will mostly go unnoticed by the masses and rightly so as they have been primarily designed to titillate the faithful. It is likely that those who aren't already nostalgic about King of Fighters should probably opt for the more impressive and bigger budget Maximum Impact 2 that comes out at the same time, and features in our other review this month.

E3 Trailer