SNK's venerable King of Fighters fighting game series is 10 years old this year, and it has seen a new installment each subsequent year ever since it started. Given KOF's obvious staying power, and given that SNK's NeoGeo hardware--home to King of Fighters for all these years--is ancient (yet timeless, like any classic console), it's not surprising that the company would make an effort to update the series to become, well...more like other modern fighting games. Specifically, the new KOF: Maximum Impact is the first fully 3D game in the series, which might have seemed like a fundamentally exciting transition at some point long ago, but today this doesn't seem all that remarkable. Luckily, KOF: Maximum Impact plays pretty well, and it features many recognizable characters from the series along with pretty much all their signature moves. Then again, it's unlikely that anyone other than King of Fighters fans will find much interest in Maximum Impact, but even they will be disappointed by certain key aspects of the game.
Ask any fan of SNK's fighting games what they like so much about those games, and one of the most common answers you'll get would be that those games have a tremendous amount of personality. Despite the limitations of the NeoGeo hardware, SNK's artists and animators managed to create some interesting and memorable characters for its fighting games, which is partly what kept so many players coming back year after year. Many SNK fans rued the company's early attempts to transition from 2D to 3D, because so much of the nuance and detail in the character designs got lost in translation--as did, more importantly, a lot of the depth and complexity of the action. Years have passed and 3D technology has gotten a lot better. The potential exists, perhaps, for a 3D game to capture both the personality as well as the precision of a 2D fighting game. Unfortunately, KOF: Maximum Impact is not such a game.
SNK fans will recognize the characters, moves, and animations here as being clearly suggestive of the series' 2D roots, but it's just not done with the same pixel-perfect flair. The graphical details between all the different characters are missing, so you'll recognize them because of their clothes and special moves, not because of their faces. Actually, probably the best thing about KOF: Maximum Impact--and to the game's credit, this is facilitated by the transition to 3D--is that all of the characters feature alternate outfits, which, in some cases, are pretty wild. After all these years, SNK fans will appreciate seeing characters like Iori Yagami or Mai Shiranui in something other than their signature attire. Furthermore, with the exception of some occasional fits of slowdown during flashier super moves, KOF: Maximum Impact runs nice and fast. Ultimately, the 3D graphics on display here--which are mostly just for show, since KOF: Maximum Impact basically plays like a 2D fighting game--definitely aren't bad, but they're not great. The characters look awkward when they're standing still and while emulating the fighting stances of their 2D counterparts. However, the characters do look better in motion, and they look quite good in the disappointingly rare event that you get to see them up close.
The worst thing about KOF: Maximum Impact is the sound. For some horrible reason, all the speech in the game has been rerecorded in English, and no Japanese language option has been retained. So dedicated SNK fans will feel deeply alienated by all the poorly delivered English dialogue, much of which has been literally translated from the original Japanese. The English-speaking soundalikes for some of SNK's classic characters aren't that bad, but still, these characters' voices have been as distinctive as their moves and appearances, but now their voices are different and worse. To add insult to injury, the end-game credit sequence in KOF: Maximum Impact lists all the original Japanese voice actors, who are nowhere to be heard here. The rest of Maximum Impact's audio is forgettable, consisting of bland guitar rock (representing a missed opportunity to bring back some memorable King of Fighters character themes) and serviceable sound effects.
Weighing in at less than two dozen, the roster of characters in KOF: Maximum Impact isn't huge. Most of these will be recognizable to fans of the series, while the new characters--including the Meira brothers, who look like your typical anime pretty boy / bad boy ravers, and Lien, a full-figured British agent who looks suspiciously similar to the No One Lives Forever shooters' heroine, Cate Archer--fit in OK with the rest of the cast. The balance between the characters is highly suspect. Some, such as Rock Howard and Iori, have access to fast, strong moves that have no real weaknesses even if they're used repeatedly. However, given that this isn't an arcade fighting game and that there's no online play component, the unbalanced character roster frankly doesn't matter much. If your friend keeps using cheap moves on you, we recommend that you break his controller.
As far as the actual gameplay is concerned, KOF: Maximum Impact ironically represents a big step backward from previous King of Fighters installments, in that it does not feature the series' signature three-on-three battles. Instead, much like in any run-of-the-mill fighting game, you just pick one character at a time and pit that character in fast-paced one-on-one battles that are often dominated by damaging super moves. King of Fighters has always featured pseudo-3D gameplay in which characters could sidestep to avoid certain attacks and projectile moves, and this ability is retained in KOF: Maximum Impact. Characters can also tumble forward or backward, which may be a useful tactic for getting in close or evading a dangerous foe. Other than that, your character charges up to three stocks of energy during the course of attacking and defending, and these may be used to unleash damaging, often high-priority super moves that can quickly turn the tables. Since super moves tend to come out quickly, they can be strung into combos for some very quick wins. It's worth noting that KOF: Maximum Impact plays very fast, which is mostly to the game's credit. Pressing the attack is the way to win, especially since a guard meter prevents opponents from indefinitely defending, lest their guard be broken.
Probably the biggest change in KOF: Maximum Impact's gameplay versus previous King of Fighters games is in how you may continue to attack an opponent who has been knocked down (something that has not been possible, for the most part, in the 2D games in the series). What this means is that if you manage to corner a foe, it's possible to really lay into him with damaging juggle combos followed by more punishment when the foe hits the ground. Characters can perform a recovery roll to quickly regain their footing after some knockdown moves, but for the most part, getting cornered in Maximum Impact is a recipe for serious injury. It's actually pretty fun to mess with the game's open-ended combo system, since it lets you chain together a bunch of hits as well as connect multiple super moves in a row, but it can also lead to some pretty one-sided battles.
KOF: Maximum Impact doesn't offer much in the way of gameplay modes. There's a perfunctory "story mode," in which a conniving weasel invites you to take on several characters one after another until you square off against Duke, the game's gratuitously overpowered boss. Furthermore, none of the characters has any kind of real ending. You unlock character profiles and some slightly alternate outfits by finishing the story mode, but these aren't great bonuses. There's also a mission mode, in which you gradually escalate to some very tough scenarios that put you at a heavy disadvantage. These can be a fun challenge for experienced players, but they're not presented well, and the rewards for beating the missions pretty much boil down to extra colors for your characters. There's also a practice mode and a versus mode.
For some reason, KOF: Maximum Impact ships in a two-disc special edition, and it packs in a large manual with character profiles and move lists for all the fighters. The second disc is a behind-the-scenes DVD that features interviews with the game's producers and other bits specifically about the game. It's strange that this game presents itself with so much aplomb, when in fact it's basically a bare-bones 3D fighter that's noticeably missing a lot of what has made The King of Fighters such an excellent series. KOF: Maximum Impact is probably SNK's best foray into the realm of 3D fighting games yet, but, sadly, that's not saying much. King of Fighters fans might as well rent Maximum Impact to see some of the characters' new duds and to experience a few decent, fast-paced bouts. But unless you have a strong affinity for this game's cast of characters, you need not apply.