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The Orochi Saga Retrospection (1994 - 1997)

The King of Fighters Orochi Saga, chronicling '94 to '97.

The King Of Fighters ‘94

It all began in 94…

The King Of Fighters ‘94 was the first in the storied legacy of The King of Fighters, yet it wasn’t meant to be this way. At first, the game was meant to be a side-scroller, similar to that of Final Fight, Streets Of Rage, and countless other beat ‘em ups at the time. However, the concept quickly changed into that of a fighting game yet the principles remained similar. The 3-on-3 aspect was kept.

The crossover idea featuring Fatal Fury and Art Of Fighting characters, SNK’s two flagship fighting games, also stayed the same. Other additions from other SNK franchises were also included, such as Psycho Soldier and Ikari Warriors. The two playable protagonists from both games were added as a way to increase representation from other SNK games that weren’t exclusive to the fighting game genre.

The result was a fighting game that grabbed characters from various SNK IPs and had them enter a tournament led by an evil boss for ulterior purposes. The final boss and central antagonist, Rugal Bernstein, was one of the many original characters specifically made for The King of Fighters. The series protagonist, Kyo Kusanagi, and his teammates, Benimaru Nikado and Goro Daimon are also original characters.

The King Of Fighters '94 as it appears on modern consoles

As this game was meant to be a 3-on-3 fighter, new characters were specifically created for Psycho Soldier and Ikari Warriors to have their purpose for entering. Heidern, being the leader of the Ikari Warriors, joins the protagonists, Clark Still and Ralph Jones. Chin Gentsai, who is the master of Athena Asamiya and Sie Kensou, joins them to become the Psycho Soldier Team. 

There were five representatives from Fatal Fury and Art Of Fighting each. The three major characters from each game formed their teams. Andy & Terry Bogard and Joe Higashi for Fatal Fury. Ryo & Takuma Sakazaki and Robert Garcia for Art Of Fighting

The three women fighters, King and Mai Shiranui from FF and Yuri Sakazaki from AOF had their team. This left Kim Kaphwan from Fatal Fury without any members from both games to join him. He is teamed up with newcomers Choi Bounge and Chang Koehan. Both characters are “reformed” criminals “in progress” by Kim’s rehabilitation, though this is usually used for comic relief throughout the series.

The final three characters are an enigma of sorts. Heavy D, Brian Battler, and Lucky Glauber all had their first and only canon appearance in ‘94. These characters were by no means popular enough for SNK to re-add them and instead were designated joke characters both among the community and within the lore.

The King of Fighters '94 is the only game that has pre-determined non-editable teams.

Upon starting the game, you can see the age shown in this game almost immediately. Coming from other KOF games, this game is honestly nostalgic. The first thing you’ll notice is that all eight teams are preselected. That means what you see is what you get. You’ll only get Terry, Andy, Joe, or Mai, King, and Yuri. This forces you to learn all three characters in a team to an extent rather than simply picking three characters who you’re good with. Other staples like selecting your team order are present here. 

Another thing that stood out was the heavily influenced, yet catchy soundtrack. Everything from the character select theme and some character songs, such as the Italy stage, is heavily Hip Hop influenced. This is a theme that will persist for a while and it’ll be interesting to see when the tone changes to the music we’re used to today.

I found the gameplay extremely frustrating. The chip damage is almost negligible and the computer wises up to your movements very fast. There’s nothing more infuriating than pulling off a special or a super with an awkward motion successfully, only for the computer to silence your advance.

That’s one thing to note. ‘94 suffered what Samurai Shodown and previous SNK fighters suffered. Heck, other fighters outside of SNK suffered this too. The command inputs are way too complex. For this example, I’ll use King as she is one of my mains. Usually, her Double Strike, or double fireball, is two quarter-circle forward motions plus a kick. In this game (and ‘95), it’s forward, back, forward, down forward, down. It’s a weird motion to explain and it’s even weirder to pull off, but, this was breaking the ice. Good luck trying to pull off Desperation Moves because muscle memory will fail you.

Team Mexico vs Team England

Once you defeat all the teams, including your doppelgangers, you end up fighting Rugal aboard his ship. The fight is fairly straightforward and it isn’t anything you’re already used to. You notice the fight is easy, however. Too easy. He doesn’t use any of his special moves and he hits you for peanuts. Something isn’t adding up, but a W’s a W, right? However, you win the first round and a cutscene plays.

“I now fight you at full power,” he says as he throws off his jacket. Round 2 begins. He’s pissed off. He starts the round with a full-screen Kaiser Wave. Fun times.

This fight assumes you learned enough of the game to survive. You can’t jump the full-screen wave so you can only hope to evade it by dodging. Jump too haphazardly and he’ll Genocide Cutter you in the air for nearly half of your health. From an anti-air. Don’t let him get full meter either or you’ll eat all your health goodbye. Rugal wasn’t the first “cheap SNK boss” but he was the one that most people remembered. This is especially true for the following game, but, let’s not get ahead yet. 

After you defeat Rugal for the second time, a cutscene plays for each respective team. Some are pretty serious and even canon like the Hero team while others are outright comical. The Women’s Fighters team is quite funny by today’s standards.

Of all the games in the series, this game never received a dedicated console release. For the longest time, the only way you could play this game was on the Neo Geo. Unless you had enough to shell out for an AES, you could only play this game in the arcade. This changed in 2004 with The King Of Fighters ‘94 Rebout on the PlayStation 2. Rebout took the base game and rebuild it from the ground up with high-resolution sprites and fully 3D backgrounds. 

The King Of Fighters '94 Rebout had a very unique creative design

This is similar to how the stages were done for The King Of Fighters Neowave, a spinoff released that same year. The graphical interface and the music are also updated and remastered, though options to play the game in its original state exist. Unfortunately, this was never released outside of Japan. 

That means that a console release for ‘94 did not reach Western shores until 2008 with the release of The King of Fighters Collection: The Orochi Saga. That’s one year shy of its 15th anniversary. America’s history with SNK games has always been a bit of a mixed bag as far as releases go and ‘94 was the prime example of it. 

The Orochi Saga

The King Of Fighters ‘95

Kept on rollin’ in ‘95...

Due to ‘94 being a smashing success, a sequel was already planned in the works. The following summer, The King Of Fighters ‘95 was released in arcades. Rather than reinvent the wheel, the game served to take what made ‘94 popular and, well, slap the name ‘95 on it.

Seriously, aside from interface changes, new stages, and new music, there wasn’t much difference from 94 to 95. It was a new year, which meant the appeal of a “new game” was hot for arcade goers. People couldn’t play ‘94 forever at the time, so the new game in the series had to get out of the oven quickly. This approach will prove problematic in future titles, but for now, the good times were rolling.

There were two changes from ‘94 to ‘95. The first major change was the inclusion of a new team. The Rivals team. These guys replaced the Sports team from the previous title and would continue to exist in some way, shape, or form in future titles. In ‘95, the team consisted of the original character Iori Yagami, Eiji Kisaragi from Art of Fighting, and Billy Kane from Fatal Fury. As the name suggests, all three are rivals to the protagonists from their respective games. Iori to Kyo, Eiji to Ryo, and Billy to Terry. The second important change was the ability to edit your team, a staple moving forward. You can still select the pre-selected teams, but now you have the option to select your three best characters and dominate as you see fit. The story mode is to be experienced with pre-set teams however, a custom team will instead have a generic story.

The King Of Fighters '95 as it appears on modern consoles

This was the first game in the series to have some sort of a story to it. Instead of “big evil man sends out invitations to a mysterious tournament for world domination,” it’s the same “big evil man” except he didn’t die at the end of the game. Instead, he survived purely on sheer will and Orochi’s power. It’s brought up in this game as the source of Rugal’s power, but not much is known about it quite yet.

For certain teams, like the Women’s Fighters once again, it doesn’t matter too much. That’s what made the early games so good. Depending on the team you play, you either have a comedy fest or you get a lot of exposition. Take the sub-boss of this game for example. You fight Saisyu Kusanagi, Kyo’s father, who is brainwashed to serve Rugal. If you play the Hero’s team, it’ll mean much more since you play as his son. Other teams would make a passing resemblance to Kyo. Some just don’t even care.

Much like in ‘94, the sub-boss is a single-round ordeal. Saisyu fights fair for the most part, like an older Kyo. Once you defeat him, the gloves come off and Omega Rugal steps in, fused with Psycho Power---Orochi Power.

This fight is a load of crap. It’s even worse than the first game when he took his jacket off. He still has the same almost-instant Reppukkens, his normals deal ridiculous amounts of damage, and his Genocide Cutter remains true to its name. A simple jump-in attack, to a heavy attack, into the Genocide Cutter combo took all of my health away like it was nothing. Pretty awesome stuff. Also like in the previous game, if you lose you have to start from Saisyu again. Also, whoever is still alive at the end of Saisyu is who you fight with going into Omega Rugal.

The Rugal boss fights are what set the tone for the term “SNK boss syndrome.” While he wasn’t the first, with Geese, Mr. Karate, Amakusa, and many others before him, Rugal became a household name to be feared and respected. The games moving forward continue the tradition in more ways than one.

The Orochi Saga officially "began" in '95 as well as what would become of the series.

For many, this was their first The King of Fighters experience at home as unlike ‘94, ‘95 was ported to quite a few home consoles. The two main ones were the Sony PlayStation and the Sega Saturn. The console ports tended to release a year following the original game’s release. Fans weren’t able to experience a proper home version of ‘95 until 1996, well into The King of Fighters ‘96’s release. 

These two ports were notorious for their load times, a theme that will persist throughout all of The King of Fighters titles within this era. When you select a character, there are load times between matches, going through cutscenes, and going through menus. Even turning the game on bears a loading screen. 

While the Saturn port handles the loading times favorably, the cost of reduced loading times came with the requirement of having a ROM cartridge to play. The game, released in Japan and Europe, was bundled with both the game disc and a cartridge that held the excess memory that could not fit on the game disc. This helped with loading times, but the extra dongle as a solution is a unique one. This remains one of the few Saturn games to utilize the cartridge slot in conjunction with its CD-ROM.

There was also a Game Boy port of the game, though I say “port” loosely. It’s what you would expect a fighting game to be on the Game Boy, but, at least Nakoruru, yes, that Nakoruru, was an exclusive character!

The King Of Fighters ‘96

Pieces were in place in ‘96…

Continuing the yearly summer releases, The King Of Fighters ‘96 was met with anticipation. Thanks to the console market from the previous game, SNK garnered a wider audience. As a result, ‘96 was important. SNK had to do something different with this now-established series and it was at this point, KOF began to form an identity. Everything from the previous two entries was overhauled. New announcer, a new interface, new sprites, an entirely new roster including additional fan favorites and original characters, and new gameplay mechanics. 

The “classic KOF gameplay” was introduced in this version, including the ability to run and dodge roll. In the past, you could merely sidestep/dodge and dash/backdash. Commands are also adjusted to make it easier to execute than previous titles. No more awkward “Double Strikes”! New moves were also given to everyone, some of which would end up being supers in later games. King’s Surprise Rose is a special move in this game for example.

‘96 was the first game in the series that began to shake up the roster with its inclusion of characters. Leona Heidern, Heidern’s foster daughter. She served as her father’s replacement, appearing in almost every King Of Fighters title to date onwards. Heidern would appear again in KOF much later in the series. Kasumi Todoh, from Art Of Fighting 3, replaces Yuri Sakazaki to form the [New] Women’s Fighters Team.

ACA King of Fighters '96

Yuri replaces Takuma, starting with ‘96, and would make sporadic appearances throughout the series. Kasumi would be featured in far fewer titles, but she remained a fan favorite. Mature and Vice, Rugal’s secretary ladies from the previous game, join Iori Yagami to form the Yagami team. However, due to the events at the end of ‘96, they did not return for a very long time. 

A new team was added, called the “Bosses” team. Much like the Rivals team from the previous game, the members of the Bosses team are all former bosses from AOF and FF. Mr. Big from Art Of Fighting, Wolfgang Krauser from Fatal Fury, and Geese Howard from both series. As a bit of trivia, both Krauser and Geese created their variants of The King Of Fighters tournaments, with Geese being the founder of the tournament itself. 

To see the founder of the tournament in a KOF game was inevitable, and as such, you would think Geese would appear in many KOF games moving forward. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. His next canon appearance after this wouldn’t be until The King Of Fighters XIV. The same couldn’t be said for Mr. Big and Krauser, with their appearance being the first and only showing in The King Of Fighters.

The story continues from ‘95 after Rugal vaporizes himself. A woman, Chizuru Kagura, organizes this year’s tournament as a means to seek out Kyo and Iori as they hold the key to defeating Orochi.

Several more characters from Fatal Fury like Kasumi would debut in King of Fighters '96

Of course, I played the Women’s Fighter’s Team so we just had to fight a disappointed Chizuru. Followed by Goenitz. He’s the final boss. He was always unremarkable to me, like, following Rugal is a tall order and Goenitz was always just there. I hate how he teleports everywhere though. The Chizuru fight is a souped-up version of her playable version with her shadow clones interrupting your every move while being aggressive.

Chizuru herself isn’t a playable character in this game by default. However, like most boss characters, she’s a hidden character. ‘96 was the first game that introduced canon custom teams and the canon custom team consisted of Chizuru, Kyo, and Iori as the Three Sacred Treasures Team. As such, this team has its own story complete with cutscenes that reveal the bloodlines of Kyo and Iori. Chizuru aims to be the mediator between the two, but both are unwilling to hear her out, citing that they have their feud to mend. Of all the endings in this game, it’s probably the most canon as it directly foreshadows the events of ‘97. Y’know, outside of the Yagami team ending, with Iori slaughtering Mature and Vice. But that’s another story.

‘96 was released on the Saturn and PlayStation in 1997, once again entering the lifespan of The King of Fighters ‘97. Much like last time, both versions were inferior to the arcade ports, with the Saturn edging out slightly yet also requiring a cartridge to play. The game also received a Game Boy port once again that same year, with exclusive characters being Orochi Iori and Leona, a full game ahead, Mr. Karate, and Chizuru. The PlayStation version was the only version to release stateside as the Saturn and GameBoy versions were Japan-exclusive.

The King Of Fighters ‘97

It came to an end in ‘97

The Orochi Saga came to a close with the release of The King of Fighters ‘97 releasing once again during the Summer. Already having a loyal fanbase, the King of Fighters made several adjustments to reflect on modern times while also bringing in familiar gameplay to cater to players who started with the series from its beginnings. There were two game modes that players could choose from character select --- Advanced and Extra mode.

The advanced mode takes elements of modern KOF, specifically The King of Fighters ‘96, allowing the use of emergency rolls and an adjusted gauge that would promote an offensive playstyle. The extra mode was based on The King of Fighters ‘94 and ‘95, utilizing the dodge mechanics of older titles while also offering more of a “comeback mechanic,” increasing meter gain in proportion to how much damage a player takes. This also meant that no two characters played the same, as an Advanced Kyo would play differently from an Extra Kyo, effectively doubling the roster organically. 

ACA The King of Fighters '97

The King of Fighters ‘97 introduced several characters that would become instantly popular, some returning from other franchises and others who were new to the series in general. Perhaps the most important team added was C.Y.S, New Faces Team, or Team Orochi, featuring Yashiro, Shermie, and Chris. While all three characters caught on with the general player base, this would be the first and last time that the trio would appear in a series, due to plot reasons.

For the first time, a “Special” team was added, including two newcomers from Fatal Fury, Blue Mary, and Yamazaki. Billy Kane returns from The King of Fighters ‘95, rounding out the trio of fighters, also known as “Team Outlaw.” What’s interesting about this team is that the team was a result of SNK’s promotion with various gaming magazines, asking its fans which characters from Fatal Fury should make an appearance in the latest game. This also makes the story involving the three characters interesting as Mary herself is an officer on a team with two crime lords, serving as a mediator between the two characters as they all share a similar task.

The final new character was Shingo Yabuki, a superfan of Kyo who has a distinct fighting style even as he’s based on the guy he idolizes so much. In this game, along with Iori, he is a “free agent” character, not belonging to any team by default. Chizuru is now a part of the Women’s Fighting team, replacing Kasumi. Due to the events of the previous game with Iori’s team, Iori is now a free agent, acting on his own accord.

The villain this time is Orochi himself after being teased since ‘95, putting an end to the Orochi bloodline after it has already caused enough influence on several fighters including Leona, Iori, Yamazaki, and the New Faces Team. The Orochi versions of Chris, Shermie, and Yashiro were a sub-boss team, the first of its kind in The King of Fighters, with Orochi being the final boss. As with most, if not every single boss in the series, Orochi fits all the criteria of “SNK Boss Syndrome,” but as a finale to the saga he’s named after, players shouldn’t expect anything less but a fight to test their wits to the highest caliber.

King Of FIghters '97 is looked upon fondly as C.Y.S would eventually return in KOF 15 in hindsight.

As with most of the home console ports, the Saturn port is the “better” of the bunch, utilizing the RAM cartridge for added memory. As with the previous title, ‘97 wasn’t released for Western audiences outside of the Neo Geo release, meaning that players who wished to play at home would have to wait until 2008 with the Orochi Saga on the PS2. The game received an updated online release in 2018 titled The King of Fighters '97: Global Match.

Marking the end of the Orochi Saga meant that the King of Fighters was going through a metamorphosis. The age of humble origins was coming to a close and the following game would mark the beginning of the popularity that made KOF one of the most-played arcade games to this day. Until the next entry!

Originally written in November 2020

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