In our Final Round series, we take an in-depth look at as many fighting games as we possibly can!
In part 23, Shaun Eddleston takes a look at 1992’s ART OF FIGHTING…
Year of Release – 1992
Developer – SNK
Publisher – SNK
Platforms – Arcade, Neo Geo, Super Nintendo, Sega Mega Drive, TurboGrafx-CD,
It’s already been well established that the release of Street Fighter II set the bar quality-wise for the fighting game genre in the 90s, and few companies managed to even come close to toppling Capcom’s masterpiece’s success, but they sure tried.
One of those companies was SNK, a company that was noted for creating the popular Neo Geo arcade system and several popular franchises across the 80s/90s, and today we’ll be looking at the first entry in one of their fighting franchises; Art Of Fighting.
While it wasn’t the first fighting game that SNK had created (both Fatal Fury and Street Smart preceded it), Art Of Fighting is about as close to a direct rival to Street Fighter II as you could get at the time (some of the original Street Fighter team worked on this!), and introduced a handful of interesting features and mechanics that are still used in fighting games to this day.
The first of these innovations is the “Spirit Gauge”. This small bar located underneath a player’s life bar determines how effective a special move is when pulled off. The more full the bar is, the more special attacks can be pulled off. Successfully taunting an opponent (gameplay-affecting taunts are another feature that makes its debut here!) knocks a chunk of their spirit gauge off, and the only way to regain it is by holding down an attack button and waiting for it to recharge again, Dragon Ball Z style!. This adds a whole new layer of tactics to a fight, as players can no longer spam the same special moves over and over to win a fight, and recharging leaves you completely open for attacks from the other player. It’s a fun addition, even if it is a bit hit or miss most of the time.
Another new feature that Art Of Fighting brings to the table is its visual style. The character sprites are much bigger than your usual 2D fighters, and moving to the far side of a stage no longer shifts opponents in a specific direction, but instead zooms out to reveal more of the stage. These may not sound like much on paper, but it does a lot to help Art Of Fighting feel like it’s own game instead of a standard Street Fighter II clone.
The last feature that is notable is the game’s “Desperation move” system. When a player’s life bar is whittled down to a certain point (i.e. whenit starts flashing), a last ditch move becomes available that is significantly more powerful than a regular move, which can even the odds in a fight almost immediately.
Promotional Material & Box Art
The flyers for the game’s arcade release vary between the standard introduction of the available fighters, to a bold claim that the game has “surpassed all predecessors” (spoiler alert; it doesn’t) and an interesting xeroxed competition to win a Neo Geo console (with a second prize of an Art Of Fighting-themed deck of cards!). How to enter? Send SNK America a description of the finishing move you’ve unlocked, as well as the button combo you used. Definitely one of my favourite little extra tidbits.
SNK’s character artwork has always been top-notch, so this particular flyer for Art Of Fighting makes good use of the company’s strengths. Detailing each of the characters (minus the bosses), as well as the three gameplay elements that separate it from its peers, we get a small taste of what the game has to offer.
It also highlights one of my absolute favourite things about fighting game marketing; nonsensical taglines. “THIS HEAT AND VIOLENCE CAN’T BE MEASURED WITH MERE COMMON SENSE!” is straight up confusing,
Another highlight is the game’s soundtrack. Originally released as a CD in Japan after the game’s release, we get a look at the game’s Japanese title (that’s Ryūko no Ken, or “Fist of Dragon and Tiger”, which is badass) and a dragon/tiger confrontation. The game’s music also saw a re-release on vinyl not too long ago.
Art Of Fighting recieved a couple of TV adverts in Japan around its release, and, well, let’s just say that they haven’t aged particularly well. The CGI transformations of the actors into a goofy looking dragon and a breakfast cereal mascot-esque tiger are hilariously bad.
Finally, the box art for the game mainly centers around the same piece of key art, showcasing the entire roster in one brilliantly put together painting. For the Japanese release, we get the game’s logo and the same artwork used on the soundtrack CD. Besides the awesome artwork that’s reused, there’s not much to shout about here.
Art Of Fighting‘s story centers around the kidnapping of a young girl named Yuri Sakazaki. Her brother, Ryo, and his longtime rival/best friend, Robert, set off on a mission to find her, and defeat the people responsible.
It’s a basic plot that’s been done many times across several forms of media, but in the world of fighting games, which is known to get pretty complicated at times, this kidnapping story is perfect for an arcade-centric fighter.
The amount of selectable characters to choose from in the game is totally dependant on which mode you select. Story mode only has two fighters (Ryo and Robert), while versus mode has up to 10 playable fighters.
Art Of Fighting‘s main protagonist is Ryo, a young martial artist trained in the art of Kyokogenryu Karate, a martial art that his father Takuma created.
After his mother died when he was just 10 years old, Takuma leaves Ryo to fend for himself and take care of his younger sister, whom Ryo vows to protect at any cost.
Although he was designed as a sort of tribute to Street Fighter II‘s Ryu (if you hadn’t guessed already!), Ryo’s fighting abilities are not quite as honed as our well known shoto fighter. His fighting spirit, however, is just as intense, and with the added motivation of finding those responsible for his sister being kidnapped, he’s the obvious face of the whole game.
The other main character in Art Of Fighting is Robert Garcia. He’s Ryo’s best friend/fighting rival, much akin to the relationship of Ryu and Ken in the Street Fighter series.
The sole heir to the Garcia fortune, Robert’s would often sneak out to watch Takuma and Ryo train at the Kyokugenryu Gym and aspired to be just like them. Unlike Ryo, Robert is much more gifted at fighting from an early age, but his cocky attitude is seemingly what holds him back.
Robert’s fighting style isn’t a million miles away from Ryo’s (they trained in the same place), but Robert’s got much more of a focus on punches and kicks rather than special powers.
It’s also worth noting that he’s a prime example of what early 90’s video games thought was the coolest character look; slick-back ponytail, cocky attitude and a (questionably sharp dress sense). Nowadays, looking back on this Steven Seagal/Scott Hall mashup is amusingly cheesy.
Ryuhaku Todoh is a martial arts teacher who created his own form of martial arts known as “Kobudo” (which is a mix of Ju-Jitsu and Kendo).
As he is a rival to the Sakazaki dojo (and longtime enemy of Takuma Sakazaki, Ryo & Yuri’s father), Ryuhaku is the first person that Ryo and Robert chase down in order to find out the whereabouts of Yuri.
Todoh’s the first fighter that you face off against in the game’s story mode, and he’s one of the better characters to choose from in the versus mode if you want to keep things simple. His moves are Ju-Jitsu based, and he can fire a short-ranged blast of energy across the floor to try and keep you at a distance.
Fighting using his own brutish style, Jack is one of Mr. Big’s highest ranking subordinates who devastates almost anyone who gets in his way.
While Mr. Big is his boss, Jack resents having to take orders from him (but stays in line, knowing that Mr. Big is more powerful than him).
Jack is Art Of Fighting‘s resident bruiser character. He’s slower than the rest of the roster, but if you’re looking to to some massive damage with only a few moves, then he’s a more than ideal choice for you. Expect lots of devastating throws, lariats and punches.
Lee Pai Long
A master of both Chinese medicine and Chinese martial arts, Lee Pai Long is the director of South Town’s prison (as well as running a small herb shop in the town too).
Despite gaining his medical knowledge from his late father and being instructed to continue to study, Lee becomes massively interested in the various “kenpō” techniques he encounters on a daily basis, so shifts his focus to becoming a street fighter.
Lee’s fighting style incorporates a number of Street Fighter II characters’ movesets into one interesting array of techniques. Edmond Honda’s “hundred hand slap” is here, Vega’s slash attacks are present and a couple of rolling attacks that are reminiscent of Blanka are sprinkled in for good measure too. Fun to play as, if not a little bit too derivative in style.
King (not to be confused with the masked pro wrestler from the Tekken series) is a fighter who is highly skilled in the art of Muay Thai kickboxing.
The sole female character in Art Of Fighting, King chooses to conceal her gender in an attempt to present herself as a “more reliable fighter”, and to help protect herself from the dangers of the underworld of South Town.
After facing a defeat at the hands of Jack Turner, King is forced to work for Mr. Big as a bouncer at the L’Amor club.
As is to be expected, King’s fighting style is heavily based on Muay Thai kickboxing, so she’s well equipped with lightning fast kick attacks and some impressive aerial assaults too.
One of the strange things that happens upon defeating her is that her shirt disappears, revealing that she is, in fact, a female character. It’s pretty clear from the start of the game that she’s the only female fighter in Art Of Fighting, but during development, SNK allegedly wanted to keep her gender a secret until the moment you defeat her. This idea wasn’t as successful (or anywhere near as impressive) as some of gaming’s more famous gender reveals (i.e. Samus in Metroid), and now just feels a bit pervy.
Mickey is a former professional boxer who was blacklisted from the sport after accidentally killing an opponent in the ring. He now hangs around the darkest corners of South Town, challenging anyone and everyone to fights where he can vent his anger and frustration on them.
While he does work for Mr. Big, Mickey isn’t considered to be “evil” as such, as his only motivation is to get back into the sport that he loves so much.
Like Street Fighter II‘s Balrog, Mickey’s moveset is entirely comprised of punch techniques. This poses the same strengths and weaknesses, but Mickey’s personality is much more playful, so he’s a lot more fun to play as in versus mode.
A former Navy captain, John Crawley was known amongst his ranks as “Mad Dog” and “Killing Machine”. During a mission, John was shot in the back and was eventually rescued by Mr. Big.
After retiring from the navy, John decides to join Mr. Big’s crime syndicate.
Pretty much everything about John Crawley reminds me of Guile from Street Fighter II mixed with Duke Nukem (minus, ya know, the whole sexist persona). His military background, his aircraft hanger stage, even some of his flashy moveset all amount to a cockier, shiftier version of his tall-haired inspiration.
A master of the martial art known as Eskrima, Mr. Big (no, nothing to do with Sex & The City) is one of the most intimidating and powerful gangsters in South Town (though not the most powerful gangster, but I’m getting ahead of myself…).
This former kingpin of the city keeps people in check with brute force and is (mainly) responsible for the setting up of the kidnapping of Yuri.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of using Mr. Big is his inability to jump. This clearly highlights just how little attention was paid towards Art Of Fighting being balanced as a “versus” fighting game. Despite this strange drawback, his exclusive use of his batons makes him a challenge to defeat.
Unlocking him for play outside of the story mode requires players to either use a cheat code (duh!) or reach him in the story mode.
The game’s final boss, Mr. Karate is a surprise opponent in Art Of Fighting‘s storyline as players are led to believe that Mr. Big is the game’s antagonist.
Donning a strange Tengu mask to hide his true identity, Mr. Karate is feared as a seemingly unbeatable and merciless opponent.
For reasons that become clear in the game’s sequel, Mr. Karate’s fighting style is somewhat similar to Ryo’s. Everything from the taunt to the Kyokugenryu Karate moveset is here, just dialled up to eleven.
Like Mr. Big, Mr. Karate can be unlocked for the game’s versus mode, but you’ll have to either input a cheat code or reach (and defeat) him in the game’s story mode.
The detailed, vibrant artwork for the stages in SNK’s back catalogue have always been one of my favourite aspects about the developer’s games, and Art Of Fighting is no exception in this regard.
The game’s eight stages include;
- China Town – This is where you’ll be fighting Lee Pai Long, and it’s if you’re a fan of neon lights, then you’re in for a treat.
- Down Town – This dingy back alley is the backdrop for your battle with Mickey Rogers, and
- Karuta – This is the first stage you’ll play in Art Of Fighting‘s story mode, and belongs to Ryuhaku Todoh. The vibrant red, white and green colour scheme really helps the character sprites to pop out of the screen.
- L’Amor – King’s restaurant is immaculately tidy and contains what appears to be a giant piano in the centre of the room. The game’s character sprites are larger than most games of this era, but they don’t distract from the fact that this is one of the more unusual visual flaws.
- Mac’s Bar – Your fight with Jack Turner is appropriately set in a dive bar, complete with jeering regulars and a buttload of booze knocking about.
- The Guardian – Imagine if Guile from Street Fighter II‘s stage was EVEN MORE Top Gun-esque; that’s John Crawley’s stage for ya!
- The Factory – Mr. Big’s stage is inside an industrial warehouse, because where’s better to do some dodgy dealings?
- The Karate Gym – Mr. Karate’s dojo is the most Mortal Kombat-esque level in Art Of Fighting (which, by the way, beat MK to arcades by a couple of months!).
Art Of Fighting includes three unique bonus stages throughout its single player campaign, each of which take place after two consecutive fights.
The first of these bonus stages is “Ice Pillar Smash“. In a Mortal Kombat “Test Your Might” style minigame, players must time a strike in order t o smash through a pile of icy blocks. Like the original Street Fighter‘s bonus game, this is a pretty standard task that fits in well with the genre.
Successfully beating this bonus round increases your life bar for the rest of the playthrough.
Next up, we have the “Bottle Cut” minigame, which uses the exact same technique as the previous minigame, only this time it’s to time a chop to slice through a row of beer bottles. Smashing.
Beating the “Bottle Cut” increases your spirit gauge, which is undeniably handy when getting to the later fighters.
The final minigame is the awesomely titled “INITIATE SUPER DEATH BLOW” minigame, which sees players tasked with pulling off a specific move a certain number of times before the clock runs out. Beating this mode unlocks that move and adds it to Ryo/Robert’s repertoire of techniques.
As players can only fight as either Ryo or Robert in the game’s story mode, there’s not much here in terms of endings. After defeating Mr. Karate, Yuri shouts at Ryo and Robert to stop beating him up. Just as she is about to reveal the mysterious Mr. Karate’s true identity, the screen fades out to a “TO BE CONTINUED?” screen. Without knowing what transpires in the game’s sequel, you can make an educated guess as to who he really is (stay tuned for our upcoming Art Of Fighting 2 article!).
While I expected it to be light on content due to the smaller-focused story mode, this is still a slightly disappointing end. After barely managing to stay motivated while fighting through the game’s roster, I expected at least a different ending for either of its fighters.
Although it was seen by many players at the time as a cheap knockoff that was riding on the wave of popularity that Street Fighter II was enjoying, Art of Fighting‘s innovative features have become mainstays in pretty much every fighting game that has come and gone since. Taunts, special meters and moves that only work under certain circumstances all made their early appearances here, and its tough to imagine what the landscape of fighting games would look like had Art Of Fighting not used them first.
The game also looks great for its age too, and the implementation of battle damage being shown as a fight progresses is a nice touch. The soundtrack is also a massive bonus too, and one that I’d personally rank as one of the better fighting game soundtracks out there.
However, technical innovation doesn’t automatically make for a perfect fighting game experience. Art Of Fighting is awkward to control, and many of the moves are easy to mess up (despite the larger character sprites). The spirit gauge is an interesting concept, but is quickly forgotten about during an actual fight thanks to the AI-controlled opponents always resorting to cheap, repetitive techniques to best you. It’s a slog to get through, and nowhere near as much fun to play as its predecessor, Fatal Fury.
If you’re interested in SNK’s early output, or just want a bit of a better understanding of where some characters in The King Of Fighters franchise came from, then by all means give Art Of Fighting a look; just don’t expect anything amazing.
Have you played Art Of Fighting?
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