The latest Super Smash Bros. Ultimate character is a big blond guy in a baseball cap. Old fighting game fans cheered, but a lot of other people had a simple question: Wait, who?
The call rang so loudly that series creator and noted SNK fan Masahiro Sakurai heard, and decided to offer a crash course in Neo-Geo history alongside his video presentation about the cult developer’s mascot, Terry Bogard.
“Who?” is not an unreasonable question. SNK and its Neo-Geo platform — available both in arcades and as a home console — never found the kind of visibility in North America that it has enjoyed in other parts of the world.
SNK made its best arcade games after the American arcade was already on life support. Consoles of the day couldn’t hold the detailed 2D animation of SNK’s best games, leading to ugly ports that didn’t do justice to the real thing. Publishers stopped releasing Neo-Geo console ports outside of Japan by the end of the ’90s, leaving the developer so obscure that it might as well be invisible to players who weren’t already part of the cult of fighting games.
But SNK’s American obscurity doesn’t invalidate its prolific output or its influence in the genre. In its heyday, SNK would publish three or four fighting games in a single year, and fans ate them up. It ran multiple fighting franchises concurrently, including a flagship series, The King of Fighters, that launched in 1994 and included a variety of characters from the company’s entire roster while also reimagining certain characters from its older arcade games.
The King of Fighters might well have planted the seed for the Super Smash Bros. concept in the first place, in fact, although that may just be my own conjecture. It’s not merely an idle theory, though; even the Smash Bros. invitation envelope that was featured prominently in so many announcement videos is a direct reference to The King of Fighters.
Despite its incredible output, SNK never just rehashed its own work; it continued to experiment. Neo-Geo fighting games rapidly introduced every gimmick SNK’s developers could think of, from weapons to tag-team matches to interactive arenas. When those ideas clicked, competitors borrowed them; even the hallowed Super Street Fighter 2 Turbo refined the concept of super moves from SNK’s early experiments.
Super Smash Bros., though a grand experiment of its own, is no exception. While some Smash fans may have hoped for a more recognizable character, Smash Bros. as a whole has borrowed so much from SNK games that Terry is a natural fit. In fact, an SNK character probably should have been included much earlier.
Smash Bros. didn’t just emerge, fully formed, as a way for Nintendo to keep contemporary characters in the front of our minds while introducing newer players to classic characters, games, and even music. The series owes a lot to SNK, and The King of Fighters, and I’d love to take you down a tour of those inspirations, if you have a minute or two.
Smash Bros. moves like King of Fighters
Super Smash Bros. is known and loved for, among other things, its robust movement systems. The controls are simple for anyone to pick up, and it’s immediately gratifying to run around the screen, but the options for basic movement also offer freedom to advanced players who want to make tricky, precise moves.
While Smash’s jumps and aerial action owe more to traditional platforming series like Mario and Kirby, the freedom of movement on the ground owes a lot to The King of Fighters.
Contrary to the slow, deliberate pacing and shuffling in Street Fighter, the King of Fighters series introduced speedy movement that allows players to run, roll, hop, and leap across the screen at angles that keep the opponent guessing. To do justice to the running and jumping of Mario and his friends, the makers of Super Smash Bros. likely turned to the high-speed fighting game for at least some of its movement ideas.
From The King of Fighters ’98.
The King of Fighters offers players four different jumps with their own speed and trajectory, making air attacks difficult to predict. Of those, Super Smash Bros. borrows the short hop. One of the techniques that makes The King of Fighters a uniquely aggressive game is that players can do a short hop with a quick tap and immediately attack from the air, forcing the opponent to guess between a high or low attack at any moment.
Note the very similar trajectory of the hop in Super Smash Bros. Though there’s no “high guard” or “low guard” to speak of in Smash, the short hop is used just as it is in The King of Fighters: to attack quickly from a difficult angle, possibly dodging low attacks in the process. Smash players regularly use the short hop in conjunction with fast attacks to keep an opponent pinned down and guessing what will come next.
In Street Fighter 2 and its contemporaries, jumping is a predictable move that’s easy to punish, leading players to spend most of the match on the ground. By introducing more unpredictable air movement — and more specifically, the short hop — The King of Fighters laid the foundations for the kind of intense aerial battles that Super Smash Bros. would later handle so well.
Dodge and roll
Both the dodge and roll mechanics in Super Smash Bros. are identical to those in The King of Fighters. These moves evade immediate attacks at the cost of leaving the player open afterward.
This clip demonstrates the standing dodge in The King of Fighters ’98. Though King of Fighters games eventually abandoned the standing dodge for the dodge roll, the original idea behind the standing dodge works perfectly for Super Smash Bros., where it remains to this day.
Even the dodge pose in Super Smash Bros. is similar to the way characters shift their weight away from the camera in The King of Fighters. The move is functionally identical between the two series. Dodge at the right time, and you’re safe. But if you don’t dodge perfectly in time with the attack, you get hit.
Though the dodge roll has become a staple in all kinds of action games, its implementation in Super Smash Bros. is again identical to that of The King of Fighters. This highly effective escape gets fighters out of immediate danger, but if you predict and wait for a roll, the opponent is wide open during the recovery.
While The King of Fighters expects players to understand the dodge roll on instinct, Super Smash Bros. shows players this moment of vulnerability. The character stops flashing at the end of a roll, a sure “hit me!” sign.
The dodge roll in particular gives players a feeling of safety and freedom. It ensures that an opponent’s persistent offense can never completely lock the player out of playing the game, as was often the case in the Street Fighter series. Part of Smash’s user-friendly appeal compared to other fighting games is simply that players can get out of trouble easily. Without the dodge moves that Smash borrowed — and, in my opinion, borrowed from The King of Fighters — the Smash series would be a very different beast today.
Super moves: an SNK invention
It’s no longer enough just to have “special” moves in a fighting game. There have to be showstopping attacks, with the flashiest possible special effects, that do overpowering damage. From Dragon Ball FighterZ to Mortal Kombat, the super move may have become a mandatory selling point if you want to get your game in front of a mainstream audience.
Clip from Fatal Fury Special, the update/expansion for Fatal Fury 2.
One of the earliest games with a move more impressive than the standard “special” attack was 1992’s Fatal Fury 2, starring, yes, Terry Bogard. (The inventor of the super move is SNK’s own Art of Fighting, which was released a few months earlier.) When a player’s life bar is low enough that it’s flashing red, they gain access to an abnormally powerful “desperation” move that they can use as many times as they want.
If that sounds familiar to you, it’s because the developers of Smash Ultimate brought the “desperation move” system directly to Smash Bros. from Fatal Fury 2 for Terry. The Terry player who uses Power Geyser over and over again in Smash wields an ancient power.
The Final Smash introduced in Super Smash Bros. Brawl also certainly fits the bill as a super move. Though you activate it by chasing down an item instead of charging up a power meter, the crowd-pleasing attack definitely follows in the old tradition that was initiated by SNK’s game designers.
One mechanic introduced in later Smash Bros. games, indicating that these inspirations took place over time, is rage. Simply put, the more damage a player takes, the further their attacks will send the opponent flying. This effect has been greatly reduced in Smash Ultimate, but you’ll still see it as the damage counter gets redder and redder.
Eventually, the character has steam puffing out of their body. When both players are at very high damage, each hit will send the other fighter flying a noticeably longer distance, putting them just a little bit closer to getting that KO. It’s a great way to both create tension at the end of a match and push fighters to try for a decisive final blow.
From Samurai Shodown 2, 1994.
Riffing on Fatal Fury’s Super Special Moves, SNK’s Samurai Shodown introduced the rage mechanic in 1993. As characters take hits, their complexion gets redder, and a “rage meter” at the bottom fills up. When the meter is full, fighters get a big damage buff and access to their most powerful technique, which shatters the opponent’s weapon and leaves them defenseless.
Years later, Tekken 6 would also adopt the rage mechanic, and when Bandai Namco started working on Smash in the Wii U generation, rage mysteriously popped up there as well.
Squad Strike is the King of Fighters mode
You might have noticed a new mode in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate where teams of three or five fighters compete in an elimination format. This happens to be the exact format used by the King of Fighters series!
To flesh out the core idea of the characters from Fatal Fury and Art of Fighting facing off, SNK came up with the idea of three-on-three team battles. Not only did this set KOF apart, it also made matches last a little longer than traditional best-of-three bouts, quietly making it one of the best values for your quarters at the arcade.
Even before Terry was in the works as a Smash Bros. character, the developers of Ultimate chose to add a mode that directly copies the format of The King of Fighters, even if nobody really noticed or used it. The influence runs deep.
Terry is OK!
The selection of Terry Bogard for Smash Bros. is more than just a fan pick, and it’s more than just a nod to video game history. By bringing Terry into Smash, Sakurai and team had the chance to give thanks and respect to a huge number of games from a developer that directly helped to shape what would become the most popular fighting game in the world.
Today, it’s never been easier to play SNK games in a way that’s perfectly faithful to their arcade originals — and significantly cheaper. Most of the Neo-Geo library, including masterpieces like Mark of the Wolves and Samurai Shodown 2, is currently available on the Switch.
“Who?” was a reasonable call a few months ago, but I assure you, finding out about Terry Bogard will be a lot more fun than asking. And if you want to see how Smash became the fighting game juggernaut it is today, you could do much worse than to dive into the history of SNK’s fighting games.
Don’t think of it as homework; these are still some of the most enjoyable fighting games on the market. And after trying one or two, you may get a little embarrassed over the times you made the fighting game equivalent of saying that the Pixies sound too much like Nirvana.
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