The progression of SNK’s King Of Fighters series is really an uneven one. Some games, like KOF 96 or KOF 99, bring drastic new elements to the series, while a game like KOF 98, arguably the most popular entry, was merely a update to KOF 97, with no brand new characters, just ones brought back from older games, and some new balance updates. KOF 98 doesn’t even have a new soundtrack, as most of the music was reused from previous entries. Sometimes, KOF games regress back, like in KOF 2002 where the 4-member team striker system used in KOF 99/2000/2001 was dropped for a more traditional 3-member team system. Even the rosters are not consistent. Characters that are added in one game get taken out the very next. And if they do make it consistently, they themselves get drastic changes in their looks and movelist, even for major mainstays like Kyo or Terry or Athena or Iori. It’s actually one reason why I love this series.
KOF XI (presumably the topic of this rambly post) came at a turbulent time for the 2D fighting game genre, just after Capcom Fighting Evolution and Guilty Gear Isuka failed fans of each series, leading Capcom to take a sabbatical from fighters, and Arc System Works to go back to the safety of more Guilty Gear XX updates (though to be fair, Arc System Works did make a Fist of the North Star fighter in 2005, which was great, especially for fans of the manga/anime series). A time where reading the words “2D Fighting games are dead” was commonplace on forums and website (of course it was never true).
Within the scope of KOF itself, KOF XI is the only mainline KOF made for SegaSammy’s Atomiswave arcade hardware, during a transitional period between the Neo Geo era and the “HD” era starting with KOF XII. It’s also at a time when SNK Playmore were trying to expand the series laterally, with the 3D spin-off Maximum Impact games, or with crossovers like SVC Chaos: SNK vs Capcom & Neo Geo Battle Coliseum. There were also ports of older KOFs on PS2/Xbox/Dreamcast with extra features like added characters/stages, or rudimentary online play. There were even remakes like KOF 94 Re-bout. Suffice to say, despite leaving the Neo Geo hardware and the yearly subtitle, there were plenty of games for KOF fans to play (of varying quality) in the mid aughts.
In fact, for once it seemed that a mainline KOF was overshadowed by other projects within SNK Playmore. SNK Playmore were banking on KOF Maximum Impact being a big success. The Maximum Impact games received bigger budgets and better marketing, with a TV commercial in the US for the first game and an anime web-series titled “KOF Another Day” to market the second.
It seems in between all of these games, KOF XI simply struggled for attention. The fact that the game was ported on PS2 in 2007 in the US and Europe, a year after itss Japanese release, and so late into the Playstation 2’s life, didn’t help either. Coupled with the fact that there hasn’t been any other port of it, and that it’s an Atomiswave title, a hardware with shoddy emulation compared to the Neo Geo, means that KOF XI somewhat remained ignored after release.
That’s a damn shame, because KOF XI is one of the best games in the whole series.
King Of Fighters XI is the second game in the “Ash Saga” that started in KOF 2003 and ended with KOF XIII. As with the previous “NESTS Saga”, the Ash Saga appointed a new protagonist, Ash Crimson, along with a new systems: the tag-team system, and a new leader system, where 1 fighter of the 3-member team is appointed “leader” and has access to a more damaging Leader Desperation Move (Desperation Move is SNK terminology for Super Moves. sometimes shortened as DM, or in the case of Leader DM, as LDM). KOF XI maintains all that, but introduces a few more innovations that freshens up the tag-system and makes it much more versatile and useful than it was in KOF 2003. Additions like “Quick Shift” and “Saving Shift” make for much more dynamic matches, ones that give reasons to constantly tag characters in-and-out in order to extend combos or to save yourself from getting ruthlessly comboed. And the Skill Meter, a separate small bar situated above the standard power meter, used for the aforementioned Shifts and for supercancels, means that using these tag-shifts can work together with DMs, without having to trade-off DMs for tags. This way, tagging can compliment DMs rather than compete with them (unlike KOF 2003, where tag-attacks cost the same as a standard DM). Additionally, KOF XI introduced “Dreamcancel”, a flashy move where a leader character can cancel from a DM into a Leader DM for big damage. All these features help make KOF XI get a very distinctive playstyle compared to other KOFs, without having to clutter the screen with 3 or 4 characters at once like the striker-system in KOF 99/2000/2001. And unlike the Max-Mode system in KOF 2002, where only a handful of characters (out of 44) could utilize in any meaningful way, the tagging and dreamcancel features feel much more uniformly useful for all of the cast.
More importantly, the roster in KOF XI may be the most radical in the series, doing its best to shake things up, removing many long mainstay characters to give some underdogs their time to shine. The arcade version didn’t have Robert, Joe Higashi, Chang, Leona, or even Mai Shiranui, one of SNK’s more popular female characters if not THE most popular (although SNKP did put Mai and Robert back in the PS2 port, along with a few more characters ripped from Neo Geo Battle Coliseum). And unlike KOF XII, these seem more like deliberate decisions rather than a matter of game development running out of budget, leading SNK Playmore to ship an anemic game in order to recoup as much of their expenditure as possible.
In place of these characters were more obscure ones. From Art Of Fighting, Eiji and Mr. Big make their first reappearance in KOF since 95 and 96, respectively. And Kasumi returns to KOF after leaving post-KOF 2000. On the Fatal Fury side, mainstays like Joe Higashi and Andy were dropped out in favor of newer characters from Mark Of The Wolves, like Bonne Jenet and Hotaru Futaba, or really old characters like Duck King and Tung Fu Rue.
But what’s even more amazing is that KOF XI goes beyond the Art Of Fighting and Fatal Fury series to enlist characters, and that never happened before in the series (or since, really). From Buriki One, SNK’s eccentric 3D Hyper Neo Geo 64 game where buttons were used for movement and joystick directions for attacks, KOF XI brings in Gai Tendo and Silber. And from Kizuna Encounter, the original tag-based game SNK made in 1996, it brought Sho Hayate and Jyazu. This odd but amazing roster makes KOF XI feel like a real “crossover” game again, which is how this whole series began in the first place, and somewhat deserted later on.
Weirdly, it seems this focus on bringing characters from different SNK games may have hurt the brand new cast introduced in KOF XI, screwing up their balance. Barring cheap boss characters Shion and Magaki, there are 3 brand new characters in XI: Oswald, Elizabeth, and Momoko. Oswald turned out to be extremely strong. Watch any random KOF XI tournament match on youtube and you’ll surely see Oswald in one of the teams (and/or fellow top-tier characters Gato and Kula). He has everything, and then some*.
Elisabeth on the other hand feels a little unfinished. She only has 3 special moves. Sure, 3 special moves may be fine for a character like Ash, who is a “charge character” with a very defined play-style, but with Elisabeth, she just feels like she needs to get another special or two to round up her play-style. Her main strengths in KOF XI rely on a few gimmicks (like her anywhere juggle DM). Thankfully, Elisabeth reappeared in subsequent KOFs where her move-list was expanded, and she feels much more complete as a character in KOF XIII.
But then there is Momoko. Poor poor Momoko. Being a hard-to-use strings-based character like Angel or May Lee meant that mastering her requires a lot of practice, more so than your average KOF character. But even so, Momoko is just nowhere near as versatile as May Lee or Angel, and thus nowhere near as strong. And her short stature means that her normals are short on range. So she ends up relegated to the worst tier. And unlike Elisabeth, Momoko never got a second chance to flesh out her move-set and generally get new buffs in a newer KOF.
All in all, I think what makes KOF XI special is that it really tried its best to differentiate itself from being just another KOF, after 10 iterations of them plus a few more spin-offs. The tagging mechanics feel much more realized here than in KOF 2003, making tagging midcombo much more doable, and thus making the leader system make much more sense. The roster eschews away from your expected mainstays and more towards lesser known underdogs from the SNK-verse, even characters from games that were never featured before in a KOF. Couple that with a nice soundtrack and some beautiful high-rez backgrounds (thanks to the beefier Atomiswave hardware), and you’ve got one of the best KOFs, nay one of the best fighters of its time. If you ever want to play a KOF with a unique-zest to it, The King Of Fighters XI will surely deliver.
* Seriously, Oswald has everything, such as:
great normals and command moves
can do damaging combos from low attacks
can actually link like 4 or 5 crouch light-punches instead of the usual 2 or 3 because of how long and fast they are
his air-C is one of the best cross-ups in the game
His string-moves mean that he can escape punishments if the strings were blocked by ending them with a safe attack like Qcf+P
his qcf+E string-ender move, while may require strict timing and placement, can do incredible damage equivalent to a DM but without having to spend the meter
he has a pretty decent ranbu DM that can reflect fireballs because why not?!
His hcb x 2 + P DM has a super effective Geese-like raging storm range & hitbox but without the complex pretzel motion
Speaking of Geese, Oswald has a counter move that teleports him behind opponents to initiate a free combo. Oddly not as strong or effective as it sounds, especially against air attacks.
His LDM is an anywhere-juggle that can easily be used in combos