King of Fighters: Maximum Impact (JPN)
It's been ten years since the fateful day that SNK decided to take the popular characters from their various fighting games, throw in a few new faces, and give birth to their ultimate franchise, the King of Fighters. It's been a long journey, full up ups and downs... the controversial addition of strikers, the "death" of SNK... but the one thing that has always remained consistent is these tournaments were fixed in the 2D plane. Now that rule has been broken with King of Fighters: Maximum Impact, a 3D side story to the decade-spanning series.
The basic gameplay remains true to its 2D roots, right down to the familiar motions needed to execute the moves of the returning characters. I was giving people a hundred slaps and uppercut double doses with Yuri right from the start, as if she was still locked in flatland. One change that's hard not to notice is the whole experience has been cranked up a notch, making faster characters like Mai rush across the screen in a flurry of fan service-related fan attacks. It's also more combo friendly, complete with a list of "stylish arts" to practice, though the damage reduction and ten hit limit keep this from becoming a game breaker. A side-step, similar to the one used in the Real Bout series, has been added, though for once the developers would have been better off mimicking the true 3D movement of games like Soul Calibur 2. The side-step here works, but it's not something you can rely on.
Story mode is another break from the norm. King of Fighters has always been about a team effort, but here it's a single fighter experience, narrated by the fashion victim Hyena, though only the new characters have anything that comes close to a real story. There are some nice intros here that aren't in any other mode and for me it was worth playing for that alone. Versus delivers the three on three team action that story mode was sorely lacking, and can also be played one on one if you still haven't had enough. Mission mode is similar to how it is in GGX2, where you need to overcome preset handicaps and pummel your foe in a specific fashion in order to score a win. In Time Attack, you'll go against six opponents while trying to make each round as short and sweet as possible. Of course, there's also Practice mode for those whose skills need a bit more polishing.
Twenty two characters fill out the roster, with five and a half new fighters added to the fray. I say 'a half' because even though Chae Lim looks all new with a distinctively Falcoon-style face, her moves are identical to the Korean Taekwondo master Kim Kaphwan. The brothers Alba and Soiree are the stars of the show, the former a solemn ninja-like figure with electrically charged attacks, and the latter a happy go lucky cowboy who fights with his feet. Lien is the cold-hearted assassin who apparently needs a new zipper for the front of her costume, though her strikes are as precise as they are deadly. Mignon is a cheerful witch and star of the underground club scene, whose squeaky shoes announce her arrival. All of them are gunning for Duke, a man with serious rage issues, and while he has an arsenal of hard-hitting moves at his disposal, he's not nearly as cheap as you've come to expect from fighting game bosses. With a little luck he can be defeated without getting a scratch, though you need to watch out for his screen-filling SDM. Even if you manage to block it, your guard will be crushed, leaving you open for a follow up attack.
PlayStation 2 games aren't supposed to look this good. Everything from the characters' numerous clothing styles to the cheering crowds in the backgrounds are loaded with detail. Even the flashy effects from the special attacks are like an adrenaline-fueled fireworks display. All of this happens with the fluidity of animation that only sixty frames per second can bring, with only rare moments of slowdown.
The returning fighters have also been faithfully recreated from their 2D originals. From Seth's suspenders to the rakofmiedness of Ryo's gi, not a pixel has been left forgotten. Even the animations were given special attention, from Ralf's little impatient side to side hop, to Terry tossing off his cap after a win, to Kyo and Iori's special rivalry intro...really, when are those two going to learn to get along? Much to Yuri's relief, each character has been provided with a second entirely new outfit, with some familiar sights like Terry's Mark of the Wolves' gear, or the shirtless Ralf looking ready to relive his Ikari Warriors days.
For unlocking maniacs, there is plenty here to keep you occupied. Alternate colors for both outfits, extra stages and variants of existing ones, character profiles, and even rikofming models, which alter a character's current outfit to either add a dash of extra pizzazz or transform them into an entirely different costume. They vary from the cool, like Lien's dashing adventuress alteration, to the strange, like Seth's party hat and funny glasses, but they all add more visual variety to an already diverse game. The extras aren't just limited to the game, however, since it also came with a DVD that provides more details on the newer members of the cast, a gallery of character designs, and even an interview with the people responsible for this new fighting game monarch.
KOF: MI is a hard sell by its very nature. Fans of the King of Fighters tend to rebel at the very mention of 3D, and those weaned on "true" 3D Fighters will find the gameplay contrary to their ingrained instincts. If you manage to shake all those prejudices and false expectations out of your head, and approach Maximum Impact for what it is, you'll find an engrossing and incredibly fun fighter that's hard to put down. At least until you get to the final trials of mission mode, which are far more likely to put you down.