The original Fatal Fury: King of Fighters had the unfortunate timing of being released several months after Street Fighter II redefined the one-on-one fighting game genre. It was instantly antiquated, building off of ideas that had been made obsolete by Capcom’s groundbreaking sequel. And yet, Fatal Fury was still innovative for what it was. It was just a bit difficult to see how under the shadow of its formidable opponent.
A common misconception is that Fatal Fury is a rip-off of Street Fighter II. It was easy to come to this conclusion in 1991, being that Fatal Fury‘s release trailed Street Fighter II by nine months, and given the enormous popularity of the latter, it was impossible not to compare them. What needs to be realized, however, is that both games share common ancestry. Fatal Fury was the brainchild of Takashi Nishiyama, who had previously worked at Capcom, and was actually the creator of the original Street Fighter. Both Fatal Fury and Street Fighter II were building off the foundations of the same game, but taking its concept in entirely different directions.
While Street Fighter II emphasized two-player competition with a give-and-take flow, Fatal Fury feels more like a classic action game. As with the original Street Fighter, there’s an emphasis on the single-player experience. Many of your opponents come in a predetermined order, although you have a limited ability to choose whom you face first. There are three different protagonists to play as; a vast improvement over the original Street Fighter, which gave you virtually no choice. There is also a slight emphasis on story, with brief scenes between each fight depicting how Geese Howard, the final boss, reacts to your victories.
The fights, themselves, don’t have the smooth, reactionary flow of Street Fighter II, which probably put many people off the game back in the day. Indeed, Fatal Fury needs to be approached with a slightly different mindset. Think of it more as a boss rush, in which you need to figure out the vulnerabilities and weaknesses of your opponents in order to exploit them. In other fighting games, this would be considered cheap, but Fatal Fury was never intended to be a “balanced” fighting game, just a fun action game.
One of the most interesting aspects of Fatal Fury is its own two-player mode. If a second player joins the fight, it actually begins as a cooperative affair, with both players simultaneously taking on the current computer opponent before facing off against each other. This two-on-one battle system would later pop up in Capcom’s Street Fighter Alpha series, but is still quite a novelty in the fighting game genre.
A more controversial part of Fatal Fury is its multi-plane fighting system in which characters can switch between a foreground and background line of movement. It’s an interesting concept on paper, but the series never seemed quite sure what to do with it. It was reinvented several times during the course of the series before finally being done away with completely in the final installment. Indeed, even in the first Fatal Fury, there is very little control over how and when you can switch planes. Still, it’s a unique idea that set the series apart from other 2D fighters.
Perhaps one way in which Fatal Fury was definitively able to outshine its half-brother was in its stage backgrounds. Each area in which the characters fight is lively and animated, and filled with depth and detail. Spectators cheer on the match, elevated trains run by in the background, waves crash on a beach. Many of the stages also exhibit the passage of time between rounds, changing from afternoon to evening to night. Tung Fu Rue’s famous courtyard begins with foreboding dark clouds and lighting in the sky before changing into a violent downpour. It all served to make the fictional location of South Town feel like a living, breathing city, an illusion that was only enhanced in further installments.
While the series would be successful enough to last the entirety of the 90’s, it never escaped the shadow cast by Street Fighter II. Still, Fatal Fury managed to leave behind its own legacy with a spin-off named after its own subtitle: The King of Fighters. With huge character rosters and turn-based three-on-three battles, The King of Fighters has managed to outlive its parent series and become SNK’s flagship franchise.
After the first installment, the Fatal Fury series quickly adopted (rather blatantly) the competition-oriented design that Street Fighter II standardized, but the series would still retain aspects of its action game roots with its level progression and emphasis on story. So while the influence of Street Fighter II cannot be ignored, Fatal Fury still provides a unique and interesting glimpse at what the fighting game genre may have looked like without it.