SNK Playmore might have lost the first round trying to bring its King of Fighters series into 3D, but here comes the comeback. The King of Fighters 2006 is markedly better than King of Fighters: Maximum Impact, the company's forgettable 2004 attempt to take its popular fighting series from 2D to 3D. While KOF 2006 doesn't do much of anything that hasn't been done before in other 2D and 3D fighting games, it features a huge roster of nearly 40 different characters, including a bunch of unlockable fighters that longtime SNK fans should get a real kick out of. And while it doesn't have online play (hardly any PlayStation 2 fighting games have bothered), it has a substantial number of single-player challenges to keep you busy and offers some fun, fast-paced, over-the-top martial arts battles.
Those keeping track of the long-running King of Fighters series will be quick to notice that this installment is the first 3D game to absorb the series proper's yearly naming convention, which has been used only for 2D games in the series up until now. Does this mean 2D King of Fighters is dead and buried? Not necessarily, since this is the same game as Japan's King of Fighters: Maximum Impact 2. More importantly, though, KOF 2006 is a solid game that's at least on par with other recent titles in the series. And it plays much more like a 2D King of Fighters game than like 3D fighting games such as Tekken or Virtua Fighter, so in many ways it holds very true to the series' roots. It mostly just looks different, and the 3D visuals, while not stunning, are pretty good in most cases.
KOF 2006 isn't drastically different from Maximum Impact, though it adds a lot of meaningful, new material. It features every last character from the first game, including King of Fighters veterans like Iori and Kyo, as well as Maximum Impact originals like the Meira brothers and Duke, the previous game's main bad guy who has joined the starting lineup for this round. It adds several new characters on top of these, notably including stick fighter Billy Kane and frost-throwing hipstress Kula Diamond. And then there are the hidden fighters--a lot of them. And, for the most part, they're not just rehashes of the main fighters, but completely different characters. They include SNK favorites like Kim Kaphwan and Geese Howard, plus some surprising additions like Fio from the Metal Slug series and Hanzo Hattori from Samurai Shodown, and even some downright obscure characters like Richard Myer from the original Fatal Fury, and Billy's sister, Lily Kane. All fighters in the game have multiple different outfits and many unlockable outfit colors, and some of these are really wild. So, with close to 40 different fighters in all, each with unique combos, special moves, and super moves, plus lots of unlockable outfits and stages and such, there's certainly a lot of stuff in KOF 2006, for a fighting game.
You can unlock all the initially hidden fighters either by playing through the story mode with different characters or by completing a misleadingly titled series of "easy missions," which challenge you to defeat particular opponents by using specific moves or by overcoming certain penalties. These are progressively challenging and also serve to train you on some of the subtleties of the gameplay, such as the new parrying maneuvers available to all characters. The missions are quite addictive to play through, especially since you keep unlocking new content as you go. And once you're finished with the 100 easy missions, you can move on to the "hard missions" for some real punishment. The game also features extra missions, which are bonus levels that range from trashing a sport utility vehicle like in the old Street Fighter II bonus stage, to taking on the Metal Slug tank in single combat. Again, these are interesting diversions that help give the game single-player longevity. There's also what's called the "quest survival" mode, which is like a typical survival mode except that you get to choose, between rounds, where to spend some points you earn, such as on replenishing your health or raising your attack power.
The underlying combat system is good but unremarkable. There's still no three-on-three team-based fighting, just your basic one-on-one brawls. It's possible, and fairly easy, to string together light and strong punches and kicks with special moves and super moves to form highly damaging combos. The action moves very quickly, so an aggressive style of play is definitely favored, especially since it's possible to break through the guard of an opponent who keeps on blocking, and your super move meter charges up very quickly as well. You can perform side steps and forward and backward evasive rolls to avoid projectile attacks and keep your opponent guessing, and if you knock your enemy to the turf, you can keep kicking him while he's down. Despite the sheer number of different fighters in the game, the vast majority of them seem quite powerful and versatile. The fighting takes place in closed, square arenas, and if you can pin your opponent against a wall, then you can really dish out some serious pain. It's easy just to pound on the buttons and watch as fancy-looking moves happen, but the game rewards skillful and precise play as well. The controls are tight and responsive; relatively complicated moves like Geese's Razing Storm can be performed reliably using the PS2's D pad.
The game's enemy artificial intelligence is pretty good, too. It'll use powerful combos and throws against you at higher stages, and as you unlock more fighters, you'll also get to face them and their tactics in the story mode. The story mode is just a straightforward eight-match arcade mode, though, and it's too bad that there are no character-specific endings to look forward to once you get past the game's not-unreasonably-tough last boss. Of course, there's also a versus mode for when you want to play against a friend. The game's fast-paced matches and wide selection of characters can make for some good, friendly two-player action.
KOF 2006 has a modest but respectable presentation. Some of the characters are still missing some of the charm and personality of their 2D counterparts, but the newer additions to the roster look quite good. Some of the game's animations are rather stiff, as you can tell they're attempting to imitate the 2D style of earlier King of Fighters games, but the characters and their moves are recognizable, and some of the attacks are quite flashy. The game runs smoothly in general. As for the audio, the best thing about it is that SNK Playmore added a Japanese language option, letting you hear all the characters as you're probably used to hearing them in other SNK fighting games. The English language track is still there, and now that it's an option rather than the rule, it's nice to have. The game's sound effects are fine, but most of the music is nothing special, with the possible exception of a great but brief dance track on the main menu.
The presence of so many classic fighting game characters in the roster is really the best thing about KOF 2006, which is otherwise a competent 2D-style fighting game done in 3D. The foppish newer characters in the lineup might seem like sacrilege to SNK diehards, but these characters' presence is counterbalanced by a lot of other, older, cooler fighters that are great to have in a new game. King of Fighters fans should give this one a chance, especially if they've got some like-minded friends to play with.