Publisher: SNK Playmore
Developer: SNK Playmore
Release Date: April 8, 2008
If there's anything that the '90s taught us gamers over and over again until it rang in our ears while we tried to sleep, it was that hitting other people was a lot of fun, and the faster and more frantic the combat gets, the more fun it is. From Street Fighter II to Killer Instinct, Time Killers to Fighter's History and the dozens of stops in between, much of the decade was spent simply kicking the crap out of the other guy, whether it was a real person or a CPU opponent. Few games did it better than Fatal Fury.
Battle Archives is a series put forth by SNK-Playmore in recent months to go through the old library of NeoGeo fighting games that riddled the arcades in the early and mid-'90s. Not all of them were memorable — who would go out of their way to play World Heroes? — but the shining star was the long-running Fatal Fury series. Lasting most of a decade through nine different sequels before spinning off into the now-legendary King of Fighters series, Fury ran a strong race against high-end competitors like SF2. While Street Fighter II may have invented the genre in 1990, Fury brought a few more things to the table: substantially more speed, a robust combo system, and a pseudo-3D system using "planes" to move characters back and forth while still keeping 2D combat roots.
Archives Volume 2 brings in three of the "spin-off" games from the series — Real Bout: Fatal Fury, Real Bout Special and Real Bout 2: The Newcomers — covering the back half of the series' original incarnation on the NeoGeo before Wild Ambition and Mark of the Wolves ended the series on newer hardware in 1999. The Real Bout games are referred to among fans as "Dream Match" games, where canon and the thin plots of the first four titles are pitched out the window, resulting in huge numbers of characters brawling for fun rather than any particular point of order. By and large, that's all you get when you fire up any of the three titles: fast, 2D combat with a cast of characters ranging from a blond-haired, bare-fisted fighter and his brother, a master of drunken style, a fat Asian with a wrecking ball, and fan favorite Mai Shiranui, who's a top-heavy, mostly naked ninja girl. There's a character for virtually any playing style, and once you get used to the non-standard controls, it's actually quite fun to play. Don't think you're walking into an easy fight, though: Fatal Fury was known in its day for being one heck of a fight, and these three keep the challenge up pretty high — and that's without getting into Mr. Unfair himself, Billy Kane.
For the record, the controls are a veritable nightmare on the PlayStation 2 controller. The Real Bout series uses three basic attack buttons — punch, kick, and strong (which can be a punch or a kick, depending on the combatant), a taunt button, and … that's it, or at least it was on the NeoGeo. The extra buttons on the PS2 DualShock are used for throws and the buttons to move between the multiple planes that make up the environment. Using the background or foreground planes is a key strategic maneuver, and it adds a bit of complexity to the system. The combat system doesn't completely warrant describing deeply, as it's the sort of thing that any gamer who's ever played a 2D fighting game has experienced at some point, with the same basic control scheme, a rudimentary combo system that was common at this point in arcades, and so on. Real Bout and its sequels are a slice right out of arcade fighter history, and we've seen everything it did over and over again, repeated and augmented dozens of times since then.
In many regards, that proves to be a detriment of sorts to the whole package: Other than a linking menu system and some newly arranged music, Battle Archives makes no effort to update the included games in any way. The graphics are the exact same 16-bit NeoGeo graphics of the '90s, featuring exceptional detail and solid animation for their period but quite dull and low-tech by modern standards, even in the 2D arena. The controls are somewhat clunky and floaty, as was the flavor of the day, and they map awkwardly to the PlayStation2 controller.
The entire bundle feels like a time capsule, a relic of a bygone era of video gaming. This is not a statement against the games themselves — they were excellent games and still have great playability, featuring solid systems, huge sprites (for the era), and nary a frame of slowdown in sight, but that was the early '90s. In today's world, it's difficult to say that time was particularly kind. But more to the point, SNK has chosen to add nothing special to the package, so even for $20, it's a tough sell. You get three solid but very old 2D fighters that most of their fans have played more than a few hours of and nothing else — no unlockables, no bonus modes and no online play. It's basically what you'd get if you were to find an old arcade cabinet or fire up an arcade emulator. I know I'm grinding the point into the ground, but it's hard to shake the heavy feeling of shovelware here, as if SNK is trying to recoup capital by taking advantage of their extensive back catalog of games without really putting much effort into the process.
In many ways, I prefer Fatal Fury over its most famous kin of the era, Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat, in a great many ways — more characters, most of whom are unique and well designed and animated, each designed so that most players can find someone they're good with; impressive music and level designs; and generally a faster, more technically oriented combat system that was one of the first to allow counters and evasive techniques as well as throwing yourself headfirst into your opponent, all of which are still well loved by their fans today. The Real Bout spin-offs are not the best of the entire series (and I will not introduce a debate over this, except that it's Mark of the Wolves), and much of the system has been one-upped by the King of Fighters series in the decade since. The featureless presentation by SNK also somewhat diminishes the appeal of Battle Archives Volume 2. For its fans and the curious, I would suggest Volume 1 over Volume 2 (both together if you can), making well and sure that you come to the party expecting a time warp and not a radical new experience.