Neo Geo. Two strong words, like double scotch. Made by SNK, they were available to purchase but were exotic to find; known but enigmatic. Neo Geo had romance like an old Alpha Romeo. Or old scotch. Timeless.
Now you wouldn’t want to own a Neo Geo per se, but you would certainly borrow one for a week to flirt with. It wouldn’t be enough time to really get to know King of Fighters ’95 but would suffice some sweet nothings. Not for me though, and not with the friends that I knew back then.
I would finally get a chance with King of Fighters once I got involved in the Saturn import cult of the late nineties, and then again recently, when I went looking for those rumoured old videos from Japan of Virtua Fighter 2, but instead came across a King of Fighters ’98 tournament.
’98 was the jewel in the crown. I wondered how good these tournament guys and gals would be and found out the answer within a single round. They were very, very good at it. I was seeing King of Fighters run on all cylinders for the first time; even players who were delivered an absolute pasting were far beyond what I had ever understood.
Linking moves I hadn’t ever considered and an overall pace that bordered on the precognitive. To be honest, the best I ever got at those characters was when Capcom softened them down for their iterations of Capcom vs SNK. They watered down the whisky so to speak. But these tournament contenders, they wouldn’t even add ice much less water. They just stared at the screen and jiggled their joysticks while the sprites countered, rolled and linked standing punches into supers like it was perfectly normal. The only thing more intense than the action on screen, was the death stares of concentration on their faces, ever leaning ever closer to the screen as they whittled away at each other’s tag team of three.
I have seen Van Damme smackdowns that were more cordial than the fighting in this. And he did not look as good as these characters while he was at it. SNK really had their art direction down by the time they made King of Fighters, with each yearly update adding to both roster and fine details, which gave the whole thing a pleasantly cross-stitched appeal that equalled Capcom’s anime aesthetic. Indeed both developers can rest evergreen compared to the polygon fighters of the time, and since. Where they used to look blocky but appealing (now just blocky), the modern breed of uber fighters glisten with sheen and leaden effects. Are any of them as sweet on the eye as King of Fighters ’98? No. Not now or ever, with the possible exception of Virtua Fighter 3, a game so classical in all areas that you really should have been able to fight as a Bronte sister.
Back at the tournament and the competitors were mostly head in hands with defeat by the fifth hour, those remaining now clammy-handed with their personalised arcade sticks and twitchy with last-minute arranging of their fighting trio. The contender I had awarded with my attention was out by now, but had taken a few of the regulars with him and fired the commentators with effervescence. He was a whizz with Chizuru, teleporting her into a supernatural frenzy straight out of nineties Japan.
Then someone took him to town with Chris and the rest was nothing less than a cold exit. A shame, especially as Chris is one of those downer characters that methodically gets the job done but is a sigh to watch doing it. Then finally, after a regular tally of the choice fighters, a final loomed, and with it, the proposition of us all actually getting on with something. Actually, it wouldn’t, as it turns out that after a full five and something hours the concluding rounds and actual final would be the next day, and on a different video of unknown length. Right. Regardless, I was still going to treat the last match of this five and something hour video as if it were a final and that will be that. Goodness me.
So, in this final, we have Rpunk from Chile and XiaoHei from China and they have gone for Iori (punk) and Iori (bad blood) respectively as the first of their three fighters. It’s an even start to a final with decent strikes between them. Both do the lighting floor special in retreat, like everyone does. Then XiaoHei moves up a gear and goes for those brute force Iori combos that take rival Iori out of the round. XiaoHei’s Iroi goes on with that diminished lifebar and Rpunk’s Chris jumps into the frame. Typical.
But what is this? Diminished, but seemingly not perturbed, Iori gives that young Chris an absolute pasting. Good show. A hot start to this best-of-three match with XiaoHei looking like he is on to deliver a haymaker of an opener; two fighters to spare and the possibility to discard them entirely for match one. It is as if he knew it was a final and he was swinging from Irori’s hips. The crowd goes wild and Kyo leaps into the frame. Kyo vs Iori.
That’s a loaded confrontation, but in the end, Iori goes to town again and leaves with more than just his bus fare home. He takes match one like a boss and Rpunk goes into shellshock and then decides to go back into match two with the same three fighters in the same order. Of course, it worked so well last time. XiaoHei must stay with his roster as per the rules, but I should think he feels fine about it, which he duly confirms by winning the first round with a combo-into-super spectacular!
Then Chris takes another shot but actually just takes every single combo ever to every piece of his pixels and duly buggers off. A sudden hush then, as it becomes apparent that XiaoHei could finish this match off with a single character. The stuff of a great final, even if it wasn’t, but even so Rpunk takes Kyo into battle and finally gets around to some pissing on Xiao
Hei’s chips. Good work, but now he has Chris to deal with, and with a hop, kick and a squeak Chris does what he does and Rpunk takes the door marked Executed. An incredible display. King of Fighters was always a cut-glass, highly-strung beast and it tickles the soul to see people stepping up to take another dance with that beast all this time later. The only advice I can think to offer is never approach from the rear. Considered poor show. And don’t forget to pick Terry Bogard once in a while. He can feel left out.
John is a writer and gardener. He comes with various 90’s Sega attachments and is the author of The Meifod Claw and other works. His favorite tree is a copper beech and he would like his coffee black without sugar, thank you.