Kyo Kusanagi will probably never get the chance to finish high school at this rate. Fourteen games into the series he headlines and he still hasn’t received that diploma. But education doesn’t seem to really matter for a King of Fighters. As the ever-returning protagonist of the King of Fighters series, which has played second or third fiddle to Capcom’s Street Fighter for more than two decades, Kyo has fought in more than a dozen mega-tournaments thrown by roided-up cretins. He always thrashes the super-powered big bad at the end, but one has to wonder: Does he ever get tired of the shtick?
Kyo isn’t the only party facing a looming identity crisis. Indeed, such a sense permeates the entire production of SNK’s latest, King of Fighters XIV. One might expect the game, the first entry in the King of Fighters series in six years, to represent a return to the heady days of 1998, similarly to how genre rival Street Fighter looked to Street Fighter 2 for inspiration for Street Fighter 4. Alternatively, some might argue that the sagging sales of the franchise augur a more forward-looking reinvention, perhaps toward a more promising, but unknown, paradigm—one that might dangle a carrot in front of newcomers where the previous titles had essentially slammed the door.
And at first blush, it appears that SNK’s new blood might have started steering the ship. The immaculate sprite work that once marked the developer’s signature is nowhere to be seen here, replaced by chunky polygonal models that, while functional, fail to inspire the ardor that their two-dimensional counterparts did. Pounding the light-punch button like a caffeinated rodent now produces a faintly useful auto combo, ending with one of your characters’ souped-up super attacks—a system brazenly cribbed from Arc System Works’s two Shin Megami Tensei: Persona fighting games, but used here to good effect. And though the usual bevy of complex systems layered on top of the core fighting can occasionally overwhelm (busting a layer of your super meter to forestall a rushing opponent, for example), care has been taken to make them more easily explainable to a wide-eyed newcomer.
But even with a new staff at the developer’s helm, this is still unapologetically a King of Fighters game—a team-based, three-person affair with 50 characters, three types of jump, and command inputs that look more like an agile octopus’s dance routine than something you can get your thumbs to do with any regularity. In other words: Though the carrot has never looked juicier, the place you’re getting lured into has history, and you’re expected to learn it.
One doesn’t have to look hard to find it: The game offers a no-frills story mode that echoes the arcade experience, right down to the radically unfair final boss, and online lobbies that are filled to the brim with series veterans itching to grind your bones into dust. So far, the netcode has stumbled, wavering between solid and shaky from match to match; perhaps a patch will tackle it, but everyone knows that’s no substitute for the same-room experience anyway. Those with the time and the inclination may find the journey to the top of the heap arduous but rewarding. For the rest of us, well, unlike Kyo, we’re all on the clock, with lives to live and people to see, so you’ll have to excuse us. Not everybody has what it takes to be a King of Fighters. And everybody knows that kings aren’t chosen, but crowned.