The King of Fighters series has one of the most complex histories in video games, and the N-Gage version of SNK Playmore's flagship series has perhaps the most baffling provenance yet. The King of Fighters Extreme is essentially a port of the GBA's King of Fighters EX2: Howling Blood, which was itself a version of the Dreamcast's The King of Fighters 2000, which was an enhanced port of the NeoGeo's The King of Fighters 2000 (now, let's all take well-deserved deep breath). The game is unfortunately, in its current build, not running nearly as fast as any of the aforementioned titles. That said, we were surprised by how few corners have been cut in this port. The control on Nokia's oft-maligned portable was pretty adequate, despite some new, unnecessary complexities (the game now uses nine buttons, instead of its usual four).
Although the King of Fighters series has been going strong since 1994, it's safe to say that most people have never played any of its many iterations. Usually regarded as the pearl of SNK's genre-defining lineup of fighting games, KOF combines characters and gameplay elements from its other fighting series, such as the Art of Fighting and Fatal Fury games. KOF is a three-on-three affair, in which your team must fight its way to the top of a tournament ladder. Most moves are performed with a combination of circular directional-pad movements and single button presses. As you fight, you fill a special meter that can be tapped to perform devastating special moves. The King of Fighters series' stylish character designs, strategy-laden gameplay, and lighting speed are the qualities that have allowed it to flourish these past 10 years, even as its creators have floundered financially.
Everything but that all-important speed component seems to have successfully made the transition to the N-Gage. Everyone on the game's impressive character roster has a complete move set, and it's easier to execute those moves using the N-Gage's keypad than it was with the GBA's front and shoulder buttons. You will, however, need to use a full nine buttons if you plan on performing things like taunts, rolls, and charge-ups. These actions are, on other platforms, achieved through button combinations. The N-Gage's button layout is too cramped for simultaneous button presses, however, especially if those keys aren't adjacent to one another. SNK Playmore, obviously aware of this fact, has assigned the less frequently used maneuvers to dedicated keys.
Like its GBA predecessor, The King of Fighters Extreme lets you string together combos using assists from "striker" characters. The striker is the next fighter in your three-person lineup, and he or she can be temporarily summoned into combat--ahead of his or her turn--by pressing the 2 key. This feature originated with The King of Fighters '99 on the NeoGeo and added depth to a game that features a scaled-back character roster. When used strategically, the striker system is just as effective on the N-Gage, allowing players to perform intricate multiple-character moves. Certain characters are more effective as strikers than others. For example, Terry's charged-up "power wave" attack can catch your opponent off guard, and makes for a great assist.
The N-Gage King of Fighters features a cursory plot, complete with all the hokey, unintelligible dialogue you may have come to expect (and even demand) from a fighting game. The King of Fighters tournament is being orchestrated by the mysterious Gustav Munchausen, whose unearthly minion will shift forms to be both your penultimate and ultimate competitor. When Gustav refers to this blonde abomination of nature as his "assistant," the creature shouts, "Call me by my name!" Strangely enough, In the version of the game we played, you'll have to beat him, each time, using only one of your fighters. If you take two or three to do the job, the game will register a CPU win. This seems like a bug, though, and therefore may not be final.
In terms of its graphics and sound, the N-Gage King of Fighters is identical to its GBA counterpart. The game's sprites and backgrounds were ripped and reused, though they were resized for the N-Gage's vertical screen orientation. KOF veterans will recognize these backgrounds from The King of Fighters 2000, and they hold up pretty well by comparison. The game's music isn't a highlight, as it sounds tinny, even using the N-Gage's proprietary headset. The characters' vocal clips fare much better, however, as they were--in the case of the GBA version from which this game was ported--directly recorded from the NeoGeo originals.
The N-Gage King of Fighters has only one unique feature, but it's a biggie. The game features Bluetooth multiplayer, allowing two players to compete wirelessly. Although it's undoubtedly cooler to connect wirelessly than it is to whip out a GBA link cable, Bluetooth connections tend to cause lag, especially in areas with heavy interference. However, an overall improvement to the speed of the game would make some occasional lag tolerable.
Essentially identical to its antecessor, except for some improvements to the control, The King of Fighters Extreme would certainly benefit from a speed boost. There is no technological reason why the N-Gage should not perform as well as or better than the GBA, so we can only hope that future builds of the game will narrow the frame-rate gap we're now experiencing. This is a distinct possibility, as Nokia will have plenty of time between now and January to optimize their code. If the final release shows speeds at least on par with the GBA iteration of the game, N-Gage owners will be treated to a great fighting experience.