E3 2013: Killer Instinct (3? Maybe?)

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It’s really strange to hear talk of a new Killer Instinct game, a reboot no less. How long’s it been since the last one. Nearly two decades? sounds about right. And it’s been exactly two decades since the original arcade release of the original game. You know, it’s like that moment that you waited for your whole life – say, a desire for something or other that you longed for as a kid – and when it’s finally here, you weren’t really sure whether you loved the idea of it, or the actual physical thing in your hands.

Honestly, I’m a bit frightened of getting that thing. I am frightened, not because this isn’t my Killer Instinct, but that I am completely unclear about the audience for this reboot. I know the gaming market’s aged, but imagine the last installment in this game came out in 1996, and that was an improved port for the Nintendo 64 of KI2. Circumstances change vastly between year to year, and even month to month, in the video game world. What will the new Killer Instinct do that no other game has done?

Now, this isn’t to go down on Killer Instinct as if it remains a terrible series; far from it. I remember getting that black Killer Instinct cartridge and putting it into my SNES. The game’s pre-rendered graphics literally blew us all away back then, along with Donkey Kong Country. 1994 became the year of Rareware, when they finally became a force known to the home console audience as Nintendo’s second party developer. My brother and my father played the game to death with me; we even bought Nintendo’s Official Player’s Guide, back when they made those at all. It’s amazing the spine still holds up after all the discoloration and usage on it.

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Memories, man.

Specifically, that usage wasn’t for strategies at all. Everyone who plays Killer Instinct knows it as the “combo” game. Notably, it introduced one of the first free-flowing combo system – although certain rules applied, one could literally chain most moves into most other moves. You’d start with moves called “openers”, which started a combo. By themselves, they were just normal moves (it’s a six button game like Street Fighter). However, follow an opener with an Auto-Double, and you’ve just tacked two hits onto the combo. Follow this with specific special moves (called in KI usage “Linkers”) to continue the combo.

So think of it like this: most moves work as openers, but you can chain at least 2 Auto Doubles into each other using Linkers until you finish them with an Ender. All of these moves have special properties, so blocking them becomes quite a difficult task. Rare balanced the freedom of this combo system through the Combo Breaker. A Combo Breaker does exactly what it says. However, you need to know the button used for that move to break the combo, and know the special move command required to break it. This meant Killer Instinct turned into a game of constant guessing, from one combo to the next. There wasn’t much blockstun to attacks, but this game doesn’t need any due to Combo Breakers. Guess wrong and you eat a combo.

Of course, who could forget Ultra Combos? In Killer Instinct, matches didn’t operate on the round system – instead, you had two life bars. Lose both and you’d die. This system gives a great player an incredible advantage. Put your opponent’s life bar in the red (flashing), and you can perform an Ultra Combo, which requires a specific combo sequence to perform. Once it’s done, sit back, relax, and watch your opponent get pummeled into submission by a literally insane number of hits. Perhaps you’d like to do a fatality/Ultimate Combo/Danger Move instead – this also works, hearkening to the age in which Killer Instinct emerged. Blood (and or fuel/fluid) flew out of characters at hilariously astonishing rates, and you’d be hard pressed to take it seriously in that sense.

In sum: Killer Instinct’s a fun game about combos. Lots and lots of combos. Combos to the point where, yeah, you totally can break the game if you want.  Too much freedom, in this case, didn’t produce a good thing, with most character having infinite combos (i.e., they continue until your opponent dies) and some glitches producing unblockable normal attacks. Heck, even if the combos do no damage after a while, you can still go for a time out, as seen here:

The game, though not as popular as its competitors (for the reason shown right above) ended up warranting a sequel. Killer Instinct 2 did much to fix these problems…and added some of its own, and it’s surprising to find out my favorite one isn’t considered tournament viable at all. With the aformentioned version, you could ban Cinder and Orchid, possibly making it viable. In the realm of Killer Instinct 2, nobody plays it at all. That’s a shame, as it’s my favorite of the series, especially the Killer Instinct Gold revision on N64. The game gets a massive speed increase in this installment; it actually feels like a modern game with the addition of parries and simplified combo breakers making for a breakneck pace.

Still, and here’s where my problems come with the modern reboot, what exactly does the new Killer Instinct plan to offer, other than the obvious brand recognition? Most of its ideas, original for the time, ended up in other, better games. Parries went to Street Fighter III; the entire combo system ended up in Street Fighter Alpha/Darkstalkers, and then found itself in full flowering with the Capcom Vs. Series. Simply put, most of its uniqueness comes down to combos and countering combos, and these elements are no longer unique. Just take a look at the trailer:

Do you see anything substantially new, other than the graphical style? Not really. If anything, it feels like a blatant cash-in. Rare isn’t even developing it, nor are the Stamper brothers who founded Rare even close to the development of this game. It’s taking an established brand (like Capcom’s recent reboot of DmC), giving it to a new developer, and then seeing how it flies. If people like it, great; if not, they can sweep the whole franchise under the rug. Double Helix Games does not appear a developer I’d trust to make a new game in a venerable (if completely forgotten) fighting series, given their pedigree doesn’t even touch the fighting genre. Everything about this smells pretty bad, and the stench reeks.

I’m not one to latch onto nostalgia and childhood memories, but what will Killer Instinct add to the fighting game scene? Please, anyone? We’ll see in the coming months whether this comes to anything. Yet a little part of me wants Killer Instinct’s reboot to surprise everyone with its awesomeness, and not just become another “launch title” people will forget a few years from now. This is, I know, a desire of the flesh; my brain says no but my heart says yes, but perhaps NOT to buying a five hundred dollar console. Galatians 5 tells me this:

16 But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh. 17 For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law.

The desire of the flesh, in effect, is to make us desire what we didn’t even know we wanted, and sometimes to desire the things we want to our detriment. Hey, that sounds a lot like an E3 press conference, doesn’t it? So, I will keep an open mind, but I am wary of this new console generation already. Cashing in on a flawed, if nostalgically loved franchise, for free launch title buzz feels like a giant hole Microsoft wants to dig.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.