Review: Art of Fighting Anthology (PS2)

Art of Fighting Anthology
Publisher: SNK Playmore
Developer: SNK
Genre: 2-D Fighter
Release Date: 5/30/2007

You know, ten years ago, if you told me I could have even one Art of Fighting game for 15 dollars, I’d have scoffed. I mean these were the days of MVS and AES games costing 150-300 dollars a pop. Now in 2007, I’m getting all three games for less than it costs to take a date to a movie. What a wonderful world!

I’ve always been torn with the AoF series. It’s probably my least favorite SNK series gameplay wise. Give me Fatal Fury, Samurai Shodown, King of Fighters and the SNK vs Capcom games they’ve put out. To be frank, it’s barely even in my top ten fighting game series of all time. Street Fighter, Darkstalkers, Eternal Champions, and the Marvel Fighters (not the crappy EA one, but that goes without saying. EA and good games are as common as Morticia Addams with a Care Bear) all rank higher to me. Yet at the same time storywise, there’s no better fighting series out there. It’s the only series that had a full fledged story for each playable character in the trilogy. It’s the only one with substance rather than a quick ending that gives a minuscule layer to the reason d’etre of who you just won the game with. And then there is Yuri. My wonderful adorable obnoxious completely batshit ludicrous Yuri. Her moves, her dialogue, her post match beatdown poses. It’s all hilarious and awesome. She is my favorite SNK character ever, and the AoF games gave birth to her. There is no better female character in all of fighting games, and if you’ve never played through an SNK game as her, I strongly suggest you do. She’s not mindless T&A stupidity like the dreadful Tecmo DOA games. No, she’s just nuts and hyperactive and what other fighting game character picks a fight with a pelican or goes from a potential rape victim to a bad ass fireball throwing bitch-slapping trash talker. Nay, there is only Yuri. Comedy, thy last name is Sakazaki.

So now you know I’m big on the story of the AoF games, but not so much of the actual playing of the trilogy itself. The question remains how do the games hold up over a decade an a half from the first AoF’s release in arcades? Are the games good? Did the port to the PS2 hold up? Is the Dual Shock still the worst controller ever made for fighting game aficionados? At fifteen dollars, is this a steal or is it not worth even that piddling amount of change?

Let’s Review

1. Story

Art of Fighting 1: Yuri is kidnapped by an evil gang leader. Ryo Sakazaki and his best bud Robert Garcia track down various members of the Southtown gang in an attempt to find and save Yuri. The end game boss and eventual ending sequence was highly original for 1991, even if there is a bit of Return of the Jedi meets Twelfth Night in it. Each battle is preceded and proceeded by dialog and character development. Even a decade later both 2-D and 3-D fighter were eschewing any sort of plot. It’s amazing how far ahead of its time this game was.

Art of Fighting 2: AoF2 replaces the linear well told story of AoF1 with a more customizable story. You pick a character, and then unlike most fighting games that picks your enemy for you, AoF2 allows you who to fight next. With each battle you receive specific character vs character commentary. It’s this the weakest of the three games story-wise, seeing that it’s the now cliché “a bunch of fighters get together for a tournament to see who is the baddest mofo,” but the amount of scripting in the game is mind boggling. Well, for a fighter anyway. Plus, it’s the first time Yuri is a playable character. Her dialog with Ryo is hilarious.

Art of Fighting 3: the Path of the Warrior. This game again revolves primarily around Robert and Ryo. Each character is traveling around South/Central America with a companion (Robert has Freia and Ryo has Yuri). The story is again linear and there’s a lot more comedy in this game than in the previous two There are other characters you can play as, including Sinclair and Wyler which weren’t playable outright in the arcade, but their plots aren’t as fleshed out and sometimes there isn’t dialog.

I’d say 3 is the most important of the stories, as it gave us important characters like Ryo, Yuri and Mr. Karate who have been SNK mainstays for a long time, but 3 is the best told and the most amusing. 2 is the weak spot, and as we’ll see always is regardless of the aspect we will speak of. Even so the three games are the pinnacle of 2-D fighter plots and no other fighter has come close to them.

The only reason they aren’t getting a 10/10 is due to the Engrish. We’re is where in the game and there are many other spelling and translation issues throughout all three games. I realize this is a port of the actual Neo Geo carts, but some clean up here could have been easily done here.

Classics games, classic plots. It’s a shame we can’t get anything this well plotted out in modern fighters.

Story Rating: 9/10

2. Graphics

Before I put the game in, I assumed that the graphics would be pretty poor. I mean, I look back at most games from 1991-2, and Sonic the Hedgehog was a visual masterpiece for that era. What I forgot was that the Neo Geo was a generation ahead of games graphically and what my second favorite system of all time could pull in 1992 was something you wouldn’t see until the halfway point of the Saturn and Playstation’s lifespan.

AoF1 and 2 would rate about mediocre for today’s games, and as this is a PS2 game that’s what we have to go by. There’s some pixilation and the character models aren’t anything like what we’d see even five years later much less 16, but the cut scenes are still quite nice, their post match posings are impressive for their age, but the most important part is in the subtlety of the graphics. You see, unlike 99% of fighters after (as there was really only Street Fighter before this), AoF actually shows battle damage on your characters. Ryo’s eyes will blacken, Yuri’s outfit will get torn up, sunglasses will get knocked out so on. This was massively impressive back when I was 14, and you know, after playing it again, I just can’t believe how little used this was in other fighting games. It’s things like this that show how well made these games were. It might not be as pretty as a Guilty Gear or a DoA3, but you can certainly notice the care and craftsmanship that went into these games.

AoF3 is definitely a prettier game. The graphics are more vibrant, the models are better defined, and there’s a step up in quality that one would expect considering the 4 year difference between 1 and 3. It’s actually one of the prettiest SNK games ever and up there with Last Blade 2 or SVC Chaos visualy. Note that these two games game out 4 an d 9 years after AoF respectively.
The character designs are timeless, the attention to detail (as much as there could be back then) is apparent and although its from an age long gone by, the games are still visually appealing. I’m going to give it a six because the graphics may be mediocre for today’s gaming audience, but that level of precise visual detail in the action is something we rarely see anymore.

Graphics Rating 6/10

3. Sound

I’ve never been a fan of the music of sound effects in AoF 1 or 2. However 3 is widely renowned for having an amazing soundtrack. It’s one of the best fighting soundtracks ever. Hell, it’s one of the best video game soundtracks ever. The music is so catchy and energetic. A little jazz, a little calypso, a little rock n’ roll. It’s definitely the one thing out of all three games that is still equal to anything else put on the market today.

All three AoF’s allow you to select Japanese and English vocals and writing, but Ao3 takes it a step further and offers Spanish and Portuguese. When is the last time you saw that in a game. Again, another touch of class and care you don’t find these days.

Aurally the first two games are ones you can take a pass on. Mediocre through and through, but it’s not why we played them. Three is one of the best games ever in terms of music, but as we’re grading all three games together, we’ll average them together and say it’s decent/above average.

Sound Rating: 6/10

4. Control & Gameplay

On one hand I want to go on a side rant about how the Dual Shock controller has been the worst controller for 2-D fighters ever. Yes, worse than the Game Cube and SNES controller. This is mainly because they don’t have the precision or tight controls needed to perform moves properly and repeatedly. Especially with some of the wacky ass controls out there for SNK Moves. This is why they made Sega Saturn style MK and SF controllers for the Xbox and PS2, as well as the SF anniversary arcade stick. It’s like the old 16 bit adage where you could tell who played SF2 at home on a Super Nintendo and who played on a Genesis, because it always the Nintendo owner getting his ass kicked. It’s not really a Genesis> SNES or DC or Saturn > PS/PS2 thing. It’s simply the design that went into the controller and the fact that SNK and Capcom worked with Sega in regards to developing their fighters. I could go into Naomi boards and how their games were geared for Sega systems more than anything else and how the Dual Shock is better suited for 3-D games and how their analog sticks are crap compared to the D-Pad for fighting games and on and on. But I won’t. Bottom line: There are some control issues with playing the AoF trilogy, but it all stems from the fact the Dual Shock is the poor man’s controller of choice for SNK/Capcom fighters. I plugged in the Arcade stick and my Akuma Saturn style controller and the control issues were greatly reduced. Just keep that in mind for this game.

However that doesn’t mean ALL the issues with these games can be blamed on the Dual Shock. The fact of the matter is the controls vary slightly between all 3 games. Depending on the character, some moves change their control scheme in order to pull them off. As well, some controls are different timing wise. It sounds silly and almost anal to bring this up but let’s look at doing the “Breath of the Tiger: by Ryo as an example. Through all three games it’s your typical fireball motion. However with each game the exact speed differs. I find regardless of the controller, you’ll want to be faster with the move in AoF1 than you will in AoF2 or 3. If you go at the same speed, it’ll be less likely to pull off. As well, Ryo’s Thresher Punch remains F,B,F+P, but in AoF3 it is remarkably harder to do the move here. Again, slower is key as the game doesn’t seem to pick up the faster motions by long time fighters. I wondered if this was a port problem, so I hooked up my old NG and lo and behold, it wasn’t. it was simply programming. This is something I probably never noticed as a kid simply because I didn’t get used to one fighting game and then quickly shift to another, and finally a third one all in the same evening for several evenings in a row.

Please note that this isn’t a real control issue, as it is more a difference between games than anything else. However, unlike say, the Street Fighter Alpha Anthology, where there is little to no difference between the games, this can be jarring and frustrating if you’re not expecting it. In this case, it is best to stick to one game, learn the precise moves and oddities for that game, and then move on to the next and remember you’ll have to adjust your speed or finger placements on the D-Pad or stick, depending on what you use.

As far as gameplay goes, I would be a bad SNK fan if I didn’t comment on the fact that although this is the weakest link in the SNK family of fighters, it’s the progenitor of a lot of things we now take for granted. AOF1 was the first game with Super Specials and a power meter. It also offered three mini games that actually add to your Rage and Power meters if you succeed. AoF1 also introduced the Hidden Special Attacks moves when you are down to 25% or less of your health and your power gauge is full. All of these things would be seen in later fighting games, regardless of the company.

AoF2 gave us the ability to recover from throws and mid-air throws. AoF3 added things like pursuit attacks, the need to hit buttons to get up once you’ve fallen, mid-section attacks, juggle attacks, and the ability to beat your opponent in only 1 round rather than two via an Ultimate KO. A lot of these never caught on, but hey, if they ever do, we can remember they originated here.

In all, part of looking back at the collection isn’t just seeing how it was done first or originally, but how the games hold up today. The controls are a little more anal in regards to special moves and super specials than they are today. Part of that could be that developers aren’t as strict, part could be we just know how to do them better, and part could be that the older games just didn’t have the detection ability later games would. I wouldn’t say the games have aged poorly, but they haven’t aged well either. Regardless of what game you play, there will be some control issues, some collision detection things and some issues like where jumping left and right will sometimes lead you to just jump straight up or a characters move that usually only goes partway across the screen will go all the way sometimes. Stuff like that that will frustrate some gamer. It’s a decent mix of games, but I really was amazed by the non-consistent control precision from game to game. After all SNK is the home of the reused engine and graphics.

Control and Gameplay Rating: 6/10

5. Replayability

Three fighting games for a fraction of the price of one! AoF has only two playable characters in story mode, but al ten characters are playable in Player vs. Player mode. AoF2 has 12 playable characters regardless of story mode or not. AoF3 drops the number of characters down to ten and also offers less plot options if you go outside Ryo and Robert.

There’s a decent amount of games for the cost, and it will take you a long time to get good with a single character, much less all the options open to you. At the same time, most people will just play as the main two characters as they are constant throughout the games and you don’t have to learn new moves, frame rates and the like over again.

Even hardcore SNK fans won’t be playing a lot of this. The games aren’t bad; it is just that there are a lot better out there. Also due to the difficulty in most SNK games, and the fact that every character in AoF2 suffers from SNK Boss syndrome, 95% of your replaying will be doing the same battle over and over again until you either memorize the opponent’s patterns, or you just get lucky. In the end SNK games tend to be self-defeating in regards to garnering a new audience without any bonus features, practice modes and so on to help newer or younger gamers to have a chance here.

Replayability Rating: 5/10

6. Balance

What a surprise! SNK’s weakest category. Is anyone shocked by what they’ll get here?

AoF1 is frustrating because the entire game is pretty easy except for Jack (although I think that’s just me) and Mr. Karate (the last boss). Mr. Karate is basically the Eternal Champion from that self-named game. His power bar never really goes down, and if it does, it is only a fraction of what yours does when you use special moves. He’s crazy fast and can kill you in two hits, even on the easiest setting. Mr. Karate is the first truly aggravating last boss in fighting game history and he’s still incredibly hard. This is no balance in this game at all, and nothing highlights it better than PVP mode. What does everyone pick? Oh that’s right, Mr. Karate. All but three characters in the game are jokes when you try to play against a friend.

AoF2 is well known for being one of the hardest fighters ever. It’s like playing an entire video game of Geese Howards. The characters are thankfully more balanced than in AoF1, but it would be a near impossibility for that not to be the case.

AoF3 has issues in regards to getting off the mat, and the fact that every character except Sinclair, Wyler and Karman are incredibly easy to take down, while those three tend to be excruciatingly hard. Well, not so much for Sinclair for me, but then I use the Sagat style of cheese on her.

Newcomers will be put off by any of the game’s t default MVS difficulty setting which is in-between normal and hard. Yes, this is SNK people, the original setting was far meaner than any SF or MK game, but not quite “will beat you down and rape your mother while you suffocate in a pool of your own blood” hard. This is why I laughed at all the Xbox gamers in regards to “OMG, Ninja Gaiden is crazy hard.” Obviously they hadn’t tried to beat AoF2 with Lee Pai Long.

There are four difficulty settings: Easy, Normal, MVS (which really is normal), and hard. For a lot of gamers, hard will make you never touch another SNK game again, regardless of which AoF we are speaking of. Even on Easy, a lot of gamers will get slapped around. Easy is easy for an SNK game, which is basically not quite but almost the highest difficulty on MK or Street Fighter games. After 2 hours on each of these AoF games, I put in Super Street Fighter 2 Turbo and was amazed at how easy it was to get to (and beat) Akuma. There is a world of difference here.

If you’re looking for games where 2-3 characters won’t be what almost all of you and your friends will play, don’t play this. If you’re looking for a game where you won’t possibly fight the same opponent a dozen times before you can even win a single round, don’t play this. These games are well known for their difficulty and lack of balance. Only SNK fanboys and masochists need apply.

Balance Rating: 3/10

7. Originality

There will always be debates over what copied what. Did Street Fighter 2 steal from AoF? Did AoF steal from SF2? In truth, both stole from each other. You can’t deny that Dan from Street Fighter Alpha is a middle finger to SNK and the taunts in the AoF games. Yet Ryo and Ryo are way too alike for any comfort (and yet, never a lawsuit!). I’ll say this, Street Fighter games are easily more popular that FF, KoF, or AoF games, yet where SF would recycle the same game with new things taken from previous SNK games rather than come up with anything actually new on their own, SNK would release a new KoF every year, each with distinct changes to characters, moves, plots, and controls. It’s little wonder that when SNK died the first time, the “innovation” of Capcom fighters plummeted.

Although we fail to recognize or respect it much these days, AoF is easily the most influential 2-D fighter series ever. Without it, we wouldn’t have most of the Capcom Fighters or the KoF series. Without those, we’d be out everything from Time Killers to Primal Rage. I’m knocking off a point since this is a re-release/compilation, but it’s still worthy of a high score.

Originality Rating: 7/10

8. Appeal Factor

95% of gamers need not apply. I’m serious. Unless you are a hardcore retrogamer, SNK zealot or 2-D fighter obsessive nut, you will probably hate playing this game. Even those in the above category will probably find some fun in this, but quickly agree the story is the best part of the games and that in no way are ANY of these fighters amongst their favorites.

It’s kind of odd they did this instead of a Fatal Fury or KoD collection, but what can you do?

This is a very niche collection. I’m happy to have it, and I did have to track it down, but even I wouldn’t have lost any sleep if SNK hadn’t released this. And that’s saying something.

Appeal Factor: 3/10

9. Addictiveness

With any SNK game, it depends on how good you are OR how long you’re willing to take an ass kicking until you get good. A lot of gamers, like most people regardless of the activity, tend to quit if they aren’t instantly good at something. SNK games tend to disallow that. I mean, I played AoF1 in the arcade. I’ve beaten most SNK games, but holy hell, I plugged this in and got my ass handed to me by Mr. Karate a dozen times in a row. Of course it was frustrating, but mainly because I used to be able to beat this game as easily as I can say, Night Warriors.

Even as a teen though, I’d played AoF for the story. And most fighter fans don’t really care about the story; they care more about smashing friends in with fireballs. I always preferred KoF for the characters, Mortal Kombat for the gore (and the funky song by the Immortals!), and Darkstalkers for the solid gameplay.

Unless you already care about the characters, have a nostalgic bent for the series, or just like to be a masochist, you’re not really going to stick with this game long. Even I put it down after a few days and I doubt I’ll be picking it up anytime soon.

Addictiveness Rating: 5/10

10. Miscellaneous

These are good games. These are influential games. They have given us iconic characters and the AoF series is the backbone of SNK’s lineup. The problem is they haven’t aged that well, they actually do each other a disservice when collected, and it just hasn’t ported well to the PS2 due to the default controller Sony owners have to use. I really wish I could have scored this gamer higher, and 15 years ago I would have. Sadly, the SNK age is over, the era of 2-D fighters as the most popular form of gaming is over, and the difficulty of SNK’s game to newcomers is a combination that the AoF games just can’t overcome. Again, I’m glad to have it in my library and I’m hoping this does well enough for other SNK compilations to occur, but AoF is best remembered for what sprang from it rather than how it holds up today.

Miscellaneous Rating: 6/10

The Scores
Story: 9/10
Graphics: 6/10
Sound: 6/10
Control & Gameplay: 6/10
Replayability: 5/10
Balance: 3/10
Originality: 7/10
Addictiveness: 5/10
Appeal Factor: 3/10
Miscellaneous: 6/10
Total Score: 56 /100

Final Score: 5.5/10

Short Attention Span Summary
An above average collection that would have done better with some history or bonus features like character bios or the like. Alas, that would have brought the price up. Simply put AoF hasn’t aged well, even for us SNK diehards. If you see it, I’d still advise picking it up for nostalgia reasons, but if you’re new to the genre or SNK in general, this isn’t what you want to be your first taste.