Author: John Legendoffzelda
“Available for your home in 1995, only on Nintendo Ultra 64!”
Video arcade customers in 1994 could regularly hear this message rumbling from cabinets of Nintendo and Rare’s Killer Instinct, an assured boast about the game’s longevity and a prediction of Nintendo’s future in the home console market. But 1995 came and went, and the prediction faltered; the Ultra 64 was delayed until the following year to have its technical problems fixed, and its name eventually changed. To make up for the setback and ensure anxious fans would still get a home version, the two companies downgraded their collaborative effort to fit the lesser technology of the Super Nintendo. The downgrades, happily, don’t obscure how serious of a fighting game this is: a heavy and entertaining affair, it’s Mortal Kombat with imagination and almost as much violence. With Rare’s help, Nintendo fashionably proved that they could both adapt to trends and were not bound to their kid-oriented reputation.
The story, in all of its different endings, revolves around a faceless futuristic corporation named Ultratech. The corporation is holding a tournament, that old chestnut of a framing device for fighting game characters viciously pummeling each other. The characters here come from all corners of existence; a martial-arts monk, a werewolf, a dinosaur, an undead pirate skeleton, even an extraterrestrial, and that’s only half of them. They all have their reasons for competing; whether to quell an ancient evil or to get back to their home or to win money, but no one is really playing this game for the story. As in a regular 16-bit fighting title, the story mode lets the player pick a contestant to fight all the others plus a final Big Bad. Since they’re free to mix and match contestants after each loss on the way to and including that final boss, the player isn’t tied to a specific narrative anyway. Ultratech goes down in the end; it’s just that the end cutscene says something different, depending on the character.
Mixing and matching is the ideal way to become familiar with the characters’ advantages and such. Some characters are light and agile, while others are so heavy they shake the screen when they jump. Fights are best out of three matches, but rather than dividing the fights into three rounds, the game streamlines the process by giving both characters two health bars. One bar goes from green to yellow, the other goes from yellow to red, and whoever has both of their bars depleted first loses. With this detail, the game moves at a faster pace, and allows for a less interrupted flurry of punches and bites, kicks and swipes. The action will feel familiar to experienced fighting game players, but for the less experienced, this console port includes a practice mode where players can learn how to use all ten characters by knocking around Fulgore the robot. By way of this tutorial everyone can get in on the action.
To top everything off, the game has an early appearance of another fighting fixture, the combo system. The system inspires the player to practice strategic button mashing, with a great reward. With the correct amount of coordination, they can launch into a mesmerizing ballet of an attack and land blow after blow with such grace, that the deep-voiced announcer can only shout the achievement with increasing levels of excitement. (In the opposite direction, not enough coordination will place the player at the mercy of their opponent’s personal ballet). Killer Instinct‘s own tweak on this feature is the ability to break combos, a tricky move that makes the announcer go into a cool stutter loop, but otherwise the mechanics aren’t terribly different from other titles of this genre. What the game offers in the way of uniqueness instead is an attitude that’s clever about its own edginess. Not just presenting the gloom and brutality that’s almost requisite in being a mature title, the game gleefully takes them up several notches. There’s the aforementioned fighter roster, as varied as a collection of action figures. Buckets of blood are spilled by everyone – one arena is covered in the stuff – and in this detail hides a jokey notion like a robot losing bodily fluid. The finishing moves continue the silliness; the losing opponent can be crushed by a car or smacked against the screen (a piece from the same self-referential pool that makes one arena show off Nintendo’s and the game’s logos), and the special “Humiliation” move lives up to its name.
Rare did well to preserve their wit from the arcade version, and they did an equally honorable job in translating the visuals. The characters are computer generated sprites, as in Donkey Kong Country, and they all look stunning. It must be said, three-dimensional graphics on Super Nintendo hardware really were Rare’s specialty. The arenas are awash in extremity shades of purple, blue, red and yellow, and they serve as singular backdrops for the fighting. Mode 7 is used masterfully to replicate the cabinet’s camera shots of a contestant falling off of the arena, and it shows how far Rare went to bring the arcade game to a home console. The sound of this game is blaring, high-energy tunes that, even when pared down from their original CD-quality forms, provide killer ambiance. Since these tunes sound their best in one-minute bursts anyway, the technological limitations of this port are pretty beneficial.
While Killer Instinct is conventional, that doesn’t impede Nintendo’s intentions in the slightest. What they wanted to do, if not what they did overall, was make a game that reasserted they could cater to all demographics. It so happened that the game Nintendo needed to make was a savory, violent contribution to the entertaining bedlam that spurred the ESRB. With this console’s second bountiful collaboration with Rare they showed their gift for adapting to genres.
Four out of five stars.
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