Classic game appreciation section: Killer Instinct

So it’s 1995. I’m 14. I find myself in America for the first time, specifically in Florida on a long-planned, years-dreamed-of family holiday. I am vibrating with excitement at all times. Even when asleep. The sights, the sounds, the smells, the theme parks, the films, the crazy weather… My mind is blown on a constant basis. But then, part way through the first week, I spot the pre-rendered, Silicon-Graphics-powered cherry on the cake.

There’s a Killer Instinct arcade cabinet in the food hall of the mall we’re in. Killer-goddamn-Instinct. As a mid-'90s Nintendo fanboy, this is an unbelievable sight. I’ve been following Rare's first fighting game with incredulous wonder for quite some time, not expecting to actually get to play it for God knows how long. And now here it is. Killer Instinct. A new Nintendo arcade game. A gory as hell Nintendo fighting game. The first taste of the Ultra 64. I vibrate over to it, drop in a quarter, and fall in love.

Above: It looked just like this one. But it was not this one. Probably

The insane fidelity of the graphics was the first thing that turned heads towards Killer Instinct when Rare initially started showing it off. And I’d pored over the hands-on previews from Rare’s Twycross HQ with teary, disbelieving eyes, as had so many of us. But the truth is that Killer Instinct’s beauty was far more than screen-deep.

Visually, it was spell-binding of course. One of those once in a generation games that I’ve referenced in this column before, the ones that make you feel like you’re playing a game from the future, half-expecting a flying car to hum past the window or to have your session interrupted by the announcement of a violent ape uprising.

We’d seen early signs of Rare's alchemical tinkering with pre-rendered sprites in Donkey Kong Country, but this was the steaming great Skynet version of that tech. Huge, smooth, screen-filling sprites that looked better than 'real' 3D games would manage for at least another couple of generations. 3D backgrounds that looked like a dark, gritty, sci-fi Pixar feature, or would have if Pixar features had existed at the time. A brain-melting zooming and scaling camera which allowed quarter-mile fireball duels with both combatants a mere handful of pixels in height, and instantaneously made me scoffingly wonder how we’d ever coped with the cramped, side-scrolling arenas of the day.

Above: Imagine going from Mortal Kombat to this in the space of a transatlantic flight. Mind = explode

It was a dizzying visual evolution that at times actually managed to evolve the gameplay of the most prolific genre of the era. Yes, some of Killer Instinct’s bells and whistles were built out of smoke and mirrors, but the characters were so convincing and each fight’s scaling, distorting setting so reactive and kinetic that at times it was impossible to believe that you were playing anything other than a full 3D fighter. There was magic flickering from that cabinet’s screen. You could feel it on your skin if you got close enough. But even if you got used to all of the above (and you wouldn’t), Killer Instinct’s gameplay was a rip-roaring evolution in itself.

Bigger, better, more badass. Cliff Bleszinski might have coined the phrase for Gears of War 2, but Killer Instinct’s approach to the saturated fighting game market of the mid-'90s staked a claim to the sentiment in the very year that Cliff was still working on Jazz Jackrabbit. You could look at Killer Instinct's design decisions as cynical, a mechanical checklist of cross-pollination and one-upmanship, even. And they probably were. Take the deeper, weightier fighting of Street Fighter II, combine it with the gore and finishing moves of Mortal Kombat, then take the fighting game enthusiast’s obsession with combos to the ludicrous extreme, and there you go.

On paper, it sounds tacky. Doubly-so when you consider that half of Killer Instinct's cast were remixes of characters from the above two most well-established of fighting franchises. But in practice, that didn’t matter.

Above: Neither Street Fighter nor Mortal Kombat had A FRICKEN WEREWOLF!

Killer Instinct, you see, had a heart and a soul all of its own. The PS3’s Resistance 3 is arguably a cover-version of Half-Life 2 in terms of story, art design, locations and themes, yet it manages to be entirely its own game by just feeling different. It brings its own toys to the table and creates a whole new kind of excitement through the ways it allows you to interact and play. Killer Instinct did exactly the same thing.

Most overtly, its decadent, extravagant combo system was both ludicrously gratifying to learn and possessing of an almost knowing sense of humour regarding the hit-string obsessed excesses that had come to typify the genre. “Right”, thought Killer Instinct. “You guys want combos? I’m going to bloody well give you combos. Seven hits in Street Fighter makes you Mr. Big Man, does it? Well who wants a crack at a 48-hitter?”

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  • Hai-Shi - October 11, 2011 5:18 a.m.

    Didn't mean "combo", meant "finishing move"... :))
  • Hai-Shi - October 11, 2011 5:11 a.m.

    Thank you, David, AWESOME VICTORY! Oh how I loved the SNES port back in the days. I remember accidentally triggering my first combo ever with Fulgore. I was like "what the f**k just happend?!? Sweeeeet!!!"... :)) This game screams for a reboot or at least for a re-release in sweet hi-def!
  • kevbayliss - October 7, 2011 5:16 a.m.

    Wow...! Great review. I was lucky enough to have been heavily involved with development of this and Ki2. LOVED it. From the prancing around in the motion capture suit, modelling and animating the cutscenes, to recording some of the voices. That game was my (and a lot of others!) life for a few years. The whole development was fun, and I'm really proud of that game to this day... I am after a KI2 and KI1 machine, when I find them in the UK in good condition, they're going side by side in the garage! Thanks for the great review there... We worked hard. And played hard. As did KI. Kev Bayliss
  • AuthorityFigure - October 6, 2011 6:17 p.m.

    Hey! They music was also terrific. Some of the characters were a bit daggy though (Raptor and Thunder). But it was an excellent SNES game that I have in my collection to this day. Nice, black box and cartridge too.
  • jaynoyce - October 6, 2011 4:50 p.m.

    compared to the other fighters around at the time i thought it was a nice lookin load of balls. but that might just b me. did look amazin back then tho.
  • Baron164 - October 6, 2011 3:04 p.m.

    I loved Killer Instinct, it was the only real fighting game I liked. I would love for them to release an HD remake of the original or both. Plus a KI3 would be nice. I don't expect it anytime soon but I'd buy it for sure
  • HaVoK308 - October 6, 2011 2:43 p.m.

    Ah, this really takes me back! I was a mere 21 years old and having the time of my life in the Military. My buds and I use to play this at the club on base. Eventually got it for the SNES, I believe. But it wasn't the same. Be cool to see this get the recent MK treatment.
  • iluvpkmnmonday - October 6, 2011 1:25 p.m.

    Screw the XBLA campaign. I want a Killer Instinct 3 damn it.
  • LiaraLoveSlave - October 6, 2011 12:47 p.m.

    Fond memories of going to the pizza place in my hometown after school and depositing an obscene amount of quarters into this beast. So many epic Cinder vs. Glacius battles. DANGER! DANGER!
  • Vordhosbn - October 6, 2011 11:29 a.m.

    I absolutely loved the SNES version, but my only memory of the arcade version was being battered by someone who was much older and knew all of Cinders combos :(
  • FanofSaiyan - October 6, 2011 11:07 a.m.

    Killer Instinct was one hell of a game. Even the packaging (that sexy black cartridge that was addressed in a previous article) was a wash of color in a wave of mediocrity. I currently own KI for the SNES, which isn't as flashy in terms of graphics, but it really simplified the gameplay (2D fighters to me are much easier to play than 3D fighters). I've beaten Eyedol god knows how many times, and it's just as satisfying to do it today as it was back in 2002 (when I got KI). None of Rare's games will ever be as genre-defying as KI. To me, there is only one god of fighting games: Killer Instinct. Now lets hope Rare comes to their senses and releases KI3 (and it better be multi-platform!)
  • shawksta - October 6, 2011 12:35 p.m.

    Reminder: Nintendo used to own Rare, now their Microsofts, so no multiplatform.
  • Jrymanz - October 6, 2011 10:24 a.m.

  • IceBlueKirby - October 6, 2011 10:24 a.m.

    KI was an awesome game. Shamefully I never played the arcade version, but I love the SNES version. Glacius even replaced Sub-Zero as my favorite ice-based character in a fighting game (not that he had much competition, but still) so that's saying something, because I love Sub-Zero. I also remember being skeptical about Combo because I never liked Balrog, but damn if Combo didn't kick a little ass. And Spinal is still the coolest skeleton in any video game (sorry, Mr. Bones) by a huge stretch.
  • Boonehams - October 6, 2011 10:02 a.m.

    Isn't Killer Instinct in rights dispute limbo? I heard that there was some deal struck that since Nintendo distributed the arcade cabinets and published the ports, that they held the rights to the characters/property. With RARE now being owned by Microsoft, it's put a damper on any re-releases or sequels. Someone correct me if I'm wrong (and I hope I'm wrong, because I'd love to see a re-release/sequel as much as anyone else).
  • Bitchslapthehomeless - October 6, 2011 9:37 a.m.

    David, you magnificent man. I totally agree, and miss the KI franchise. With the fighting "renaissance" going on now with MK and SFIV, the time is now for Rare/Microsoft to make a KI3, but alas, I guess they are afraid of success and or money.
  • SonicX_89 - October 6, 2011 8:02 a.m.

    I really want to play KI now. You can consider me part of the campaign to get a release on XBLA.
  • Mooshon - October 6, 2011 7:41 a.m.

    Never really got into Killer Instinct. More than SF2 or MK it was so damned reliant on combos that you would be schooled and lost your money within 20 seconds. The days before the internet you only had that little panel on the cabinet to learn (while playing) a handful of moves too. You must have had an autistic memory to cram in the finishes as well. Think my 20p's all went to the Turtles and Simpsons back then. Guaranteed 5-10 minutes!
  • n00b - October 6, 2011 7:40 a.m.

    love this game. never played it in the arcades but played it a lot on the snes. oh and darkstalkers had a werewolf martial artist but we can save that for another appreciation section
  • fadedlinevigil - October 6, 2011 7:31 a.m.

    For the first time ever, I agree with something on this site. Garishly written and totally over-the-top? Yes. But I do remember the love I had for this game. The N64 version had better fatalities than the arcade. Fulgor's melting man finisher was gruesome/awesome.