GameSpite Journal 10 | Killer Instinct

Killer Instinct | Dev.: Rare | Pub: Nintendo | Genre: Fighting | Release: Aug. 1995

The ‘90s. So terminally full of ’tude. While Super Nintendo was still the overall “winner” of the 16-bit wars, it wasn’t a landslide victory like the 8-bit era. Nintendo-style good times were starting to look quaint compared to the piss-and-vinegar on display on Sega’s Genesis. Sonic arrived and was more contemporary compared to Mario’s classic stylings. Nintendo naïvely chose to censor Midway’s Mortal Kombat and sold fewer copies than the sweatless Genesis version, despite being otherwise the superior port. Even deep into the 16-bit era, Sega was still showing that the Genesis did what Nintendidn’t.

Nintendo would fight back with its own badical “Play It Loud!” campaign, full page fake articles in magazines decrying “Blast Processing” as a sham, and with the hype for its upcoming 64-bit machine: The Ultra 64. The two flagship titles for Nintendo’s new badass x-treme console were Killer Instinct and Cruisn’ USA. With Killer Instinct, Rare had intended to make Nintendo its very own fighting game: A new-style fighting game where the gritty combatants rained vicious blows upon one another amidst bloody gouts of gore and murder each other with violent fatal finishing moves. Totally original. What’s more is that the characters all looked like Image Comics rejects and were presented as pre-rendered sprites; the most mid-’90s of all sprites. Plus, one of the characters had a totally bitchin’ flat top.

Killer Instinct was very impressive in the arcades. The pre-rendered sprites had high levels of animation, and that glossy look the kids loved. More impressive were the backgrounds which were pre-rendered video that adjusted the displayed frames based on the location of the players. This created a 3-D effect with out the use of polygons, and was more striking besides as polygons had very poor textures at this point. To accomplish this feat, Killer Instinct was the first arcade hardware to use a hard drive. Alas, neither the N64 (née Ultra) nor the Super NES came equipped with a hard drive.

Remove one of its most remarkable features and it was easy to port this “Ultra” game to the SNES; character art was downsampled and frames of animation removed. That was acceptable and was common practice in SNES fighting game ports. The backgrounds were reduced to solid 2D art with parallax and definitely lost some of their cachet.

Luckily, Killer Instinct retained its distinctive gameplay in the port. While Super Street Fighter II showed players their combo count, it usually reached no higher than eight, and that is if you were extremely skilled or used the super combo move to great effect. While combos were increasingly becoming a part of Street Fighter, it wasn’t quite ingrained; the central game play conceit was still around super moves. Killer Instinct was built from the ground up around combos, and those combos were excessive indeed. It is not unusual to see 8-12 hit combos thrown around willy-nilly. An early preview of Killer Instinct (from Game Players Magazine) commented that T.J. Combo was capable of a 15-hit combo. In the post-Marvel Vs. Capcom world, this seems laughable, but the foundations were set by RARE.

Pulling out a mostly unbreakable 15-hit combo in Street Fighter would have broken that game, as that single string would have decimated the victim’s life bar in one fell swoop. Killer Instinct mitigated this issue by introducing damage scaling; each successive hit in a combo was to do less damage than the last. This prevented a dreaded total life bar kill after a single mistake, gave the punished player increased time to attempt a combo breaker, and increased the likely hood that the aggressor player would make an error and flub the combo. Successfully breaking a combo would also give your character a power-up, which would allow for quicker, more powerful super moves.

Combo breakers were hard to pull off as they ran on a paper-rock-scissors system. Fierce breaks quick, quick breaks medium and medium breaks fierce. It can be difficult to tell which you are facing because Killer Instinct uses a system of 2-in-1/chain combos. Certain moves and buttons will always chain in to one another and get you a free automated hit besides. Knowing what these are ahead of time can help you develop combos and “dial them off,” but unlike the pre-set targets of Mortal Kombat 3 and 4 it is an open system with rules, rather than just a predefined string.

Killer Instinct rewards aggressive play. So much death. What can men do against such reckless hate? Not a lot! The defensive-minded player can attempt to fireball spam at a distance and hope his tormentor doesn’t close the gap faster than they can projectile. Or they can turtle. Unfortunately, turtlers get screwed as each character has a top attack move specifically to hit players out of their shells and into a merciless corner romping. Ultra woe the conquered! Of course the relentless combo barrage does have drawbacks. Gameplay is now predicated on who can land the first hit, as they are likely to follow it up with 15 hits of Killer Combo. The defender is unlikely to whip out a breaker before the bulk of the damage is done. This combined with the two-life-bar system can make it next to impossible to close that gaping chasm. Beyond that the types of characters are limited in contrast to Street Fighter; no Dhalsim or Zangief types here.

These systems, however flawed, have defined much of the genre since. Chain combos have appeared in Street Fighter Alpha and the Marvel Vs. Capcom series. Top Attacks have manifested themselves notably in Capcom Vs. SNK and Street Fighter III. The concept of breaking a string of moves has appeared in Mortal Kombat (2011), Street Fighter Alpha, and Tatsunoko Vs. Capcom. Even the parrying of Street Fighter III can trace its genealogy back to Killer Instinct.

This maybe speaks more to the power of the Super NES than the pre-release marketing hype of Nintendo’s 64-bit entry, but the game was translated very well, maintaining most of the gameplay. While not as revolutionary as the then burgeoning 3D fighting game genre, it was an evolutionary step in the development of 2D fighting games. Street Fighter II accidentally created combos, but they quickly became a focus of many games with Super Street Fighter II being the first in the series to keep track of combos, and Mortal Kombat 3 in 1995 being the first in that series to have an overall target/dial-a-combo system. Killer Instinct’s system was more complex than both of its peers, and while the franchise itself hasn’t survived, its gameplay legacy lives on today.

By Rene Decoste? | March 12, 2012 | Previous: Chrono Trigger | Next: Mega Man 7