Wednesday, August 25, 2021

The Killer Instinct Franchise Is Kind of Weak, Innit? - Eric Vs.

What's up gamers! You got a celery stick in one hand and a cup of OJ in the other now let's game! Eric here from with another longform essay about video games. Today's topic is the Killer Instinct franchise. No, not a History of Killer Instinct video, because there's already a thousand of those on YouTube, this is more my personal history with the games and my somewhat surprising realization that maybe I don't actually love KI as much as I thought I did. Read all about it after the jump.

The Killer Instinct franchise actually started out as a prototype slash tech demo at Rare called Brute Force. Nintendo sent Ken Lobb to Rare to check out progress on Donkey Kong Country and while he was there they showed him Brute Force. At that time it was really simple and didn't even have combos yet, but within that first visit Ken Lobb and the folks at Rare started bouncing ideas back and forth and laid out the foundation for what Killer Instinct would ultimately become. And roughly ten and a half months later, Killer Instinct arcade was ready to ship. Yes, that was a ridiculously fast development time. Incredibly enough, Killer Instinct 2013 was pumped out for Xbox One by Double Helix in about that same timeframe.

The home version of Killer Instinct was originally supposed to launch on the Nintendo Ultra 64 console, but when the Ultra 64 was delayed a SNES port was put together instead. Because arcades were already starting to die out in the mid-90's the SNES version of Killer Instinct is the one that most people actually played. I've personally only ever seen one KI1 arcade machine in my whole life, which was at the Western Idaho Fair in Boise in 1995. For that matter, I only ever saw one KI2 arcade machine out in the wild, which was at the mini golf course across the street from Disneyland in Anaheim in 1996. 

Back to the SNES port of Killer Instinct 1, though. It was in truth a total hatchet job mess compared to the arcade original. Tons of sound effects and voices were removed. Eighty percent of the animations were removed. Entire gameplay features like shadow moves were removed. Camera scaling and movement was removed. FMV victory animations were removed. And, obviously, graphic quality overall was scaled back significantly. Honestly, if anyone had realized it was such a massive downgrade we probably wouldn't have enjoyed it so much. But, of course, it wasn't as if Nintendo Power - which was my and everyone else I knew source for news at the time - was going to tell the truth about the massive changes to the game. 

So we didn't know. And ignorance was bliss. I got Killer Instinct along with dinosaur fighting game Primal Rage on SNES for CHristmas in 1995. It was rare for me to get brand new games as a kid, but my Mom did the deal with Fingerhut where you sell your soul to them and buy games for super marked up prices but can make payments on them. Back then, I didn't really know that much about Killer Instinct but can distinctly remember being very impressed that it came with a music CD - that I could only listen to on the family stereo in the living room because I didn't have my own CD player ... . After playing a bunch of Primal Rage, we put Killer Instinct into the SNES and were pretty much hooked from then on.

Killer Instinct was the first, and probably only if I'm being honest, fighting game I ever got good at, which was certainly due to the fact that I had multiple friends that were all as obsessed with it as I was. We put in actual effort to practice and learn new stuff and whenever we got together someone always had some new tech to impress everyone else with. It was so fun and so satisfying and those days are geniunely some of my fondest video game memories.

In Summer 1996 Nintendo Power sent out a VHS tape to subscribers hyping up the Nintendo 64 that was coming out that Fall. At the very end of the tape was a special "hidden" preview for Killer Instinct Gold, which was a port of Killer Instinct 2 from the arcade. Seeing that for the first time was the most hyped I had ever been for a new game at that point. I got an N64 in early 1997 - which I paid for, by the way - and the first game I ever played on it was a rental copy of Killer Instinct Gold. 

Boy was I disappointed. KI Gold was actually a really competent port of Killer Instinct 2 that didn't have to make nearly as many compromises as the SNES version of KI1. Well, one major compromise was having to play it with that putrid terrible awful N64 controller. It also turned out that being obsessed with the simplified and dumbed-down SNES version of KI1 basically ruined my friends and I when it came to trying to play KI Gold because we couldn't wrap our heads around the slightly more complex gameplay. The combo timing was all weird compared to what we were used to and we didn't like the new systems introduced in KI2. We also didn't like the new characters and really missed easy combos for babies 101 character Cinder. That was the biggest letdown I had ever felt with gaming up to that point. And to this day I would have to say I don't really like KI Gold or KI 2 that much.

Another massive disappointment was the Game Boy port of Killer Instinct 1. Simple monochrome screen, simple hardware, and only two buttons meant Killer Instinct on Game Boy was pretty laughably terrible. KI was a visual showcase in the arcades and even on the SNES, but it's ugly on Game Boy to the point you wonder why they even bothered. It plays totally differently, too, with the auto combo system being really, really, really automatic to make up for the lack of buttons. I did indeed own a copy of this back in the day and regretted asking for it as a present about five minutes after I started playing it. 

Then there was a long, long, long wait for a new Killer Instinct to come along. In 2013, launching alongside the Xbox One, Killer Instinct was reborn. Just like with the N64 17 years earlier, the first new game I played on my new system was Killer Instinct. Only this time, it wasn't a massive disappointment. In fact, that original season of Killer Instinct 2013 by Double Helix is probably the best Killer Instinct has ever been. It only had six characters at launch and the visuals weren't polished up yet, but the gameplay was absolutely incredible. It just felt so damn good to play. It was like the original, but faster and smoother and just ... better. 

But then something happened. Spinal and Fulgore were added to the game, but they were only OK. Then developer Double Helix was bought by Amazon and development duties were handed over to Iron Galaxy. Iron Galaxy would go on to produce two more seasons of content including gameplay tweaks, new modes, tons of new characters, and significantly improving the graphics. The cast of characters in Killer Instinct 2013 is one of the most diverse out of any fighting game not only in terms of who and what the characters are but also in how they play. Pretty much every new character Iron Galaxy introduced has a unique fighting style and gameplay mechanics to the point that some of them are incredibly complex, and thus incredibly rewarding, to use. 

Except here's the problem - I don't really like most of the changes Iron Galaxy made. The constant tweaking and rebalancing of the gameplay made even the original 6 season 1 characters that we loved back at launch in 2013 feel remarkably different by the time the last patches hit the game years later. The timing was different and suddenly the characters I could smoothly play with ease weren't as fun to play anymore. And I didn't really connect with most of the complicated new characters, either. If I could revert Killer Instinct 2013 back to it's launch version, I totally would. But I can't. So I don't really play it much anymore.

That's kind of the weird thing about the Killer Instinct franchise for me - I say I love it, but I don't actually love most of the games in it. It's my fault, I suppose, since my friends and I fell in love with the "bad" version of the original game on the SNES and then couldn't wrap our heads around KI2 or KI Gold. I can't even play the arcade version of KI1 with any sort of confidence or competence because it feels too different from the KI I grew up with and what I think it's supposed to feel like. And then KI 2013 came out and was everything I wanted it to be at first until they changed everything and made it worse.

So do I love Killer Instinct? It's complicated. Do I want a new one? Made from the ground up with only one developer at the helm with one vision for what it should be from the start? Oh hell yes I absolutely do. I want it so bad. I want to fall in love with Killer Instinct all over again. Honestly, I'm shocked that there wasn't a new KI set to launch with the Xbox Series consoles, but I guess that made too much sense and Microsoft was all "hurr durr, we have a million studios now but none of them need to work on Killer Instinct". The door is still open for a new Killer Instinct, but as of now it seems to be in limbo. 

Thanks for watching. I'd love to hear other people's stories about their history with Killer Instinct, so leave a comment below maybe.