Version tested: PlayStation 2
Despite the hit-and-miss onslaught of retro offerings available from the online arcades, SNK has decided to aim at its re-release of Art of Fighting at the impoverished PlayStation 2 owner - a move that's immediately endearing, as it's great to see the old Sony warhorse being put to a task it can perform with success and dignity (foot-rest doesn't count).
Included in the PS2 package are all three games from the '90s Neo Geo trilogy, and each one a perfect arcade port, which is good, because well-polished and faithful mirrors certainly bolster a compilation's good repute. The obligatory display options don't offer much other than a zoomed in version of the screen to better fill your modern telly (which I didn't use, as the game doesn't exactly feel lost in the centre of the screen anyway), and the handy positioning attributes to which we've become accustomed. It's also a pleasure to report there's no unappealing attempt to filter out the pixels from the excellent hand-drawn graphics. So, to the games.
First released in '92 on the awesome if wallet-rapingly expensive Neo Geo, Art of Fighting is a loose prequel to SNK's previous tournament outing, Fatal Fury (a game launched in the wake of the Street Fighter II revolution). Players choose to compete as either Ryo Sakazaki (an angry young man who seems to model himself after Ken from SFII) or Robert Garcia (a warrior yuppie who looks rather splendid in spats) when working through the single-player story mode. All eight characters are playable during the two-player bouts, however.
What's immediately appealing about the first game is the wonderfully bad dialogue. It's presumably one of those features that suffered in translation, but its parallel to the tragic dubbing of a '70s Hong Kong flick is simply too delicious. A mostly unfathomable quest ensues to rescue Ryo's sister Kuri from Mr. Karate (who for some inexplicable reason turns out to be their dad, or something), and although the martial arts master isn't quite up to Columbo's standards when it comes to deciphering a criminal trail, his winding path of vengeance takes him through enough varied locations to attract a high class of enemy.
Thwarting these diverse miscreants is where Art of Fighting really left the Street Fighter II combat template behind. The Neo Geo's four-button controller probably went a long way toward dictating the fighting system, but as fortuitous happenstance would have it, this ties in superbly with the PS2's similar controller. Kick and punch buttons are prerequisites of the tournament fighter, of course, while AoF's third button performs a throw. Pretty standard stuff. But what's really flavoursome about the old Neo Geo fighter is the "provocation" button. Each fighter has a "spirit" level (hic) that increases as the fight goes their way and, when full, allows for devastating special attacks. By taunting the opponent from a safe distance, players reduce their adversary's spirit level while becoming momentarily vulnerable. Not only does this add a unique depth to the knuckle-based action, a successful jibe at a fallen opponent is pricelessly comical and more than a few lives will be forfeit for the want of mocking an ostentatious enemy.
The Neo Geo's signature scaling techniques are also fully retained, zooming in and out of the play area depending on the distance between the two fighters. This superbly cinematic approach adds a great deal of freedom to the gameplay of Art of Fighting, and ensures that all the action of a close-quarters skirmish fills the screen.
Art of Fighting 2 isn't much more than a basic update on the original, however. The extra touches are few and far between, although it's a welcome addition to be able to select any of the characters for immediate combat. Naturally, the addition of a dozen extra fighters throws the already jumbled plot line into further turmoil, though its effect on the gameplay really isn't an issue. Indeed, the considerably more surreal pidgin translations are a source of continued glee - particularly the fairly homophobic exchanges between the androgynous King and the rest of the cast. "Oh come on, I don't smell that bad! Looking forward to the clenches, honey!" Lovely.
Other than its inclusion for completion's sake, there's not much to say about this first sequel other than it is very hard. The first game certainly isn't easy, but the selectable difficulty level seems to make little difference in Art of Fighting 2 - to the point at which it gets skipped over in infuriation for the first or third game.
Art of Fighting 3, however, is a massive update on the previous two with an almost completely new ensemble of selectable fighters. This is also the one that really lives up to the Westernised title of Art of Fighting. The huge sprites are beautifully animated, with enough pencil miles to circle the globe a dozen times. The manga-esque cut-scenes are equally well illustrated and add a level of characterisation the previous games failed to realise.
The combat system undergoes a significant renovation, with a host of proximity and energy-level-linked options available to the combatants. Rushing at opponents, unbalancing them, ground attacks, pursuit attacks and a last-ditch adrenaline rush when your power gauge drops below a quarter all add up to a superbly dynamic tournament. Topped off with an "ultimate knockout", which allows players to win in just one bout if they flatten the opponent using a special attack when both characters have low energy - the range of wildly varied moves makes for a wonderfully entertaining and highly replayable game.
While it's great to have the first two of the series present for historical reference, Art of Fighting 3 is a superb waypoint between retro and contemporary gaming that fits perfectly with the PS2's twilight years.
As a compilation, there are a few gaps that, if filled, would really have cemented the Anthology's place in the fighting game charts. Returning to the game selection menu is a small chore (accessible only while a match is actually in progress) and the overall "bare bones" construction is a little close to the surface to feel like a well-groomed compilation. A little historical information, arcade flyers, cabinet pictures, character bios, credits and so forth would have padded out the Anthology nicely and poured a little more gravy over the succulent meat of the games, but the retail price undeniably makes up for any shortcomings in additional content.
Weighing in at little over the price of an XBLA download (about a tenner from the right shops), Art of Fighting Anthology is a rare bargain - especially from new. This alone makes the Anthology highly desirable, and if it provides nothing more than a weekend's worth of revivalist violence then you'll have got your money's worth.
8 / 10