Undoubtedly, there are fans who are ecstatic to hear that Killer Instinct, the classic fighting game that came in a snazzy black cartridge back in the early 90's, is going to come back. But when the game was announced earlier this year, there also seemed to be an air of bewilderment about its revival—loved as it may be, it's not exactly the biggest or most well-known franchise, even within the fighting game scene.
Could Killer Instinct (re)join the ranks of beloved fighting game series like Street Fighter? Would it look palatable next to newer, exciting series like BlazBlue or Skullgirls? Will most people even care that it's back?
I remember playing the series when I was younger and liking it, but man, I was skeptical back when the game was originally announced. But a couple of weeks ago, I got some hands-on time with the game in an Xbox One showcase in San Francisco, and I'm reconsidering my doubt.
Change is afoot. Tekken is going free-to-play, Skullgirls crowdsourced new characters, and a few other franchises have introduced interesting new mechanics that, arguably, betray the spirit of older fighting games (more on this in a second). While none of it is on par with innovations like Drivetar, you get the sense that fighting game developers are trying new things. You can see that some developers would love for more people to try fighting games out—the question is how to actually go about doing that.
For Killer Instinct, as you may already know, the route seems to be going free-to-play. Characters are five dollars a pop (save for one character, Jago, who will be free), and purchasing all the characters will cost $20. That's startlingly cheap for a full game, though yes, admittedly an initial six-character roster seems small. Even so, the free-to-play move seems more significant for a game like Killer Instinct than it does for Tekken. Being a launch title is a part of it. When there aren't too many choices in a system's library, the chances of having someone try out a title such as Killer Instinct—which they might not even know much about—are much higher, I would think. In this case, it's literally a matter of 'why not?' It is free, after all.
So let's say you download the game and want to try it out. Let's say you don't know much about fighting games. Something that stands out to me was that, in the dojo mode—which is where players can go to learn how to play the game—not only are basic things like moves and combos explained to the players, but so are finer details like hitboxes and frame data.
Basically, every move you perform is executed in a specific number of animation frames, and all moves also have set ranges (which you can see denoted above via the red boxes; yellow boxes are areas that can be damaged)...but normally you have to play fighting games for a while to get a feel for this stuff naturally, if you ever note it. Killer Instinct will just plain show you these otherwise invisible boxes and ranges for your moves. Now, I may only be a casual fighting game fan, but that inclusion is valuable to me. It's the sort of thing I know matters in a fighting game, but is typically only known by veterans. Tutorials of course are nothing new when it comes to fighting games, but the fact that an easily-available game will make that data visible to all players feels important—like it could make a difference in how many casual fans seriously pick the game up.
Contrast this with other recent efforts to make fighting games more accessible: BlazBlue has shotcuts, which allow you do to special attacks via the analog stick instead of actually learning the inputs necessary to pull the moves off. Street Fighter vs Tekken allows you to equip gems, which can boost a character's abilities or also provide you input shortcuts to pull off special moves. Players may have an easier time sticking with these games because of these mechanics, but they won't necessarily develop the right skills or knowledge to play these games without that added assistance. In Killer Instinct, you'll still need to be able to read your opponents, you'll still need to get the timing right, and you'll still need to do the combos. You'll just be better equipped to do all that stuff, thanks to what you've actually learned.
It's the sort of solution that doesn't require the game to sacrifice what it's actually about, and hopefully won't alienate existing fans, either. That's good because it's clear that Killer Instinct will provide plenty for the more hardcore players to sink their teeth into. While characters like Jago are easy to pick up—special moves are much like the ones Wolverine pulls off in Marvel vs Capcom could be done via quarter circles—you still have to worry about deeper, mind-bending mechanics.
For example, lots of fighting games let you break a character's combo before they actually finish it. So will Killer Instinct; you have to press two buttons of the same power of the attack that's about to hit you in order to break it. Doing so will either require good guesswork, or luck on your part—hopefully the latter. But what your opponent can then do is counter that break—so the potential for mind games here is huge. Add in the fact that guessing wrong can stun you, and the stakes suddenly become even higher. When do you try to break a combo? Right away? But what if they assume you'll try to break it right away? And when do you interrupt a combo you're already performing to counter a potential combo breaker against your opponent? The potential for hype moments that get your blood pumping (and a crowd going) are huge here.
I don't know how well Killer Instinct will do, or if it'll manage to become a hit for those who don't necessarily care about fighting games. It certainly has the potential, given the circumstances. What I do know is that after 20 minutes of playtime—after seeing the type of stuff that other fighting games have never let me see before, after trying to psych an opponent out with mind games—I'm no longer as skeptical about the game.
The Multiplayer is a weekly column that looks at how people crash into each other while playing games. It runs every Monday at 6PM ET.