You ever revolutionize a genre, and everybody forgets you did it?
The history of fighting games is long and complicated, but there are some milestones that may be used to keep things simple. Many people recognize Street Fighter 2 as the official start of the fighting game craze. However, by the time Street Fighter 3: Third Strike rolled around, the humble fighting genre (and its home, the arcade) was all but dead. For a time, all we had was Aksys and random crossovers to keep the embers burning, but Street Fighter 4 returned to revitalize the genre. Was 2008’s Street Fighter 4 the sole reason 2-D fighting games returned to prominence? No, but it did prove that the quarter munchers could move to the online space, and no more would we be forced to subsist exclusively on weird Mortal Kombat kart racers. Street Fighter 4 is arguably one of the least experimental Street Fighter titles in Capcom’s stable, but it was what the desert needed after an eleven-year draught.
And if you want the innovation that would define the fighting game genre for years to come, you need to look at Killer Instinct.
Everything has a season
Popular knowledge says the original Killer Instinct was little more than a Mortal Kombat clone (klone?). It was a naked attempt by Rare and Nintendo to capitalize on the violent fighting game craze without sullying Mario’s lilywhite gloves. And, when Killer Instinct returned years later to showcase the Xbox One, it seemed to be filling much the same space. While the Xbox 360 and its Xbox Live had defined online gaming for a console generation, the Xbox One needed a new Halo to dominate a different genre. Killer Instinct was to be a killer app!
Except… it kind of looked like Double Helix didn’t believe in its own hype.
A fighting game lives and dies by its roster. Some games are legendary thanks to their fighters, and many fail because they cannot support a single memorable pugilist. Killer Instinct launched with… the cast of Killer Instinct. But without the good ones! Riptor the fighting dinosaur was nowhere to be seen, nor was the dual-headed dueler, Eyedol. Seemingly all traces of Killer Instinct 2/Gold were gone (our dear werewolf lost his cybernetic appendages! And he’s supposed to be a cyberwolf!), and we had a measly one fresh fighter to showcase a new generation. Oh, and thanks to this anemic roster, marquee robot Fulgore was positioned as the big bad, and Jago was supposed to be our Ryu (complete with “Evil” version as a super boss). And Jago… geez… You can’t spell “generic” without “Jago” (this is probably true in some language). Killer Instinct’s launch was positioned to properly piss off fans old and new. The newbies wondered why the best this game could give us is a basic Native American lightning guy (named Thunder!) in the year of our Lord 2013, and any veterans were left wondering when the hell we would finally get to play as the gargoyle or fire guy.
But there would be an answer: next season.
Killer Instinct wound up with three distinct seasons. Each season brought us an equal number of new characters, ultimately more than tripling the final roster of Killer Instinct. In time, all the old fighters would return. In time, we would be granted new, innovative characters. In time, we would see Thunder’s brother, Fulgore’s prototype, and bosses new and old. Season 2 and Season 3 were always just on the horizon, and eternally sending a clear message to the playerbase: this gets better. Play now, get good, and you’ll be ready when Gargos finally flies onto the stage.
There is more on the way. Get hype.
And speaking of hype…
Every character can be an event
Let’s revisit Riptor.
I don’t mind saying that that dang dinosaur was my favorite lady in any original Killer Instinct. She seemed to adapt well to my playstyle (which is likely best described as “Impatient Guile”), and when she was not available for Killer Instinct (2013), I was heartbroken. Was dinosaur technology too expensive in this modern age? Was Jurassic Park not the draw it was back in the 90’s? Did the design staff decide they didn’t want to wade into the feathers versus scales debate? Whatever the case, Riptor was gone, and there was no way of knowing if she was ever coming back.
And then, as part of Season 2, we received the Riptor trailer. It was an in-world advertisement for Ultra Tech’s latest cybernetic dinosaur technology, and positioned as a rival to the robotic Fulgore line. Machine-gun ‘bots can’t go everywhere, so here’s your own private raptor! The video seemed to delight in noting that this was not a historically accurate dinosaur, but a creature created by modern science to be something unique. She has a robot tail! What more could you ask for!?
Get Excited for this new dinosaur fighter! Coming December 17! And maybe there is a teaser for the next, wholly new character at the end there! Coming January 30!
And this “hype cycle” became the norm for Killer Instinct throughout its four years of support. If there was a new season on the horizon, you knew one of the big boys was coming back… and who could it be!? Tune in to the next announcement and find out! And when the character is released, enjoy playing Killer Instinct all over again! It is not just about a new one-player campaign, it is about that online community waking back up, and getting back into the groove, because everybody wants to see how the new car handles (or how to best punch said new car).
Give it a trailer and a proper hype cycle, and you could even care about a rash.
And since we’re getting a rash anyway…
Get hyped for guests
Crossovers are nothing new. Ever since Akuma invaded X-Men: Children of the Atom, seeing a guest fighter on the roster has been old hat. Mind you, the likes of Gon or Freddy have always been fun, but they always felt more like an afterthought than anything else. Link is fighting for the Soulcalibur? Well, that’s cool, but we are here for Nightmare, not the elf.
What made Killer Instinct’s guests any different? Simple: it’s all about timing.
Killer Instinct’s first two guest characters, Arbiter of Halo and Rash of Battletoads, were released at the start of Season 3. And that made all the difference, as crossover characters had previously been either part of a game from the start (in the days before DLC), or were the absolute final, “whatever works” additions of the end of a game’s lifecycle. Sticking the Sangheili and the amphibian there at the top of the season meant that the rest of the season was wide open for speculation. And rumors were abound! With two absurd choices establishing that anything was possible, a renewed interest in Killer Instinct was fueled by the possibility of seeing anyone from Solar Jetman to Banjo Kazooie to James Bond. And while we only ever saw a worthy follow-up in Gears of War’s General RAAM, the possibilities certainly did the job of putting Killer Instinct back on the map. And you could draw a pretty obvious line from Rash to the eventual bonus characters of Thunder’s brother and “that lady from the Ring, but she moves faster”. You could argue these guest characters were generic compared to a straight up “here’s Kazuya”, but even when you don’t have the likes of Sora or Sephiroth, you can generate practically infinite excitement.
But focusing exclusively on the roster isn’t the only thing that makes Killer Instinct great, the single player content also includes…
Train the player
Killer Instinct was initially released with a “freemium” version. Said version was 100% free, though included only one playable character. In a way, this makes it little more than a demo, and an easy way to see if Killer Instinct is right for you. But Killer Instinct: Free did include one very important mode that made all the difference: Dojo Mode.
Dojo Mode was like your traditional training mode of the time, but so much more. Yes, you could practice special moves and combos, but it also included lessons that would teach a player exactly how to use their selected character. What’s more, it allowed the player to toggle hit/hurtboxes, finally illustrating oblique terms that had previously only been the domain of fighting game aficionados. Killer Instinct was an in-depth game, as it included everything from instinct cancels to combo breakers, but this training mode took the time to break down absolutely everything, including items like spacing and meter management that could be applied to any fighting game. Killer Instinct wants you to “get gud”, and it does a lot more to get you there than whip your ass in a survival mode.
But even that likely pales behind…
Reward the player
At its core, Killer Instinct is a basic fighting game, and fighting games have always been all about “rewards” in single player content. The Street Fighter franchise was always fond of claiming that unique endings were the greatest incentive anyone could ever imagine, and the Mortal Kombat franchise turned unlocking the roster into a quest onto itself. Killer Instinct Gold, Killer Instinct’s previously most prominent console release, seemed to primarily rely on codes for its unlocks, but special golden characters could only be acquired with skill and perseverance.
And now in Killer Instinct (2013)? The most perseverance you need is selecting a character.
By the time Killer Instinct: Definitive Edition rolled around, there were nearly an even 30 fighters available. And everyone came complete with three single-player achievements. You could earn a trophy for simple, everyday tasks like winning a match, winning a match (but in survival mode), and reaching character level three. Oh, what’s this about character levels? Every individual selectable character earns experience points every time you play as them, and, win or lose, you will accrue exp for your pugilists. And don’t even get me started on the rewards that are available once you wade into the world of online ranking…
And, while the “service” end of this has now ended, please remember a recent present where the simple matter of booting up Killer Instinct once a week could yield new and exciting incentives. Maybe there would be a new character available that was free-to-play for a limited time. Maybe your “main” was able to earn bonus experience this week, so ripping into Riptor would be the best use of your Tuesday. Maybe there was a special extra for the friggen’ roguelike that somehow became part of Killer Instinct Season 3. Even if you weren’t stopping back in Killer Instinct every month for a new character, KI went out of its way to find reasons to train a player into logging in at least once a week to haul in the extra loot available.
And, like all the items on this list, Killer Instinct did not invent rewarding the player, it simply made it a focus for the game. So, like its training modes, seasons, and hype cycles, it became just as important to Killer Instinct as the fireball motion was to Street Fighter 2. You cannot have Ryu without a dragon punch, and you will never see Eyedol again without a trailer and bonus achievements.
And as for whether or not this all made an impact on the fighting game ecosystem? Well, just go ahead and mail me a letter from the future, and confirm when Street Fighter 6 inevitably has literally everything mentioned across this article…
FGC #646 Killer Instinct (2013)
- System: Initially it was the killer app exclusive to the Xbox One. Then it migrated over to Microsoft Windows about three years later.
- Number of players: Two whole people, fighting each other from anywhere on the world wide web.
- Just play the gig, man: The music in Killer Instinct is not only distinctly pretty damn good, it is also integrated into the gameplay to an absurd degree. Moving a cursor around the pause menu plays tones matching the current theme! And Ultra Combo incorporation! It is difficult to describe in words, but this is one feature that I would like to see integrated in every future fighting game… even if it would then add an extra six months to development…
- Story Time: For a fighting game franchise, Killer Instinct’s mythos are surprisingly coherent. Mind you, this is likely because the franchise does not have to accommodate twenty years and two reboots like some franchises, but this is a pretty straightforward story of swords and sorcery demons being unearthed by a contemporary, uncaring conglomerate. And, hey, the UltraTech company is unabashedly as evil as an immortal gargoyle demon. We need more games with easy-to-understand morals like that.
- Single Player: This is one of the few fighting games where I feel I do not need an “arcade mode”, and am happy just stopping into Vs. CPU mode with random select. I literally cannot tell you why this is the case, but firing up a random match in Killer Instinct feels a lot more natural than in Guilty Gear or Street Fighter. Maybe I am just a sucker for experience points…
- Favorite Character: My allegiance to Riptor has already been plainly stated. Glacius was actually part of the original game, so he would be my pick if we have to go with someone that was there from the start. If I have to pick a new character, it is Mira the vampire. Fighting games need more vampires.
- Did you know? You could easily make the argument that the original Killer Instinct roster was little more than a cross between gaming character clichés (ninja, femme fatale, fire elemental) and generic movie monsters (dinosaur, werewolf, skeleton, alien). So it is appropriate that KI Season 2 introduced characters such as mummy, big statue, GLaDOS, and that girl from the Ring. They’re not derivative! They’re following the template!
- Would I play again: This is my favorite Xbox fighting game. Mind you, all my other fighting games on my Playstation… but still! Basically, if my Xbox X is on at all, there are really good odds this will get played for at least as long as it takes to download my latest game’s updates. I assure you, this is high praise.
What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Final Fantasy 10! Oh boy! I bet it will be a laugh riot! Please look forward to it!