I've been a fan of fighting games for longer then I can remember, so you can imagine the excitement to be had when I got a chance to pick up and play not just one, but all three of the Art of Fighting games in one nice little package. After playing through this disc rather vigorously I came to the conclusion that each AoF game is indeed a near identical copy to the ones that I played in the arcades over ten years ago. You would think that keeping these games the same would prove to be a great idea, but the execution proves otherwise. There were certain flaws that prevented the Art of Fighting series from ascending to greatness, many of which were tied to the unbelievably difficult AI. Since these are direct ports of the original games, no changes have been made to correct these issues. Instead of a nostalgic feeling, this presents a feeling of agitation, degradation and grief.
When the original Art of Fighting came out, it introduced some new elements into the fighting genre. This included a spirit bar which gave you a finite amount of power in which to use your special moves, the ability to bounce off the edge of the screen to get out of being cornered, desperation finishing moves that could turn defeat into victory, and the most often overlooked feature of the game which was the ability to taunt your opponent. The coolest new feature however had to be the visible facial damage (in the forms of bruises and welts) that came from a fighter routinely getting smacked in the face. It is something that has seldom been used in fighting games to this day, and back then it was certainly a marvel to see. This feature would also appear in AoF2 but it would suspiciously disappear by AoF3. However, the final game of the series still had a few notable changes to distinguish itself from its predecessors..
For those who do not know the story behind AoF, you have two rather ordinary looking chums who happen to be both friends and rivals, Ryo Sakazaki and Robert Garcia. All is going well for these two when suddenly Ryo's little sister Yuri is kidnapped by a shadowy underworld figure. It is up to the "Invincible Dragon" (Ryo) and the "Mighty Tiger" (Robert) to save the day. As riveting as this story is, the ones behind AoF2 and AoF3 are not as inspiring. AoF2 centers on the infamous King of the Fighters Tournament highlighted by a cameo appearance by a familiar face from another fighting franchise. AoF3 partially rehashes the story from AoF by substituting Yuri for a girl named Freia who has a big secret that could change the facet of the world as we know it! Okay, it not that dramatic, but I tried.
Upon starting up you are greeted with one of the very few loading screens within. Once you select your AoF game of choice, you get another loading screen followed by the all too familiar NEO-GEO welcome. This is emulation at its finest. Each game provides the standard one player story mode and a two player versus option. There is not much to do beyond this outside of beating the story modes with each character on every difficulty setting. You cannot take your game online and there are no real extras to speak of either. There is a colour edit option but after turning everyone into the Incredible Hulk, the appeal wears off fast.
The Art of Fighting series does have its positives and a good place to start is its memorial characters. Ryo and Robert are likable enough guys to get behind but the supporting players are worth a mention as well. AoF introduced us to Todo, not to be confused with the canine companion, Jack the resident bar brawler, Lee the maniacal masked enigma, King the Bouncer with the biggest video game secret since the Konami code, Mickey the reject from Street Fighter 2 Idol, John the posh GI guy and Mr. Big the lost James Bond villain. Rounding out this cast is the mysterious final boss with the rather innovative name of "??". You can find out his identity either by beating AoF or by just watching the intro for AoF2. Throw in a playable Yuri, the coolest looking ninja ever in Eiji Kisargi, and Temjin the Mongolian sumo and AoF2 gives you even more variety. Do not get too attached to these guys however because they all disappear in AoF3 and are replaced with less than stellar replacements. Rody Birts? Lenny Creston? Wang Koh San? Karman Cole? Jin Fuma? Sinclair? Wyler? Outside of Todo's daughter Kasumi this is a pretty unimpressive sounding bunch.
The graphics were and are the most impressive aspect of the AoF series. The characters are huge and nicely detailed; AoF and AoF2 have colorful and busy looking backgrounds which suit each game. The variety of detail that can be seen in the special moves, taunts, winning poses and the like indicate that great care was put into making each character stand out. The graphics in AoF3 however take a different approach. The backgrounds although still sharp do not look nearly as vibrant as those in the other AoFs. The characters are also smaller but have a more polished, mature look.
As for some negatives that have plagued the series, the control in AoF and AoF2 is tight, and prone to being unresponsive on occasion. You can use either the D-pad or analog stick but both are problematic when it comes to performing certain special moves. There will be times where you are certain you did the circular motion for a fireball and instead are left punching thin air. Things get better with practice but you are still at a disadvantage against the aggressive AI. The control does feel a bit looser in AoF2, and by AoF3 the control is actually quite good in comparison to the previous games.
The audio for the AOF series also improves from game to game. Some of the tunes from AOF get recycled and remixed into AoF2; it is just too bad that they are not all that great to begin with. By AoF3, the music gets significantly better with some nice rock and jazz like melodies that are more pleasing to the ear than what was offered previously. They may not hold up all that well today but since these are emulations, they at least remain true to the originals.
Quite possibly the worst aspect of the AoF series is the unbelievably difficult AI. The big gripe is how SNK made the games challenging. One example is that the computer is known to do the impossible by countering your attacks while you are in the process of completing certain moves. Upping the difficulty doesn't change how the AI functions; instead their attacks just take off more of your life bar. Case in point, blocking one of their special attacks is equivalent to the amount of damage as you connecting with a punch or kick. Blocking their desperation special attack results in the same damage you would inflict if you connect with a regular special move. AoF2 which is arguably the hardest game of the three introduces the ability for everyone to perform a throw. After a few rounds of getting tossed around like a rag doll you will want to go back to AoF where you had the upper hand in this department. By AoF3 the AI is more user friendly. It still is a challenging game but it should keep down the potential controller throwing and outbursts that may occur while playing the first two.
Is it worth putting down twenty bucks to get this trilogy? If you enjoyed any of the AoFs before, chances are you picked this up without a second thought. It also might be worth a purchase simply based on the fact that the original NEO-GEO AoF went for as much as $450 when it was first released. SNK has done a fine job emulating these games to work on your PS2 even if you are getting the same unimpressive audio, stiffening controls, and overly challenging AI that you were hoping to forget. This is certainly not the best anthology ever released, but the game can hold its own when standing next to some of the other very mediocre compilations out there.