For a developer that once had a reputation for producing some of the most expensive console games ever, it's sad to say that in more recent years, SNK Playmore's output has gone from the bleeding edge of arcade sophistication to lingering in the unflattering depths of bargain bins across the country. And for those of us who still fondly remember the glory days of Mark of the Wolves and The Last Blade, this steady fall from grace has been more than a tad disheartening.
But then hope came in the form of The King of Fighters 12, the long awaited follow-up to Playmore's flagship fighting series and a game that, despite a long list of issues, showed underlying promise. It offered the smallest roster in the series' history, lacked a stable online environment and offered the solo player only a ropey arcade mode that was missing an end boss. But with its lavishly redrawn sprites and sturdy (if unremarkable) fighting system, it was the perfect template for improvement. Thankfully, The King of Fighters 13 is that and more.
The first thing you'll notice is a wide range of familiar faces that have returned after being inexplicably absent from the last game. This includes the impeccably dressed trio of K', Kula Diamond and Maxima, who make up the appropriately titled Team K', as well as the kickboxing credentials of King, the karate skills of Yuri Sakazaki and the scantily-clad ninja acrobatics of Mai Shiranui who make up the reinstated Women Fighters Team. There's also the sinister Mature from Team Iori, the slightly random addition of Hwa Jai from the original Fatal Fury and Mr. Karate himself, Takuma Sakazaki.
The roster of 33 characters is bolstered by the console-exclusive Billy Kane, who series fans will know as the staff wielding Brit who has a real disdain for cigarettes. And then there's a playable version of Saki, the unapologetically cheap boss who guards the end credits will the demonic tenacity of the proverbial Cerberus. But as difficult to put down as this rabid dog is, the fighting system is so flexibly crafted that even after being pummelled into the floor for the fifth consecutive time you'll be keen to lick your wounds and try another approach.
KOF 13 removes many of the previous game's systems, such as the Guard Attack, Deadlock clash and ill-conceived Critical Counter, and layers on a more complimentary collection of mechanics that allow for a far greater degree of combo creativity. Most prominent is the new Drive gauge that rapidly fills as you deal out and take damage, with half a bar letting you cancel the animation of one special move into another while a full bar lets you enter Hyper Drive Mode where you can limitlessly cancel special moves for a short duration.
This newfound flexibility also includes an EX system that's similar to Street Fighter 3's. But here, rather than limiting its function to powering up specials moves, you can also increase the onscreen devastation of your character's super moves. And with an expanded super gauge that now holds as many as five stocks - as opposed to the last game's single stock setup - it's surprising how quickly you can burn through all your meter reserves when comboing with elaborate Drive Cancels, flashy EX special moves and deliriously over-the-top Neo Max supers.
But while these new and ingeniously conjoined systems will no doubt enthral players who like to dissect pages of frame data while searching for the outer limits, KOF 13 also makes welcome concessions for less involved players. A new Tutorial teaches you the nuances of the Guard Crush and the four different types of jump, while there's also a new Mission mode that's split between Time Attack, Survival and some fiendish combo Trials that will challenge even the most dexterous stick jockey.
Aside from these engaging distractions there's the standard Arcade mode as well as a new story mode that concludes the Ash Crimson saga that began with The King of Fighters 2003. This deviates from the KOF norm by allowing the player to make multiple-choice decisions that effect how the story pans out, and with a total of 32 scenes to view, you'll have to play through multiple times to see everything on offer. And while the narrative mode pales in comparison to the epic yarns spun by BlazBlue and Mortal Kombat, it's a welcome change to play a KOF with a bit more single player substance.
The other thing that KOF 13 needed to address was the poor netcode which plagued the online stability of its predecessor. Unfortunately, Playmore is still playing catch-up to both Arc System and the excellent implementation of GGPO in the recent Third Strike Online, but if you can find a local opponent with a flawless connection, good games with minimal lag are entirely possible. You can even practise your custom made Hyper Drive combos in the robust Training mode while waiting for a challenger to interrupt you, although the lack of a spectator mode is still a mild disappointment.
But, although the superstitious among us may be wary of the numerical omen on the box, in truth The King of Fighters 13 is no catastrophe. It features a technically sophisticated fighting system, pooling together a multitude of intricately woven mechanics without jumping on the comeback bandwagon, and while its style of engagement is unapologetically rushdown, it makes a conscious effort towards welcoming new players with a less stingy spread of modes.
That's not to say it isn't a hardcore fighting game, but it feels less like a members-only club, and more like an open night class where the first lesson is free. As a lovingly crafted evolution to one of oldest and most respected fighting series in gaming, KOF 13 is - hands down - Playmore's greatest accomplishment in years.