Killer Instinct came about in 1994 as a collaboration between Nintendo and then-second-party developer Rare, in an era where every studio and its dog was making an effort to cash in on the success of Capcom’s genre-defining fighting megahit Street Fighter II. Thus, in an era where every studio and its dog is making an effort to cash in on the success of Capcom’s genre-revitalizing fighting megahit Street Fighter IV, and in which unprecedented new life has been breathed into franchises like Mortal Kombat as a result, it should come as no surprise that Rare and their new owners at Microsoft have kicked off a new collaboration effort to end KI’s 17-year hiatus.
Taking up the core of development duties is Double Helix, with Rare veteran Ken Lobb and members of the competitive fighting game community acting as advisors. Tournament players joining the mix has been an especially successful method of developing fighting games in the post-SFIV years, so their inclusion in the development process here gave the effort a much-needed shot of credibility for the revival of a franchise that never really won over the most scholarly and discerning players.
What Is It?
Killer Instinct for the Xbox One is not just a modernization of a cult classic fighting game, it’s a step into uncharted territory for the genre. It dips into the free-to-play, pay-per-character model most often associated with the MOBA genre than anything. You can play the game for free with a single character that rotates periodically, while having the option of buying individual characters for $5 apiece. For those who can’t be bothered with the piecemeal approach, the entire six-character roster (plus two upcoming fighters in January and March) can be purchased for $20, or if you’re a fan from way back, buy all of the above plus the original Killer Instinct for $40. This is also a good deal for achievement hunters, because both new KI and old are each loaded with 1000 achievement points to be won. Eight characters might still sound slim in 2013, but a “second season” next year has been promised that should fill out the roster more completely.
The bad news is that with a free-to-play game, you can’t expect much in the way of bells and whistles. There’s no Story Mode to speak of, although one will be necessary sooner or later (perhaps as a nice addition to the second season) to put the entire game into context – clearly some character development has taken place, and just who is this Sadira newcomer? Another missing element is a broader single-player campaign made popular by series like SoulCalibur. In short, if you’re going it alone and are reluctant to play online for whatever reason, be ready to spend a lot of time in Survival Mode, which is an endless stream of AI Vs battles that will see you earn KP, which will allow you to unlock extra content.
Why Should I Care?
The good news is that although it’s missing some usual key components like a Story Mode, you’re provided more than enough training material in the dojo to learn the game and have a good understanding of what you’re doing before you start taking up AI or online Vs battles. The training mode also offers up a wealth of knowledge, no doubt due to the input from the fighting game community. Useful information like frame data and hitboxes are right there for you to study if you should feel so inclined, and that’s a positive trend for the genre as a whole.
The real beauty of this revived Killer Instinct is that it takes Rare’s original concept of a combo-intensive fighting game and thinks it through to its logical conclusion, even solving some of today’s fighting genre problems in the process. When the original Killer Instinct hit arcades back in 1994, its combos were the longest and most outrageous in all of fighting games. Of course, Rare made sure that the system that allowed for those combos was accompanied by a way out for players on the receiving end. While other fighters have long since caught up to and surpassed KI in terms of over-the-top combos, remarkably few have given players an escape mechanism (and within those, even fewer that hold up to high level play). This leaves a vast number of fighting games being played at high levels while still being able to disengage both players from the action at any given time as one player recites a lengthy combo like poetry from muscle memory while the other just sits back and takes it. KI’s combo breakers keep the defending player engaged with the action, constantly looking for a way out. Meanwhile, the player doing the combo has to change up their move selection to force a misread and a “lockout” – a period of time after a failed combo breaker during which a combo is in fact inescapable. Failing that, the attacking player has to remain alert in case a successful breaker happens and forces them to attempt the new, final layer of this system, the counter breaker. The end result is an overall combo system that turns combos themselves into just another phase of the battle, with both players actively trying to get a leg up on the other. Frankly, this is where all combo-driven fighting games need to go in some form or another unless we’re to scale combos in general back to where they were in the early days of Street Fighter II.
To facilitate this new, unusual form of depth, the combo system has been opened up considerably from past KI titles. This is done in such a way to allow for much greater creativity on the part of the players, giving them all the tools they need to either express the exact combo they want to land or misdirect a defending player into guessing the wrong combo breaker to attempt. The dojo mode describes the particulars extremely well, and it’s such a joy in action that you can often find yourself having beaten an opponent’s entire lifebar down to nothing, while you continue to pointlessly style on them just because it’s so fun and easy to get caught up in the moment.
What Makes It Worth My Time And Money?
It’s pretty difficult to nail Killer Instinct down in terms of value just because there are so many different ways to play it. There are lots of good times to be had even from just the free version of the game, and despite the currently shallow roster (which will still contain most classic fan favorites once Spinal and Fulgore drop next year), there’s absolutely $20 worth of game to be found here. Jump in with both legs, and you’ll get a remarkable perspective of the game to come. The important thing is that you play it in some form or another just to experience what the new Killer Instinct is all about, because Double Helix and friends are absolutely onto something here.