Since 1994, SNK has released a yearly collaboration and get together of their greatest fighters, ranging from Terry Bogard from the Fatal Fury series, to Ralf Jones from the ancient Ikari Warriors. The theme for the King of Fighters tournament (KOF) has remained constant throughout the years, choose a team of three and take turns in fighting another group of three. Now, the 1997 edition of SNKs fighting masterpiece has finally arrived on Segas blackbox, and perhaps for the last time

Upon loading the game, the first thing that hit me was the wealth and depth of the options and modes available, especially compared to Capcoms recent fighting titles Vampire Savior, and X-Men Vs SF. These include Team Play, Single Play, Survivor Mode, Practice Mode, and even an Art Gallery ala SF Alpha 2. Along with the large detail in the options, the overall presentation of KOF 97 is reasonably impressive. The game is portrayed like a television broadcast, with the prelude to each stage being a nice animated logo, and screen containing various details of the fight like the match location, and crowd attendance.

The game plays very similar to the previous KOF titles, as expected. The choice between Advanced, and Extra Modes allows for users to hone into the fighters style. Advanced Mode is similar to the 1996 engine, where powers may be stored up to three, and rolls can be executed. On the other hand, Extra Mode is based around the 1994/95 system, where only one power is stored, and dodging is allowed. I personally choose Advanced so I can stock up on powers, thereby providing me with a greater opportunity to make a last ditch comeback with my final fighter. Essentially it all depends on personal taste, as well as the team you choose.

Now onto the all-important scoring.

Graphics: 8.5

The sprites are reasonably detailed, and most of the frames of animation have seemingly been kept intact. The background does look a bit bland, and boring in my opinion, especially compared to X-Men Vs SF, where parts of the ground break up during fights. On the topic of comparisons, the graphics dont really compare to Capcoms cartoon style, and vibrant visuals. Overall, the graphics do resemble the Neo Geo version closely, but in terms of the grand scheme of things, dont really match up with the Capcom fighters.

Sounds: 7.0

Clearly the weakest aspect of the game. The background music is extremely poor, weak, and monotonous. It unfortunately detracts from the atmosphere, and environment of the game. On a brighter note, the sound effects are above average, and clearer than previous KOF outings on the Saturn.

Control: 9.5

Responsive, tight, and precise, like how most games are today. Even options for the novices to assign special moves to a single button. The combos are hard to carry out, but this is the same for all SNK games, and it just makes it more rewarding when you do. Of course as with anything, practice makes perfect.

GamePlay: 9.0

Loads of depth with 30+ fighters, and multiple endings in one player mode. To get the most out of this game, like every other fighting title, a second player is required. Since this game only utilises the One meg cartridge as opposed to the Four, there is about a 5-second delay between fights, and a 3-second delay during the change of fighters. This does interrupt the flow of the fight somewhat, but the delay is reasonable as it could have been definitely been a lot worse (e.g., anyone played KOF 95 on the PSX? actually any 2D fighter on Sonys console).

Overall: 9.0

Ever since the release of Street Fighter 2, there have been an endless line of attempted clones, and wannabes attempting to ride the success of Capcoms fighting genius. Now, about seven years on, the trend has turned towards 3D fighters, with titles like Virtua Fighter, and Tekken. The 2D fighting market is still fairly large, and all the pretenders have dried up, living us with realistically only two companies involved in the genre, Capcom, and SNK.

Capcom have gone the way of big explosions, 100+ hit combos, and large colourful sprites, as in the VS series like Marvel Vs Capcom, and X-Men Vs SF. They also have retained an element of the original SF formula in the SF 3, but this title hasnt really caught on anywhere. On the other hand, SNK in recent times via the Neo Geo have released an enormous amount of 2D fighters, starting with Fatal Fury, Art of Fighting, Samurai Showdown, World Heroes, and current titles like Real Bout 2, and Last Blade. Without any disrespect to the aforementioned titles, the best series that they have produced has to be the King of Fighters series. While Capcom have changed their tact a bit with high impact titles, SNK have adhered to their original formula as evidenced by the KOF series.

I personally love KOF 97, and its the strategic component that draws me in. Not relying on button smashing, and random swirling of the control pad, and having some form of game plan to fights, thats the aspect that I love. I dont need the fancy graphics, and crazy combos, in a fighting game. What KOF delivers is a solid fighting game, loaded with fighters, and options, coupled with the old strategic fighting style. Exactly what I want.

Overall, KOF 97 is not a perfect conversion visually and sonically. Many people will complain about the use of the 1 meg cartridge, and not the 4 meg cartridge, but the bottom line is that the gameplay is all there. If youre a fan of the arcade I recommend this title, as well as any serious 2D or SNK fighting fanatic. But if youre a casual fighter, probably X-Men Vs SF, or Vampire Savior(both truly excellent games) is the title more suited towards your tastes.

The Saturn is dying but with great 2D fighters like this coming out on a regular basis(on import), it once again reaffirms its position as the greatest machine for 2D fighters, albeit with virtually no reasonable competitors.