Retro Game Reviews: Killer Instinct



Hello everyone! Welcome back to the Ghosts of the Stratosphere for another fantastic article on some sort of assorted pop culture bric-a-brac that is guaranteed to make you less productive at work for at least the next 5 minutes!

As some of you might read previously, sometimes we get in the mood here at GotS to talk about video games instead of comics. Especially old skool video games from our youth, as there’s nothing better sometimes than a trip down that 8bit/16bit memory lane, where all the really great looking video games were still in arcades and you barely had quarters left to do your laundry after playing them all.

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However, once in a while, there was an arcade game that had such a great home port that it definitely had fans on either side of the aisle. With that in mind and with the help of my frequent collaborator here on GotS, Jabroniville, we’re going to take a look back on one of those great fighting games from the dim past that was equally good on both the arcade cabinet and the home console: The legendary “Killer Instinct”.

So without further ado, Jabroniville, can you give all of us some background on this game…?


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Killer Instinct was created by Nintendo & Rare in the olden days time period known as “1994”. Way back in this bygone era, Nintendo was taking a bit of a public shellacking, with their Super NES’ Mortal Kombat version lacking blood, SEGA’s Genesis/Mega Drive coming across as the bad-ass, cool ’90s alternative to Nintendo’s Kiddie Faire, and more.

Sales were still good, but with the Next Generation looming (and newcomer Sony now actively promoting their PlayStation system), and the “Ultra-64” lagging behind the other new systems, they needed a shot in the arm.

Rare was a great ’90s developmental team, focusing on using Pre-Rendered Graphics (ie. CGI & Polygons, but animated on a separate system, then basically just having their images copied onto sprite-format so they could be used on less-powerful hardware, giving us great-looking graphics on a cheaper budget) to give games a great look. Their Donkey Kong Country was one of the last huge gasps of the SNES, setting off a NEW franchise of games, and they got to work on a fighting game at the same time.

IMG_4731Donkey Kong Country was one of the best games out at that time as I remember. It looked so crisp and clean, like the creatures were modeled out of clay. As a result, it really did make that game stand out from the competition, and brought tons of people into the tent through sheer professionalism.

I won’t lie that I was super excited to play Killer Instinct when it was originally announced just because I thought it would be the next step in fighting games based on how wonderful the sprites looked. It turns out this was not that necessarily true given that really Virtual Fighter and true 3D Fighting games were the next step, but still for a game that used pretty much the same game mechanics as Street Fight, MK, and a slew of others, it was visually impressive!

The only thing that didn’t make sense was that Nintendo got into the whole Fighting game genre in the first place, given it’s often the safe haven for family friendly games as opposed to blood and gore punch fests.

Well, this being the mid-1990s, Fighting Games were THE big deal. With arcades still being huge, and Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat going at each other neck-and-neck for dominance, there were countless attempted successors.

SNK was doing great work with its veritable horde of fighters (Art of Fighting and Fatal Fury begat The King of Fighters, and their Samurai Shodown game was every bit as awesome as World Heroes was forgettable and lame), competing with Capcom, while SEGA’s Virtua Fighter was turning heads with its newfangled polygonal graphics and smooth movements.

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So it was natural for Nintendo to get Rare to build them a Fighting Game, but an edgier, violent one that took ample bits from Mortal Kombat’s playbook. They even got Midway, MK’s manufacturer, to publish it!

IMG_4731Look ,if there’s one thing that Midway knows how to do is put out Arcade cabinets that people will play.

I mean, the laundry list of games that Midway had that have been over the years is tremendous. We’re talking Defender, Joust, Sea Wolf, Tapper, Rampage, Spy Hunter, NFL Blitz, Arch Rivals, Wizards of Wor, again Mortal Kombat, Gauntlet Legends and the list goes on and on and on.

Of course they were going to let something as petty as brand loyalty to MK stand in the way of having another game that would rob pre teens blind in arcades throughout the country. That’s just smart business sense on both companies.

As an aside, kudos for Nintendo for branching back out into the arcade market after dominating the home console for years. Personally, I’m a huge fan of Nintendo’s early arcade offerings, with the arcade versions of Donkey Kong and Popeye being some of my all time favorites.

In any case, what I can remember from playing this game in the arcade was the massive amount of button mashing combos you could string together, a technique later made famous in games like “Marvel vs. Capcom”.

You are right, Andy. The game was a standard fighter, but focused on the use of combos, which was still in its infancy in most fighting games.

Combos in the game work like Special Moves in other fighters, often being instantly-activated with a command- many would go on for DOZENS of hits (some of them go up to EIGHTY HITS), which would become an iconic and mimetic attribute of the series (along with the infamous “C-C-C-C-C-COMBO BREAKER!”, which let a guy input a command to “break” the Combo in mid-move- this is a very complicated process involving using the right move and timing).

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Watching YouTube clips of this game is pretty weird, as the combo system means that every fight looks TOTALLY one-sided, with someone hitting 57 shots in a row and demolishing the other guy’s Life Bar in seconds.

It also copied Mortal Kombat’s Fatalities system (“No Mercy/Danger Move” in the first and second, respectively). Some of these are excellent by the way, such as Jago dropping a convertible on his opponents just because ninjas do can do that, I guess.

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In closing, it was sort of a “Best-Of-Three” fighter, but is a bit different that the norm. In KI, you fight until one person’s life bar fades, at which point he passes out, then gets up with a renewed bar, while the victor retains whatever life they had. The first one to lose BOTH life bars loses the match.

IMG_4731I always personally liked fighting games like this because it gave you the illusion that if you fell behind in a particular match, all that work that you did in pummeling your opponent before you lost still counted for something. It gave you the impression that a comeback was still within your reach, and that if you could only lay down a couple more combos, you’d regain the momentum.

That’s incredibly powerful in keeping you invested in finishing out the match so much more than just watching your opponent sneak a sucker punch in to win a round and then having to start all over again.

In any case, I’ve always been a little hazy on the plot of the game. Not that fighting games had to have a plot, but Mortal Kombat always had crazy in-depth mythology surrounding why certain characters appeared in the game and so forth.

Was that the case for Killer Instinct?

Sorry, but the answer is: NO!

The game revolves around your average Totally Forgettable Fighting Game Plot. This one in particular involves an Evil Corporation, Ultra Tech, funding a martial arts tournament, because…well because they needed a reason to fight. So in short, the plot here is unimportant and altogether pretty god-awful, as everyone’s just there because UltraTech is full of jerks and just throwing fighters into the mix.

In the original game you got the following characters:

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Chief Thunder- A top-heavy Native American warrior.
Jago- A top-heavy ninja hero.
Black Orchid– A top-heavy government agent.
Sabrewulf– A top-heavy werewolf.
T.J. Combo– A top-heavy pro boxer.
Riptor– A top-heavy velociraptor-man.
Fulgore– A top-heavy cyborg.
Spinal– A top-heavy skeleton.
Glacius– A top-heavy alien with ice powers.
Cinder– A top-heavy man of fire.
Eyedol- A top-heavy cycloptean Boss.

I never actually enjoyed the game too much, as I found the character designs pretty bad and overly hunched-over and as I pointed out repeatedly top-heavy (I think I got carpal tunnel from typing that out so many times). I will say though I did have some initial awe over Chief Thunder in the cover of a Game magazine that made him look like the most awesome Liefeldian Hero ever.


Plus, the combo system was kind of weird and the fighting styles a bit clunky in comparison to the smoother gameplay of Japanese-made fighters.

Some of the songs are BITCHING, though.

IMG_4731On that fact, I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree as I personally enjoyed the game immensely. I was easily one of my favorite fighting games in the years between Mortal Kombat and Soul Blade.

I can remember waiting in line at a local billiards room that had it for my change to put my quarters down for fight. Of course I won’t lie that I often got my ass handed to me more often than not by other young adults that had mastered the combos. They were really killers if you knew how to use them effectively. Still I loved the character design and that slick look that all the Rare games at the time had, so I gotta say it’s among my top 10 fighters of all time.

I have no doubt. The first game proved quite popular in arcades, using what was alleged to be the Ultra-64 cabinet, though it was actually something different. It even got a Super NES version, since the newly-rechristened Nintendo 64 was a still years away.

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It soon brought its Combo-Intensive gameplay to a sequel (Killer Instinct II in arcades; Killer Instinct Gold at home), which wasn’t nearly as successful. Killer Instinct faded away almost immediately, thanks to the rise of 3-D Fighting Games (Toshinden, Tekken and more), while 2-D Fighters had started to wither in the shadow of endless SF II & Mortal Kombat games, which had now been fully played out (they wouldn’t make a comeback for YEARS).

However, it was revealed in a bit of a shocker as a launch title for the X-Box One console, as a “free game” with downloadable content (the new cash-cow of modern video games, and believe me that THAT will only be getting worse as time goes by).

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The graphics are INSANE on it, making Street Fighter IV‘s hideously-rendered characters look like they were drawn by a pen squeezed between somebody’s butt-cheeks. Fans of the original apparently bashed the new one, which surprises me given how nerds are famous for their love of beloved franchises being changed.

IMG_4731Speaking of this game getting new life through that relaunch, we wouldn’t be a comic book related blog/podcast if we didn’t mention the fact that this franchise got its own comic book recently.

Released in 2017 by Dynamite, The Killer Instinct comic ran for 6 issues and was written by Ian Edginton with art by Cam Adams. The series is somewhat of a derivative of the standard Mortal Kombat storyline about a post apocalyptic future in which demons have turned the world into a wasteland and a few brave fighters punch their way to survival.

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Yeah…it’s about as good as it sounds.

To his credit, Ian is a pretty good writer though of this kind of genre given his past work on things like H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, his steampunk series Scarlet Traces, and his work with Dan Abnett on the Warhammer 40,0000 comic. However, it’s a largely forgettable licensing piece with not much value even to those that liked the Killer Instinct game series.

Still though, it’s got goofy over the top scenes like this which are worthy of at least a couple of chuckles. Yeah…that’s totally how I’m confronting the upcoming apocalypse. With a giant bad ass wolf sword and all!

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