Maybe Mortal Kombat was successful simply because it had a little support…
Nintendo has a weird history with the arcades. Donkey Kong is amazing. Donkey Kong is a game that is still, to this day, played in arcade cabinets across our nation’s seven remaining arcades. But past Donkey Kong? The likes of Clu Clu Land, Balloon Fight, or friggen Ice Climber never made a remotely similar smash. Even Donkey Kong’s sequels, DK Jr. and Stanley’s Big Adventure, received lukewarm receptions compared to many of their contemporaries. Pac-Man wound up with some warmly received sequels, but there was never a Ms. Donkey Kong to put Nintendo at the top of the arcade again.
But it could easily be argued that Nintendo didn’t ever need to rule the arcade. Sure, it would be nice to have more money and a market 100% held in Mario’s fireball-tossing hands, but Nintendo so totally dominated the console market that it seemed almost quaint that companies bothered with that other hardware. And when your Street Fighters or Mortal Kombats finally had to make their way to people’s basements and bedrooms, it was Nintendo holding the keys to the door. Nintendo would get a piece of that arcade dough one way or another, it just might need to send out an issue of Nintendo Power to remind its loyal base it was time to get hyped about that game they played at the mall a year ago. And don’t forget to promote Mario Paint if there are a few pages left!
But it seems like the cradle of the baby N64 Empire decided to include an arcade pacifier. Back in 1994, Nintendo struck up a deal with WMS Industries, the parent company of Midway, and started development of arcade cabinets based on Nintendo 64 architecture. Excuse me, at the time, it was known as ULTRA 64. Cruis’n USA was born of this union, and, just to prove that Nintendo was a “mature” and “serious” company, we also saw Rare create Killer Instinct, a fighting game more than a little inspired by Mortal Kombat.
Killer Instinct had it all. You want stylish fights that employ the cerebral combo system of Street Fighter? We got that! And you can even dial-a-combo if linking a special move to a sweep kick is a little too complicated. Oh! And great special moves! Totally unique for every character! Unique punches, kicks, and even combo breakers, too! But there’s blood! So much blood! These fighters are blood balloons, just like in Mortal Kombat, and you can even do fatalities. They’re called “No Mercies”, but every character has two, and a cool CGI movie plays afterwards. It’s rad! We’ve got stylish finishers with Ultimate and Ultra Combos! And funny finishers with our Humiliations! And the final boss? If you thought Goro was a menace, you’re going to love Eyedol! And you can even play as him if you know the code! Killer Instinct is jam-packed with every fighting game convention you could ever want.
In fact, it almost seems like Killer Instinct was designed by committee to be the “ultimate” fighting game. Not only did it adopt practically every beloved trope from the genre at the time, but it also seemed to lean heavily into disguising its own flaws. The sleek, “metallic” graphics of the Ultra 64 might look futuristic… but they can’t render a human being that looks human. But does that matter when you only have four humans on the roster? Do you want to play as “the ninja” or “the girl”, or do you want to try out the dinosaur, skeleton, werewolf, fire elemental, ice alien, or robot? B. Orchid looks vaguely monstrous, which is probably why you’re more likely to pick one of the roster’s literal monsters. Nobody wanted to see this engine’s M. Bison, they went straight for a hulking ogre with a club. In a way, it seems obvious how Killer Instinct was calculated to be the king of the arcade.
And, honestly, that was a break from about 90% of fighting games released in the 90’s. So many games were chasing the tails of Street Fighter and then Mortal Kombat that it seemed like a great many shot out of development studios before even the tiniest bit of polish. In fact, that was likely seen as a feature, not a bug, as if Fighter’s Generic Championship actually wound up being a hit, then they’d make it an actually good game for the Super Fighter’s Generic Championship Turbo upgrade. Much like many gaming fads, a number of games superficially copied what was popular in the genre, but did very little to capture what truly made those games great in the first place (see also later fad examples: GTA, Skyrim). Killer Instinct had all the refinement of a real fighting game release, and the arcade rats of the time responded in kind. To this day, there are those that claim Killer Instinct is one of the best fighting games ever made.
Unfortunately, the Ultra 64 was not one of the greatest systems ever made.
Killer Instinct featured an attract mode that advertised it would soon be coming to your living room through the new, amazing Ultra 64 home console, available shortly. It… was not to be. The Ultra 64 was delayed at least a year past its original mark, and Killer Instinct gradually became old news (oh, hello Mortal Kombat 3). In an effort to not lose on this investment, Nintendo decided to port Killer Instinct to the Super Nintendo for the 1995 Christmas season. It was a blisteringly compromised port, and, give or take a rad black cartridge, it was arguably a complete waste. Okay, maybe it wasn’t utterly terrible, but a healthy chunk of what made Killer Instinct into an arcade juggernaut was left on the cutting room floor. Maybe it was yet another secret advertisement for the Ultra 64, though, as apparently the SNES wasn’t going to be able to capture the “arcade experience” for much longer…
But if Killer Instinct was ported to the SNES, what would the Ultra 64 have to offer? Killer Instinct 2 was rushed into arcades the following year, and three new human characters were added to the roster, because someone finally figured out how to render a face that didn’t look like it had recently encountered a shovel. And it was a success! It was not nearly as revolutionary as its predecessor (and, in a world where Nintendo didn’t need to promote its latest system, it likely would have “only” been a “super turbo edition”), but it did offer new and interesting twists on the genre, like an insane combo system and branching endings. Thus, there was a new Killer Instinct all ready for the release of the newly-dubbed N64.
And then we got Killer Instinct Gold with (roughly) the launch of the N64.
And then the N64 was a distant second behind the success of the Playstation. And the Playstation’s FMV magic made JRPGs the hottest new genre. And the fighting game fad faded into nothing. And Killer Instinct was never seen again.
It’s pretty obvious what happened: Killer Instinct was supposed to prove the worth of the N64 and Nintendo’s own dominance in the fighting genre… but, despite Killer Instinct doing everything right, the winds of popularity changed directions, and KI was left out in the cold. While KI’s contemporaries went on to see sequels even during the fighting game-lean Playstation 2 years, Killer Instinct sat inert for decades, only returning in 2013 when Microsoft needed a new way to showcase dinosaurs fighting skeletons on its latest gaming hardware. This version of Killer Instinct saw support for a solid five years, and given the overall success of the project, a Killer Instinct “4” would not be the most unusual announcement.
And it just goes to show that all Killer Instinct needed was a little support from its corporate masters, whether they be Nintendo or Microsoft or whoever is next (maybe… Google?). People like Killer Instinct. It is a good franchise. And, in another world, it received the same consistent support as Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat. In that world, Killer Instinct 9 is just gearing up for another reboot, and we’re all anxiously anticipating what crazy bionic implant Sabrewulf is going to get next.
But, in this world, Killer Instinct was doomed by its rulers. In this world, we’re just left to wonder what other games suffered the same fate…
FGC #453 Killer Instinct
- System: Arcade for the big boy version, and then Super Nintendo for the itty bitty version. There was also an even more widdle itty bitty version on the Gameboy, too. Oh, and I suppose we should count the Xbone promotional port of the arcade version. That’s probably your best bet.
- Number of players: One plus punch equals two.
- Favorite Fighter: This is a tough one! Glacius is my boy, as a teleporting uppercut is satisfying and useful. But I also might side with Riptor, the first lady of fighting dinosaurs. It’s Dinosaurs vs. Aliens here at Killer Instinct.
- Imitation is Flattery? Cinder the fire dude is very similar to the eventual Mortal Kombat boss/hidden kharacter Blaze. Spinal the super battling skeleton may as well be Meat of Mortal Kombat 4. And don’t get me started on the similarity between later versions of Reptile and Riptor. Good thing MK never had a werewolf!
- What’s in a name? The big, scary company that is responsible for the Killer Instinct tournament is known as Ultra Tech. While they are responsible for amazing innovations like reanimating the dead and firing up killer robots, they do seem to be unequivocally evil in the overall plot. This is kind of odd given the whole thing was supposed to promote the Ultra 64.
- Race Relations: T.J. Combo is very subtly treated extremely terribly by the Killer Instinct narrative. He was a successful boxer, but became disgraced, and was forced to “return to the ghetto” (per in-game bio) for Killer Instinct 1. Then, he was injured during KI, but was caught in the time travel shenanigans of Killer Instinct 2 because he was at the Ultra Tech building “looting”. The reboot makes T.J. Combo more “good” and less “greedy”, but still predominantly maintains the same “disgraced boxer” status. This is in sharp contrast to characters like Cinder, who got upgraded from “criminal” to “decorated special forces operative”. I wonder what is different about T.J. Combo from the other fighters that seems to keep him narratively down?
- Did you know? Eyedol’s ending is a parody of Blanka’s Street Fighter 2 ending, wherein a mother discovers her long lost son has become a fighting monster. Blanka’s real name is revealed to be Jimmy, but Eyedol winds up with “Billy”. Why? Well, say “Billy Eyedol” out loud.
- Would I play again: I should think so. As a novelty, yes, but the game is pretty good for a 90’s fighter. Now I just need to get that Eyedol code working again…
What’s next? Humiliations are funny and all, but have you ever seen someone fighting with clay? Please look forward to it!