KOF EX: NeoBlood Preview

The now defunct flagship game series from SNK is headed for the GBA. We go hands-on with an early build.

The Metal Slug 4 and Sammy's upcoming GBA fighting game, KOF EX- NeoBlood.

That's got to hurt.

We noticed immediately that the only two music tracks in the build so far are both from KOF 2000 , but unfortunately, both tracks sound like they should be coming from an 8-bit console, not a 16-bit handheld. KOF EX also features voice samples that are lifted directly from the original NeoGeo games, and though they seem a bit scratchy, they're certainly better than the music at this point.

Otherwise, this very, very early build of KOF EX we've received bears an obvious resemblance to KOF 2000 for the Dreamcast. It has the same menu screens and features at least one of the Dreamcast-exclusive background stages--the castle wall stage--though unlike the one in the Dreamcast version, the GBA stage is a static, 2D backdrop, not 3D. And like KOF Evolution for the Dreamcast, KOF EX is intended to be a port of The King of Fighters '99; it features all of the same characters with the same portraits as in the original NeoGeo game--shrunken down and displayed at a lower resolution, of course. KOF EX also features one notable addition to its cast: the legendary villain Geese Howard.

Geese is back!

Geese looks exactly as he did in The King of Fighters '96, the older NeoGeo fighter, and all of the game's other characters look as they did in The King of Fighters '99. That's because developer Marvelous Entertainment has simply ported the original NeoGeo sprites into the game--after shrinking them down and cutting some frames of animation. The gameplay in the early build we have seems noticeably slower than the gameplay in most recent KOF games, partially due to these animation cuts. In addition, the game features an all-new female character named Moe Habana, a teenage girl who bears more than a passing resemblance to Capcom's Street Fighter Alpha character Sakura. Moe has a three-part punch attack, a flip-kick attack, and a two-part hopping punch attack. She also has a hop kick that can be performed by pressing the control pad forward and pressing "light kick." Unlike longtime KOF protagonists Kyo Kusanagi and Iori Yagami, Moe doesn't set her opponents alight with fiery punches and kicks, but some of her special attacks do produce bursts of cherry blossoms on contact.

Since we were playing such an early build, we were able to ignore the fact that six of the game's roster of 26 characters weren't actually playable. However, in our build, all players are selectable as strikers; additional teammates whose sole purpose is to leap onscreen and perform an attack or two before leaving. As in the original KOF games, strikers can set up a few unusual combination attacks. KOF EX lets you choose any of the standard 26 characters as a striker, and it includes five striker-only characters: Seth, Vanessa, Yamazaki, Maxima, and K'. Unfortunately, the build we received didn't have all of the game's play modes yet, which should include team play, single play, team versus, single versus, two survivor modes, and a practice mode.

Choi schools Athena.

And unfortunately, the build we have didn't actually have any sort of button configuration option in, so we were stuck with the clunky default control setup. Longtime KOF fans know that most characters need to be able to use every single attack available to be truly effective; what's more, the KOF series has always used designated special commands, from evasive rolls to multiple button presses. That's why KOF EX's default control setup seems so awkward--the face buttons serve as light-punch and light-kick buttons, respectively, while the shoulder buttons act as the strong-punch and strong-kick button. Performing many of the game's more-damaging combination attacks is very difficult, at least at this point. That's because so many of KOF's attack strings require switching off between different punches and kicks on the fly, and trying to switch between the shoulder and face buttons in this way is difficult, to say the least. What's more, to perform a knockdown attack (which you'd perform on the NeoGeo by pressing buttons C and D together), you need to press both shoulder buttons simultaneously, which is surprisingly hard to do consistently. And calling in a striker requires that you press all four buttons simultaneously. Hopefully, Marvelous Entertainment will implement a pressure-sensitive control option that'll let you tap a button for a weak attack and press it for a strong attack, as well as let you assign specific commands to each shoulder buttons, like calling in a striker.

Of course, it's too early to judge the final game based on so early a build, and all things considered, Marvelous Entertainment is already off to a good start. Since the company has opted to use most of SNK's existing character sprites and sound samples, as well as background stages, it can presumably focus its attention on implementing a solid game engine--or at the very least, porting over KOF Evolution's game engine properly. We'll have more info on KOF EX in the coming months.

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