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King of Fighters: The Game That Refused to Die

King of Fighters: The Game That Refused to Die

Femi Famutimi
13 min

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Despite many setbacks, King of Fighters survives and reminds us of the power of grit and perseverance

If you ask the legacy fan of fighting games, and perhaps even more contemporary ones, they will tell you that what they like about fighting games is the technicality and feeling of facing off against someone else. They might also mention the grit, grind, and resilience of fighting games as something that spoke to them. This is true, as the iconic ‘Fighting game is something so great’ quote by Tokido at Evo 2017 highlighted. Fighting games are indeed about grit and resilience as any pro player would tell you. Hours of grinding and labbing just to understand one interaction in a game are just a couple of the things you need to be prepared for if you decide to pick up a fighting game on any level beyond casual. 

Interestingly, there is a fighting game whose history demonstrates these qualities in spades, and that is SNK’s The King of Fighters. Nowadays, SNK is a company flush with cash thanks to their new ownership, which enables them to carry out a lot of projects that might have been impossible before. They have even announced a slew of games to come in the future, which fans can look forward to. This was not always the case, as the history of SNK is one filled with difficulty, shortages, and frantic work toward meeting deadlines. 

However, despite all the setbacks, The King of Fighters is now considered one of the greatest fighting games of all time. While SNK was established as far back as 1973 by Eikichi Kawasaki, it wasn’t until the 80s that the company really dove headfirst into the world of gaming. 

While the King of Fighters might be SNK’s most popular IP, it is by no means the only one. They have other fan favorites like Art of Fighting, Fatal Fury, Metal Slug, Samurai Shodown, The Last Blade, World Heroes, and Garou: Mark of the Wolves

King of Fighters was first released on August 25, 1994, and it began a tradition of naming its games after the year it was produced. This would last till 2003 when troubles overcame them and caused them to more or less miss a year. The next game that was released was called The King of Fighters XI, and that tradition has continued till today. Earlier this year, The King of Fighters returned with KOF XV, which has been seen as a success to the point of scoring a nomination at the Game Awards for 2022, which it has a good chance of winning. 

One of the significant innovations of King of Fighters was the three-fighter teams which has dominated for most of the series. It is an iconic mechanic that fans have fallen in love with. 

So, with all that said, what was the story of The King of Fighters? You see, the producer for The King of Fighters 94 was Takashi Nishiyama, and if you do not recognize that name, don’t worry; he was only the director of a little-known game called Street Fighter. Yes, the director of Street Fighter was the producer of The King of Fighters 94. He was well known for his love of extensive backstories of characters and the creation of lore. Due to this, King of Fighters has one of the most extensive stories of any fighting game. Tekken is usually feted for its story, which is considered the only unbroken storyline in fighting games. But, The King of Fighters does have an intriguing storyline, and it is one of the things that has made the game so iconic.

The KOF Story

As mentioned earlier, King of Fighters is considered to have one of the richest and most robust storylines of any fighting game. Is it a masterpiece of storytelling that deserves an Oscar or something? Well, no. But come on, this is fighting games we are talking about. However, King of Fighters was doing something that no other fighting game was willing to do— giving each character a fleshed-out story with the side characters of that story. It also ensured that most of the cast was connected to the main event in one way or the other. For KOF, there have been three main sagas, with one ongoing at the moment: The Orochi Saga, The NESTS Saga, The Ash story, and the Verse Saga. 

Orochi’s saga began when in ancient times, a being called Orochi, who was said to have been born of Gaia, sought to destroy all of humanity. Orochi was stopped by three Japanese families, the Kusanagi, Yata, and the Yasakani. He was then sealed up. However, things did not stay cozy for long as a faction known as the Hakkesshu, servants loyal to Orochi, sowed discord among the three families by killing the wife of the Yasakani head and framing the Kusanagi for doing it. Enraged, the Yasakani then sided with Orochi and were keen on bringing him back. Fast forward to modern times (1994), and the descendants of these families are now on a path to doom as Orochi’s seal is being broken slowly. This story was the main conflict between KOF 94 and 97. It was eventually resolved as Orochi was awakened, and the vessel he chose was defeated, and he was sealed again. The three descendants of the ancient families that sealed him, Kyo Kusanagi, Iori Yagami, and Chizuru Kagura, all had a hand in defeating Orochi, but at great cost. Kyo and Iori are thought to be dead, and Chizuru wasn’t faring much better either. This was where the Orochi Saga ended. 

The next saga, the NESTS chronicle, was a bit more grounded in reality as it had much to do with cloning experiments and secret organizations bent on world domination. It also introduced a new hero into the series— K’ (pronounced Kay Dash). K’ was an ordinary boy who was infused with the DNA of Kyo Kusanagi and was made by NESTS to become an ultimate soldier. K’, with the help of other failed NESTS experiments, Maxima and Kula Diamond, was on the hunt to take down NESTS. They were eventually successful, and we even got the return of Kyo and Iori in this saga. 

The Ash Saga, which came after the events of the NESTS saga, introduced a new and very divisive protagonist in Ash Crimson, who was portrayed as a villain. 

Ash was a child taken in by the Blanctorche family. He grew up with their daughter Elisabeth in France, and the two had a close bond. Unfortunately, the Blanctorche family meets their end in mysterious circumstances, and Elisabeth vows to find the one responsible. Ash is one of the suspects due to the use of flames in the Blanctorche family’s murder which is the same power Ash possesses. He entered into both the KOF X and XI tournaments and stole both Chizuru and Iori’s abilities, and threatened to come for Kyo’s powers later.  

It would later be revealed in King of Fighters XIII that all his problematic behavior was for a good cause as the main antagonist of the arc, Saiki, was Ash’s ancestor, and his actions were geared towards taking down Saiki and the group which he led, Those From the Past. By absorbing Saiki’s essence and refusing to go through a time gate that would have enabled Saiki and Ash to continue plotting the downfall of humanity, he was able to ensure that both he and Saiki were erased from time and forgotten by everyone.

The Ash saga would end with Ash’s disintegration, but this was not the end, as the events of KOF XIV would have some far-reaching ramifications for the universe.

The current King of Fighters, XV, saw a new villain emerge, Verse. Verse is an entity formed from the dead souls of those who fought in the KOF tournaments. Verse is a result of some of Ash’s actions which caused a temporal paradox. This caused the souls of those who fought in KOF to come together to form Verse. After his defeat in KOF XIV, all the dead souls were scattered, and many are alive again, bringing back old friends but also old foes. Keeping in line with previous games, we also got another hero, Shun’ei. His role is a lot more prominent in KOF XV as in the previous game; developers were unsure if the King of Fighters was ever going to return.

The SNK Saga

Through all this, SNK was undergoing a saga of its own. The company went through a lot, starting off with low sales for some of the earlier iterations of King of Fighters. This wasn’t helped by the fact that many of their other IPs weren’t doing so great. This would eventually lead to them being bought out by Aruze, a company that made a name from Pachinko machines. They bought SNK and were bent on focusing the company on Pachinko machines using SNK characters. This did not do well, leading the company into bankruptcy. They also had to put up a lot of their IPs for sale. However, due to the grit of former SNK head honcho Kawasaki, SNK was able to come back in some capacity. This happened because Kawasaki formed a company called Playmore which then proceeded to get back all of SNK’s IPs and re-hire old employees. This led to the eventual formation of SNK Playmore in 2003, with the company ready to get back into making video games. 

This was a weird time for the King of Fighters games, and the titles released in this time were divisive, including The King of Fighters: Maximum Impact games. It would lead to low sales, which had SNK staring at bankruptcy again. 

They also tried their hands at Pachinko slot machines which was strange considering their history and what they had endured at the hand of Aruze. This would ultimately fail, and SNK was eventually purchased for a measly $65 million by Ledo Millennium. 

SNK would eventually drop the ‘Playmore’ from its name, revert to its original slogan, ‘The future is now,’ and resume the production of fighting games. What followed was King of Fighters XIV, which was a great game fraught with problems. First off, SNK had little to no time to make the game (a little under two years, a pittance in video game development), and what's more, they only had four designers and eight programmers to work with. However, under the able leadership of Yasuyuki Oda, who had previously worked on Street Fighter IV, SNK was able to make a very good game. The most incredible thing about KOF XIV was how massive the roster was— fifty characters!

That said, while the gameplay and story and the fact that they were even able to make the game was impressive, many would agree that the graphics were sorely lacking. This was not without reason, as the KOF devs had to create their own engine for the game to run on, and this meant they couldn’t use Unreal engine, which was the industry standard at the time. 

However, believe it or not, KOF XIV was considered a success, and this paved the way for XV to be made. 

King of Fighters XV was released on the 14th of February, 2022, and it was a vast improvement from XIV in terms of graphics. There was also a pretty large roster and the return of some iconic teams, including Team Orochi, which had Yashiro, Shermie, and Chris.

A Bright Future

King of Fighters has been through a lot, and even now, there is some uncertainty surrounding the game due to its new ownership. But, there is reasonable optimism that whatever happens, King of Fighters will make it through due to one thing— Love. One thing has been clear in the entire history of KOF; people love this game! The developers pour all their love into making it, and the fans pour all their love into supporting and following the game. With such dedication, you can see why KOF has refused to die, and it is hoped that this remains the case for the foreseeable future.

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