While Capcom is rightly credited as the company which kick-started interest in the one-on-one fighting genre, there's another firm which built up comparable reputation in the field and – some would passionately argue – actually managed to trump the creator of Street Fighter on more than one occasion. SNK would become a household name during the '90s thanks to its dogged pursuit of the genre crown, creating a seemingly endless line of fighters for its Neo Geo system. Fatal Fury, Art of Fighting, and Samurai Shodown all became worthy adversaries for Capcom's famous franchise, but The King of Fighters remains the company's masterpiece, pulling several of these series together to create a brand which for many is the pinnacle of the entire genre.
However, when Capcom managed to revive interest in the one-on-one brawler with Street Fighter IV in 2008, SNK Playmore's answer was commendable yet lacked the same commercial viability. King of Fighters XII and XIII – which arrived in 2009 and 2010 respectively – both used 2D sprites and backgrounds, which – despite their superb animation and sharp clarity – were perceived as being too "old school" when compared to Street Fighter IV's gorgeous 3D models. It would seem that SNK (fresh from its rebrand, removing the "Playmore" from its name) has taken this into account with King of Fighters XIV; the cast is now entirely rendered in three dimensions and fights take place in 3D environments, yet – like Capcom's game and unlike 2004's King of Fighters: Maximum Impact – the action remains firmly rooted in 2D.
Given that the visuals are the biggest change between this entry and XIII, it seems prudent to talk about those first and foremost. Early footage was met with derision from some quarters last year, but the final game has improved somewhat. Animation is fluid and special attacks are accompanied by some attractive fireworks, but even so, King of Fighters XIV looks like it's a full generation behind the visual spectacle seen in Street Fighter V – another PS4 exclusive – and arguably lacks the charm of Street Fighter IV, a game which will be a decade old in a couple of years. Some character models look disappointingly goofy or are saddled with very peculiar faces – series favourites Kyo Kusanagi and Terry Bogard being two notable examples. The backgrounds are also a very mixed bag, with some locations providing plenty of atmosphere while others feel underpopulated and low on detail. While it's certainly not an unattractive game and SNK gets some slack as it is still learning the ropes as far as 3D graphics go, Street Fighter V looks significantly better in practically every regard.
Thankfully, the same tight and technical gameplay which allowed King of Fighters to match Capcom's game in the '90s is present and correct, only this time around the developers are conscious of the fact that Street Fighter IV's success has created a new generation of mainstream players who perhaps aren't as savvy with the genre as their older counterparts. With this in mind we have the new "Rush" system, which essentially allows players to "dial a combo" by pressing Light Punch repeatedly. Each character has a different sequence mapped to these button presses and starting a combo is insultingly easy – you can even add more power by ensuring you have a few levels stocked up on your power gauge so that the final move will be a Super Special. Purists will no doubt be aghast at such simplification and removal of skill, but there's a catch – Rush combos do significantly less damage than "proper" ones, and therefore any player who relies on them too much will always come out second best to one who has taken the time and effort to learn more elaborate sequences. Because Rush combos will automatically use one of your level gauges if you have them in stock, you also need to be mindful of using up your supply on relatively weak combos when a well-timed Super Special would be more effective.
Elsewhere, things are as they've always been. Special moves are accessed via stick and button combinations, and by filling your power gauge you can unleash more potent Super Special attacks. The "Max" mode is a new feature which is based on principles laid down in many of SNK and Capcom's previous games; it consumes one level gauge and allows you to execute more powerful "EX" versions of your standard special attacks. An evasive roll can get you out of trouble, while a blow-back move permits you to knock your opponents off-balance – handy for when they've got you pinned in a corner. While the volume of different tactics and moves is intimidating, the game's excellent tutorial mode makes the learning process easy, and a training mode allows you to experiment without any pressure. A "Mission" mode completes the process, as it tasks you with stringing together specials and combos to progress.
Like previous instalments, the roster in King of Fighters XIV is staggering. The usual suspects return, including the Bogard siblings, Ryo Sakazaki, ludicrously-named baddie Geese Howard, and, of course, Mai Shiranui (whose breasts, long-time fans will be pleased to learn, wobble about with so much intensity it's as if they have their own gravity – a trademark of the series). These are joined by some new recruits, including the hyperactive Sylvie Paula Paula, bizarre King of Dinosaurs, and the slick-suited Hein. We also get the "Another World" team, which consists of characters from other SNK games: Nakoruru (Samurai Shodown) Mui Mui (Dragon Gal), and Love Heart (Sky Love). It's great fan service, even if most people will only be familiar with Nakoruru (the other two are from obscure, Japan-only Pachinko machines). There are some welcome new faces here, although others – such as Brazilian Balrog wannabe Nelson and the almost laughable sub-boss Antonov – come across as a little generic.
There are plenty of game modes to invest time in, all of which are available from the moment you load up the game – thankfully SNK has avoided the questionable drip-feed strategy Capcom used for Street Fighter V. King of Fighters' gimmick has always been the three-on-three battles which means you have to learn techniques for more than one character, but more traditional one-on-one modes do exist. Playing solo will see you rip through the majority of the game's content in a short space of time, leaving the online side to maintain your interest. The good news is that players are well catered for in this regard, with all manner of modes on offer. Lobbies are designed to accommodate plenty of players and it's possible to spectate and comment on matches – there's even an audience participation option where observers can boo or cheer the current match. The time we've spent with King of Fighters XIV's online portion has naturally been pre-release so we can't say for sure what things will be like when the game is available for the masses, but on the whole the netcode seems tight enough and we didn't experience any hiccups, even when playing against opponents in other geographical regions.
It's perhaps disingenuous to claim that King of Fighters XIV marks a glorious return to form akin to that of Street Fighter IV, because the more recent 2D instalments in SNK's franchise have been excellent examples of technical fighting brilliance. What the fourteenth entry in this esteemed franchise does is lay down the foundations for future sequels which will – thanks to the relentless march of technology – use 3D models instead of handdrawn sprites. While King of Fighters XIV looks positively shabby when placed alongside Street Fighter V, it arguably offers more depth and variety. The three-person mechanic encourages players to master more than one fighter, and the cast – while perhaps not as instantly-recognisable as the likes of Ryu, Chun-Li, and Blanka – has something for every type of player.
Ironically, the biggest sticking point with King of Fighters XIV is the one aspect designed to make it more appealing to outsiders; the new "Rush" mode allows even complete newbies to look like combo-crunching experts, but it's likely to divide opinion with serious players who prefer to rely on their own skill and knowledge when it comes to unlocking the game's most potent moves. Even so, this single concession to a mainstream audience is easy to forgive when taken as part of a package which rewards methodical, technical play in a way that no other fighting game does.