SNK: The Trials and Tribulations of a Fighting Game Pioneer

The developer known for its classic 2D fighters has seen many ups and downs

SNK: The Trials and Tribulations of a Fighting Game Pioneer
Source: Epic Games

On September 4th, 2019, Masahiro Sakurai, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate director, revealed the 4th character that would join the fighting game as its next DLC character. The fighter chosen for this honor was none other than Terry Bogard, the protagonist of the Fatal Fury series, one of the fighting game franchises developed by famed industry stalwart SNK.

Unlike the fighters revealed in the past, however, Terry was met with much indifference by Smash fans. Many people were wondering who he was or why he was chosen. Surprisingly, the fighting game community on YouTube was also indifferent to the announcement, with many of its members knowing next to nothing about the legendary Hungry Wolf.

Things weren’t better when Sakurai presented the character for the first time a month later. Although the director was very enthusiastic, showing his fanboy side for SNK and explaining all about the company and the character, many fans and fighting game enthusiasts weren't happy. Why was Sakurai spending so much time with a character from a largely irrelevant company?

The better question would be, why do so few people know about SNK? Even among those in the fighting game community, why do so few know SNK's importance in shaping fighting games as we know them today? Well, the answer may be more simple than what is expected. SNK, unlike its rivals, didn't manage to adapt to the changing times.

The humble beginnings

SNK was founded in Osaka, Japan on July 22, 1978, by game designer Eikichi Kawasaki. SNK is an acronym for Shin Nihon Kikaku, which means New Japan Project. Eikichi founded the company to focus on the development of games for arcades, noticing the medium's rapid growth in Japan.

Initially, SNK developed different types of games, from shooters to side-scrollers. The final years of the 80s saw the company developing its first successes. Released in 1986, Athena was a popular platformer for the NES, which was quickly followed in the same year by Ikari Warriors. This title would become the company's biggest success receiving many ports for the different platforms of its time.

The success of both titles on home platforms made SNK swiftly focus on console games. With the help of SNK America, founded in 1981, the company developed sequels for Ikari Warriors and new titles such as Baseball Stars and Crystalis. Unfortunately, they didn't manage to replicate the success of Athena and the original Ikari Warriors, and SNK decided to go back to its roots, with the development of arcade games taking center stage again.

The MVS is born

When SNK returned to arcade development focus, the company started toying with the idea of creating a modular cabinet to help owners of arcades. While its rivals used one single cabinet, which required changing all the internal systems to run new games, SNK decided to develop its cabinet with multiple cartridges, allowing different games to run without needing to change the entire piece.

In 1990, this idea came to fruition with the creation of the Multi-Video System, or MVS for short. Unlike its competitors, the MVS allowed for as many as six games to run on the same cabinet, each one having its own cartridge that could be swapped easily. This meant fewer costs and easier maintenance for arcade owners.

The cabinet was a success thanks to those factors and the quality of the games. For a good portion of the 90s, the MVS was the strongest 2D hardware on the market. Rivals such as CPS-1 from Capcom were blown away by the quality of the visuals the new hardware was capable of producing. Even the powerful Saturn and PlayStation 1 had trouble rendering games like The King of Fighters series with the same output as seen in the arcades.

SNK also decided to capitalize on the success of the MVS cabinet with a home console, the AES. Being a reduced version of the cabinet hardware, the MVS could run the same titles as the arcades with no problems. But, the console had its problems that will be highlighted later in the text.

The wolf hungry for success

In 1987, Capcom released Street Fighter in the arcades, a 2D fighting game that pitted players against CPU opponents or another player, offering simple but fun gameplay. The game director was a man named Takashi Nishiyama.

Right after the release of the game, Nishiyama was approached by SNK, which was interested in making its own fighting game. The director accepted the offer to join them and started work on a new title that would bring even more changes to the genre he helped start.

This title was released in 1991 as Garou Densetsu, also known as Fatal Fury. The game introduced the world to many iconic characters, such as the trio of protagonists, the brothers Terry and Andy Bogard, Joe Higashi, and the villain Geese Howard. Garou Densetsu played a lot like Street Fighter, offering 1v1 combat, with players being able to fight against other players or the CPU.

The game also introduced other features that would be praised and later adapted into other fighting games. The introduction of Desperation Moves, super attacks that could be realized when your health was in a critical state, brought an extra level of strategy. The inclusion of an actual storyline was a huge change for fighting games too. The entire game followed the Bogard Brothers and their friend Joe Higashi, who joined a tournament to get vengeance against Geese for killing the Bogards' father.

Garou Densetsu was a success, although the game faced heavy criticism due to its release coming after the critically acclaimed and much-loved Street Fighter 2. Still, SNK was happy and started work on sequels to the game that improved gameplay, introduced new characters, and brought extra mechanics into the mix. As for Nishiyama, the director turned producer, he started work on another fighting game title, one that also brought changes to the genre.

Nishiyama's next game was the fighting title Ryuuko no Ken, also known as Art of Fighting, released in 1992. Following his wish to make a more cinematic experience, Ryuuko no Ken introduced players to the Invincible Dragon, Ryo Sakazaki, and his best friend, Robert Garcia. Together, the duo has to explore Southtown (the same city where the story of Garou Densetsu happened) to rescue Ryo’s sister, Yuri, who was kidnapped.

The game kept the same formula as Garou Densetsu, 1v1 combat, which allowed two players to face each other or the CPU. The main difference, however, was that Ryuuko no Ken brought more strategic gameplay to the mix with the introduction of the Spirit Gauge. The gauge decreased each time a special or desperation move was used, and needed to be recharged when it hit zero. The player, and their opponent, could also use a button to taunt their adversary and reduce their Spirit Gauge even more. This made for a gameplay experience with less spamming, placing more emphasis on thinking and strategy.

The story was also the main focus of Ryuuko no Ken, with many cutscenes happening before and after the fights. The ending was a cliffhanger which was answered in the sequel, released a year later. To help with the story, the game's presentation was a major leap in quality compared to other titles developed by SNK. The sprites were huge and full of details, even showing battle damage as each blow was made.

Ryuuko no Ken was another success for SNK, and just like with Garou Densetsu, the game was also criticized at its time with comparisons to Street Fighter. This time, however, much of the criticism was aimed at the design of the characters. Many critics and fans complained that Ryo Sakazaki was a full copy of Ryu, the protagonist from Street Fighter. The names were similar, movesets share common attacks, both wear similar outfits, and have karate-based abilities. Even Capcom noted the similarities, putting out artwork of Sagat, one of Street Fighter's bad guys, holding up a fighter similar to both Ryo and Robert. Years later, the company even created the joke character Dan Hibiki poking fun at the SNK characters.

The series that became the king of its genre

In 1993, SNK released Garou Densetsu Special, an updated version of Garou Densetsu 2, which added new characters and fixed some bugs and balance issues. Players enjoyed having the increased cast of characters, with some brought back from the first Garou Densetsu. Those who managed to have a run without losing any rounds were in for an extra surprise when, after finishing the game, a special challenger waited for them. It was none other than Ryo Sakazaki, the protagonist from Ryuuko no Ken.

Way before Akuma appeared in X-men: Children of the Atom, or Link in Soul Calibur 2, Ryo Sakazaki was one of the first guest characters in fighting game history. The idea of fighting Ryo was hugely appealing to fans and led to many trying to master Garou Densetsu Special's gameplay just for the chance to fight the Karate Master.

This caught the attention of SNK, which decided to take this idea to the next level: a full-on cross-over game between Garou Densetsu and Ryuuko no Ken. This game started as a beat 'em up but soon evolved into a fighting game that added other SNK franchises such as Psycho Soldier and Ikari Warriors and even created its lore and characters. The result was released in 1994, as The King of Fighters 1994.

The first KOF game was a bit rough around the edge, but it brought many innovations to the fighting genre. Players now had the option to fight with a team of three characters, the spirit gauge evolved into a super gauge that could be charged to allow for Desperation moves, and players could use a sidestep to avoid attacks.

The game was a success and the series became an annual franchise, with new games being released every year from 1994 to 2003. Each new entry introduced new characters, gameplay elements, and lore. The success of The King of Fighters helped give rise to new titles such as the "Capcom vs." series, spread the crossover idea to other games in the genre, and even inspired developers, including Sakurai himself, to create franchises such as Super Smash Bros.

For years, King of Fighters was considered to have some of the best gameplay in the genre, with KOF 98 being considered one of the best fighting games ever created. The mix of tight gameplay, fun characters, presentation, and an amazing soundtrack made SNK become one of the best-regarded 2D fighting game developers in the 90s.

SNK's bad decisions

In the later years of the 90s, SNK managed to get a reputation as one of the best developers creating 2D arcade fighting games. Many critics considered the company the only true rival of Capcom when it came to delivering 2D experiences in the golden age of the arcade.

But while everything was fine on the arcade development side, the gaming market was going through a change in its landscape. Rivals like Capcom, Sega, and Namco, noticed the change and started to adapt themselves to the new reality. The same could not be said of SNK, who decided to stick with what was at that time viewed as a guarantee of success. Unfortunately, this would be seen as the first of the company's bad decisions.

When the 90s started, console gaming had already recovered from its crash in 1983. Sega and Nintendo were hard at work in releasing their 16-bit consoles, the Genesis and Super Nintendo, and while still weak in comparison to the big machines at the arcades, console gaming started to bring in some good results to companies who invested in development. With more powerful hardware than its predecessors, both Genesis and Super Nintendo began to receive more faithful ports of arcade games. Street Fighter 2 was released on Super Nintendo, and it was a huge success selling over 6 million units and becoming one of Capcom's best-selling games of all time. This made many companies interested in bringing their game to these home consoles, but SNK was not one of them.

You'll remember that SNK had gone the route of creating their own console for the home market, the Neo Geo AES. While the AES was significantly stronger than both consoles combined, it never caught on with fans for two main reasons. First was the hardware's astonishingly high price, $599 US dollars, which would be almost $1300 today. The system also suffered from a limited catalog of games, because SNK had no third-party support so only SNK titles were available for the AES.

The company was well aware of the popularity of Super Nintendo and Genesis and the potential profit if they could get their games on those consoles. So they decided to hire Tanaka, a third-party company, to port their games to both consoles and even some of the portable machines of the day. Unfortunately for SNK, both fans and critics criticized the results of Tanaka's porting efforts, so coming into the 32-bit era, SNK decided to take matters into its own hands and do its own porting.

It was around this time that the first evidence of SNK's downfall could be glimpsed. 3D graphics were emerging, and with them came changes to how games played and were made. Many developers dove into the new revolution, with SNK among them. Developing a new board, the Hyper Neo Geo 64, the company dipped into this market but was met with commercial failure. Few games were developed for their technology, and their lack of experience with creating 3D games was made apparent, resulting in titles that played poorly and were critically panned for having poor presentation. SNK's classic 2D games were always praised for their aesthetics and the finer aspects of presentation, so it was shocking for gamers to see these problems in their 3D titles.

At the same time SNK was making the jump to 3D, the company also decided to bet on portable machines. The Game Boy was a huge success, especially after the release of Pokémon, and SNK wanted to take a shot at this market. The company developed the Neo Geo Pocket, and would later release a color version of the handheld, to compete with Nintendo's hugely successful platform. Featuring slightly stronger hardware, the Neo Geo had a few advantages, including a robust catalog of titles from SNK and a unique analog D-pad similar to the ones found in arcades.

Like with the Hyper Neo Geo 64, the Neo Geo Pocket, and its color variant, were failures. SNK tried its best to keep the portable relevant, managing to get other companies such as Capcom and Sega to release games for it, like Sonic Pocket Adventure and some Mega Man titles. When Capcom and SNK announced their exclusive partnership, SNK used this as a chance to try to save the Pocket, but even that ultimately came to a failure.

With the arcades slowly dying and the ports for consoles selling less and less each year, it was just a matter of time before SNK reached a critical point. That time came in 2000 when the company was acquired by Azure, which started to focus on developing Pachinko machines. Nishiyama left the company soon after and founded Dimps together with many other developers. Even the founder of SNK, Eikichi Kawasaki, left to create a new company, Playmore. The end for SNK came in October 2001, when the company announced bankruptcy.

The revival that didn't work

After a tumultuous 2001, 2002 saw SNK return in a new form. Playmore managed to secure the rights for all SNK properties and employees, and as such, the company was reborn as SNK Playmore. Even under the new name, the company was dogged by old problems. The company still clung to the legacy MVS hardware in its arcade machines, and still had comparatively little experience developing new consoles.

The company still put ports of its titles on the platforms of the day, the PlayStation 2 mainly, but their real focus was on Pachinko. Essentially a form of legalized gambling in Japan, Pachinko involves machines that usually have some animations to incentivize players to keep playing.

Although there were a few games produced during this period, SNK's main focus was really on Pachinko machines and mobile games. The company even licensed some of its IP for the Chinese markets But as the years went by, even its beloved classic franchises lost their relevance. The once critically acclaimed KOF series was now being criticized for reusing the same assets as before, and franchises such as Metal Slug and Samurai Shodown slowly lost momentum, with each new title selling fewer and fewer copies.

Source: Steam

In a market that was moving toward HD graphics and high-quality productions, SNK titles were seen as a relic of the past. The fighting game genre was also losing popularity during this period, with Street Fighter going dormant, and titles such as Mortal Kombat having to adapt other gameplay styles to stay relevant. SNK simply didn't have the resources and manpower to make games that would sell well enough.

The company had one last hurrah with the release of The King of Fighters XIII. Released after Street Fighter IV resurrected interest in the genre, the game was one of the few that utilized 2D animation in a mix with 3D models. The title brought a more refined gameplay and amazing visuals and presentation, being well regarded by critics and fans alike, showing in tournaments, and managing to gather some attention for a while.

Despite all that, King of Fighters XIII almost killed SNK for good, due to the huge financial resources the company put into the project. The company was acquired twice more over the following years. The King Of Fighters XIV, XV, and Samurai Shodown, were met with better reviews than past games but faced criticism regarding their presentation and gameplay choices. The criticism extends to its current majority investor, the Saudi Arabia Public Investment Fund, making the Saudi government the company's de facto owner.

Coming back to life

With The King of Fighters XV celebrating its first anniversary on February 14th, and the game receiving DLC content this year, SNK seems to be back in the spotlight. The game was well received, although many fans criticize the lack of rollback net code and the fact that it’s reused many assets from XIV. Still, there was a small improvement overall.

The last year has been better for SNK, with the company re-releasing the Neo Geo Pocket Color catalogue on Switch and Steam. The company also revealed the production of Garou 2, a new title in the legendary Fatal Fury franchise.

Still, it has been hard to see one of the most important companies in the fighting game genre go through all these struggles over the years. While it's true that Street Fighter, Tekken, and Mortal Kombat have become the dominant franchises in the genre, SNK's classic series helped the genre flourish with a multitude of innovations that its rivals adapted and improved upon. If you have never played any of them, give one a try. You'll be taking in a full dose of gaming history, and will be ready for whatever SNK has up its sleeves for the next few years.


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