Classic game appreciation section: Killer Instinct

KI’s combo system was, of course, far simpler and more automatic that Street Fighter II’s battle with buffered frames and the shaving of milliseconds off button inputs. Building a combo in Killer Instinct was like building one out of Lego. You had various sets of move types which held certain properties within combos.

Openers would obviously start things up, then single-press Autos would string a few more hits on. Throw in a Linker (usually a low-level special move) in next and you’d have the keystone of your violence-bridge. Over the hump of that bridge you’d drop in another Auto, and then use the breathing space afforded by the extra hits to round off with a Finisher, a higher-level special which would round things off beautifully.

Above: Someone who wanted a crack at a 48-hitter

That was the basic combo theory, anyway. The real joy came in finding out which of the interlocking punch-bricks in your arsenal would click together most effectively, and just how many times you could attach new Linkers, Autos and Juggles until the whole thing collapsed under its own weight. Throw in a necessity to balance longer, more impressive showboating against damage-scaling, and the constant threat that the longer your combo, the more likely your opponent would be to gain an advantage by throwing in a successful Combo Breaker (Altogether now," C-C-C…"), and you had a rather playful back-and-forth, cat-and-mouse dynamic in what initially just seemed like silly spectacle for the sake of silly spectacle.

It was big, beautiful, bold, knowingly-silly, deliberately ostentatious, but really rather clever and friendly at its core. And as such it served as a perfect analogy for Killer Instinct as a whole.

Killer Instinct, you see, was a British fighting game. We hadn't had one of those for years, and sweet crap, did KI immediately show up what we'd been missing. For all the brutality, all the gore, all the wanton carnage and excessively elaborate murder (this was a game in which you could even tag a lethal finisher right onto the end of a 20-hit combo if you wanted to), everything was shot through with such a warm, eccentric sense of humour and sparkling wink of the eye as to be utterly, huggably inoffensive.

Above: Mortal Kombat meets Loony Tunes. That’s the Killer Instinct way

Orchid's breast-exposing finisher would have been entirely uncomfortable, where it not for the six-foot, Loony Tunes eyeball-pop that it elicited in some of its its victims, immediately before they clutched their chests and died of a cartoonish heart attack. Battle robot Fulgore might have shot his opponents to death with a machine gun, but he did so by unscrewing his own head and unfolding from his neck a comically-huge piece of hardware that could not possibly have fitted inside his body cavity.

And don’t forget Jago, the noble, stoid warrior monk, who could finish off his opponent by sitting down, meditating for a moment in deep concentration, and using his years of spiritual enlightenment and self-discipline to invoke a f*cking car from the sky and drop it on his quarry from a great height. For no good, logical reason other than that that sort of shit had been funny in Road Runner cartoons, so it would be funny now. And it was.

Yes, Killer Instinct was glitchy. Yes, it’s extravagant combo system was totally exploitable if you knew what you were doing and put the work in. But it didn’t matter. Killer Instinct was a big happy dog of a game, bounding up to you with a giddy, face-licking enthusiasm, goofing around as much as possible to ensure that you had fun. But like all the best dogs, its benevolent silliness belied a sharpness and intelligence that would ensure that it would look after you for a long time to come.

Above: Oh go on then, one more time…

In fact, that long time extends right up to now. That arcade cabinet seemed to turn up everywhere I went in Florida on that holiday. In every arcade, in every water park, in every shopping mall eatery, it seemed to pop up and say hello, my exciting new best friend quietly following me for the whole of my journey. And I played it every single time.

While the Nintendo 64 might never have actually got it in the end, instead receiving a slightly downgraded remix of the slightly disappointing Killer Instinct 2, the SNES port is a startling victory of the quart-into-a-pint-pot arts. If you can put up with the smaller sprites and the lack of the arcade version's visual zing-pop, the core game remains a stormingly fun fighter. It's just a damn shame that the series never got the opportunity to go further.

But regardless, as is obligatory, I’m ending this article with the traditional "The campaign for an XBLA release starts here" statement. It wouldn't be the first time, and it won’t be the last. But I don't care, because Killer Instinct is that good.

The campaign for an XBLA release starts here.

06 Oct, 2011

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David Houghton
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.