Some games are timeless classics. Others have a tiny cult of obsessed followers. Sometimes a classic game comes about by serendipity. And, sometimes, a game has all the makings of a classic, but, through bad timing or just bad luck, sinks out of sight. Killer Instinct is one of those last, a game with all the makings of a classic, but bad timing and some ill-considered exploitative marketing moves turned it into a Could-Have-Been.
Killer Instinct was developed by Rare (aka Rareware, now Rare Studios, part of Microsoft) and published by Midway (and marketed by Nintendo) in the arcade in 1994. It was a quick hit, drawing attention away from the Street Fighter II Turbo cabinets showing their graphical age, and attracting curious gamers (as well as repelling some elitists) with its complex and logical combo system. While the run of the arcade version is detailed above, there are some interesting tidbits worth mentioning. For one, while the game proclaimed triumphantly that Killer Instinct would be coming out on Nintendo's forthcoming Ultra 64, no version of Killer Instinct 1 (a verson of Killer Instinct 2 known as Killer Instinct Gold would come out much later) would ever be released for any form of the Nintendo 64 hardware. Even the arcade game itself was on a modified, if top-of-the-line, Midway board, mounted in a JAMMA+ frame, available almost exclusively as a dedicated cabinet (as opposed to a conversion kit.) (Rather than a standard T-unit CPU, it used an R4600 RISC processor. This is not anything like the N64 architecture, however.) The only thing that really set it apart is the 131 meg Seagate hard drive built into the system on which the game was stored, rather than the customary ROMs used to store the game. (Contrast this with Street Fighter II, which was stored on a comparably paltry 16 megs of ROMs.)
After a successful run in the arcade, Nintendo and Rare found themselves with a certified hit and a large amount of popular demand. The problem is, the game was planned as a release title for the Ultra 64 (later known as the Nintendo 64), which had suffered from delay after delay. (It would be two years before the Nintendo 64 would reach the US.) Rather than disappointing the fans of the game, Nintendo announced in Nintendo Power the special release of a version of Killer Instinct for the aging SNES, due to come out in 1994. Defying longstanding Rare tradition, it actually did come out on time, although many of the first run of cartridges were defective. These were replaced in time for the Christmas season, and Killer Instinct did go on to be one of the best-selling games for the SNES, ever, in a surprisingly short amount of time. (Which is a testament to the power of hype, more than anything.)
The game had a simple motif for box and label: the stylized K and I in "Killer Instinct", along with the upper half of the robotic Fulgore, posing menacingly, all against a black background. The cartridge was notable for two reasons: it was one of the very few 32-megabit cartridges for the SNES (Donkey Kong Country and Chrono Trigger are a couple others), as it was made from flat black plastic, instead of the pale grey of other games. (There's a popular story that later print runs of KI were supposed to use the normal grey, but the game didn't demand any further print runs. However, this could be apocryphal, as the game did sell well enough to demand further runs unless it was massively overproduced, and there could be confusion with Spiderman: Maximum Carnage, in which this did happen.)
If you want to play this game, it's not hard to track down. It was a huge success saleswise early on, but a general critical and popular flop after the initial rush. All this makes for lots of copies available, making it one of the more common games for the SNES. Less common is the Killer Cuts CD, a soundtrack of the game's various themes, along with some remixes of mixed quality. It's worth picking this CD up if you're at all nostalgic about the game, as it's not particularly valuable, just a bit uncommon. Of course, for the SNES-, money-, or effort-impaired, the ROM is complete and fairly compatible, despite being a little on the large size for a game with such simple gameplay.
The likelihood that this game will come back out of the archives, as a sequel or rerelease, is VERY low, as the characters ownership between Nintendo and Rare is unclear, and both Killer Instinct Gold and Killer Instinct 2 were utter flops.
The SNES verson was far from a perfect port of the arcade version, which, if not a technical masterpiece, was definitely notable for its artistic quality and sense of style. Some of the changes:
- As in many of the Street Fighter ports, many of the characters lost a lot of fluidity of motion because of fewer frames of animation. In addition, many characters lost animations entirely. Jago suffered notably from the former, and Glacius lost many of his excellant morphing animations.
- In the same vein, many particle effects and mist effects were lost. For example, fireballs lost their contrails and didn't burst into sparks, etc.
- Again due to storage space and hardware limitations, ambient animations for the characters were lost. Cinder no longer burned, Glacius lost his mist, Sabrewolf lost his swarm of bats, and Spinal was no longer orbited by skulls. (Due to the loss of Sabrewulf's swarm of bats, some of his special attributes make a little less sense.)
- B. Orchid's character model was slightly modified, due to how unnatural she looked in the original arcade version. This, as far as I know, is the only improvement to the SNES version.
- The sound suffered some, particularly in the case of the announcer.
- Before each battle (and after the battle, with a Supreme or Awesome Victory), the characters had a short CG sequence, posing and just generally showing off. This was replaced by stills for the SNES version.
- The CG in the backgrounds of the stages, again, were reduced to stills, and the scaling platforms/roofs no longer had the dynamic camera. In addition, the dungeon stage, unique in that it really had no invisible wall on the side of the stage, now has walls.
- The blood, if ot the violence, was toned down, and the SNES version recieved a "T" from the ESRB, whereas the arcade version had rated an "M".
- The Shadow combos, a very advanced part of the combo system, were completely missing from the SNES version. Almost nobody noticed.
- It was possible for your final blow to knock your opponent off of the high platform stages (for example, B. Orchid's stage on top of a skyscraper, or the roof of Sabrewulf's castle). In the arcade, this was accompanied by an amusingly animated plunge to an abrupt death. However, in the SNES version, these CG sequences were replaced by an utterly pathetic stretched and rotating sprite rapidly falling towards the "camera".
- Several of the "No Mercy" finishing moves were altered or missing. Glacius is missing his amoeba No Mercy, and opponents' reactions to B. Orchid's flash (and I don't mean a flash of light) No Mercy are simplified due to a loss of animations in general.
Contrary to common belief, however, this was not the only home version of Killer Instinct. Released in 1995, Nintendo published Rare's adaptation of Killer Instinct for the short-lived Super Game Boy. (Luckily for the longevity of this title, Super Game Boy titles also played on the Game Boy.) The is game is now fairly uncommon, but it's not worth even the $10-20 price tag it generally recieves.
The cartridge, as well as the box, are much like the SNES version, with black plastic and the same cover and label art. (The black cart is less notable on the Game Boy, as many other Gameboy titles had cartridges other than grey. However, this was the only black cartridge that was not a Game Boy/Game Boy Color hybrid game, as this game predates the Game Boy Color and the practice of giving hybrid games black carts.)
Um, nevermind that. The Killer Instinct GB cart is, as with all other GB/SGB titles, made of grey plastic. I've found no evidence that the originally planned black carts ever made it to market, or that they were even originally planned, beyond one source that is now looking pretty suspect. Anyone who has any more info on this is invited to /msg me.
The Killer Instinct Gameboy ROM is curiously rare, and I was unable to even confirm the existance of any complete rip. Any informed noders, particularly ones with a copy of the ROM, are invited to contact me with more info.
This version of Killer Instinct is horribly crippled. Many stages, and even several of the characters are missing. The graphics...well, it is the Super Game Boy, a system inferior to even the NES. Quick attacks are accomplished with quick taps of the buttons, and Fierce attacks with longer taps of the buttons. (Curiously, this is much like the less-popular version of the original Street Fighter.) Strong attacks (the middle strength of attacks) are removed entirely. All of these changes made Killer Instinct for the SGB barely the same game, as combos had to be changed entirely, most of the characters didn't play nearly the same, and the limitations of the platform stripped away KI's unique look.
There was a very short-lived Killer Instinct CCG. While promo cards were packed in The Duelist, Nintendo Power, and other genre magazines, it was basically dead before release. 1994 was the worst time of the CCG glut, and Killer Instinct sank from lack of interest in basically derivative liscensed games coming out from unproven manufacturers (in this case, the venerable baseball card manufacturer yet completely inexperienced game publisher Topps). No expansion sets were ever released, and now the cards are strictly recycling fodder; scarce, but of interest to absolutely nobody.
I may be incorrect, as this is based on faulty memory, but a deck was built around a single chosen character, and filled with generic and character-specific attacks. This is similar to the Highlander CCG, or Wizards of the Coast's Star Wars TCG.
Never fear, I have no intention of noding all of the cards in this utterly mediocre, forgettable CCG.
Killer Instinct had a decently complex story, told in the endings of the single-player game for each character and in the short-lived comic, one comparable in complexity to the Super Street Fighter II storyline (although hardly the soap opera that Mortal Kombat would go on to become). The basic premise is that a giant amoral corporation, known as Ultratech, has set up a giant anything-goes martial arts tournament to test its many "ultimate fighter" projects. (While Fulgore was primary among these, Spinal, Cinder, and Riptor were Ultratech experiments.) Unfortunately, one of these experiments awoke a timeless evil, a demon named Eyedol, released from his millenium-long imprisonment. Of course, every anything-goes martial arts tournament inevitably attracts a certain crowd, as a washed-out boxer comes looking for redemption and fame, a monastic ninja comes hunting Eyedol, an American Indian and a werewolf come looking for revenge against Ultratech, a stranded alien finds himself trapped in a tournament to the death, and a government agent comes snooping around Ultratech's questionably legal practices.
BELOW HERE SPOILS THE ENDINGS, AS WELL AS THE KILLER INSTINCT COMIC SERIES.
This info is gleaned from the endings of Killer Instinct, from the Killer Instinct comic book (published by Malibu, I believe), and from the storyline of Killer Instinct 2/Killer Instinct Gold.
B. Orchid, a shapely (actually misshapen; her character model has freakishly bizarre boobs) and deadly government agent who, curiously, is the protagonist of the story, goes on to personally slay Eyedol. However, the terrific energies unleashed by the destruction of Eyedol fling the surviving members of the tournament, as well as a large chunk of the Ultratech plant, two thousand years into the past.
Jago, on a vision from his Tiger God, goes on to defeat, but not destroy, Fulgore. After Eyedol's destruction, though, he finds he's been played for a fool, as his "Tiger God" is actually Eyedol's eternal rival, sealed at the same time as Eyedol, now freed by Eyedol's death.
Fulgore is the main reason for the tournament. It is a high-tech combat robot, being tested for a secret government contract for an indestructible, fanatically loyal robot force. The experiment, initially, is a failure, as Jago would go on to defeat and destroy Fulgore.
Cinder (known as Meltdown in prototypes and some early promotional material) is a failed experiment in making supersoldiers. A former criminal who submitted to medical experiments in lieu of sentence, he's now a being of humanoid flame. He's joined the tournament to prove that he isn't a failure (and to try for an escape), not knowing that his combat prowess was never in question. His conscience was the problem. In any event, his endeavor was ended by...
Glacius, an alien being of living ice stranded on Earth after answering a distress call, is pitted in a sadistic duel to the death with Cinder. After an arduous battle, he kills Cinder, and commandeers enough Ultratech technology to reconstruct his crashed ship and escape before Eyedol's destruction. (It turns out that the distress call is from the ruins of another crashed ship, this time of the Glacius of Killer Instinct 2. Despite the same name, they are not the same being.)
Sabrewulf, cursed with lycanthropy, fights in the tournament hoping to win a cure. It turns out that he's no match for the deadly combatants, and is subdued and experimented on, with his arms replaced with cybernetic claws.
Riptor is another failed experiment, this time an attempt to make a killer lizard humanoid. The results turned out to be too unpredictable. Nevertheless, he's entered into the tournament to test the combatants. He turns out to be no match for...
T. J. Combo, a former heavyweight boxing champion, was stripped of his title when it was discovered that his arms were cybernetically augmented. Now shunned and penniless, he's fighting for revenge on Ultratech, who he blames for letting the existance of his enhancements slip. After tearing Riptor apart with his bare hands, he tries to do the same to the Ultratech compound, only to get caught up in the death of Eyedol.
Spinal was the skeleton of a Viking marauder, devious and cruel, called into being by Ultratech. (It turns out that Ultratech only summoned Spinal from the past, rather than binding the spirit to the skeleton as they thought. In the end, it amounted to much the same.) While Spinal was intelligent, loyal, devious, and brutal, there was just one problem. Spinal was unique, and Ultratech needed an army. Given this failure, Spinal was consigned to the tournament. He would meet his end at the hands of...
Chief Thunder was a displaced American Indian, his own land taken from him for Ultratech testing grounds. He would eventually shatter Spinal, but was killed in the tounament, his goals unaccomplished.
KI had, as was common at the time, a handful of finishing moves, possible when an opponent was reeling, after all their life was gone. No Mercies were essentially Fatalities, although they generally involved a lot less dismemberment. Glacius turns into an amoeba and absorbs his foe, B. Orchid flashes her foe, Fulgore electrocutes them, etc. Less well-known were the Humilations, which simply caused a defeated opponent to dance to a jaunty circus tune. (Also possible were Ultimate and Ultra combos, detailed below.) What was important was to do something to finish off your opponent, as a reeling fighter could be restored to a tiny bit of health by spinning the joystick and tapping buttons at random. A fighter on this Last Breath did up to double damage, allowing very dramatic turnarounds.
Of course, story, brutality, and history aren't what make Killer Instinct really unique. What made it unique was the combo system.
Rather than exploiting bugs or simply stretching the potential of the game engine, Killer Instinct has more in common with Tekken's combo system, blended with the 2-D fighter emphasis on special moves and flashy, unrealistic attacks.
(For illustration, I'll use Glacius, as he has no special attributes with respect to combos.)
The keystone of Killer Instinct's combo system is autodoubles: a quick tap of an attack button to trigger either two or three extra attacks as part of a combo. This is what sets Killer Instinct apart, as a 15-hit combo doesn't require 15 buttons taps: the game will fill in the minor details of your combos for you, making for a very flashy combo system.
The longest possible standard combo with a standard character is constructed like this:
Opener-autodouble, linker-autodouble, ender, juggle.
Every combo begins with an opener. Every character can open with a jump-in attack, or a top attack. (A Top Attack, used to hit a ducking blocker, is executed with back+fierce punch.) Every character has exactly the same scheme for jump-ins and top attacks:
QP MP FP
| \ /
| / \
QK MK FK
For example, if Glacius jumps in with a fierce punch, a quick tap of medium kick after he lands the punch will result in two extra hits and an opportunity to continue the combo.
Every character has a number of special moves that can be used as openers, and these have their own autodoubles. These don't conform to any specific scheme, so the autodoubles for special moves as openers need to be memorized.
From here, you can skip the linker and the autodouble and head straight to the ender, or you can go for a linker for extra damage. Most of the characters only have one linker, and in most cases, it's a reverse version of a normal move. For example, Glacius's normal Cold Shoulder is (B), F+P but his linker Cold Shoulder is (F),B+P. The move has basically the same effect, and generally the reverse form can only be used as a linker.
Linkers can be autodoubled, just like special attacks used as autodoubles, Alternately, the linker's autodouble can be skipped, going straight into the ender.
Enders are always special moves, and each character has a certain repetoire of enders. For Glacius, it's the fierce Puddle Punch and the Fierce Shockwave. Enders always send the poor victim flying, setting up a possible juggle.
Juggles, generally, are just showing off, as they do little to no damage. Put simply, every character has a move that can nail the flying opponent after the combo to tag in that one more hit. The damage is generally near zero, but juggles are generally risk-free, and a harmless way to show off.
Here's a flowchart of how a combo can be structured. Bear in mind that you can choose to end a combo at any point, either by entering a combination of buttontaps that don't fit into a combo, or just by not hitting any more buttons.
Opener -> Autodouble
| Linker -> Autodouble
| | /
| | /
| | /
| | /
| | /
V V V
Of course, those are basic combos.
By this point, you may be wondering why every combo doesn't go through all 6 steps. The reason for this is another of Killer Instinct's unique attributes: the Combo Breaker. Each character has a unique combo breaker, a move which, if correctly executed, will interrupt your opponent's combo, do a bit of damage, and "power up" your character. Combo Breakers, however, weren't easy. They operated on a rock, paper, scissors system, with fierce beating quick beating medium beating fierce. Continuing with the Glacius example, his combo breaker is the Ice Pick, B,F+P.
A powered up character hit harder and a bit faster, and his (or her) own combos were harder to break. In addition, a powered-up character's juggles do three hits, instead of one.
There were a handful of variations on the normal combo scheme. If an enemy was on their last sliver of life, you could replace the ender with an Ultimate or an Ultra finisher. An Ultimate was simply a No Mercy tacked onto the end of a combo, and not very interesting. An Ultra, though, was the true way to max out your combo totals. An Ultra was a ramped-up version of the enders, and would generally be worth 15+ hits on its own. As I recall, Glacius's Ultra was a couple of bops with his shoulder, some punches, some stabs with his ice pick, all finished off by a triple puddle punch.
Extant only in the arcade version were Turbo Combos and Shadow Combos. Turbo and Shadow Combos are executed in exactly the same way: rather than tapping the button for the special move as part of a combo at the end of the move, you hold the button through the motions of the move.
All of the rest of the combo tricks possible rely on glitches, and depend on the version of the game being played (there's the evaluation version of the arcade game, the 1.0 release, and the 1.5 release, all with different exploitable glitches and timing). Sometimes a combo can be linked directly into a second combo, extra manual hits can be added, combos can be taken into the air, etc.
Unlike Glacius, some of the characters had different special combo attributes.
Cinder was one of the few characters with multiple linkers, and his flipkick juggle could be chained infinitely if an enemy was trapped in the corner. This was mostly pointless, but highly demoralizing, as juggles can't be broken.
Sabrewulf, named after a very old Rare game, also had multiple linkers, and was one of two characters who could chain two linkers into one combo. Also, he could power himself up with his howl, but he's lose the powerup on using one of a pair of his strongest moves. In the arcade, when he was powered up, a swarm of bats surrounded him.
T.J. Combo, the last character with multiple linkers, was the other character who could chain two linkers into a combo.
Spinal could absorb protectiles with one of his specials, and while he had a "charge" saved up, he was powered up. Doing a combo breaker game him three charges. Problem was, his juggle used up his charges.
Eyedol, the unlockable boss, never powered up from doing combo breakers.
Why did Killer Instinct, with its unique fighting system and stunning graphics, never really make it against its aging competitors? For one, it was hard. A player needed to learn the combo system to have any real chance against the computer (let alone other skilled players). The basics, as well as combo breakers, were on the cabinet marquees, but any attempts to do combo breakers boiled down to luck or or experience. This learning curve chased off a lot of potential players, many of which were looking for a new game after growing sick of the Street Fighter II remakes.
It was too rigid. Mortal Kombat II loyalists decried it for being too complex, and Street Fighter II fans decried it for not being flexible enough. As both games were firmly entrenched in arcades, it was hard to get any kind of mindshare, to try and make the game more than just a novelty.
For another, Nintendo screwed the pooch. The home version wasn't delayed, but it was simply disappointing. Too unresponsive to bring in veterans of the arcade game, and not flashy enough to really keep people coming back, it sold well, but at the expense of the brand. Nobody really wanted to play Killer Instinct after the backlash against the glitchy, jerky home version, especially as superior versions of Street Fighter were released on consoles.
No fighting game could stand up against Super Street Fighter II. It is still considered by many to be one of the best fighting games ever, and Killer Instinct's so-so console showing was no match.
The much-hyped Killer Instinct 2 was horrible. Unbalanced, ugly, and burdened with inane, derivative characters, nobody wanted to play it at all. By this time, Street Fighter Alpha 2 and the incomparable Virtua Fighter 2 were hitting arcades, and nobody wanted to go play a terrible sequel to a game that was never more than a tech demo to fighting game purists.
Killer Instinct Gold was the final nail in the coffin. The perfect Killer Instinct port the last few fans were waiting for never materialized. Instead, they got an "enhanced" port of Killer Instinct 2 for the N64, called Killer Instinct Gold. The enhancements failed to materialize, and the N64 controller proved ill-suited to the game, on top of the fact that the N64 was already flooded with awful fighting games.
Ultimately, there's no reason to go back to Killer Instinct. While it was a notable game at the time, it's no more than a novelty now, a cautionary tale about not relying on vaporware technology, and that sometimes revolution isn't good for the bottom line.
Thanks to GameFAQs (and special thanks to BSmolik's excellant FAQ), Boardgamegeek.com, and RareOps.com for all sorts of info on all of the games in this node. Thanks to lj for telling me what the KI arcade system's hard drive was for. Also, blame an adolescant fascination with 2-D fighters. All of the ASCII art is my own. Anything marked "I believe" is based only in my faulty memory; feel free to contact me with any concrete evidence on these topics.