Bought, sold, reshuffled, and realigned, SNK has been in flux for nearly 25 years. A prolific arcade and home console publisher in the 1980s, the company then unified arcade and home development with the Neo Geo hardware, leaning hard into the fighting game boom of the 1990s. 2000’s bankruptcy, however, brought dramatic change, as SNK began cyclical periods of acquisition and rebuilding.
For that past quarter century, like a boulder on the stormy oceanside, the one constant has been King of Fighters.
Started in 1994 as an all-star mashup of characters long before the likes of Nintendo’s Super Smash Bros., King of Fighters remained an annual concern until 2003, when the franchise began adding Roman numerals to its titles and taking breaks between main entries, but only to give breathing room to its spinoffs. Even in SNK’s darker years, though, King of Fighters remained as the enduring franchise from a once-prolific studio.
To look back at how the series began and has evolved, I recently spoke to two of the current stewards of the franchise, Yasuyuki Oda and Eisuke Ogura. Both began at SNK in the mid-1990s, and have seen the company through a number of ups and downs, each leaving and then returning to SNK. Currently, Oda oversees SNK’s fighting game lineup, while Ogura is the creative director of SNK’s upcoming King of Fighters 15.
[Ed. note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.]
Hired in 1993, Oda started as what you might call a utility infielder, debugging games and working as an animator on Art of Fighting 2, before moving to varying roles on other projects. Three years later, Ogura started as an illustrator and animator for the Fatal Fury franchise before moving to the King of Fighters team. In those early days, the two saw the company evolve rapidly in real time.
Polygon: I read that both of you were hired in the mid-’90s, during the height of SNK’s early fighting game output. Can you give us some perspective on what the office was like at the time?
Yasuyuki Oda: When I first joined SNK, the first thing I noticed was that the building was quite small. It wasn’t anything like what they have now. Quite small. And at the time, Japanese law was not as strict; there weren’t so many regulations. You’ll see this with a lot of other companies, but it was quite normal to spend the night at the office if you needed to. It was quite casual in that sense. You can kind of see a glimmer of what it’s like nowadays at indie game studios, where you put everything you have into a game. So, it was quite casual. But we had a lot of fun.
Eisuke Ogura: Yeah, it was really fun at that time. Everybody was young; in their 20s, in their prime. So everything was laid back and it was a fun atmosphere. It wasn’t anything like it is today, which is more rigid.
You were both initially working for different teams. Were those internal teams competitive with each other? Were there any rivalries?
Oda: You brought up the word “rivalry.” It was kind of difficult, because you had Fatal Fury, Art of Fighting, Last Blade, and Kizuna Encounter/Savage Reign all being made by the same division of SNK, right? So we worked together on a lot of things. We shared work together, shared staff together, collaborated together, worked on some of the same things. Outside of that, though, was the King of Fighters series, which was a separate entity, and you had the Samurai Shodown series, which was a separate entity. And on top of that, you had Metal Slug, which, again, was a separate entity. In between our groups, we would share team members, like, Oh, we need someone to help out with sound, or, We need someone to help out with sprite work. But mostly we were separate entities working under the same roof at SNK, but not necessarily on the same team.
So, if you’re wondering if there was a sort of rivalry between teams — like, Oh, we want to sell the most units, or in terms of game quality was there any sort of rivalry — what came out was that in terms of quality, each section wanted to make a game that had a better sense of quality than the other games coming out at the same time. So, in that sense, there was a type of rivalry, but at that end of the day, we didn’t care how well the games sold. We all worked for the same company.
King of Fighters beginnings
Only three years after Fatal Fury, the Neo Geo’s first head-to-head fighting success, SNK began to pay tribute to itself, releasing a game that stewed together popular characters from past and current franchises: The King of Fighters ’94. Though Oda and Ogura were not part of the initial team, they talked us through some early design documents to look back at how things began.
Let’s jump into King of Fighters ’94. How do you remember first hearing about it in the office?
Oda: When I first joined, at that time, Fatal Fury 2 and Art of Fighting one were doing pretty well in terms of sales, and there were talks of, Yeah, we’re going to combine these two games into one game, which was King of Fighters ’94. One of the main things I was worried about was the space limitations on the Neo Geo at that time. How are they going to put that many characters in a game? I was really worried about that in terms of development. Nobody had a feeling [that the game was going to be a hit]. No one had the slightest inkling that it would become what it is nowadays. It was a complete surprise to everyone.
There are reports that the game began as a side-scrolling beat-’em-up called “Survivor.” Do you have any recollection of that? Does any evidence of it still exist?
Oda: I can confirm that it started as a side-scrolling beat-’em-up called “Survivor.” Unfortunately, geez, that was 25, 30 years ago now? Whatever did exist at that time is gone. Development was not far along. They changed course rather quickly, to the point that no sketches or even sprites were even made of it. It was just kind of an idea, a title.
SNK sent over a number of old design documents for various games for this story. When you look at those, what stands out to you now?
Oda: If I look at my documents, things I wrote myself, I don’t look at them in such a great light. Like, Wow, I really sucked at drawing back then, or, Wow, this looks terrible, you know? So they haven’t really stood up to the test of time.
Ogura: Whenever you look at your past work, you’re always going to see the flaws, see the things you wish you could have done better.
Oda: Things at that time that you were really proud of, feel like you worked really hard on — when you look back on them now, you think Wow, these look terrible, you know? It’s this weird always-pushing-yourself-to-do-better mentality that exists even today. When we look back at other people’s documents that we didn’t write ourselves, there’s a sense of nostalgia there, like, Wow, this is really interesting, the way that they were done. So we’re critical of ourselves, but not our co-workers’ past work. But there’s definitely something there. Something really cool.
I noticed a page in the King of Fighters ’95 documents with dropped teams and concepts that didn’t surface until down the road. Is that something that you look back on and wish that you had included — for example, a Samurai Shodown team — sooner?
Oda: It’s difficult, really, because [around that time] Samurai Shodown was just coming out. So, it was kind of like, are these characters going to be super popular or not? And when it comes to the King of Fighters series, really it’s about who are the all-stars of SNK, right? What popular characters are we going to put in there above everything else? What’s going to sell?
So at that time, we didn’t really know if these characters were going to help increase sales, because you had to wait an entire year or so to see what characters were popping up as everyone’s favorites. But every time there was a King of Fighters game, or there was a game on the Neo Geo, especially on SNK’s part, we really pushed the game to the very limit of what was technically capable. And not only did you have space restrictions for every game that came out, you had time constraints as well. You had to crank out these games every year. So the team didn’t sit around and make these games in their spare time and then kind of look back and think, Ah, I should have put that in, because they were pushing it to the limit every time. So those feelings of regret that the team should have done this or that really aren’t there with the older titles.
Things left behind
As King of Fighters became a hit and overtook many of SNK’s other fighting game franchises, two of SNK’s foundational series — Fatal Fury and Art of Fighting — began to fade into the background. That’s not to say they went quietly; many fans praise Garou: Mark of the Wolves, the final Fatal Fury game made on Neo Geo hardware, as SNK’s finest work of the ’90s.
But as time went on, King of Fighters became the focus — even sticking to 2D graphics while everything else seemed to be going 3D.
You both worked on series — Fatal Fury and Art of Fighting specifically — that sort of faded away as King of Fighters became more popular. From your perspective, was that always kind of the plan, that those series would stop and King of Fighters would take them over?
Oda: That wasn’t actually the case. For the Fatal Fury series, every time we make a game in the series we obviously want it to sell. We want all of these games to sell really well, of course. That’s the whole point; this is a business. Unfortunately, when Fatal Fury 3 landed — the game is great, but the Japanese fans weren’t feeling it. And so, Fatal Fury 3 kind of suffered a little bit of a hit. And same with Art of Fighting 3 as well. Again, it was kind of different to what people were expecting, and because of that, it really didn’t do as well in the arcades. [SNK brought Fatal Fury] back a little bit with the Real Bout series and Mark of the Wolves. But at that time, SNK, unfortunately went bankrupt, so we had to salvage what we had. And the bestselling IP that we had was the King of Fighters series. We had to nurture what we had.
Was Mark of the Wolves kind of like the Hail Mary right before things got sour? It’s a beautiful game and it plays differently than SNK’s other output. Did you feel that it was your last big chance and that you needed to really go for it with that game?
Ogura: What ended up happening was, with Mark of the Wolves, we finished up development, we sent it out, and then we got the news that the company was folding in. We didn’t really have a feeling that things weren’t going well before that. There was a meeting where we found out [about some reorganization], but nothing that would posit the idea that the company was through. In fact, at that time, SNK was working on the Neo Geo Pocket and Neo Geo Pocket Color, and the company was focused on making hardware. So it came as a really big surprise to everyone involved.
For Ogura, do you feel that you hit an apex around that time with what you wanted to do with 2D art? Did you get to the point with 2D sprites that you thought you had done enough or had done all you could?
Ogura: It’s difficult to answer in terms of an apex, like, This is the most you can do with 2D, because at the end of the day it comes down to the physical limitations of the Neo Geo. Take the average character in a fighting game as an example. You can use 15 colors for that character, with different shades and variants. And that’s the max; you can’t go over that. But what you can do is layer two character sprites on top of each other to create more colors that way, right? You can do that, but you have to consider that you have sprite limitations with a game, so you run into that roadblock. But there are ways to get around it. So essentially, it took a whole lot of time figuring these things out. So, it was this balance. We had the technical skills, and we could always continue to push things forward. But realistically, the games had physical limitations we couldn’t get past.
The dark age
Following SNK’s bankruptcy filing in 2000, the company was quickly acquired by pachinko manufacturer Aruze. This ended up being the first in a series of acquisitions and reorganizations that the company would go through, sending SNK and its staff in a number of different directions.
What was your immediate reaction to the bankruptcy and the acquisition by Aruze?
Oda: We were kind of young. We were in our 20s. We knew we wouldn’t be in hot water. We knew we could find jobs elsewhere.
Ogura: It was a bit sad. You’re saying bye to the people you work with, and now you have to go on your different paths. But at the same time, there was a feeling. It’s like … you can look at someone’s funeral and you can be really sad, but you can also be really joyful for the life that they did lead. And you can be happy for what you were able to accomplish and look forward to the new horizons.
Oda: Yeah, we tried a lot of things. Some things failed. Some things succeeded. But you become aloof about it. We were kind of young. It was like, All right, that was fun. On to the next. Of course, internally, I was looking at other companies and what they were making and comparing and contrasting to what we were making. There was a bit of, No way is that really going to sell on the market, and some, I don’t really know about this. And when the company did fold, I was kind of in a position of, Well, I told you guys so. I kind of knew it was going to happen with some of the products that SNK was pumping out at that time. And truth be told, there wasn’t a focus on one thing. We were kind of spreading ourselves thin, and that’s kind of just what happens. But, it wasn’t such a sad affair. Nothing you should be angry or angry at yourself over. We gave it our best, we had a fun time, and it was time to move on to the next thing.
Do you want to name names? Were there specific projects where it was, This isn’t a really good idea, guys?
Oda: You always have your doubts over whatever you’re making. So, for example, the Hyper Neo Geo 64. The Neo Geo CD. There were things that other companies were doing that were performing a little bit better. It wasn’t just this one thing; we were spread out with multiple different kinds of hardware. We saw that other companies were doing better at these things and figured that these wouldn’t sell very well.
So it was more of a hardware issue?
Oda: OK, so we brought up the Neo Geo 64. It had some graphical problems right from the beginning. It wasn’t essentially made to be a 3D processing unit. And so, the hardware that we made wasn’t the greatest tool for software makers to develop their games on, and that led to the difficulties for the company later on. If we had been more focused on making a system that was more accessible to software developers, we could have made better games and probably would have done better. But at the time, the focus wasn’t there. It was getting 3D games out as fast as possible. That, unfortunately, added to the fire.
With investment in SNK by the MiSK foundation recently, have there been any immediate changes? Any change of direction or changes in the short term?
Oda: Unfortunately, where our position is right now, we can’t really comment on questions like that. It’s kind of above our pay grade. It wouldn’t be fair to the company. We’re going to have to unfortunately pass on that question.
KOF 15 and beyond
With the release of The King of Fighters 14 in 2016, the series entered its latest phase. Still, there is work to be done.
Let’s move on to The King of Fighters 15. When you look back at The King of Fighters 14 and the work that you did, what were some of the main criticisms that you wanted to address?
Ogura: Going from 14 to 15, we wanted to work on the graphics and to make sure that the visuals were vastly improved compared to 14. System-wise, we wanted to keep it as easy to play as 14. We want people to be able to jump in and play, but to add a new system with more depth to make it interesting as well.
Oda: We want a more interesting story. Something more fun and more cool compared to 14.
With so many legacy characters, it’s got to be hard to balance bringing in old characters but also creating new ones. How do you feel is the best way to strike that balance? Is it X number of characters are going to be in this game, and Y number of them should be new?
Oda: So the process is different for each game, particularly King of Fighters. There’s no set process, like, There should be this kind of amount and then this kind of amount. It’s actually kind of done by the feeling we have coming off of the previous game. We look at the past game and say, OK, this game had too little of this, too much of that, and then we make adjustments for the next game.
Given the pace you have set for yourselves over the last couple of years — you’ve done a mainline King of Fighters, then the Samurai Shodown reboot, and then back to a mainline King of Fighters — would you ever consider getting other developers involved to take on other SNK IP while you’re working on these larger games? Maybe work with Capcom again, or even Arc System Works, or other fighting game developers to take over that IP with you overseeing it?
Oda: [laughs] It’s not a rule that SNK can’t license out our IPs and allow other companies to make games. And it’s happened in the past. Is this going to happen moving forward? I can’t really say. It’s kind of up in the air. Maybe. Who knows? It’s not that we’re the only ones who can make these games. It could happen in the future. Who knows?