Fatal Fury is a mediocre game, but it still should be played as a part of appreciating fighting game history.
Released on the Neo Geo arcade system about half a year after Capcom's original Street Fighter II, one might say that Fatal Fury: King of Fighters (or Garou Densetsu as it was known to Japanese gamers) is merely a rip-off of the Capcom classic. It's a one-on-one fighting game with special moves executed via joystick-and-button combinations, with fireballs and dash moves galore -- just like Street Fighter 2. It's got a boxer and a Muay Thai fighter -- just like Street Fighter 2. Ignoring the fact that you can only have so many human-based character designs anyway, these are where the similarities end. Fatal Fury, while honestly not a very good game, was different -- and the start of SNK's fighting game lineage. It laid the foundation for its later, better games to thrive upon.
Fatal Fury brought bright, colorful visuals to the fledgling fighter scene. Backgrounds seem to have always been a sticking point for SNK fighter fans, and judging by Fatal Fury's first attempts, it's easy to see why. All of the backgrounds in the game have all sorts of little details and different coloring schemes. There's the train rumbling by in the back of the Duck King's stage, the detailed statues in Richard Myer's Pao Pao Cafe and Geese Howard's office building, crashing waves in Michael Max's beach backdrop, and a wannabe Golden Gate bridge spanning across the river in Billy Kane's stage. In addition, the weather and/or daylight conditions change throughout the match for every single stage. Round 1 takes place during what seems to be high noon, Round 2 in the evening, and Round 3 -- should it come to that -- in the night time. The sky and environment changes color to reflect that. Regarding the weather effects, Tung Fu Rue's arena gets hit with a downpour of rain starting in the second round, and Geese Howard's office windows give a splendid view of a raging lightning storm outside in the third round.
The sprites are large and colorful as well, but they don't look as clean as they could have looked -- even for 1991. It's not a big deal, but after looking at arcade games like Capcom's Final Fight and Street Fighter 2, and Konami's myriad of beat-em-ups (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), it looks like the sprites in this game are a bit chunky. Also of concern is the somewhat stiff and choppy animation. The most obvious example of the mediocre animation in the game is Richard Myer, who uses a Capoiera style. With his myriad of handstand and kick animations, it's easy to spot where they could have added a frame here or there to make his movements less choppy. However, the character design -- while sometimes corny or outright nonsensical (check out the Duck King) -- provides this game with its own personality that separates itself from Street Fighter 2's more stoic characters. Terry Bogard's trademark red jacket and cap would make their return in all but two of the games he's featured in, and who could forget Tung Fu Rue's diminutive self explode into a muscle-bound giant after taking a few hits in a round? All in all, the animation is the only big blemish on an otherwise decent graphical package.
The sounds don't fare quite as well, although some would argue otherwise. I have personally never been a fan of any of the music in this title, save for Tung Fu Rue's Chinese theme and Geese Howard's dynamic music. While they do fit their backdrops appropriately, I find that they're mostly very simple. This does serve to make them memorable, but they're also the types of themes that I don't want stuck in my head. Right now I'm fighting to get Michael Max's chipper theme out of my head (the chipper-ness plagues me). The sound effects are also lacking oomph. Dull thuds when strikes make contact don't really serve up that feeling of, "Yeah, I hit you, and I hit you hard." However, the many voiceovers perhaps save the day. Your main characters shout out their special moves (I love how Terry's Burn Knuckle has him yelling out, "Baaahn naku!") and grunt when they attempt an attack or get hit. The one curse on the entire sound package is that everything sounds tinny, as if it were coming out of a soup can. A problem with the arcade's hardware? Not likely, judging from future titles.
The gameplay follows the theme of the mixed bag that is Fatal Fury's aesthetics. I recognize and respect the ideas that SNK tried to bring to the table, but in the end I wasn't too impressed with the execution. As far as the core gameplay goes, it's what you'd expect today from a 2D fighter: fighting takes place in a side-scrolling field. Holding away from an enemy blocks, and you can jump towards or away from your opponent. Curiously, there is a separate button dedicated to throwing. There’s only one punch and one kick, so initially that's not a real point of contention since the fighter genre as we know it today hadn't developed a real standard for multiple attacks yet. However this inflexibility of attacks show the game's weaknesses when you find that there is almost no organized planning with regards to hit priority. Lots of times you can't counter some of the normal attacks thrown your way (Raiden's body splash, for instance). Simply having a weaker, quicker attack would suffice (for example, countering a crouching uppercut with a well-placed jumping short kick in Street Fighter 2).
The game is so rudimentary, in fact, that it feels more like a souped-up Street Fighter. Yeah, the original Street Fighter. Special moves take off a surprising amount of damage (Terry's Burn Knuckle depletes a quarter of life from any enemy, even Geese Howard), but some come out painstakingly slowly. Almost all of them have a ridiculous hit priority. Wouldn't you know it, they're also somewhat difficult to execute -- even though most of them are simple charges or fireball rolls, the machine has a slightly difficult time deciphering these commands at times. (This was fixed somewhat in the SNES port, but let's not get into that right now...) Suffice it to say, after all of these little complaints, you'd expect there to not be any sort of combo system. Well, there isn't any, at least, not that I've found -- I have yet to execute a punch-into-Burn Knuckle. Perhaps that all ties back to the fact that special moves come out slowly?
The differentiating ideas I was referring to come in the form of character quirks, and the two-plane fighting (which I'll discuss afterwards). The character quirks include the aforementioned Tung Fu Rue transformation, Hwa Jai's liquor intake, and Billy Kane's staff loss. All of these things happen mid-round, not in between rounds. Tung Fu Rue transforms into a large brawler when he takes about 25% damage, then transforms back when there's less than a quarter of his life left. Hwa Jai receives a bottle of liquor from the crowd, after taking some hits, and guzzles the good stuff down, subsequently turning redder, faster, and more powerful. (Shoot, I'd just collapse and start snoring instead.) Billy Kane loses his staff whenever he hurls it at you, and has to wait for someone in the crowd to toss it back to him. While he's waiting, he automatically starts blocking every single attack and you can't even throw him.
I have very few problems with the first two character quirks, except for the fact that they become immensely unbalanced and that they could have been better served if the computer could execute them under certain conditions (life bar is flashing, or something, etc). Billy Kane's really bothers me because it leads to a really, really cheap set of fighting. He's done this to me several times: thrown the staff, start blocking like a wimp, gets the staff back, then hurls it again. It's hard to clear the staff with a jump because it has a wide swath of vertical range, and it takes off a decent amount of block damage. And I can't even retaliate when he's whimpering, waiting for his staff. It would have been better if he never lost his staff at all because this quirk really interrupts a fluid bout.
The other idea, the two-plane fighting, gets kudos for the concept. But I honestly didn't find it adding much depth to the gameplay. In fact I feel as if it takes away from the fun of the game. Basically instead of only being restricted to a left-right plane of movement, characters can be hit into the background and, the majority of the time, into another plane. Movement is still left-right, but the character closer to the screen has his back to you (the human, not you the character), while the other character faces you. The only options available from here are to move back to the same plane as the other fighter via an attack, a roll or a jump. The attack is always a leaping maneuver. Oftentimes it descends into a leaping match, where both you and the other character begin to just leap back and forth between planes, not really getting close enough to hit each other. It looks silly and aggravating, and breaks up the flow of a match almost as badly as Billy's staff gimmick does.
The last idea -- which is a two-on-one battle -- was actually pretty well done, and is a precursor for Street Fighter Alpha 3's "Dramatic Battle," where two players could gang up on an opponent. Here, projectile attacks will harm your partner, making cheap fireball chucking matches all but useless. After the first round is completed, the two characters then fight each other to see who gets to move on and get more worth out of his quarter.
My biggest complaint, however, has to be the fact that you can only use the 3 main characters: Terry and Andy Bogard, and Joe Higashi. None of the other characters were openly playable. This would change in the console ports, fortunately. Nevertheless I would have liked to experience the beefier arcade version with every character, especially Geese Howard, the final boss.
It's funny how, as kids, my friends and I always used to make fun of Fatal Fury as a Street Fighter 2 clone. It's not. SNK infused its own ideas into the gameplay, and while I feel that they faltered with putting out a polished product, they've refined it with the numerous sequels and other fighting games they've produced throughout the years. Consider that this is the first true one-on-one fighting game from SNK (Street Smart was more like a one-on-one/one-on-two Final Fight); at least it's better than Street Fighter. In closing, in terms of the way the game plays and NOT considering that it came out after Capcom's classic, I say that Fatal Fury is the last, most advanced and best entry of the "old" fighting game genre. It's just a shame that old fighting games weren't very good to begin with, and that Fatal Fury came out after Street Fighter 2 had already redefined the genre. Given that, Fatal Fury is a mediocre game that still should be played as a part of appreciating fighting game history.