The current decade has been an interesting time for SNK and The King of Fighters series. After the lacklustre Capcom Fighting Jam in 2004, it seemed Capcom had bowed out of the 2D fighter race, and from then on the only serious competition SNK faced was from Guilty Gear - although both Melty Blood and Arcana Heart get props for spicing things up. But now in 2009 everything has changed. Capcom has exploded back onto the scene with Street Fighter IV, and Arc System has answered with the seminal BlazBlue. From SNK Playmore's own mouth "the fight has evolved", but despite all the hype, The King of Fighters XII doesn't feel like much of an evolution.
The King of Fighters main arcade series - spanning 10 games on the ancient Neo Geo and one on the Atomiswave - has traditionally focused on gradual progression. Each new instalment would jostle the roster and trial a new mechanic or two, but crucially retain the series' inherent style and feel. But with the 12th instalment SNK has finally decided to rework the stagnating series from the ground up. All the characters in XII have had their sprites redrawn by hand and are now larger and vastly more detailed.
SNK has opted to keep each pixel visible as opposed to hidden behind filters. So although some diehard fans will lament the loss of the older sprites, XII nonetheless retains the classic SNK style - albeit in high-definition. Character animation is also more convincing than in previous iterations and although not the best out there, certainly does a good job of bringing the fighters to life. Plus, rather than being static the camera adapts to the state of play. If you're pummelling your opponent in the corner, it zooms in on the action, but if you're trading different-coloured projectiles at a distance, it pans out.
Whilst other developers have relented, SNK - at least in the main series - still refuses to give an inch, because once the fists start flying in XII there isn't a polygon in sight. All the arenas are high-resolution and contain some impressive pixelation effects - including a 3D-looking blimp which circles the Dome stage. But such devotion to 2D seems to have come at the cost of variety. The King of Fighters XII has only six stages to its name, and one of these is just a night variation of the Dome stage with added fireworks.
Further reductions are found on the character-select screen as XII only has 22 to choose from - that's less than the original King of Fighters game from 1994. Most of the A-list cast are present including Kyo Kusanagi, Ryo Sakazaki, Athena and the "legendary hungry wolf" himself, Terry Bogard. But although we get Leona and console exclusives Elisabeth and Mature duking it out for the girls, where the hell is Mai Shiranui? Why SNK chose to leave out the leading lady in favour of Shen Woo and Raiden remains a mystery. However, it appears much of XII's cast is taken from the original Orochi saga ('95, '96 and '97), so fan favourites like K' are glaringly absent.
The King of Fighters XII retains the series signature four-button setup of light and heavy punches and kicks, and although no substitute for a good arcade stick, the PS3 pad proves more than adequate. The basic combo system is quite flexible with many options to chain basic and specials attacks together. XII also places a strong focus on command moves - i.e. standard attacks which can be performed by pressing an attack button and direction together. As an example, Terry can combo his jumping heavy kick into his standing heavy punch, which hits twice, followed by his Rising Upper command punch and finished with a light Burning Knuckle. Doing slightly over a quarter of full damage, this is a good example of a bread-and-butter King of Fighters combo.
Although XII feels slower than the recent King of Fighters games, and certainly slower than BlazBlue, it's still faster and more combo-heavy than the likes of Street Fighter IV. Further tech is added with the Emergency Evasion, Guard Attack, Blow Back Attack and Critical Counter systems. Emergency Evasion allows you to forward or back roll by pressing both lights. This can be used to avoid an attack but is easy to counter with a well-timed throw. The Guard Attack works like a parry, and if you time it perfectly, will knock back an attacking opponent. But it does minor damage and doesn't seem to be combo-able, so its use beyond escaping the corner is limited.