The King of Fighters XIII is a game that successfully blends new school aesthetics and style with old school skill-based gameplay. KoF has got the depth and balance to be ranked in with genre classics like Third Strike or Garou: Mark of the Wolves, and its more than pretty enough to compete with Capcom’s latest, but unfortunately, one major technical shortcoming keeps it from truly being the king of the fighting genre.
SNK’s The King of Fighters is a franchise that has been around since the early 90’s, and while most new or younger gamers have probably never heard of it, KoF was once considered the direct rival to Capcom’s mega-popular Street Fighter. While KoF and Street Fighter constantly one-upped each other in terms of gameplay, KoF never gained the mainstream popularity that its competitor had, and the series has had a tough time keeping parity with Capcom’s fighters due to SNK’s financial troubles over the last decade. With increased competition not just from Capcom, but from successful upstarts like Arc System Works (Guilty Gear, BlazBlue,) and the rise in popularity of 3D fighters from Sega and Namco, KoF, with it’s previously antiquated visuals and traditionally deep but hard-to-get-into gameplay, has had a hard time attracting anything bigger than a dedicated, but ultimately pretty tiny audience.
2009’s KoF 12 had the potential to change all that, as it moved the series away from the decade old Neo Geo arcade hardware and revamped it with flashy new HD graphics and amazingly detailed, fluidly animated new sprites, but unfortunately, the game was lacking in content, with an anemic roster of characters that was missing many of the series’ most popular character. Despite the pretty visuals, the game ultimately felt rushed and sparse; you could play the game for half an hour and pretty much see all the content it had to offer. KoF 12 felt like a $60 demo, filled with potential that hinted at something greater, but was ultimately an unsatisfying tease.
Thankfully, KoF XIII is much better than its predecessor. It addresses the biggest flaw of KoF 12 — the lack of characters — with a new, well-rounded line-up of over thirty fighters, and also reintroduces long awaited fan favorites like the impossibly buxom ninja Mai Shiranui and the moody KoF 99 protagonist K’. In addition to the usual arcade and versus modes, KoF 13 also adds survival, time attack, trial and story modes to give the game the longevity that was so lacking from 12. While the survival and time attack modes are self-explanatory, the story mode is an interesting, albeit ultimately unnecessary addition that fleshes out KoF’s nonsensical story with some long, mostly text based scenes between matches. The story makes about as much sense as any other fighting game (i.e. it doesn’t make sense at all,) but KoF’s colorful, fun cast of characters makes it worth at least a single playthrough.
Trial Mode, however, is definitely worth spending a lot of time with. Similar to Street Fighter IV’s challenge mode, it gives you a series of character specific challenges to complete, ranging from simple 3-hit combos to massive chain attacks that require precise inputs and skillful attack cancels to complete. It’s a feature that’s in a lot of fighters nowadays, but KoF 13’s differentiates itself by challenging you to complete combos that are genuinely useful in regular play, rather than just giving you hard to pull off, but ultimately useless in a real match combo’s like the challenge modes from some other games. It’s a thoughtful, subtle change, but ultimately, playing through Trial mode will make you a better player, where as other games’ challenge modes simply felt like tests of finger dexterity.
Of course, none of these extra modes would be worth a damn if the core fighting engine wasn’t great, and thankfully, KoF 13’s fighting system is deep and balanced enough that you could easily spend dozens of hours playing through the arcade mode over and over. KoF 13 is the Goldilocks of fighting games; if Street Fighter’s deliberate, defensive pacing was too slow for you but you also thought that Marvel Versus Capcom was too fast and too spastic to keep track of, you’ll likely agree with me that KoF 13 is just right; most of the characters are fast and mobile, with encourages aggressive play, but its myriad of defensive options also offers rewards for those who like to hang back and capitalize on their opponent’s mistakes.
On the offensive side, the game’s system allows for any attack to be cancelled into another in exchange for a slight drain on your super bar, and every character can initiate an “HD” mode that more or less gives them a limited amount of time to chain together a completely custom combo. In addition to that, most special attacks can be charged up to a more powerful “EX” version (executed by pressing both punch or kick buttons at the same time,) similar to Third Strike or SF4. You’re pretty much given an unprecedented amount of options when it comes to chaining together attacks. Conversely, there’s a myriad of defensive options to counter every kind of attack your opponent throws at you; blocks can be cancelled into forward or backward evasive rolls instantly, meaning every successfully blocked attack gives you an opening to launch a counter-attack. KoF has changed a lot over the years, with every iteration of the series introducing or removing specific elements of the fighting system, and the designers of SNK seem to have looked back at what worked in previous KoF’s and put all of the best ideas into 13. While it seems overwhelming at first, once you learn how to utilize all the options at your disposal, it’ll be hard to go back to fighting games with simpler mechanics.
KoF 13 matches its copious helping of substance with a lot of style as well. While Capcom has ditched 2D graphics in favor of polygonal 3D models, SNK is still doing it the old school way, with hand-drawn 2D sprites, but now they’re doing it in HD, and the results are beautiful. Even in HD, the sprites remain crisp and smooth, and they’re animated with such fluidity that if it weren’t for the life and power bars at the top and bottom of the screen, each bout in the game could be passed off as a scene from a big-budget anime movie. Despite being down a dimension from Capcom’s recent fighters, SNK’s game is definitely just as beautiful, arguably even more so, than its 3D competitors.
So even though it has deep, rewarding gameplay and stunning graphics that put it a tier above it’s competition, you may be asking why I’m not giving KoF 13 a perfect score. As much as I love this game, I simply can’t give a score that high because one of its key components simply doesn’t work most of the time: online play.
Now, unless you’re blessed to live in an area with a thriving arcade community, you’re likely going to be getting most of your competitive play through the internet, and as fun as KoF’s arcade and bonus modes are, the real joy of any fighting game comes from competition, and there’s no competition better than getting to test your skills against players around the world over the net. Unfortunately, this is where KoF stumbles; while it’s nigh perfect in almost every other regard, the net code that powers the game’s online matches simply isn’t up to the task. The game ranks every player’s connections with one to four bars, with one bar being the slowest and four being the best possible. With a four bar connection, the game plays like a dream, but anything less than that and the game becomes unplayable; at three bars the game looks like its playing smoothly, but suffers from input-lag so bad you likely won’t be able to pull off anything more intricate that a 3 hit combo, and forget about trying to block against faster attacks, and at two bars or less its almost like watching a very slow slideshow of screenshots from the game. This’d be fine if four bar connections were more common, but easily 90% of the random match-ups I played online suffered from lag so severe that it hindered my ability to play. Of course, there’s always traditional, offline versus play, and there’s still nothing quite as satisfying as beating your friends in person, but its still a shame that KoF is lacking the online modes that made competitive play in SF4 and BlazBlue so convenient, accessible, and addictive.
If it gets a patch that improves its netcode, The King of the Fighters XIII will truly live up to its name. As it stands presently however, its completely gimped online mode severely limits your options for satisfying competition, and while SNK has successfully modernized the game’s presentation and gameplay, they’re going to have to learn that online play is as integral to a complete fighting game experience as it is to an FPS or a racing game. The King of Fighters XIII is a beautiful, balanced, deeply strategic fighting game that I absolutely enjoy playing. I just wish I could experience that joy online.
Final Score: 8.5/10