Review: The King Of Fighters: The Ultimate History

Image: Nintendo Life / Damien McFerran

Capcom’s Street Fighter has had many rivals over the years, including the likes of Virtua Fighter, Mortal Kombat and Guilty Gear. However, one franchise stands out as the true competitor: SNK’s King of Fighters. Since its inception in 1994, the series has offered what many fans consider to be the only legitimate alternative to Capcom’s one-on-one offering, and at one point, it was more popular than Street Fighter in Japanese arcades. After something of a barren period for the franchise (and, arguably, the genre in general) King of Fighters is enjoying something of a minor resurgence, which makes the publication of Bitmap Books’ The King Of Fighters: The Ultimate History all the more timely.

Weighing in at over 540 pages and packed with interviews, artwork, screenshots and much more besides, The King Of Fighters: The Ultimate History follows in the footsteps of Metal Slug: The Ultimate History and Neo-Geo: A Visual History; all of these books are the result of the publisher’s close relationship with SNK, a relationship which has allowed for unprecedented access to the company’s vaults – as well as its past and present staff.

The book covers the complete history of the series, from its origins in the Fatal Fury franchise – which itself was seen as a spiritual successor to the original 1987 Street Fighter (creators Takashi Nishiyama and Hiroshi Matsumoto would leave Capcom for SNK following its release) – right the way up to the most recent entry, King of Fighters XV. The origins of the game, which began life as a side-scrolling brawler called Survivors, is also detailed, with the developers filling in gaps in the timeline that had previously been left empty. Bitmap Books proudly proclaims that this is the first time the whole King of Fighters story has been told in full, and it’s hard to debate that fact.

We also get pages and pages of gorgeous screen art from the game, as well as a wealth of hard-drawn concept and character artwork – including some drawings of fighters who never made it into any of the games. There’s also a generous helping of full-colour key art, most of which was used to promote each title or grace the covers and instruction manuals of the domestic ports. Legendary illustrator Toshiaki ‘Shinkiro’ Mori’s classic artwork has come to characterise the entire series and still looks utterly stunning even today. It’s here that Bitmap’s typically glowing production values make themselves known once again; the paper is of peerless quality and that allows the art to really shine.

Arguably the most jaw-dropping element of the book for seasoned fans is the section at the back, which features Q&A discussions with some of the key personnel that have worked on the franchise since 1994. Conducted by non other than former video game journalist and occasional Nintendo Life contributor James Mielke (along with his wife, Joy), these interviews feature Masanori Kuwasashi (planner on KOF ’94 to ’96), Toyohisa Tanabe (lead planner, KOF ’94 to ’96), Shinichi Shimizu (lead programmer, KOF ’94 to ’96), Masaki Kukino (producer, KOF XII to XIII), Hideki Asanaka (musician on KOF ’95 to XV) and Eisuke Oguru (artist, KOF 2000 to XV), and are a veritable goldmine of new insight and information.

Bitmap Books continues to set the bar when it comes to this sort of thing; this is a coffee table book, no doubt about it, but unlike so many of the gaming publications that clog bookstore shelves, it isn’t preoccupied with regurgitating the same information and artwork. The King Of Fighters: The Ultimate History aims to deliver an experience that can be appreciated by newcomers and series veterans alike – and is utterly essential reading for anyone who considers themselves to be a fighting game fanatic.

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