Version tested: Xbox 360
There are some things you just have to be confident about. Situations where you have to choose one or the other, or be forever painted as a wishy-washy fence-sitter. The Beatles or Rolling Stones? Spectrum or Commodore? Salad cream or mayonnaise? These things are important. Here's another for the list: Street Fighter or Fatal Fury?
Back in the day, most casual observers probably assumed Street Fighter's franchise nemesis was Mortal Kombat, that big dumb American approximation of graceful 2D fighting, but it was always Fatal Fury, with Capcom and SNK locked together in a battle for the hearts of sprite-based brawl fans everywhere. It was a battle that spawned dozens of sequels across multiple formats, damaging the finger tendons of many youngsters along the way with fast-paced combo gameplay, but ultimately Street Fighter won out. At least in terms of public recognition.
Though the series hasn't been seen since Mark of the Wolves in 1999, the Fatal Fury faithful will probably still say theirs was the moral victory. Their franchise may not have earned itself a Van Damme movie, but at least the gameplay remained pure - and unsullied by Hollywood tie-ins.
For SNK's Live Arcade debut it has opted for Fatal Fury Special, a 1993 Neo Geo title that remixed Fatal Fury 2 in much the same way that Capcom released beefier versions of Street Fighter 2 to satiate the demands of fandom. This means we get a generous roster of 16 characters, including characters carried over from the first Fatal Fury, playable bosses and secret pugilists, like Art of Fighting's Ryo.
They're an eclectic bunch as well, ranging from the popular but rather bland Terry Bogard to token burly biker Big Bear and Jubei, a comedy old man with a taste for judo and cookies. Some are enormous hulks, others are nimble. Some are better at up-close pounding, others benefit from range and special moves. Like all the best fighting games, any one of the characters can be a lethal bad-ass, provided you know the right moves.
And it's here that the 360 port of Fatal Fury earns a smiley face, as you can take advantage of the screen borders to constantly display the moves list for whichever fighter you've chosen. Special moves are of the old school variety - directional sweeps followed by attacks - rather than the ludicrous button sequences that would blight the genre in the ensuing years. You can also take advantage of Fatal Fury's big point of difference over its rival, with two planes of combat to be explored. You can jump or roll between these parallel planes, either to dodge a projectile attack or, more amusingly, to lure your opponent into one of your own. It's not a huge change to the game in technical terms, but its enough to require a considerable shift in your playing style.
And this is not a game for the weak-willed. Despite boasting no less than six difficulty settings, it still whups your ass on the lowest level if you're not prepared to bring your A game to the table. In most 2D fighters you can usually scrape to a victory or two through button-mashing or blind luck. Or just hide in the corner, blocking and waiting for the timer to run down. Not here. Blocking just reduces the amount of damage taken, and attacks come thick and fast. Be prepared to dodge and counter or you won't last twenty seconds. It's the definition of hardcore, which probably explains why so many devotees still hold it in high regard.
As you've probably guessed Fatal Fury Special, in its original form, is something of a quiet classic, a tough yet finely balanced fighting game with all the depth and strategy that this moribund genre used to do so well. It's revered by many as one of the shining beacons of the 2D beat-em-up and, were I reviewing this on the Neo Geo, I'd already have constructed, painted and mounted a glittering 9/10 in its honour.
But this is the Live Arcade port and, sadly, it bespoils the beauty of the game with some considerable drawbacks. First, and most obvious, is the fact that the 360 pad remains a pretty grim choice for this sort of game. Absolute precision is required to pull off the special moves - particularly anything that involves a diagonal - and neither the analogue stick or directional pad are quite up to the task. They do OK but, for a game this brutal and unforgiving, responses that are merely OK can be the difference between life and death. Obviously, SNK has no control over such matters but for dedicated fighters it remains a sticking point.
The second problem is more troubling. There's the expected online multiplayer mode, but it's a curiously basic affair - you can set the number of rounds, and how long they last, but you don't get to choose the stage. It's no-frills multiplayer that gets the job done, but does little to foster community. [Update] There is local multiplayer - but make sure you press Start on the second pad, as there isn't actually a two-player option listed in the main menu. D'oh.
Fatal Fury Special thoroughly deserves the sort of audience that Live Arcade can deliver, it's just a shame that this particular version feels rather unloved, hampered as it is by frustrating control issues and a very basic online mode. A great game then, but this isn't the best way to experience it.
7 / 10