The King of Fighters XI Import Hands-On

Who needs 3D King of Fighters when you've still got 2D King of Fighters? We imported the latest game in SNK's popular three-on-three fighting series and put it through the paces.

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If you're still into 2D fighting games, then this one should be right up your alley. The King of Fighters XI features the fast-paced tag-team gameplay of KOF 2003 while introducing a number of new and returning characters, plus some noteworthy gameplay tweaks. Some of the new characters are surprisingly likable, like the fiendish-looking Oswald (who fights with razor-sharp playing cards--take that, Gambit!) and the sultry Elisabeth. Gameplay-wise, the new ability to switch characters in mid-combo makes the potential for different, punishing attack patterns seem almost unlimited, especially considering you've got about three dozen different characters to work with...including a number of hidden fighters that SNK fans will almost certainly appreciate. On top of that, KOF XI is online-enabled for the PlayStation 2, though importers who don't know Japanese will have trouble registering to play online. SNK hasn't announced plans to bring this game over to the West, but here's hoping it'll get here before long.

Let's back up for a second, though. One thing's for sure: The naming conventions of the King of Fighters series are all mucked up at this point. If you don't want your head to explode, you might want to skip this part as we try to fill you in on what has happened with KOF leading up to now. We won't even bother to try to summarize the story. Basically, starting with The King of Fighters '94, SNK released a new installment in this great 2D fighting series every year without fail up through the year 2003. Many fans agree that the series peaked in 1998, though SNK went on to do some interesting things with the subsequent games. In 2004, the company broke the annual trend when it released The King of Fighters NeoWave, the first game in the series that switched from the old NeoGeo hardware to a new platform, though casual onlookers probably couldn't tell the difference. Later this year, though, SNK Playmore will be releasing The King of Fighters 2006--a 3D fighting game that's based on The King of Fighters: Maximum Impact. (Confused yet?) But the traditional 2D series is still around, as well. That's where The King of Fighters XI comes in.

The old gang's all here in The King of Fighters XI, though the game introduces a number of new characters, like Elisabeth and Momoko, at left.
The old gang's all here in The King of Fighters XI, though the game introduces a number of new characters, like Elisabeth and Momoko, at left.

Along with the new Roman numerals in its title, KOF XI includes a souped-up presentation that's closer to NeoWave than the earlier installments in the series. Don't expect high-resolution 2D character sprites like in the more-recent Guilty Gear games, though. The characters here are mostly all touched up (or completely new), but they still resemble their counterparts from earlier King of Fighters installments. However, the rest of the game's presentation is spiffier than before, including the high-res anime-style character art found in the character-select screens and so forth. Also, the game features a host of options for tweaking out the visuals, so you can get them looking as sharp or soft-focused as you prefer--options that arcade purists should really appreciate. On the other hand, the new character artwork appears rather hit or miss. While the game cover and manual boast excellent-looking hand-painted character art, the cel-shaded stuff in the game itself doesn't do justice to all the great fighters that are in it.

Speaking of the cast, it's got a lot of the old favorites from this series, as you'd probably expect. Kyo and Iori, Ralf and Clark, Athena and Kensou, Ryo and Yuri, and many other returning cast members round out the lineup. Some of the not-so-hidden additions to the main roster include the always-welcome Geese Howard, his jealousy-inducing bodyguard Mr. Big, and Antonio Banderas-wannabe Robert Garcia, who's been redrawn rather strangely in this installment. The game also carries over a bunch of fighters from SNK's great Garou: Mark of the Wolves, including kung-fu master Gato, the awesome pro wrestler Tizoc (aka Griffon), and pretty B. Jenet. Longtime SNK fans will also appreciate the return of Fatal Fury's crazy raver Duck King, as well as the ninja Eiji Kisaragi. Though some KOF fan favorites like Takuma, Goro, Yamazaki, and Yashiro are missing from this cast (or maybe those are just our favorites), overall this is an impressive and diverse roster of complex characters.

Check out Oswald, one of the new characters added to the mix. You wouldn't want to cheat at poker against this guy.
Check out Oswald, one of the new characters added to the mix. You wouldn't want to cheat at poker against this guy.

The main new gameplay tweaks will mostly appeal to experienced King of Fighters players. You know, the people who are still keeping up with the yearly installments of this franchise. These tweaks include the quick-shift ability and the dream cancel. As in KOF 2003, in KOF XI you can switch between your active fighter at any time by pressing both punches or both kicks. However, you can also tag in one of your teammates in mid-combo, though you can only do this once or twice every now and then (based on a recharging power meter). In addition to the ability to cancel special moves into super moves, the dream-cancel ability lets you use your leader character to string together utterly devastating sequences of his or her strongest attacks.

All of the background graphics have been redone and really look nice, and the soundtrack is quite catchy. Because the action never stops until every last member of a team has been defeated, this makes for some gruelingly fast and complex matches--especially since players can switch team members at any time. In addition to the arcade mode, which will force you to take on a typically overpowered final boss, some of the other gameplay options include an "endless" survival mode and a challenge mode, a sequence of 40 stand-alone combat missions.

Eiji and Gato seem like they'd get along better than this.
Eiji and Gato seem like they'd get along better than this.

There's also a practice mode and a single-play option, if you'd rather focus on one fighter at a time. Some nice-looking artwork is also on display in the game's gallery (including some interesting early character design sketches), and you can unlock different ending sequences as well. And then there's the online mode, though in order to start playing online, you need to register through a browser-based Japanese-language form. That's really the only part of the game that requires a strong knowledge of Japanese.

The King of Fighters series may have reached niche status what with the diminishing of video arcade culture during the last five or six years, but based on our first impression of KOF XI, SNK's still got a good grasp for this type of gameplay. Some of the new characters on display here are arguably some of the best designs that SNK has presented in many years, and the new gameplay tweaks really expand the potential for individualized fighting styles while rewarding highly skillful technique. As mentioned, SNK has not announced The King of Fighters XI for release outside of Japan, but you could always try to import it, or just browse all our screenshots and check out our gameplay videos.

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