Classic game appreciation section: Killer Instinct

How the House of Battletoads made the best fighter in the West

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?”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Long-time GR+ writer Dave has been gaming with immense dedication ever since he failed dismally at some '80s arcade racer on a childhood day at the seaside (due to being too small to reach the controls without help). These days he's an enigmatic blend of beard-stroking narrative discussion and hard-hitting Psycho Crushers.
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