Monday, March 12, 2012

It's unclear what's so "extreme" about The King of Fighters Extreme for the N-Gage, which is a translation of the excellent King of Fighters EX2: Howling Blood for the Game Boy Advance, originally released in late 2003. In turn, it's hard to imagine any of this game's prospective players not being familiar with the popular, long-running NeoGeo 2D fighting game series that inspired this portable version. KOF fans will find in King of Fighters Extreme a competent port of the familiar, tried-and-true gameplay they love, and this version touts a wireless two-player mode for good measure. Given that, and considering the controls are surprisingly responsive and the graphics look sharp on the N-Gage's small screen, The King of Fighters Extreme has all the makings of a great portable fighting game. Unfortunately, a consistently sluggish frame rate seriously hurts the experience.

The King of Fighters Extreme is set up just like its numerous predecessors. There's a story mode, in which a few brief cutscenes are used to justify round after round of martial arts combat, culminating in a battle against an overpowered boss; there's a survivor mode, where you fight one opponent after another until you finally lose; there's a practice mode; and there's the wireless two-player mode. As has been the case in most King of Fighters games, the twist to the gameplay here is that you pick three different fighters (from a roster of about 20) instead of just one. You then battle other teams of three, taking on one fighter after another until one of the sides is wiped out. The King of Fighters Extreme features the "striker" system found in the more recent King of Fighters games, so even though this is essentially a one-on-one fighting game, it's possible to summon the next character you have in line, which will jump onto the screen and perform a quick assist attack. Strikers can get you out of a pinch or set up some massive combos, as the case may be, and each fighter has a slightly different move when used as a striker.

Most of the cast consists of familiar faces: old favorites like Terry Bogard, Iori Yagami, Athena Asamiya, and Kim Kaphwan are all here, along with several newer characters that aren't as interesting or memorable. Each fighter has a large variety of different attacks, including multiple special moves and desperation moves, and since this is a King of Fighters game, the fighters are highly mobile, too. They can dash, perform forward and backward rolls, escape from the opponent's throw attempts, and more. The King of Fighters Extreme does a fine job of translating the series' sophisticated gameplay down to Nokia's diminutive platform, and the controls work quite well on the N-Gage QD, which we used for testing. Even some of the more complex controller motions, like for desperation moves like Terry's Power Geyser, register just fine.

King of Fighters games use a four-button control scheme, allowing players to execute weak or strong punches and kicks on command, and this is fully intact on the N-Gage. However, some moves traditionally require simultaneous button presses, and these, thankfully, are mapped to their own keys on the N-Gage. So for instance, it's possible to execute a roll maneuver at the touch of a button, instead of pressing the weak punch and kick buttons at the same time. This helps ensure that the game is fully playable on the portable device. Since there are so many face buttons to work with on the N-Gage, the controls are arguably better here than on the Game Boy Advance, with its two face buttons and two shoulder buttons.

The King of Fighters series has been around for more than 10 years, thanks to its endearing characters and depth of play, and these elements also translate fairly well to the N-Gage. Though the characters have been shrunken to fit the small screen, you can still make out their facial expressions, and most of the animation from the NeoGeo games has not been changed in the process of bringing it over. From a gameplay standpoint, it's possible to pull off some pretty impressive combos, thanks to the game's complex fighting system, and the character roster features a good range of different types of fighters.

But then there's the frame rate problem. The game runs at about 15 frames per second, resulting in a decidedly choppy, fairly sluggish feel to the action. The frame rate is at least consistent (even when playing over a Bluetooth connection), but fans accustomed to the smooth performance found in the NeoGeo versions of these games are going to be disappointed by the compromise. It's not something that ruins the game, but any fan of 2D fighting games would be quick to acknowledge that smooth gameplay is very important. So this is kind of a case of having all the necessary ingredients, except for the secret sauce.

Apart from the frame rate, The King of Fighters Extreme looks quite nice. You'll instantly recognize all your favorite fighters and their signature moves, and the background graphics are bright and colorful. The audio isn't quite as good, but it features authentic and fairly clear speech samples from all the fighters, along with music that loops harmlessly in the background. There are a few glitches with the graphics and sound, such as how the sound will spontaneously cut out at times, or how Iori's telltale purple flame effects are actually orange here (just like his rival, Kyo's), but these flaws certainly aren't a big deal.

The King of Fighters Extreme is a good game that noticeably could have been better. If you've got an N-Gage and enjoy the King of Fighters series, or if you've ever liked 2D fighting games in the past and you want to have such a game in your pocket, then The King of Fighters Extreme is worthwhile.

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