The release of Killer Instinct for Xbox One caught me completely offguard. Not, of course, the fact that it came out- the game was far from quiet pre-release, getting plenty of press time and previews. No, the thing that surprised me about KI once it was out in the wild, with lots of videos and professional play to observe was that I liked what I saw… quite a bit. I have very little interest in getting an Xbox One myself, given my poor history of the console, dislike of Kinect, irritation at the price point, and general distaste with what the Xone seems to consider important. The small bit of interest I have, though, almost entirely stems from Killer Instinct. It looks pretty damn good.
It’s strange, because it’s coming from a studio I don’t think highly of, on a platform I don’t think highly of, from an IP I don’t think highly of. Giving the makers of Silent Hill Homecoming and 2012’s Battleship the rights to a series I never understood the interest in certainly doesn’t sound like a winning combination. The classic Killer Instinct announcer, I was onboard with- hiring a man to scream “ultra” and “combo breaker” for your game is a-okay with me- but the gameplay was shallow and the character designs dull. KI 2013 is still saddled with characters that I’m not particularly fond of, but the graphical style redeems a lot of the rather uninspired designs. The gameplay, on the other hand, is fantastic.
On a basic level, it’s pretty standard fighting game fare. It has a Street Fighter-style system of normal moves, special moves, and enhanced special moves that cost meter (“Shadow Moves”). It also includes more obscure fighting game systems like alpha counters (“Shadow Counters”) where you retaliate quickly after blocking an attack, and of course the series staple combo breaker, which other games have gone on to replicate in their own way. Interestingly, the game does have its equivalent of supers, but you can only do them as a finisher when the match is already won. Perhaps it’s for the best- they’re honestly not very good, and since you don’t see them constantly, it works out.
All the basic fighting game tactics are present and alive- corner pressure, high/low mixups, crossups, zoning, block strings, and of course combos. The combo system in the game is a little hard to explain, so just take it from me that it’s much simpler and easier than any Capcom or SNK fighting game to execute, and thanks to the combo breaker system, much more interesting to participate in as well. Instead of simply standing back and watching your opponent hit buttons, you can be an active participant in the game, trying to predict what moves your opponent will do, and breaking free of the combo if you guess correctly. Even more fascinating, the new Counter Breaker system adds to the mind games- if your Combo Breaker is predicted, it too can be countered, leading to an even more damaging combo. Turning combos into an extension of the mind games that make the genre great is arguably the best thing KI does.
But it’s certainly not the only thing to praise about Killer Instinct. The Xbox One exclusive is also home to the best gamefeel in the genre. Every hit and impact in the game results in a tiny, split-second pause in the action which serves to highlight and dramatize every blow. Meaty animations and flashy effects further emphasize the power and purpose of your strike. But the thing that pushes it over the edge is the sound design, which is absolutely stellar. Anyone who’s spent time with fighting games knows how much bad hit sounds can make your fights less satisfying. KI’s hit sounds are gratifying and great, but they’re just the first piece of the puzzle. The background music is ridiculous heavy metal designed to hype up crowds, the game’s supers actually sync up with the music so that you’re hitting your foe in time to the beats, and the newest KI announcer sounds like he’s having the time of his life as he screams about how amazing your combo was. The total package is a fighting game satisfying on every level, and with a long and promising life ahead of it if the community supports it.
Part of why this is so surprising to me is because I’ve felt for so long that there are really only a few companies that know how to do the genre properly. Capcom, SNK, and Arc System Works (makers of Street Fighter, King of Fighters, and BlazBlue respectively among other things) have seemingly had a lock on the genre for decades, with so few studios able to release a worthwhile alternative. There are rare exceptions, like Autumn Games’ Skullgirls, but titles like Mortal Kombat, Dead or Alive, Tekken, Virtua Fighter, or Soulcalibur always left me out in the cold. It’s even more rare for a Western developer to get fighting games right- KI and Skullgirls are literally the only ones I can think of that seem like good fighting games to me.
That’s not to spit on titles like Mortal Kombat or Injustice: Gods Among Us. They are certainly good games, but the problem is that they aren’t good fighting games. The strength and the curse of fighting games is that you must, above all else, focus on having a fantastic one-on-one fighting experience. It must be fair and fun at all levels of skill, with every combination of your characters, and with depth to explore as the community grows in age and size. You must build an ocean, and from there you are expected to add extras worth experiencing too. In other genres, something like a single player campaign wouldn’t be considered an extra, but in fighting it absolutely is… and it’s one that gets neglected in favor of working on balance, depth, and variety. You might even say that it should get neglected- having a great single player would be wonderful, but if it’s at the expense of a good versus experience, it’s not worth it. This is the lesson that MK and Injustice never learned.
It’s no coincidence that both MK and Injustice are Western developed games. In the West, arcades are dead, but in Japan they’re live and kicking. Japanese fighting games come out first in arcades, where single player is little more than a way to kill time while waiting for a challenger. This philosophy carries over to the home versions, which were originally just a way to practice your skills so that you could perform better in the arcades. The console versions are not quite so subservient these days, but still, the majority of Japanese tournaments are done in arcades, on arcade hardware. Single player is not a priority.
Here in the States, however, our comparatively low population density, lousy network infrastructure, and lack of arcades has led to a much different scene. Online play in most games proves too unreliable and slow to translate to effective tournament play- combos and setups that work online, with lag and slower response times, will get blown up in person. With network play being less than optimal, and tournaments being geographically few and far between, there is a much greater emphasis on the single player experience… which, in Japan, might never even be touched. This naturally leads to a different breed of fighting game, with different priorities.
As my understanding of the genre has grown, my perspective has shifted numerous times. I’ve chided the genre for foregoing modern conventions, and I’ve bitched at games that respect those conventions, but don’t have the polish that the genre requires. The obvious answer is to say that both should be present in one title, but that’s a cheap answer that doesn’t respect reality. The fact is that making fighting games is already an expensive and not incredibly profitable enterprise. Demanding that fighting games become the total package- perfectly balanced and deep versus modes with stellar single player modes to match- may well be an unreasonable request.
The solution, then, is as simple as can be- the current situation is exactly what it needs to be. Some fighting games will focus on competitive, deep, and incredible one-on-one combat, while more and more fighting games uninterested in competitive play will feel free to neglect balance in favor of creating a compelling single player experience. I am certainly not against a studio creating the all in one fighting game with single player and versus in perfect harmony, but at a time where fighting games are struggling to remain profitable, making development more expensive is a terrible strategy.
This generation transition is going to be a rough one for my favorite genre. Games are getting bigger, budgets are increasing, and gamers are expecting more and more out of full-priced games. In fighting games, every added character and mode exponentially increases your workload as you struggle to balance new additions against previously added content. This is why it’s never as simple as just adding a new character- any fresh content could interact with your older work in ways that breaks the precise balance that competitive fighters require. Even fighting games like MK that are more interested in story than balance are still one-on-one fighters, and their balance must be good enough to make the combat feel satisfying and fair. With no level design or progression mechanics to fall back on, the only gameplay is the fight- so even if you’re not looking to headline tournaments, it has to be balanced enough to be fun.
There is, however, a different model. Just as triple A budgets are going through the roof, the emergence of smaller budget, smaller price tag games into the mainstream is making games that could never work in triple A a reality. We will have to settle for less gaudy production values, and smaller character rosters, but with a little self-control, fighting games can endure and thrive. We need to choose our battles, and keep in mind what the goal of our games are, be they single player focused or competitive fighters. If we pursue those goals without getting distracted trying to make a game that does it all, we can’t fail.