Meant to be a graphical showcase for Nintendo’s Ultra 64 hardware, the original Killer Instinct clearly prioritized style over substance. It’s rendered visuals were ahead of anything else at the time and its gameplay allowed players to pull off combos that routinely featured dozens of hits. For the most part, that was all it needed to be a success at the arcade and on the Super Nintendo.
With so many great fighting games out now and a community of players that is smarter than ever, it’s going to take more than pretty graphics, a loud announcer and flashy combos to make an impact. Luckily for us, Killer Instinct returns with some bite while retaining the essence of what made the original fun in the first place.
Released as a downloadable title, there are a few different price points you can experience the game at. If you’re looking to dip your toe into the pool, you’ll get access to all of the game’s modes and one unlocked character for free. That free character is usually Jago, but they do run special events where they’ll unlock other characters for a limited time. I really like Jago, so I probably could have gone very far without investing, though most people will probably want access to others on the roster.
To unlock the others, you can either pay $5 per character, or $20 to get all eight that are available. If you want to dive even further, you can unlock all 8 characters and get a copy of the original Killer Instinct for $40. I think that the $20 bundle is the way to go based on the value you get from unlocking everyone, but I’m glad that there’s choice for those who want to spend less or more.
Having said that, 8 characters is pretty small compared to most fighting games on the market. A roster of its size puts it about on pace with Skullgirls, which is also a new fighting game within the same price point, but most fighters nowadays have many more characters to use. For the price, I’m fine with the cast size, and it helps tremendously that the game does a much better job of differentiating the characters from each other versus the original. For instance, Chief Thunder is now a grappler, so most of his strategy will revolve around getting in close to get a hold of you. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Glacius, whose long-ranged attacks and projectiles make him much more of a threat at long distances. Sure, most of the cast fits into the standard fighting game design tropes, but it works well here.
Combat is much more refined here than it ever was in the old game. Back when the original was made, it wasn’t technically feasible for characters to touch other, which caused the omission of throw maneuvers. Removing throws led to a serious reduction in strategic depth, as well as no real viable options to stop someone from turtling. Now that every character has a standard throw and certain characters have command grabs, the number of options you have as a combatant in Killer Instinct are now in line with what you’d get in other fighters.
From there, Double Helix Games took a lot of cues from other fighters to modernize the feel of the game. Most of its modern touches come from Street Fighter IV. Everything from the movement of your characters, to dashing, to the ways in which shadow moves vary from regular special moves is cribbed from Capcom’s title. Instinct Mode is another new feature to Killer Instinct, which is sort of a variant of X-Factor from Marvel vs. Capcom 3. By executing it, your character will stop whatever action they were in the midst of doing and gain some sort of character-specific benefit. Orchid has one of the most dramatic Instinct Mode bonuses, as she’s able to summon firecats that will rush at her opponents. All of these systems have been elegantly implemented here to bring this up to code with its competition.
While much of the game’s framework has been influenced by the work of others, its signature combo system is surprisingly intact for the most part. Players can string together large combos through the use of openers, auto doubles, linkers and enders, most of which work the same as they did in the old games. Combo sequences may be long, though the game is extremely lenient with input timing. Most of the time, you can simply dial in your inputs and watch the madness unfold. With some practice in the game’s training mode, you should be able to pull off some sweet looking combos relatively quickly.
Simply having a few pocket combos will only get you so far, as opponents can quash your sequences with combo breakers. If your opponent is able to successfully guess your next hit, they’ll swat you away. The longer you make your combos, the more opportunities they have to break out of it. However, if they incorrectly guess your next move, they’re locked out, and you’re free to wail on them at will. Between dishing out some crazy combinations and the options you have to defend yourself from such onslaughts, there’s a lot of different ways for beginners or experts to approach the fight in a way that feels like classic Killer Instinct.
In terms of game modes, this game has just enough of the essentials. Online play is great, as all of the action runs very smooth, save for a few rare instances where the connection goes out of sync and weird things happen. If you’re looking to train, the tutorial mode does a great job of teaching the basics, as well as more advanced strategies and tactics. I wish the game contained character-specific tutorials, but that may be asking for a much when the game can be played for as cheap as $0. If for some reason you only want to play against the computer, there isn’t much here except for a standard-issue arcade mode and survival mode. Personally, I’m not stressing over that too much, especially when you can play through both modes without paying anything.
The quality of the original Killer Instinct many years ago may have been suspect, but the 2013 reboot is the real deal. By liberally cribbing from modern fighting game hits while retaining the best parts of what made the original great, this is a game that features equal parts style and substance. Fight fans, whether you own an Xbox One or not, really should make an effort to play one of the best new fighting games out there.