Title: The King of Fighters '96
Date Published: 1996
Platforms: Neo-Geo MVS/AES/CD, Playstation, Saturn
The third game in SNK's King of Fighters series, and the last of the 'original three' - the first three games of the series, which all had similar play mechanics. The game, while decidedly old-school, is polished beyond belief, and many introductions to the series that this game brought were to set the stage for years to come. It intruduced the ability to roll away or under an attack, instead of merely dodging away; an extremely useful feature that, in experienced hands, can help turn a fight. It also improved upon the "Desperation Move" system, giving each character a "Super Desperation Move" as well.
Interestingly, in this game, almost all projectile attacks were removed from the game, replaced by close-range versions. The only two that survived were King's "Venom Strike"/"Double Strike", Athena and Kensou's "Psycho Ball", and Iori's fireball. This opens the game up considerably, as characters can no longer simply sit at one side of the screen hoping to catch their opponent unawares, or win by guard damage.
The storyline is a continuation of KoF '95, with the former tournament host (Rugal Bernstein) dead and buried by a mysterious power. This year, our new hostess wishes to find a team strong enough to seal away that power forever.
(based on Neo-Geo button layout:)
Button A: Weak Punch
Button B: Weak Kick
Button C: Strong Punch
Button D: Strong Kick
A+B+C: Charge up special meter
If a character is about to take damage, and their power meter is full, they can execute a "Super Roll" by using the normal roll command.
As in KoF '95, the player can decide who to include in their team. However, there are no "edit team" endings, so to see the proper game endings, one must use a standard team. (Of course, this doesn't apply to 2-player games)
Japan Team: Kyo Kusanagi, Benimaru Nikaido, Goro Daimon. The same team as before, with some nice new tricks. Kyo's "Fire Fists" attacks can be comboed in a number of ways. Benimaru gains an anti-air version of his "Raijinken", while Goro adds a few new throws to his arsenal.
Fatal Fury Team: Terry Bogard, Andy Bogard, Joe Higashi. The familiar Southtown team return, with Terry sporting the greatest change to his moveset. He can now perform a Rising Tackle or Power Dunk using a "Shoryuken" motion on the joystick. Andy and Joe are mostly unchanged.
Art of Fighting Team: Ryo Sakasaki, Robert Garcia, Yuri Sakasaki. Apart from the lack of projectiles, little has changed (of course, observant players will notice Yuri has left the Women's Team, but I digress).
Ikari Team: Leona, Clark, Ralf. Leona, new to this game, replaces Heidern, and features some moves very similar to his. Ralf and Clark are beginning to become different characters, but still share a few moves. Clark in particular is becoming a grappler.
Psycho Soldier Team: Athena Asamiya, Sie Kensou, Chin Gentsai. Virtually unchanged from previous years, as their projectile attacks have been saved, although (as always) Athena has a new costume and voice actress.
Bosses Team: Geese Howard, Wolfgang Krauser, Mr. Big. This team, who only featured in this KoF, will certainly be among your favourites. Any game with Geese in it gets my vote. Krauser and Mr. Big are also very strong characters, but you won't be wanting to use them so much.
Taekwondo Team: Kim Kaphwan, Choi Bounge, Chang Koehan. Virtually the same as before, although both Choi and Chang now wear uniforms, just like Kim. The latter two can be annoying, while Kim is as nippy as ever.
Women's Team: King, Kasumi Todoh, Mai Shiranui. King and Mai play very much like last year, although both have some nice new moves. Kasumi is a newcomer, and while using some useful techniques, is not quite as good as she should be.
Yagami Team: Iori Yagami, Vice, Mature. Iori is extremely overpowered, capable of wiping out an entire opposing team by himself even on a high difficulty. (Not that we're complaining.) Vice and Mature both use a few of Rugal's old moves, plus some that will seem quite familiar by the time you see the final boss.
This game features two bosses, fought one after the other. They are Chizuru Kagura and Leopold Goenitz.
A massive improvement on the previous years, with each and every single character sprite either completely re-drawn or brand new. This leads to the roster having a shared appearance which gives the game a very polished appearance - unlike some of Capcom's sequels, for example. The menus and character select screen are equally well done, and all in all the game looks exactly how a Neo-Geo game should. The sprites are all large and detailed, and despite their complexity there is very little slowdown in this game - however, its sequel (KoF '97) was plagued by this.
The usual array of punches, kicks, and collision sounds are all present, plus SNK's trademark massive use of sampled speech. Each character has a large number of sayings and taunts, more than one would expect from a game of its age.
The music is excellent, with a number of memorable tunes filling the game. (See here for more details)
Expect to pay around $225 for a mint-condition English release, while the Japanese version costs only around $110 for a similarly good condition game. As the Neo-Geo will automatically change the game's language to whatever region the machine was bought from, a gamer would do well to purchase the considerably cheaper Japan cart. The Japanese version is much more common than the USA version, hence its lower price.
Of course (as amib pointed out), the Saturn and Playstation versions are cheaper than either of the home cart versions. They are both quite good ports, although the Saturn version is often considered to be more true to the original.
All information taken from personal playing experience with the game, and official information published by SNK. The King of Fighters '96 is copyright SNK Playmore.