It’s hard to believe that it’s been almost 20 years since the debut of SNK’s King of Fighters series, not to mention that there was at least one new game in the series every single year for the first ten of those years. The King of Fighters ’94 may not be remembered as the “best” game in the series, and could even be seen as completely obsolete by today’s standards, but it was the beginning of a dynasty.
Technically, the “King of Fighters” tournament started with the original Fatal Fury in 1991, but that was more about back story. It wasn’t until it spun-off into its own series that it really came into its own, and subsequently detached itself from the Fatal Fury series. KoF ’94 established the signature three-on-three elimination matches that have defined the franchise ever since.
It was also one of the first true crossover fighting games, featuring characters from different SNK franchises coming together to battle each other. It may have lacked a little impact due to the fact that many of those characters were fairly obscure (at least in the West), but having Terry Bogard from Fatal Fury fight against Ryo Sakazaki from Art of Fighting was groundbreaking for its time. Not to mention characters like Athena Asamiya, Ralf Jones and Clark Still are more associated with KoF than they are with their original games.
Still, KoF ’94 was filled with fan service. Backgrounds, remixed music and cameos all payed tribute to SNK’s legacy. Some characters even retained special abilities from their original games, such as how only the Fatal Fury characters could do an advancing crouch. But at the same time, the game also laid a foundation for SNK’s future, and the series would become their flagship franchise.
Many elements of KoF ’94 would be changed or refined as the series went on. One of the most notable is that the teams were set in stone. You couldn’t create your own custom teams until the following installment. The game as a whole also seems a bit old fashioned in that it has a slower pace and feels more defense oriented. Many of the characters also required some very odd motions to pull of their special moves instead of the more standard maneuvers seen in most fighting games today. Yet, its relative simplicity has a certain appeal, and that perhaps makes it a good entry point for newcomers. (Although, KoF ’96 has far gentler AI.)
Personally, I never had the chance to play KoF ’94 in the arcade. In fact, I rarely ever saw any of the KoF games in the wild. But I do remember seeing the game covered in gaming magazines of the time, and the whole idea of characters from different fighting games together in the same game had definite appeal. At the time, I might have been more interested in seeing something like “Street Fighter vs. Mortal Kombat,” and although I’m still waiting for that one, the crossover theme has since exploded into some legendary dream matches, with even characters from different companies facing off. In a way, perhaps the Capcom vs. SNK series was the ultimate realization of the King of Fighters concept.
The series continues even today, with The King of Fighters XIII having been released in 2010 to critical acclaim, and there are rumors of the series returning to 3D for its next installment. As for KoF ’94, there was a remake of it in 2004 for the PS2 titled The King of Fighters ’94 Re-Bout, but it was not well received (and was never released outside Japan). The original KoF ’94 is readily available on multiple platforms, compilations and download services.
It’s not my favorite entry in the series, but I do find myself revisiting it every so often for a good dose of nostalgia, history and hindsight. It’s a landmark game for both SNK and the fighting game genre.
Happy 20th anniversary, KoF. Long live the King.