Killer Instinct is one of those games which I always remember fondly from childhood. Having only had brief glimpses of Mortal Kombat at friends’ houses or the very occasional ferry arcade, this was probably the first “mature” title I’d ever been properly introduced to (or mature for 1995, at least!). My brothers and I also had Street Fighter II Turbo: Hyper Fighting in our small but select SNES collection, but there’s nothing like a bit of blood and gore to set a seven year old’s heart on fire.
But much like my track-record with strategy games, fighting games have never been one my strong suits either. I have been known to crack open a few cans of whoop-ass in my time, but those have mostly been confined to late-night bouts of Soul Calibur II on GameCube, which is perhaps the only fighting game I’ve ever truly “mastered” (and that’s in very literal inverted commas, too). Despite my lack of fighting prowess, however, I’ve always enjoyed playing them– even if I do have a tendency to button-mash sometimes– and considering Microsoft have just renewed the “Killer Instinct” trademark after years of hushed silence surrounding a sequel to this cult classic, what better game to kick off our next instalment of Square Roots than the SNES original?
Of course, anyone used to modern fighting games will probably find Killer Instinct‘s bare-knuckle menu screen a little underwhelming at first. There’s no story campaign, no challenges, no hundreds of superfluous fighting modes… There’s simply the traditional single player mode, which sees you fight off against Killer Instinct‘s twelve strong roster of fighters one after the other, a two-player mode where you can brawl against a friend, a tournament mode so even more people could join in the KI killing spree, and the now-standard practice mode.
Jago had no idea what was coming…
Despite its pared-back approach, though, everyone knows that Killer Instinct is about one thing only: combos. This was the game that allowed you to string together any number of moves all in one go (sometimes over 80 hits if you were really good!), unleashing untold levels of humiliation on your opponents and friends– although there were also separate “Humiliation” finishing moves too, I might add. Many arguments were had over who had the highest KI combo when I was younger, so much so that we even kept a record of who completed what combo with each character– my highest were a measly nine moves with Cinder and five moves with Glacius, in case you were wondering (I told you I wasn’t very good!), while my brothers all boasted “ultra” combos in the twenties with B. Orchid, Spinal and T.J. Combo.
In this sense, the practice mode is an absolute godsend, as there’s simply no other way to try out these insane moves anywhere else other than the live combat rounds. But while it may have been ahead of Street Fighter II Turbo in this respect, which didn’t have a practice mode at all, it also didn’t have the foresight to include an in-game tutorial or move list to help you out in said practice mode, and this made getting back to basics a rather more trying affair than I had initially expected– especially since I also seem to have misplaced our instruction booklet somewhere along the line as well! That said, one of Killer Instinct‘s main strengths is that it borrowed many of Street Fighter’s individual attack sets, meaning that anyone familiar with Capcom’s popular brawler (which at the time was nearly everyone) could more or less pick it up straight away.
And pick it up again I did, albeit this time with B. Orchid rather than Cinder or Glacius. In hindsight, I’m not really sure why I picked them as my characters of choice because their attack sets are all pretty poor, but let me tell you, knocking out a combo again now feels just as satisfying as it did nearly seventeen years ago (even if I could only manage a maximum combo of eight moves instead of nine). Still, no matter how paltry the number, there’s little doubt that it still leaves its rivals (both then and now) feeling ever-so slightly underwhelming by comparison.
User-friendly controls weren’t the only part of Killer Instinct‘s allure, however, as it also boasted the same kind of edgy violence as Mortal Kombat, complete with Fatality-style finishing moves as well as the aforementioned humiliation moves. It skimped slightly on the dismemberment and excessive brutality, but when your opponent entered the red “danger” zone of their health bar, you had a certain amount of time to execute one of two finishing moves unique to each character. To name just a few, Cinder, as his namesake suggests, could incinerate you, Fulgore’s head could transform into a huge machine gun, Thunder could zap you with lightning, and B. Orchid could either turn you into a frog and stamp on your head or bust open her top and give you an eyeball-boggling-related heart-attack.
But while Killer Instinct was way ahead of the competition in terms of graphics and ripping into your opponent, there are certain parts of the game that have lost some of their original charm over the years, and they’re primarily in the sound department. Don’t get me wrong– Killer Instinct‘s soundtrack is great (in that ’90s electro-dance-pop kind of way), but there’s something about the sound effects that just doesn’t quite stand the test of time. Part of the problem comes from the fact that the SNES version of the game is actually a port of the arcade version, which had vastly superior sound effects and voice samples that were either lost or shortened when it came to developing the game for SNES, but even other SNES fighting games of its day still managed to do a better job than Killer Instinct when it came to creating a decent uppercut strike.
Take Street Fighter II Turbo, for example. It may not look as advanced as Killer Instinct, but its sound effects practically define the game. Whether it’s the mighty shout of a “Shoryuken!” or the ridiculously overblown pause music, it can still “Hadouken!” and “Sonic Boom!” itself into fighting game royalty due to the richness of its iconic audio effects, and this is something sorely missing in Killer Instinct. It may seem like a minor complaint, but just imagine what fighting games would be like without good punching sounds. When there’s no heft or oomph to a good left hook or crushing roundhouse kick, it runs the risk of making every move feel vapid and sloppy, often crippling the game before it’s even stepped out into the ring.
Spinal must have well and truly tapped his opponent not to lose one of his double life bars!
Thankfully, Killer Instinct‘s sound effects aren’t that dire– the commentator’s infamous “C-C-C-COMBO BREAKER!!” makes sure of that– but what Killer Instinct lacks in sound, it more than makes up for with its classic Rare sense of humour. Which other developer would make their characters dance to a funky disco track for their ultimate humiliation move, and who would completely lampoon your achievement of defeating the final boss by telling you the real challenge hasn’t even begun yet? Only Rare, that’s who. They were so cruel, in fact, that they even denied players a proper ending to the game until they completed it on a specific difficulty level (often without using any continues as well), making sure that only the most skilled fighters ever saw the true fate of their chosen characters. Harsh, yes, but it only made victory that much sweeter when you finally did beat the game and earned their praise and respect.
Of course, with Rare now being a first party developer for Microsoft, it’s unlikely that Killer Instinct will ever make another appearance on a Nintendo console, making the only real problem about playing Killer Instinct now is the fact that it’s, quite literally, a very rare game indeed. If you do find yourself with a chance to play it, however, it’s really quite unlike any fighting game you’ve ever played. It’ll take a bit of practice, but if you don’t feel even the smallest tickle of childish glee when you pull off your first combo, then there’s simply no helping you.