In our Final Round series, we take a look an in-depth look at as many fighting games as we possibly can. This week, Shaun Eddleston takes a look at 1994’s Killer Instinct…
Year of Release – 1994
Developer – Rare
Publisher – Midway, Rareware, Nintendo
Platforms – Arcade, Super Nintendo, Game Boy
It’s well documented that during the fighting game boom of the early to mid-90s, pretty much every new release was an attempt to dethrone the top dogs of the genre; Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat. Many came close, and many utterly failed, but there was one entry into the ever-expanding arena came from an unexpected source; Killer Instinct.
Best known as the company that reinvigorated Donkey Kong video game career in the damn near perfect Donkey Kong Country, Rare started work on Killer Instinct under the title BRUTE FORCE, with the intent to go after the fanbases of the big names in the fighting game genre of that time.
During development, the game saw many different changes to not only the name, but the characters and gameplay too. The original concept had a focus on human characters fighting in a modern city environment, and many of the game’s fighters were renamed, redesigned or just cut from the game completely!
Another feature that was cut due to time constraints was a character customisation mode. Players would have been able to manually set various stats such as power, speed and defense, change the default colour of their fighter and select a finisher for them. The arcade machine would then print out a barcode, which would be scanned back into the machine to retrieve the data. While it is understandable that this feature was cut as it proved to be too complicated at the time, it’s a testament to how far developers were prepared to go to not only create something unique in a massively saturated market, but to push the boundaries of the genre itself.
Released in arcades in 1994, Killer Instinct was a critical (and commercial) success. Instead of using digitised sprites of real-life actors, CGI models were implemented and gave the game a more 3D feel, instantly setting itself apart from its peers. The levels also stepped the game up by choosing 3D backgrounds with innovative camerawork that gave the stages a more organic look (and reacted accordingly to certain special moves), and the inclusion of stage fatalities really made Killer Instinct stand out.
Combos are also one of the key features of Killer Instinct. While the concept of combos had already been well established by the time the game hit arcades, Killer Instinct effectively took the feature to a whole new level. Not only would the arcade cabinets record the highest combo for each fighter, stringing together moves successfully would result in different (and increasingly impressive) combo brackets; SUPER, HYPER and MONSTER. Not only were players fighting for high scores and round wins, but now they were trying do so with the highest combos possible.
It’s clear that Killer Instinct was one of the best games for all-out attacks and sublime combos, but the true genius of the game’s fighting system lies in one of its most iconic defensive features; the combo breaker. The combo breaker, if executed correctly, stops an opponent’s combo dead in its tracks and counters it, effectively adding a new layer of strategy into each match. The best part of this feature? The game’s narrator yelling “C-C-C-COMBO BREAKER!” as a cocky fighters have involuntarily to pump the brakes on their offense.
The flyers for the arcade release of Killer Instinct did a good job of hyping up the sheer power of the cabinets, and also acted as an interesting introduction to the same kind of technology that the Nintendo 64 would be using not too long after this release.
A couple of years after the game’s release, a couple of comic book mini-series were released to retain interest in the home versions that were still relatively fresh on the market.
The soundtrack for the game was highly popular too, and rightly so. Composed by Robin Beanland and Graeme Norgate, the music throughout Killer Instinct is incredibly catchy and even came bundled with the Super Nintendo release on a free CD. Years later, iam8bit re-released the soundtrack on vinyl, which has since become highly sought after.
True to the rest of the game’s marketing, Fulgore features heavily on the box art for the home releases. The SNES version is also memorable for having a black cartridge.
Killer Instinct is set in a dystopian version of the near-future, where a powerful mega-corporation known as Ultratech has organised a fighting tournament (known as, you guessed it, KILLER INSTINCT!) to effectively test the abilities of their experimental prototypes along with regular combatants.
The game has 11 playable fighters, each with their own unique fighting styles and backstories…
Jago is a Tibetan warrior monk who, during meditation, was visited by the Tiger spirit that his order serves. This vision grants him great power, and sends him on a quest to take down the sinister evil of the Ultratech corporation.
The token “ninja” character in Killer Instinct, Jago is a jack-of-all-stats for the most part. He has a nice mix of speed, power and defense, and fights incredibly similarly to the style of Street Fighter II‘s Ryu & Ken, which is handy for new players to start off with.
One of Ultratech’s newest (and deadliest) creations, Fulgore is the first of a planned army of state-of-the-art cyber soldiers, and is entered into the Killer Instinct tournament to prove his worth.
Probably the most recognisable character from the Killer Instinct series as a whole (he’s plastered all over every piece of marketing and artwork), Fulgore is a great “Shoto” character. Easy to play as, difficult to master, and looks pretty badass at the same time.
One of the human guinea pigs for Ultratech, Ben Ferris is a small-time criminal with a record of assault, arson and burglary on his rap sheet. After being bought out of prison by Ultratech, Ferris is subjected to a series of experiments in the company’s chemical weapons development. This leaves him with the side effect of constantly being consumed by flames, but still alive. He enters the tournament in an attempt to win his freedom.
Cinder was one of the characters that underwent many name changes throughout the game’s development, temporarily being called “Pyrotech”, “Afterburner”, “Heatshade”, “Magma” and “Meltdown”. His character design is one of the best in the game, despite looking like a clone of the Human Torch.
Glacius is an alien from a distant planet whose ship has crash landed on Earth. Soon after the crash, Ultratech captured him and promise his freedom on the condition that he wins the Killer Instinct tournament.
Glacius is a personal favourite of mine in the original release. I mean, what’s not to like? A weird ice-alien that can melt into a T-1000 style puddle only then to reform into a devastating uppercut? Awesome.
Spinal is a product of Ultratech’s cell regeneration experiments, and, as he is a revived soldier who is around 2650 years old, is the evil corporation’s longest serving (and most loyal) minion.
Originally called “Argo” during development (a nice little reference to Ray Harryhausen’s work in Jason and the Argonauts), Spinal’s got one of the more innovative movesets in the game; he can collect an opponent’s projectiles and then re-use them as his own later in a match (albeit in the form of floating skulls). He even has a borderline-Skeletor type of laugh, as all skeletons are scientifically proven to have.
Orchid is a secret agent who is sent to investigate the mysterious disappearances around the Ultratech corporation’s Killer Instinct tournament. Her true identity and origins are top-secret.
As is the case with many of the early 2D fighting games of this era, Orchid is the token female character in Killer Instinct, and a controversial one at that. One of her finishing maneuvers sees her flashing her breasts at her opponent, which in turn makes their eyes pop out like the iconic Tex Avery wolf before they collapse. That’s not to say that she’s a bad character though, she can transform into a neon panther and her sheer speed can make combos incredible to watch in action.
A former heavyweight boxing champion, T.J. Combo was stripped of his title and cast out of the boxing circuit after it was discovered that he had been enhancing his abilities with cybernetic implants in his arms. Ultratech promise him his title back if he wins the Killer Instinct tournament.
It’d be all too easy to dismiss Combo as a straight up ripoff of Street Fighter II‘s Balrog, due to the almost identical look of the character and the use of charged-up boxing moves, but he’s more than that. When used correctly, Combo’s an unstoppable force that can utilise heavy strikes and devastating knee attacks.
Riptor is the result of another one of Ultratech’s scientific experiments. Created by merging human DNA and reptilian DNA together, Riptor is both highly intelligent and incredibly strong. This crossbreed struggles between itself torn between its predatory instincts and its human reasoning, usually resulting in a lot of dead people. Riptor is entered into the tournament to prove its worth for Ultratech.
Players who are familiar with Primal Rage are in for a treat with this character, as Riptor reminds me a lot of Talon from that game. Getting to rip and tear through opponents as a human/lizard hybrid not only fits the tone of the game perfectly, but is damn good fun too.
Stricken with a touch of the ol’ lycanthropy, Count Von Sabrewulf has been shunned from society and lives alone in a remote tower in the mountains, growing more insane as the curse takes over his mind. Sabrewulf enters the tournament after a mysterious message arrives, telling him that his salvation lies at the end of Killer Instinct.
Predating the lunar-fuelled madness of Bloody Roar by a couple of years, Sabrewulf was a nice addition to the slowly growing collection of werewolves in the ballpark of fighting games, and adds a touch of universal monster class to the proceedings too.
Chief Thunder is the mystical defender of his Native American tribe, armed with twin tomahawks. After his brother, Eagle, goes missing after the last Killer Instinct tournament, Thunder decides to enter the tournament to seek answers and, ultimately, revenge (much to the chagrin of his people).
With his tomahawks, mohawk and tribal war-paint, is Chief Thunder the biggest stereotype in Killer Instinct? Perhaps, but hey, always remember that it could be much worse!
Killer Instinct‘s final boss comes in the form of Eyedol, a dual headed cyborg warlord that is brought out of limbo by the Ultratech corporation. This bicephalous beast is the only character who isn’t instantly playable in the game.
In order to unlock Eyedol, players must input a cheat code on the character selection screen. Eyedol’s character sprite is noted as being considerably larger than the rest of the roster, just as you would expect an interdimensional warlord to be!
The stages throughout the arcade version of Killer Instinct are fascinating to look at. While the graphics may seem a little bit dated by today’s standards, back in 1994 they would have been considered truly “next-gen” visuals and were like no other 2D fighting game at the time. Ranging from areas such as the roof of a skyscraper and a snow-covered shrine to a blood splattered dungeon and a rickety bridge teetering across a canyon, there’s a wide variety of locations to batter your opponent through.
Killer Instinct‘s release in arcades was a big deal on the technological side of things. It was the first arcade game to utilise an internal hard drive in addition to the game’s ROMs, which meant that a much larger amount of date a could be stored, resulting in better graphics, smoother gameplay and a truly “next generation” experience all round. The arcade port also contained advertisements for the game’s upcoming release on the “Ultra 64”, the console that was eventually released as the Nintendo 64. The game never saw a release on the platform, but its sequel did.
The Super Nintendo version was well-received (both critically and commercially), but it did have to make a high number of sacrifices. The audio was either shortened or had clip left out, the 3D panning backgrounds were replaced with 2D parallax backgrounds and the FMV sequences were replaced with still images. Around 80% of the game’s animations were removed, and the graphics were generally of a lower quality when compared to the arcade version. While these concessions would have absolutely gouged away anything playable in most games, this port is still a strongly enjoyable version that still beats out many games from the era.
The Gameboy port is where things start to get really disappointing. Hardware limitations on the console were always going to mean that even more feature were going to have to be changed and/or removed from the game to make it remotely playable. Cinder and Riptor were now missing from the roster, and two player mode (as well as colour) was only accessible via the Super Gameboy add-on for the SNES.
As is tradition with fighting games of this type, each character has their own unique game ending after beating Eyedol at the end of the tournament. These range from an escape from the police by Cinder, an entire race of Riptors taking over Earth and an army of higher spec Fulgore robots destroying humanity to Sabrewulf finding a cure for his lycanthropy and a straight up parody of Blanka from Street Fighter II‘s game ending with Eyedol killing an innocent woman. There’s plenty to enjoy here, and with the game’s early CGI in place, it was a delight to look at.
In addition to raising the bar for the genre in the mid 90’s, Killer Instinct still holds up today as an excellent 2D fighter in almost every area. The graphics in the arcade version were ahead of their time (with the impressive 3D backgrounds and next-level fighter sprites on display), the utterly insane combo systems it implemented are now a benchmark in fighting games and the soundtrack is easily one of the best in any video game.
An essential title for anyone who even has a passing interest in the genre, especially those who want to humiliate their opponents.
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