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KoF, Please
by Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh


Where is KoF'03?

I surely can't be the only one who's wondering; usually the roster and some hints of the gameplay mechanics are announced by mid-July. And yet, at the time that I write this, SNK Playmore has yet to even confirm that the game is in development, or for which platform it might be intended.

To add to the mystery: when I asked SNK NeoGeo USA Consumer president Ben Herman about the game at E3, he was oddly hesitant. After a few false starts, he said only that it would "make sense" if there were a King of Fighters this year (aside from the 3D one). He wasn't willing to comment further, but he looked pretty darned unsure to me.

So. What's going on with this series? We've seen hints of difficulty amongst SNK, Eolith, Marvellous, and Uno Technology, in regard to KoF. It's all very odd. So there's the possibility that the next game is caught in a political quagmire, as SNK attempts to reel in its properties.

We've also got these persistent rumors of new arcade hardware. We've seen that SNK has chosen to distribute SVC Chaos on a Jamma board rather than an MVS cart, although apparently there's nothing new about the technology; it's just been molded in a different shape, for an alternate flavor of delivery.[1]

Still, this seems to imply that SNK indeed is beginning to break with the standard MVS format. If you add this into their other recent experimentation -- the development of original software for the GBA and PS2, for instance -- you start to see the first rough lines of a tantalizing picture.

Then there's the fact that SNK has two extremely high-profile fighters already in testing or new release (Samurai Spirits Zero is the other). They could be waiting, so as not to crowd the market. Still -- why not even mention it? Anticipation rarely hurts.

Lastly -- before we forget -- we must consider the two most common (if general) reasons for delays and information blackouts on upcoming games. One is problems in the game's development. The other, less common, reason is an unusual amount of care and attention on the part of the developers. See Nintendo, up until the last couple of years, for an obvious example.

Now that we've collected the rudimentary legos (or at least as many as we're able to find, given our current circumstance), it's time to see how they might stack. We've got a number of interesting configurations here.

Why hasn't SNK said anything about KoF'03 yet? Here are the rough options.

  • SNK Playmore fears over saturation of the market (simple enough)
  • SNK NeoGeo is putting a lot of work into the game, which involves a...
    • Tremendous graphical overhaul, a
    • Tremendous engine overhaul, or a
    • Move to new hardware altogether
  • SNK NeoGeo has run into some difficulty with the game, for whatever reason:
    • There are political issues around KoF'03, keeping it in some form of limbo
    • SNK's staff is strung thin lately, due to all of the new projects
  • The game just isn't coming anytime soon

Even if it's just the case that SNK is putting a bunch of work into the game, that raises a few questions of its own. Namely: what kind of work is this, that it seems to be consuming so much time? There are a few possibilities that come to mind.

The first is a complete graphical overhaul.

For those who've been paying attention, SNK has mostly used the same sprites since '96 -- with a few slight tweaks to most of them, year by year. Although this series was once among the more attractive on the NeoGeo, it's come to look darned shabby in recent years -- and I don't only mean KoF'01 (which, as ugly as it is, has a bunch of personality -- unlike '02). It's more that there's just been a general lack of maintenance. It's like a garden that hasn't been weeded in years, even though it's still in use.

After six years, I want to see a new outfit for Iori. I want to see another variation of Mai. Another Yuri, and King. Another wacky pose for Ryo. A new Terry, definitely. Maybe an intermediary one, without his hat. Mark of the Wolves is coming up quickly in the SNK timeline, after all.

It's more than the character sprites, though; the series needs a completely new visual scheme. Level introductions? Maybe. Line scrolling? Maybe. Just ditch the old, and bring in the new. Start fresh.

This mentality leads into the next possibility: if they're going to rebuild anyway, How about if SNK revamps the whole game engine, as they did in '96. Unless they're suicidal, they've got to introduce some new play mechanic anyway for this next arc. So this is the perfect opportunity.[2]

Why not just redo the whole game engine. It's seen incremental patches for year after year. As with the graphics, it must be a mess by now.

That would take a while to do. As would redrawing everything. So those are both (related) options. Is SNK pursuing them? Judging by past inaction, I wouldn't exactly hold my breath. It is, however, one possible explanation. And it seems less unlikely now than it has in years.

Speaking of chance, there is an even more tantalizing, if remote, possibility -- which I suppose I can best phrase as a question:

Will '03 even be released on the MVS hardware?

SVC Chaos was announced for the MVS long before it was released. You'd think if '03 were intended for the MVS, they'd have at least listed it as "TBA" for that platform. Or advertised it as an upcoming project. But, nothing. Silence.

The King of Fighters is SNK's flagship series. It's in a period of transition. SNK Playmore is already in the middle of a bold stride into multiplatform development and publishing. This would be the perfect moment, the perfect game, for the transition to something greater.[3] They'll never have a better time.

And. You know. SNK is already edging in that direction. So, while perhaps improbable at this stage, it's not at all inconceivable.

What feels most likely to me, however, is that this game has built up a web of difficulty, to surround and entangle it on all flanks.

From a distance, one gets the impression that SNK is still squabbling over the rights to the series, and who's going to produce it. I can't help but wonder about the property rights to some of the new characters, developed during Eolith's contract (May Lee, K9999, and so on). Heck, after the blasé manner in which Aruze chopped up and licenced out SNK's properties to whoever asked, I wonder about the status of The King of Fighters series in a more general sense.

For a while, Eolith seemed to think that the series was essentially theirs to do with as they wished. Now their contract should theoretically be over. On top of that comes the recent problem with Uno Technologies, where SNK Playmore has retracted the KoF licence for use in Uno's upcoming King of Fighters Online. For a time, Acclaim intended to publish The King of Fighters EX2 in North America. Now they've quietly dropped it.

If we didn't know any better, it would seem that the only KoF-related game that SNK or anyone else currently has in the works is the 3D one for the PS2. That can't be entirely right, but it does make me curious. It seems clear to me that something unusual is quietly simmering within SNK's lawyer pit, whether or not it's related to the delay.

On the other hand, we could be looking at a far more innocent kind of difficulty. Maybe SNK NeoGeo has had some trouble with the game's development, now that the series has -- probably -- been dragged back in-house. While Brezza participated on each of the last two games, the brainwork was mostly Eolith's job. It's been a while since SNK has been wholly in charge of the series (if indeed they are again). There are undoubtedly a huge number of options to consider.

Then there's the fact that SNK is swamped with newfound activity at the moment. SVC Chaos just wrapped. Samurai Spirits Zero is in its final stages (albeit by Yuki Enterprises in place of SNK NeoGeo or Noise Factory). We've got Metal Slug 5 to worry about, as well as the upcoming GBA game. And KoF 3D, again. And all of the ports and compilations that are in progress. And any other officially-unannounced games, such as the GBA version of SNK vs Capcom and the long-delayed Mark of the Wolves 2.[4]

Whatever the case, the game is undoubtedly coming. It might be late -- it wouldn't be the first time, if so -- but I don't see any reason why SNK would let the series lapse. This is an important turning point in what is probably SNK's most important series. KoF is the SNK series. That's what it's meant to be, from the get-go. And SNK is SNK once more.

They're back in the public eye. They're starting to produce contemporary software for most major platforms. Perhaps even moreso than in the case of SVC Chaos and Samurai Spirits Zero and Metal Slug 5, the next chapter of KoF should illustrate exactly what to expect from SNK for the future.

I like to think that SNK Playmore understands this, judging by their behaviour so far. It seems to me like they're hesitant to announce the game until they've weighed all of their options; they want to be certain that they know precisely what they're doing.

It also seems to me like they've got more than plenty to think about.

Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh is inflamed with the unstable power of his "E" genes

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