Robert Garcia: Okay buster, where's Yuri? Ryuhaku Todoh: Ask for it with your power! And so the first scene begins...
One of the early fighting games for the Neo Geo systems, Art of Fighting/Ryuuko no Ken was met with critical acclaim and popularity in its time despite some flaws and major deviations it took from the fighting game standard that was at the time set by Street Fighter II: The World Warrior. The storyline is far from epic, as it basically chronicles the journey of Ryo Sakazaki (or his friend and rival Robert Garcia) through the southwest slums of Southtown to rescue his kidnapped sister from the local crime syndicate. At the time of its release however the fact that it had a dedicated story mode in the first place was enough to earn it some dedicated single player time even in the arcades. Fighting our way through Southtown, we find many gameplay innovations marred by some major (by today's standards) control and gameplay issues.
Great! The animation is bad but these were bar-none the best fighting game sprites out there until Art of Fighting 2, Street Fighter Alpha, and Fatal Fury 3 were released. Every background looks great and scales in and out smoothly as the camera changes positions. The grimmer backgrounds always manage to look dirty and corrupt without just being dark. It shows that a ton of effort went into both them and the sprites themselves. The bonus stages are accompanied by very nice large animations of Ryo/Robert attempting to gain enlightenment by breaking blocks of ice or karate chopping bottles in half (someone tell Pat Morita to get his lawyer!). In addition to this, characters get visibly bruised, bloodied, and tired as their energy level decreases, give you a great visual indicator of how the fight is going without having to waste a split second checking the energy meters. One unfortunate side effect of the lack of animation to complement the gigantic sprite size (when zoomed in the fighters literally fill the screen) is that the heavy attacks and amany special moves look very bad despite how good they are from a gameplay standpoint. It also creates some difficulty figuring out the point where a move "hits" compared to when it looks like it's hitting. The hit detection isn't bad (it's actually quite good for a 1992 game in general)but the damaging frames of several of several of the special moves can be a pain to figure out at first. King's Mirage Kick and most of Jack Turner's moves are shining examples of this problem.
While this was the first fighting game to have super moves and to also have a meter, called a Spirit Gauge here, to determine the strength of your special moves (as well as whether or not you could DO said super/special moves), close up brawling tends to be the emphasis of this title. In the single player game you may only play as Ryo Sakazaki or Robert Garcia (both of whom share identical special moves). When playing against a human opponent you may each choose whoever you wish besides the bosses (Mr. Big and Tak-uhm, Mr. Karate). The A and B buttons control your punches and kicks, C delivers a heavy attack, and D is used to both taunt your enemy (decreasing their meter) and to charge up your own meter at will. Tapping A or B results in a light punch/kick and pressing them gives you a harder version. By today's standards the characters outside of Ryo and Robert have move sets which could be described as anemic at best. Most all of the characters share a "punch dance" multi-hit combo by performing a reverse quarter circle motion and hitting punch or kick. Several do not have different animations/etc. for their C and A or B attacks. Most characters generally have three special moves AT MOST.
To make up for this, there are universal A+C and B+C attacks for some of the characters that basically function as standing overhead (must be blocked high) or low attacks. One is a punch to the stomach and the other is a low shin kick. The usefulness of these moves against a human opponent is somewhat limited, however. One nice touch, though, is the ability to perform up to two normal attacks in one jump. This allows you to do some interesting things to the larger characters if you can corner them, jump up with a very early punch or kick, then come back down closer to them with another attack. The moves themselves are good in concept but in execution the controls leave something to be desired. You have to input special move motions very precisely for them to consistently come out. I personally never saw a flaw in this, as the game rewards proper special move performance but many people today who pick up the game for the first time comment on the control being bad more than any other aspect of the game Something worth noting about this game is that it was very obviously designed with the single player experience in mind. All of the story mode opponents save Takum-er, Mr. Karate are missing one element or other that would make them an acceptable fighting game character. Several have a severe lack of variety in their normal moves while others like Mickey Rodgers only have two special moves; One is a high projectile and the other is a low projectile. For a game with an included versus mode the lack of additional moves and animations for the supporting cast seems inexplicable. The only instance where it makes sense is that King and Mickey, the muay thai and western boxers, have no throw techniques. It is nice, however, to be able to dash forward or backward by tapping forward/away twice rapidly. To my knowledge this was the first fighting game to allow such an action (besides the CPU and later player 2 controllable opponents in Fatal Fury: King of Fighters) and I'm very glad it caught on in fighting games in general to allow for more offense-based gameplay.
Given the properties of some of the character special moves, however, perhaps a larger move set for isn't as nessecary as it seems. Lee Pai Long in particular, with the speed and damage of his spinning claw special move hop kick, can be particularly brutal as well as Ryuhaku Todoh with his long reaching crouch kick and the vertical height of his Kasane-ate energy wave. This sometimes gives the impression that you're fighting bosses from an action game instead, where each one has ONE good trick to watch out for instead of an actual arsenal that a human player can form a strategy with. This reduces a lot of said strategy to simply picking the one character that's best against another character. Periodically in the one player game you have a chance to play a bonus game. There are three available, and the one chosen will either give you a super move, increase your life meter, or your Spirit Gauge. This was a great idea at the time and had it been followed through in more games besides Art of Fighting 2 bonus games would probably still be commonplace in today's fighters. The popularity of an ability altering meter and super moves, however, show this game to me more influential than many people give it credit for.
Outstanding, there's tons of voices, sound effects, and a great low key sound track. Every background song fits its background and character to perfection and the this was one of the first Neo Geo titles to REALLY show what SNK could pull off on sound hardware as advanced (at the time) as the Neo Geo's. Playing this in stereo is a real treat and the hit sound effects are especially good. SNK would very quickly surpass even this level of sound quality in the Samurai Shodown and Fatal Fury series but for the time being this game had the best balance of high quality effects and music. Fatal Fury: King of Fighters, to put it in perspective, has Richard Meyer's theme completely with full lyrics and all, but every character has the same KO cry and every enemy has the same victory cry.
Replay Value 6/10
Ouch. The biggest problem with this game is that it has so many new and influential gameplay elements to it, but the roster and moves of the characters themselves just don't measure up. Basically, there's nothing to master or learn in the one player game after you've beaten it twice and earned all three bonus game upgraded. Versus play should be able to breathe more life into the game but with the extra characters having such a limited arsenal it won't take too long before you see everything there is to see and move on to Art of Fighting 2 or one of SNK/Capcom/etc.'s other superb fighting games. From this game's perspective Southtown is a great place to visit, but you wouldn't want to live there. In a way this is sort of the last fighting game SNK made before 1993 when they really turned up the heat and started putting out some truly amazing fighting games.
This is a great game that has not aged well over time. It has very little to offer today however it is definitely worth a look for fighting game afficionados for the ambition displayed in its gameplay engine. Looking back it's kind of a shame that all of the game's characters don't have the move set to really complement the sheer number of things you can do in this game that no other fighter at the time had to offer. I give it an eight for what it accomplished on release and for its design but buyer beware, you may want to save up for Art of Fighting 2 instead.