Killer Instinct began as a showcase for Rare and SGI graphics in arcades. At 50 cents a pop, you could experience graphics far beyond the likes of MK 2. It stood out thanks to a silly cast, crazy combos, and an insanely loud announcer who loved to yell “UULLLLTRRAAAAAA COMBOOOOO” whenever possible. The game’s blood and implied nudity were a bold move for Nintendo at the time, and the game’s release on the SNES was a milestone in technical achievement for the console. A second installment was released that bumped up the graphics and character count, and then the series seemed to end with KI Gold — an enhanced remake of KI 2. Microsoft’s acquisition of Rare before the launch of the original Xbox in 2001 — a mere five years after the franchise was last seen on consoles — gave people hope it would be resurrection, but fans had to wait until this year’s E3 for that to happen.
The E3 showcase proved that the announcer would be back and crazier than ever, and the action would be faster-paced — but it was impossible to tell how well it would play, and with Double Helix at the helm instead of Rare proper, although with Ken Lobb supervising it, people were a bit worried about the end result. The free-to-play nature also marked a new era for the series, although unlike most micro-transaction models on the system, this one is pretty fair and ensures that you’ll never spend more for the individual characters than you would for all of them.
Regardless of how the content is delivered, if it’s not executed well, then no one will want to play it. Fortunately, this reboot winds up not just meeting expectations, but exceeding them. The previously-fast pace has been made even faster, but feels more manageable now thanks to smoother and more responsive controls. In the first two games, things were fairly responsive, but the controls never felt as good as they could be – there was always a slight delay between your actions and a move being done. Now, everything happens when you want it to. The revamped Xbox One d-pad makes quarter-circle motions much easier, although the stick works fine too. Personally, the d-pad seems to be faster to input specific directions, and it being so clicky makes it easier to figure how what you’re doing right or wrong just through the sound it’s making.
The button layout is logically laid out with the face button’s bottom row acting as your light and medium kicks, the top row acting as your light and medium punches, and the right trigger acting as a heavy kick while RB acts as your heavy punch and LB/LT act as combo buttons. However, due to the bumpers being a bit harder to hit at any time than the triggers, you’re better off changing the layout a bit to assign the heavy punch to a trigger and keep the combo buttons to bumpers that will be less-likely to be used. Knowing what you want to do when you’re able to is the key to the combo system since you’ll have to hit specific buttons for your combo openers, linkers, and vary the power of your special attacks. Everything plays about the same as before, just a lot better, and the new Instinct meter changes things up a bit. It’s basically a super meter but instead of allowing you to do one big move, it allows you to shift your character into a glowing version who can do more damage. This mode also allows you to extend a combo even more – so if you like truly ridiculous combo levels, this is something you’ll want to figure out the intricacies of quickly.
The mode selection is a bit sparse presently. Offline, you’ve just got solo fights, a survival mode, a practice mode, and the dojo. The latter two sound similar, but the dojo is basically the finishing school of practicing since it gives you specific tests. There’s no arcade mode, but one is set to come out in the spring – which you’ll get for free, but it does make spending $20-$40 on it now a bit tougher to justify. Online play is a blast and while it’s never fun to get hit with a ultra combo, it is fun to break one, then bust one out and kick a ton of ass. Players definitely have some passion, but we’ve yet to run into a single real jerk while playing this, which is a pleasant surprise. Online play was also really smooth and thanks to a lag-free experience, online connectivity couldn’t be blamed for poor play…no matter how much we hoped and prayed that it could.
Visually, Killer Instinct is amazing. The characters are packed with detail – Glacius in particular is stunning to look at. Pre and post-fight visuals allow you to see beautiful shots of each character making a dramatic pose without anything obscuring the view on-screen. While that’s all well and good, the most important thing is how everything looks during battle – and it’s still great! No detail is lost despite the more zoomed-out view than in the little cutscenes and all of the particle effects that fly around after special moves are incredible. There’s a ton going on, but it never seems like too much and for the first few fights, you can’t believe you’re playing a game that looks this good. It’s easily the most impressive fighter since Street Fighter IV, and will like stun you just like that did when you first laid eyes upon it. Environments are also full of life, with lightning strikes and other events that make the world seem lived in, while smooth animation shows you the detail you always imagined in your head, but technology couldn’t make a reality yet during the first run of the series.
Killer Instinct‘s audio is impressive, with more rock music to intensify the fast pace and the bombastic announcer being even crazier than before. The developers definitely wanted to play to the strengths of the past and embraced the more ridiculous things in such a way that they work once again – just on a more ironic level than before. The soundtrack doesn’t quite reach the lofty heights of the original, but is better than the sequel’s. Double Helix did an outstanding job paying homage to the franchise’s roots with their approach and it has resulted in a game worth playing for all fighting fans.
Killer Instinct is available in a variety of pay models, with the free version just getting you Jago playable in all modes, while $20 gets you the five other characters currently available and the season two characters. $40 gets you that, some costumes, items and the original KI game. Spending basically $20 for the original KI may be tempting, but the port is bare-bones and the game itself hasn’t aged well. Whatever rose-colored glasses you’ll have on before playing the reboot will likely be erased when you play Classic. Compared to the new game, the controls are muddy, and beyond an iffy-looking bold scanline filter and forced stretch option, you can’t do much to change up the graphics beyond adding a border to keep the original aspect ratio. Still, this reboot is worth paying $20 for as it’s better than the original games in every way. It plays smoother, looks better than anything out there, and has a kick-ass soundtrack with a goofball announcer to boot. If you absolutely must recreate your childhood, then pick up the $40 pack, but most will be satisfied spending half that.
Platform: Xbox One