Bringing back an established ’90s franchise like Killer Instinct can be something of a poisoned chalice. Sure, it has a pre-existing, passionate fanbase ready to play it. On the other hand, it is incredibly difficult to live up to the classic games of the past. Especially when you have the creator of the series Ken Lobb back to supervise the development.
Released as a launch title for the Xbox One in 2013, this free-to-play title provided a chance to bring the franchise to modern audiences. But, did it succeed in recreating the essence of the original?
2013’s Killer Instinct acts as a reboot rather than a continuation of the plot from the original two games. However, that’s not too much of an issue, because a cohesive narrative was never something this series was focused on.
There is a basic plot, with some elements taken from previous installments. But, Killer Instinct doesn’t worry about exactly why its characters are fighting each other. Instead, they are thrown into the action. The gameplay is expected to captivate players enough so that an overarching story is not necessary.
Killer Instinct initially faced complaints about its limited roster, as it only contained nine fighters in total. However, this was just Season One of the content that would eventually come to the title. The roster eventually expanded to 29 individuals through two further seasons of content. This includes every single character from the history of the series, as well as a few guest appearances from the likes of General RAAM from Gears of War. These were joined by a number of additional stages, bringing the total up to 21. If the game was sparse at launch, it became a far meatier and more varied experience as time went by.
Unfortunately, there are justifiable concerns with some of the characters. Certain females have clearly been made as sexual as possible. Meanwhile, Thunder is far from a sensitive or thoughtful portrayal of Native Americans. While this kind of presentation has been common in fighting games, it seems insensitive in this day and age.
While characters and story are important to fighting games, they pale in significance when compared to the actual combat. Killer Instinct has always had a unique aspect that helps set it apart from competitors and that is its combo system. You can chain up light, medium, and heavy attacks with special moves to get stupidly large combos. Although, you have to use careful timing and must avoid possible counters from your opponent.
Fighting now feels much more balanced than it has before in the series. It no longer has to rely solely on the hook of the outlandish combo system and can compete with the more established players on the market.
A lot of work has gone into ensuring the controls are as responsive as possible. While previous titles in the series have not been the best when it comes to translating your actions onto the screen, this new entry has overcome that particular issue. That’s important because Killer Instinct is all about fast-paced action. With this re-imagining, the pace has been increased more than ever before.
The controls themselves are accessible to new users, as there is nothing too complicated you have to learn how to do. For those who do want to make sure they are well prepared, the training dojo allows you to practice the more complex moves.
Despite being a free-to-play game, the developers have not held back when it comes to the production values. The soundtrack may not be anything spectacular, yet it does a good job of harking back to classic fighting games from the ’90s. Its bombastic over-the-top music fits perfectly with the action. But, this isn’t a score you’ll listen to outside of the game because it is a little too generic. More important is the return of the excitable announcer, who happily lets the entire world know how great your combo is.
The visuals are a great modernization of the classic games, with the characters feeling weighty, as if they have real impact to them. It gives the fights a sense of power as punches and kicks land. There are also plenty of special effects along the way, with sparks often flying around the screen.
My only complaints are that the stages don’t really react to the action and you cannot interact with the environment as is possible in other fighting games.
Against all odds, 2013’s Killer Instinct has managed to effectively bring back the franchise. The fighting is satisfying, there is quality in the presentation, and after some extra seasons of content, there is a great selection of characters and stages. This is a fighting game that can compete with the likes of Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat, even if it does have some problems. The lack of plot and a worthwhile singleplayer campaign are the only missteps.