"You bastard! I've waited ten years for this!" ~Andy Bogard prior to the final bout...
This is the first fighting game for the Neo Geo systems! It's is a very important game in SNK's overall history because, while not their first fighting game, it was the first to be a major commercial success AND it features the first appearances of several very popular characters. It is also the first game to follow a major story SNK has arced through not only this, but the Art of Fighting/Ryuuko no Ken and King of Fighters series of fighting games as well. You play as either Terry Bogard, Andy Bogard, or Joe Higashi and enter the Southtown based King of Fighters tournament in an attempt to gain glory and a shot at fighting the tournament's infamous creator and sponsor, Geese Howard.
SNK made good use of the color capabilities of the Neo Geo system here. The eight backgrounds manage to be vivid and unique even though they all take place in the same city. The animation is nice overall though some moves (especially the characters' crouching attacks) seem very poorly implemented. A questionable decision on SNK's part is the sprite for one crowd of spectators that is reused on several of the game's backgrounds. Now in and of itself this isn't bad, but the people are not drawn as well as they could have been. It often makes you wish they weren't there in the first place so you just admire the backgrounds themselves.
A great extra detail is that the time of day and/or weather in the backgrounds changes VERY noticeably between rounds. This is a nice touch and gives you a true sense of the passage of time during the fights. Another extra graphical detail is that the characters freeze up in 'ready' stances as they get closer to each other. This doesn't seem like much by today's standards, but in its time it helped further intensify the fights.
In an ironic turn, SNK's first fighting game for the NEW Neo Geo systems was made in the pre Street Fighter II: The World Warrior style. This means you have a limited number of characters to choose from (three, to be specific) and a minimalist set of basic moves. Your playable characters include Terry Bogard, Andy Bogard, and Joe Higashi. While they each share a projectile style move (done with the quintessential quarter circle forward motion followed by a punch button) and a forward kicking special move, they each also have two unique special moves. There are also some minor combos and variations on your normal standing and jumping attacks depending on what direction you hold on the joystick/pad as you attack. Having four special moves to try to work into your strategy for each character also helped to compensate for only three of game's characters being playable. This game uses three buttons. A delivers punches, B kicks, and the C button is used at close range to throw. The controls are very responsive, though some motions will seem awkward at first.
The first unique thing you'll probably notice about this game is that there are two 'planes' that the character can fight in. While fighting the CPU, it will sometimes sidestep or jump to the second plane, allowing you to walk AROUND each other, avoid projectiles and other moves, etc. It was a very novel idea for its time and gave it some replayability as it made the CPU tougher to defeat. The animation for the plane switching took advantage of the Neo Geo hardware's scaling capabilities, allowing the characters to smoothly decrease in size slightly as they leap into the background plane. This game follows the pre Street Fighter II: The World Warrior philosophy of having special moves that are very difficult to connect with at times, but offer a major payoff. The most notable example of this would be Andy Bogard's Ku Hadan being able to do MAJOR damage to an opponent if done so that all of its potential hits connect. The eight unplayable computer opponents are another throwback to the fighting games of old. This setup does allow for them to have some unique properties though, with Geese Howard's counters and Tung Fu Rue's transformation being the best examples. One sore thumb that is apparent in the controls, however, is that buffering (performing the motion for a move while your character is in the middle of another action) seems all but impossible on the charge moves. This is because the overall game moves at an average speed, but the charge times are actually SHORTER than the norm (something I notice SNK has done with their King of Fighters based charge characters as well). This makes it very difficult to judge when to begin charging a special move, because if you start too soon and charge for too long an amount of time the motion doesn't seem to buffer properly. Overall special moves will soon become second nature here as they do in several fighting games, though I think a lot of combo and strategic potential was lost due to the lack of buffering (though this may have been done on purpose to prevent certain charge moves, like the Ku Hadan, Zan Ei Ken, and Crack Shot, from becoming completely dominant).
This game was released at time when getting the high score in the game mattered, and as a result you get to compete in a bonus scene every second match. The scene consists of your character playing an arm wrestling arcade game (Maybe THIS is where Jaleco got the idea from?!) against opponents whom look like Hulk Hogan and one of the old Legion of Doom/Road Warriors members. To win you simply have to mash the A button as quickly as possible.
Quite possibly the coolest feature of this game is that when a second player joins in, instead of the typical "...new challenger..." message, you get "JOIN THE FIGHT? I'LL HELP YOU!" You then have the option to fight COOPERATIVELY with the second player against the CPU opponent. This allowed for some great choreography, as you could, say, have Terry Bogard or Joe Higashi poking an enemy at midrange while Andy Bogard charges up a Ku Hadan from across the screen and launches over the other player's head, hitting the CPU opponent on the way down. Or you could be launching projectiles at an enemy from across the screen to keep them occupied with evading them while the other player could jump in from the background at them. It should be noted though that you CAN hurt your partner with your quarter circle forward+A special move. Unfortunately the only way to play the as eight CPU characters is on the non Neo Geo ports of the game, and even then only the person on the player two side can use them. While some of them have certain abilities taken away so as to not be completely dominating in the hands of a human player, they do retain their back-dash (awayx2) ability and their special moves.
The atmosphere here has an 'urban-ized' slant to it, as was common in SNK's earlier fighting and action games. A few of the characters look like typical punks you'd run into while walking by a dark alley while others have a very low key and realistic look to their stances and clothing. The eight backgrounds consist of various streets and arenas in a single city, giving you a slight sense of continuity as your character slowly works his way from one end of the between-fight map to the other. While the same laugh and knockout voiceovers are shared between many of the characters, they all manage to be unique from each other due to their VERY different attacks and special moves. Some of them will even taunt you if you don't put up a good fight!
This game also features mini cut scenes in-between every battle. In them you get to see Geese Howard track your progress through the King of Fighters tournament and your eventual battle with him. There are also several different win quotes and cut scene dialogues per character depending on who is fighting against who.
Make no mistake, this game had amazing sound for its time. All of the voices, while being heavily accented thanks to lousy voice acting, are ultra clear and loud (this includes the announcer, though his accent is thankfully nonexistent). The music is well composed and makes good use of the Neo Geo systems' sound capabilities. The most notable background theme would be Richard Meyer's from the Pao Pao Café, complete with a full vocal track! All of the music, including the cut scene tracks, are very well suited to the characters involved and their backgrounds. The characters even have voiceovers that are used whenever they throw a punch or get hit.
Replay Value 9/10
This game offers a lot of fun. It's fast and colorful and engaging to watch and play. It's definitely worth the trouble learn all the moves and capabilities of the opponents (as well as the three playable characters) because they behave quite differently despite the similar motions and overall effects. There's a lot here to keep your interest for a game with such an inherently primitive structure having been released after Street Fighter II: The World Warrior.
This is a piece of fighting game history that has gotten lost in the shadow of its more recent and more successful sequels. It's a must play for any fan of 2D fighting games, though it probably will not hold your interest as well as it would have back in 1991. If you have no access to a Neo Geo system the SNES port is probably your best bet, though it has some minor graphical and sound problems. It overcomes these flaws with simple, fast pace gameplay where learning the moves (both normal and special) is worth the effort has a very engaging sound track to accompany the fun.