You have a successful game. People want a sequel. What do you do? You release a brand new series that serves as a prequel to the first game! It has none of the characters from the first game and removes the dual planes feature! Brilliant! Okay, maybe not. However, when you have a game like Art of Fighting, that might not be such a bad thing. This review is based on the Arcade version of the game.
Art of Fighting came out as the second SNK fighting game after Fatal Fury in September 1992. It was called Ryuuko no Ken in Japan which literally translates into “Fist of Dragon and Tiger”. The game opens with a cut scene detailing the story in classic martial arts movie style. A shattered picture frame, the girl vanishes in her shadow. Cut to an introduction to Ryo as he kicks some thug ass! Robert is up next and follows suit, kicking some waster in the face! A demonstration of a bonus game is show and then the title screen appears, “Art of Fighting”. A cheesy introduction, sure, in typical early 90s fashion. However, if you dig nostalgia from that time, it’s pure awesomeness.
The story takes place in the late seventies and follows Ryo Sakazaki and his friend and rival Robert Garcia. Ryo’s sister, Yuri, has been kidnapped and now Ryo and Robert have gone into the shady city called South Town to find her. As the game progresses, the story is told through dialog between you and your opponents before and after fights. The story is serviceable and is a great tale if you like cheesy dialog, complete with Engrish. Rat’s!
The graphics are the star of the game as the hand drawn sprites are absolutely beautiful and the big characters are still lovely to see to this day. The effects in the backgrounds, such as the plants and bushes blowing in the breeze or the patrons in the bar are nice touches. Not to forget the zoom feature, in which the camera would zoom out in order to allow more of the stage to be playable in contrast to other fighters like Street Fighter, which would prevent the character from moving once they reached the edge of the visible screen. The stage designs are pretty good as well, with extra attention to the L’Amor and Factory levels. However, time hasn’t been kind to the animations. As with most SNK games made with the MVS arcade board, there are a lot missing frames in between attacks and this makes the animations static and they just don’t flow well. This is due to limitations in technology at the time but it does show its age because of it.
Art of Fighting introduced new features that other fighters lacked and some are seen in some form to this day. The most noticeable one the spirit bar. Underneath your health bar is a green bar that will deplete when you use special moves such as Ryo’s Kooh-Ken fireball. This bar prevents players from constantly using special moves to spam fighters with them. However, as such, special moves now take a lot of damage, as one Kooh-Ken can take a fourth of your health. This keeps combat to be more about strategy and timing, choosing your attacks wisely and waiting for an opening. However, you can recharge your spirit bar by holding one of the buttons. You can also deplete your opponent’s spirit bar by taunting them. This mechanic is what makes Art of Fighting worthwhile and a lot of fun. You can see the spirit bar as a forefather to the super bar used for super moves in fighting games today.
And speaking of super moves, many of the characters have super moves that take all of your spirit bar and will damage your opponent for half their life. In addition, Ryo and Robert have a desperation move called the Ryuuko Ranbu that can only be done when your life bar is flashing red, as well as a full spirit bar. These moves are obviously preambles to the super moves in Street Fighter IV and Marvel vs. Capcom 3. However, this was never seen back then and it added a glimmer of hope from when you were overwhelmed by an enemy. Being overwhelmed will happen a lot as Art of Fighting continues the SNK tradition of difficult games. On easy, it’s playable but you’ll probably still lose several times, especially if you aren’t a fighting game enthusiast. Luckily, in one player, you can play bonus games that will upgrade your health and spirit bar as well as learn your super move. These tend to break up the combat a bit too much (one every other match) but they are well done.
When it comes to fighting games, control is the foundation that the whole title is based around. Strangely enough, Art of Fighting has problems in this regard but doesn’t break itself at the cost of playability. There are four buttons: punch, kick, strong attack/throw, and taunt. Rather than have separate buttons for strong punches and kicks, you need to press the punch button first, then the strong attack button for a strong punch attack. Similarly, you press kick and then strong attack for a strong kick attack. Pressing punch and strong attack together as well as kick and strong attack together results in different special attacks. This makes the controls rather strange and seemingly overly complex. However, the controls never get in the way of gameplay and you’ll find everything works when you want it to. In addition, the strong attack is also the throw button and the wall bounce button, in which you can kick off the edge of the screen and jump back at your opponent for a follow up attack.
The major problem with the combat comes in mobility. Art of Fighting has these big characters on screen and unfortunately they move like you thing a big character might. Characters move left and right but it never flows well. Maybe this is because of the animations but there are other fighters by SNK that don’t have this problem. Although the controls are fluid, the mobility isn’t and you have a game that just feels slow yet smooth. A strange combination that doesn’t usually go together in this genre.
When you play against the computer, you will play the story mode and as such, you’ll can only play as Ryo Sakazaki or Robert Garcia, similar to Fatal Fury. However, when you have two players, the cast increases to eight, allowing you to play as the enemies in the story mode (with the exception of the last two boss fighters, Mr. Big and Mr. Karate). Two player gameplay is actually a disappointment as the boss fighters are not as developed as Ryo and Robert. The don’t have desperation moves or super moves, they only have a few special moves and some of them are missing some basic attacks Ryo and Robert have. Further more, the presentation in two player is not as good as the story mode. Combat is the same and is comparable but it ends up not being memorable and you’ll forget about it and end up playing a newer fighter or a better cfighter from that time, like Street Fighter II or Mortal Kombat.
Art of Fighting is a fighter that does a lot of things right but is hindered by different problems. Maybe a strange analogy but Art of Fighting is sort of like Scarlett Johansson. The game has a lot of interesting mechanics; gameplay is strong and does do a lot of things right such as the spirit bar but stumbles in fluidity. Scarlett does a lot of interesting movies; her acting is strong and she plays engaging characters, with some exceptions (The Illusionist). However, they are both known at the end of the day for their strong visuals and big characters. Yeah.
A beauty with substance awaiting those who search for it, Art of Fighting is a flawed fighter that has aged a bit but well. However, if you are a beginner to the fighting game genre, I will tell you to look elsewhere. If you are looking for entry to the Art of Fighting franchise, this is where you should begin. You can pick up this game as a part of the Art of Fighting Anthology collection on PS2, as well as by itself on the NeoGeo, NeoGeo CD, Wii Virtual Console, PlayStation Network, Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo. The PS3 version has HD visuals and the SNES has a full ending instead of the cliffhanger the original had. Personally, I enjoy Art of Fighting. I know it’s not for everyone but as a fighting game fan, it does have different things about it that I like. Just like Scarlett Johansson. I like her too. Seriously, watch Vicky Cristina Barcelona. She’s real good in that. And hot.
Final Verdict: 3 out of 5.