KING OF FIGHTERS '96
King of Fighters 96
SNK has for a long time been regarded as the premier producer of software for the discerning hardcore (I hate this term but I feel it's appropriate here) gamer. They do not need to use the latest 3D chipsets, nor do they need licenses or the latest technology. Their system, the Neo Geo, which resides in both console and arcade pcb form is 11 years old and all the games are 2D. Not a system for the more casual gamer who needs FIFA Soccer and Tomb Raider games to be happy but for those that feel that today's games lack the style or substance from the 16bit era of home consoles, the Neo Geo is god's gift. Ports of Neo Geo games have been released on all systems, with Takara producing most of them. However for the Saturn the ports are in house and boast near perfect conversions. The cuts are minimal mainly thanks to the Sega Saturn 1MB RAM cartridge which King of Fighters 96 makes use of.
Whilst not enjoying the same amount of success as the Street Fighter series in Japan and America, the King of Fighters has a large cult following and is the fighting game of choice in Singapore and Korea. However whilst the Street Fighter games are a one on one affair, the King of Fighters tournaments oppose teams of 3 against each other, whereby when one chara is knocked out, the next takes over whilst the victor recovers some health. The winner being the last man standing having vanquished all 3 enemy fighters. However for me, the main thing that sets the King of Fighters series apart from Street Fighter is the style and atmosphere. None of the chara can be considered as "filler", with each of them having a long and detailed background as detailed in Kailu Lantis' story FAQ for the series. Also of note is that the chara are not separate identities like in Street Fighter, with a proper motive (rather than the generic "kill Vega" as seen in Street Fighter) and have links with other chara be it a grudge, rivalries, revenge or love. This is why I prefer SNK's fighter by far.
Another element that contributes to the atmosphere is the excellent music. Using Redbook audio, the music is a huge improvement on that of the Neo Geo cartridge's headache inducing cacophony. The most improved tracks are that of the Psycho Soldier team, Kim theme and Iori theme whilst others are only slightly improved. This to me is the most noticeable difference between this conversion and the Neo Geo original that shows off nicely the benefits of CD audio. Certainly worth buying the Arrange Soundtrack to this fine game and a big improvement on the music featured in King of Fighters 95 (which was dull, lethargic and undynamic). Unfortunately SNK failed to do the music justice in team play mode: the music stops and restarts between rounds. This is most unfortunate and ruins the sense of continuity of the fights. The loading between each round is partly responsible for this but the restarting music destroys the atmosphere. Some teams have music that rather than restarting, skips to a later part of the music track thus showing that SNK were aware of the problem yet only a few teams benefit from this, namely Hero Team, Goenitz and Chizuru. King of Fighters 95 on Saturn did not have this problem, which makes this step backwards even harder to understand. The dedicated ROM cartridge packaged with KOF 95 obviously helped not just the loading of the backgrounds.
One element the Saturn port has that the Neo Geo doesn't is the excellent control afforded by the Saturn joypad. Regarded as the best pad for 2D fighting games, it further cements this reputation in this game. Whilst many swear by the old style Neo Geo sticks, the Saturn pad is a cool alternative for those not concerned with a true arcade feel. Of course, arcade sticks are available however they are becoming scarce and the high shipping costs from Japan are most prohibitive.
The animation remains faithful to the arcade original with no noticeable frames lost. I haven't been able to compare side by side the two versions so I can't utter the two golden words "arcade perfect" but this should not be an issue; the characters still look every bit as good as on the Neo Geo version. Backgrounds remain satisfactory and no slowdown is present. SNK have managed to port to Saturn everything that made the original an example of 2D fighting game art. This may in part explain the numerous loading screens despite the presence of the 1MB RAM cartridge. SNK have had the great idea of including excellent character sprite based artwork on the loading screens to sweeten the deal. Kasumi's 1P character loading sprite even features her father showing the graphical advances made since the original Art of Fighting.
CPU AI is also similar to that of the Neo Geo original. Chizuru still relies on her Tenjinno kotowari to decimate her enemy and Goenitz remains as cheap as ever. A language select has also been included so this title is easily accessible for those who wouldn't know a Japanese word if it bit them in the ass and said gomenasai. The only way to get hold of this title is via eBay and is quite rare these days. Expect to pay anything between $20 and $40 depending on the condition and whether or not it comes with the obi card.
If you already have the Neo Geo cartridge original then no need to lose sleep over this port. Make sure you do buy the Arrange Sound-track however as some of the tracks are truly memorable. For Saturn fighting game fans (chances are if you are still buying Saturn games, this includes you) however this game is a great introduction to the King of Fighters universe and well worth the price. Many fans rate this as the best in the series so go for it! I promise you won't be disappointed even if you have been brought up on Capcom fighters all your gaming life.
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