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King of Fighters started as a tournament of franchises; it’s become a tournament of eras

SNK’s willingness to continually introduce new protagonists has built the series into something unique

The King of Fighters key art shows hero Shun’ei and his rival Isla front and center Image: SNK
Matt Leone has written about games for three decades, focusing on behind-the-scenes coverage of the industry, including books on Final Fantasy 7 and Street Fighter 2.

From day one, the King of Fighters series came out as a “dream match,” answering the question of “Who would win?” if you mashed up various game franchises.

SNK had gone overboard with its fighting game lineup, and this served as a way to bundle some of them together and build a central tentpole series. It was a little odd to see that bundle include not just Fatal Fury and Art of Fighting, but also action series Ikari Warriors and Psycho Soldier, but it quickly became an annual affair.

Since then, the series’ trajectory has been fairly consistent. While we’ve seen a few graphical overhauls, spinoffs, and schedule hiccups, each main entry has typically mixed new characters with fighters from those same four franchises. Rather than going the Smash Bros. route of pulling in as many guest characters as possible, King of Fighters has stayed in its lane, leaving that sort of fan service for background cameos. (Though that doesn’t mean the idea never came up.)

Instead, SNK has spent a lot of time over the years designing new fighters, and unlike a lot of its competitors, it has spent a lot of time designing new main characters — often putting them up-front in its stories and marketing materials. When the series began, SNK didn’t prop up Fatal Fury star Terry Bogard; it put newcomer Kyo Kusanagi front and center. When I think back to King of Fighters ’99, the first thing that comes to mind is seeing artwork of newcomer K’. In King of Fighters 2003, Ash Crimson’s distinctive red coat gives the series an entirely different feel.

King of Fighters 15 protagonist Shun'ei can control water and fire Image: SNK

These protagonist shifts line up with story arcs in the games, but more than that, SNK’s eagerness to promote the characters on magazine covers, box art, and merchandise established different eras for the long running franchise.

Playing King of Fighters 15 this past week, it hit me that the series has become something different than when it started out. What began as a series pitting different franchises against one another has become a series depicting the clash of entirely different eras.

Now led by illusionist Shun’ei, the series is starting to feel like a museum of its different phases, and I love it; it brings a certain weight to the cast. While series like Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat created pop culture icons in Ryu, Scorpion, and others, those legacy stars typically overshadow whatever new characters come along. King of Fighters, in comparison, feels more balanced.

Part of me wonders how much of this has to do with the freedom that comes with being a smaller series. Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat outsell King of Fighters by a pretty wide margin, so it seems like a harder sell to take Ryu off the box art than Kyo. And last time Capcom tried that sort of thing, it didn’t go well.

But whatever the reason, it gives the King of Fighters cast a distinct feel compared to other fighting games — and I’d love to see more of it. Capcom has teased that its last Street Fighter 5 character Luke will be “a major part of the next Street Fighter project,” so we’ll hopefully see just how far other fighting series are willing to to go down that road soon.