While Capcom may have most of the spotlight when it comes to 2D fighting games, to most advanced players, the King of Fighters series has always been the no. 1 choice. Each year, since 1994, the games in this series have been updated in terms of gameplay, graphics and presentation; with the additions of new characters and the demise of some old ones. Each version has always been much better than the last and KOF '97 is no exception. To those who are new to the series, KOF '97 is the latest addition to the KOF series which made the 'team battle' feature famous (you can select 3 characters of your choice out of between 24 to 30; lost count!!! to do battle with other teams in best-of-5 matches. In the original version, KOF '94, you had to pick fixed teams of three; no team editing.)
PART 1 - Gameplay:
Basically, this game feels a lot like the previous versions; very tight control, fast action along with the usual need for strategy. Unlike most Capcom games (which generally require you to master combos and little else) KOF '97 requires a lot of technique with a LOT of emphasis on timing (it's harder to perform combos. When you do, it's REALLY satisfying...)and the use of special moves. You actually have to use ALL of the special moves for each character to fully realise their potential. 'Polished' and 'Unforgiving' are the best ways to describe the way this game plays. If you're no good at this game, it's not the joypad's fault; you just plain suck! A lot of practice required. (BTW, the control this time is a *bit* more forgiving than in the previous games) Unlike it's predecessors which updated the game engine every year without any choice, THIS year, you get to choose what style of play you like. Before you choose your characters, you get to pick either the 'Extra mode'(which plays a lot like KOF '95) or the 'Advanced mode' (like KOF '96).
Besides the usual 'kick', 'punch' and movement controls (the d-pad) here are some other basic moves you can do with all characters in both modes:
Note: In this mode, you can't do certain things which can be done in the Advanced mode. EG: Using Iori, you can't freeze your opponent with a DM and use another DM to attack after that, you've got only ONE POW BAR. This mode is suited for more defensive players.
PART 2 - Graphics:
Not much has been improved in the graphics department. The characters have a bit more animation than in KOF '96. Speaking of the characters, these guys are probably the coolest bunch of fighters you can ever get in a single game; Guys like Kyo, Iori, Robert Garcia, etc.. and gals like Yuri, Mai, Leona, etc... It's hard to find a game with so many well-designed characters WITH personalities, they've all got taunts, loads of speech, lots of animations which aren't used in actual combat... Their special moves (especially their death moves) are also really incredible to look at and leave you feeling really satisfied. For example:
1. Iori's Super Death Move sees him rushing to his opponent and pinning him to the ground. Then with his back facing the 'camera', you see him clawing and scratching his opponent. Then, halfway, he stops and looks over his shoulder at the player and GRINS. Finally, he whams both his fists on the poor son-of-a-bitch a few times ending with an explosion...
2. Yuri's got a special move where she grabs her opponent and slaps him / her a couple of hundred of times finishing with a big slap. Not very powerful, but very entertaining...
The backgrounds on the other hand, while technically impressive (with LOADS of animation) don't really suit the characters, kinda like in Street Fighter Zero. Some backgrounds like the ones in China and Japan look great but don't seem to have anything to do with the characters (Kyo no longer fight's near his college with college-mates looking on, he now fights in a Stadium!!???) Having said that, this is one of the best looking games from SNK but limitations from the ageing 8-year old Neo-Geo are becoming quite noticeable like the lack of line-scrolling, transparencies, having only 4096 colours on screen, etc... While still impressive to look at, I can't help but feel that instead of doing an arcade-perfect translation, they should have jazzed-up the graphics for the Saturn version, adding more layers of parallax, more colours, line-scrolling, transparencies, zooming... stuff which the Saturn could handle beautifully.
One thing though, the graphics between battles have been greatly improved with lots of new presentation screens which look really good (informing you of your next opponents, the next venue, etc...)
PART 3 - Sound:
The sound here is GREATLY improved over the Saturn version of KOF '96. For starters, it doesn't sound muffled anymore; it's MUCH clearer(but still a little rough). This is very noticeable with the characters' speech samples which now can actually be heard properly! The sound effects have been resampled and sound really good this time. You can now FEEL punches, kicks and explosions. Simply amazing. The only problem I have is that some of the resampled voices don't sound as good as in the originals. Iori, especially, doesn't sound as *evil* anymore.
PART 4 - Music:
Now this aspect of the game really turned me off. After the beautiful Sax tunes in Iori's '96 stage, Athena's J -Pop background music, the moody Art of Fighting stage music, the tunes in '97 are rubbish!!! The Sax tunes and J-pop are still there but have been remixed and sound less powerful. Some of the tunes are just a whole bunch of bad sounding heavy metal music; lot's of energy but plain annoying to listen to. Other tunes are 'ambient' background sounds which are barely noticeable while you're fighting away!!!
PART 5 - Bells 'n' Whistles::
This game has a LOT more options than in KOF '96. You can now select the no. of rounds in each fight, whether to cut the cutscenes (to reduce load times), there's a practice mode much like the one in SF ZERO 2 (and an illustrations option as well!!), you can adjust the volume of the SFX and music, etc... it's a lot more home-oriented. Loading times have also been slightly reduced. When you think about it, having clearer sound, more animation and faster loading times (all on the same old 1MB RAM cart) shows that SNK actually took their time to improve KOF '97 over KOF '96 and '95. Good job, SNK!!! BUT, on the other hand, this game (while compatible with the 4MB cart) has been optimised for use with the old 1MB cart. WHY???? With the 4MB cart, they could have totally got rid of the loading times when switching team members and they could have speeded up or totally removed the loading times between options screens and game screens... Agreed, the music runs of the CD and can't be reproduced on the Saturn's sound chip (being FULLY made up of sampled sounds on the original Neo-Geo version, the saturn would need an 8MB cart!!!) but since the tunes suck already, why not compose new ones specially for the Saturn to make use of the YAMAHA SCSP's FM and PCM capabilities? (this would allow loading of other team members during matches) Sure, it's the best use of the 1MB cart EVER but what's the point when most fighting fanatics probably bought XMvsSF with the 4MB cart already?
This could have easily been the best fighting on the Saturn; right now, it's the best 2D one... ( yep, I prefer this game over XMvsSF but it all boils down to individual tastes...) I believe the Saturn beat-em-up crown still belongs to Dead or Alive. Still, I LOVE THIS GAME. It's a great follow-up to KOF '96 with it's only flaw being the music department. The loading times can be excused when you compare them to the Playstation versions of the KOF series but after the near-zero loading times in XMvsSF, you just feel a bit let down (five seconds now seems like for ever!!!) Take note that this game would definitely appeal to fighting game fanatics and experts who need a challenge but to casual gamers, you might probably be turned off by all the technical sides of the game.
Review By: Christopher Chong