tempest in a teacup

the pointless musings of a strange recluse

The future is dead

Earlier this week there were rumblings that Masaaki Kukino, producer on KOF XII and KOF XIII, had left SNK Playmore as of November of last year. Today, this rumour was unfortunately confirmed, along with some other facts by a French games journalist posting at Dream Cancel:

I have confirmation of Kukino leaving. French contact that made interview of Kukino contacted him in the beginning of january and kukino admited it. We didn’t spread the info as we considered Kukino would admit it himself when the time was right.
More than that, SNKP president wants to close video game section. Here the message i sent to other sites :
It’s Neithan from 2HP.
You probably heard of the departure of kukino, the game director of kof XIII from snkp. SpekSNK supposed it was a rumor but I can confirm it to you.
One of my contact in Japan did the interview of Kukino for french website Neo Arcadia and contacted him when the tweets of the ancient programmer came out on the web. Kukino confirmed he left SNKP in novembre so it’s not a rumor anymore.
Besides, two contacts confirmed to me that the new president of SNKP, Ryo Mizufune, wants the video games section to be shut down. He wants to live from license exploitation (queen’s blade, kof sky stage) and his influence is one of the things that made Kukino leave the company. It could be possible that many people from the dev team quit too.
The port of Kof XIII is compromised but more than that it’s kof that is compromised. It’s possible that Kof XIII could be the last one of the saga.
My original post in french with links (use it as a source if you need) : http://basgrospoing.fr/2011/01/kof-xiii-a-perdu-son-directeur-et-le-president-de-snk-playmore-aimerait-fermer-la-division-jeu/

So not only does it sound like there won’t be a KOF XIII port for home consoles, there probably won’t be any new KOF games from SNKP. We already know from anonymous Twitter accounts that a bunch of programmers left the company last year, and now it sounds like Kukino has followed suit.

My reaction? Despair, mostly. But also frustration at the thought that this shouldn’t have happened.

SNKP’’s takeover from the SNK of old got off to a shaky start with SvC Chaos and KOF2003, both rather iffy games, followed by the uninspired KOF NeoWave as their first game after departing the MVS. But soon after that they scored a two-hit combo with the solid NeoGeo Battle Coliseum and King of Fighters XI, and with the aid of Yuki Enterprise (now Examu) released the equally solid Samurai Spirits: Tenkaichi Kenkakuden. It seemed to me at the time that SNKP had overcome its obstacles and returned to releasing great arcade games. Sure, XI didn’t quite succeed in knocking perennial favourites KOF’98 or 2002 off their thrones, but it was the first game in years that came close. It’s still among my top three favourite KOF games.

And after that they basically blew it.

I’m not sure if this decline is really attributable to one specific thing. I mean, they did continue to make some fine games during this period – KOF’98 Ultimate Match and KOF2002 Unlimited Match come to mind – but they also spent way too much time on novelty projects like the Maximum Impact series, (even developing an arcade version that no-one played) and projects that were destined to fail from the start (Samurai Spirits Sen, KOF Sky Stage, random DS shovelware like Doki Doki Majo Shinpan and Kimi no Yuusha). Not to mention their repeated efforts to re-release their entire back catalog over and over again, for no apparent reason.

However what appears to have been the nail in the coffin was the debacle of KOF XII and XIII. After their contract with Sammy was fulfilled by the release of Metal Slug 6, SNKP apparently decided that in spite of being a small company, they would make the leap to the high-def Taito Type-X2, and redraw all the sprites. This was met with great enthusiasm at the time, but what should have been obvious was that there was no way they could redraw all those characters (numbering over 40 by the time KOF XI was released) in high definition in a timely manner and yet keep the same level of shading and detail. When faced with the same decision, Capcom took Street Fighter into 3D, and Arc System Works made a game with the same anime-style shading they had used with GGXX, but with a vastly scaled back roster (compared to GGXX) of just twelve characters.

And yet SNK, in spite of being smaller than both of these other studios, chose to forge ahead with redrawing all their characters in high resolution with very detailed shading. Is it any surprise, then, that they found that they’d been working on it for two years and had nothing to show for it?

When KOF XII was finally revealed in 2009 (to a great deal of fanfare, I might add), the damage was very quickly visible. Tag system? Gone. Most of the roster? Cut. The remaining characters’ movelists? Gutted. What we got was a half-baked game with a boring system that got a tepid reception in Japanese/Asian arcades. To make matters worse barely a month later SNKP announced an arcade version of KOF2002UM which was basically the death knell for the already unpopular XII.

Because of this, when XIII was announced a year later the stakes were high. And at least initially it looked like SNKP was back on track – they’d come up with a reasonably interesting system (basically 2K2UM with a few new tricks) and there were actual crowds at the location tests trying out the game. The game was even announced to be at Tougeki as a ‘special ‘Category C’ game along with the as-yet unreleased latest iteration in the Melty Blood series.

And then the game came out, a month before Tougeki, and it became clear that they had rushed the game just to make the Tougeki deadline, as people started discovering that bugs that had been found (and even recorded!) during location testing were still in the game. One of the bugs basically ensured that no-one taking part in Tougeki would use Vice. On top of that Mature had a braindead easy infinite that consisted of doing one move again and again. The game was played in this clearly unpolished state at Tougeki, and about two months later SNKP issued a new version that fixed the more serious bugs, but left others in place while doing nothing to address the poor balance (K’ and Raiden basically rule the roost, and all top four teams at Tougeki had one or the other, if not both). Some arcades started holding ratio-based tournaments to alleviate this, and I kind of know from observing the high-level TF2 and L4D scenes that once your community decides it’s upon them to fix your game, you’re not doing a very good job.

You’ll notice that so far I’ve made no mention of ports, netcode or anything of the sort. Quite simply, this is because even in their absence it’s easy to see that SNKP made tons of mistakes after leaving the Atomiswave, and the quality of their console ports had nothing to do with it. Sure, American fans complained about the shoddy networking code in KOF XII (and later in KOF2002 Unlimited Match) but the game’s prospects over here were never rosy to begin with. Capcom was able to pull off the whole ‘retro revival’ thing only because it had the marketing dollars to back it up. SNKP had no such thing, nor did KOF have any brand recognition over here, so attempting the same sort of angle of appealing to neophytes was never going to work for them, good netcode or not.

So where does this leave SNK fans like me? Honestly, I don’t know. I can’t play any of the versions of KOF I actually like against anyone (‘98UM, 2002UM and XI, in case you were curious), and if KOF XIII’s port is dead in the water then chances are I’m never going to get to play that, either. Part of me wants to believe that ‘licensing’ means that SNKP will contract out KOF development to other studios the way Capcom contracted out Street Fighter IV and Tatsunoko vs Capcom, but it’s more likely to mean more pachislot machines and compilations of old games.

I posted the article I linked above on Facebook, my friend PS (a pretty good KOF player, unlike me) noted that in the absence of KOF, his only other two options were SFIV, that required learning several strict links in order to be competitive, and BlazBlue, which required learning long pressure and combo strings, several of which are character-specific, in order to be competitive, neither of which were particularly palatable to him. This news has made me realize how true that statement is – KOF stuck an almost perfect balance between ‘old-school SF-style simple inputs and the more recent Guilty Gear style frantic pace, and with it gone there’s nothing to fill the void. Maybe some enterprising doujin group will try someday, but until then we’re just going to have to move on to other things.

2 comments

2 Responses to “The future is dead”

  1. NeoChaos says:

    but they also spent way too much time on novelty projects like the Maximum Impact series, (even developing an arcade version that no-one played)

    Odd that – they may not have made hardcore KOF fans happy, but from what I’ve heard, the MI games were the best selling KOF games since the Saturn/PSX era. Perhaps they could’ve saved themselves by not going to the time-consuming sprite route they did and kept on producing MI games.

    • sonictempest says:

      From what I heard the MI games sold at best a few thousand copies each. That said I definitely think the arcade version was a waste of money. That thing basically rolled over and died the moment it was released.

Leave a Reply