Release Date: September 14, 2004
Let’s clear one small thing up here, all right? This isn’t really SNK’s first foray into the realm of 3D. Before this, they had the Samurai Shodown games on NeoGeo CD, 64 and Warrior’s Rage, neither of which are worth the considerable effort they take to find; and Fatal Fury: Wild Ambition, an excellent game on extremely rare hardware, which is unfortunately better known for a terrifically botched PSOne port.
So this, King of Fighters: Maximum Impact, is really SNK’s fourth foray into 3D, and the increased mainstream appeal that comes along with it.
Oddly, this first 3D KOF, unlike the fifteen or sixteen 2D versions of the series, is a one-on-one fighting game, set in Southtown. This time, the King of Fighters tournament has been called together to determine who will have the chance to meet with the leader of the powerful street gang called Mephistopheles. The usual deal applies: if the contestant can defeat several of the greatest fighters in the world, he’ll be able to win the prize.
Many, although by no means all, of the KOF cast has been lovingly translated into 3D for Maximum Impact. As of this writing, the known returning cast includes Terry Bogard, Kyo Kusanagi, Iori Yagami, Mai Shiranui, Ryo Sakazaki, Yuri Sakazaki, Athena Asamiya, Leona, Clark Steel, Ralf Jones, Seth, K’, and Maxima.
Each character has made the transition to 3D more or less intact; even their normal moves from the 2D KOF series have been reanimated and retained. Crouch and hit the hard kick button, and Iori will still throw that strange lunging full-body dropkick of his. In addition, most characters have a few new command moves, as well as their usual list of supers and specials.
Each character also has two outfits, which you can choose between at character selection. Some of them are obvious choices, such as the option to put Kyo into the school uniform he wore when he was introduced, or his white leather jacket from KOF99, while others are brand new looks for old characters.
The returning cast is joined by five new fighters: Alba, Soiree, Lian, Mingnon, and Chae Lim. The last is apparently a student of KOF mainstay Kim Kaphwan, right down to having a couple of his signature moves, while the first four are brand-new, and apparently deeply involved in the gang war subplot that drives this KOF.
I’ll tell you this right now: serious KOF purists are going to hate Maximum Impact like fire. The E3 build didn’t have the customary Basic or Advanced-style power meters, any sort of Striker system, or any of the other gameplay innovations that KOF has brought to the table for the last few years.
Hell, you can’t even roll... or if you can, rolling doesn’t use the same command it used to. You’ve got a simple and fast sideways run that stands in for rolling, but it isn’t quite the same thing.
You build super meter the same way you might in a Street Fighter Alpha game, by hitting or being hit. When you gain a level of meter, you can expend it on one of your character’s trademarked and ultra-damaging super special moves, such as Terry’s Power Geyser. Many of these have been kicked up a notch, visually; Kyo’s supers and specials look considerably more spectacular when they’re wreathed in giant opaque clouds of flame.
Team play wasn’t available in the build at E3, but its description was as a three-on-three match; there’s no word yet as to whether it’ll be elimination-style or the tag-team action from King of Fighters 2003.
The gameplay itself, though, is fast-paced, responsive, and above all else, entertaining. The new dimension of play feels like 2D, in a way, as you actually have to hold down L1 to move into or away from the camera. It’s like there’s an invisible rubber band joining the fighters. It doesn’t hurt that jumping, which has almost fallen completely out of vogue in 3D fighters, is an integral part of Maximum Impact; jump-ins are still an easy way to start combos, and anti-air is still a major part of any character’s game.
When the fighters separate, the camera pulls back as it did in Samurai Shodown; while the game’s backgrounds have walls, as well as the occasional obstacle, you can still take the fight to a considerable distance.
That being said, the new dimension of play is enough to separate this KOF from all that’s come before. The greater potential range of combat, as well as side-stepping, turn rush moves and fireballs into much greater gambles than they once were. At the same time as Maximum Impact feels comfortably familiar, it’ll take some getting used to.
This isn’t a new Virtua Fighter, or a Tekken. This is King of Fighters, which is now the name to beat in 2D fighters (that is, unless Capcom Fighting Jam blows all of our socks off), translated into 3D. It’s not a fitful conversion, like the first couple of Street Fighter EX games, either; it’s a faithful representation of the games as we know them, with enough new stuff to keep it interesting.