Review: Killer Instinct: Season 1 for Xbox One
17 years without a new game before this C-C-Combo Breaker!
As I noted a a short time back, I’m new to being the proud owner of an Xbox One console, and I’ve had some catching up to do. Among the titles I’ve had to catch up on? None other than the long-awaited third entry in the Killer Instinct series.
Personally, I’ve always been a fan of Killer Instinct. I’ve been accused of only being a fan because it was originally published by Nintendo (and co-published by Midway for the arcade versions, but that doesn’t really lighten the matter), and I suppose that’s not entirely unfair, insomuch as that they are largely the ones who helped expose me to it. By that same note, though, I’m a fan of Mortal Kombat regardless of Nintendo, so this is where I shrug my shoulders.
Regardless of how I got here, I am and have always been a fan, one of those just waiting for the series to return to prominence. Turn back the clock to when they had a giant Xbox One set up in Yonge-Dundas Square before launch, and it wasn’t Ryse: Son of Rome I was interested in, nor Dead Rising 3. I just wanted to see what kind of combos I could string together in high definition.
One possible reason we might not have seen a sequel to Killer Instinct in all of this time is that they sort of wrapped up the story back in the second game; the premise behind the series involved two gods at war with each other, with the player facing the first as the final boss of the original game and the second in the sequel.
Here, we’ve got something of a reboot, albeit one that retains some of the revelations of the original games, such as the sibling relationship between two characters (being careful about spoilers, just in case). While one of the aforementioned final bosses is poised to make a return, the game has been focused more on a blend of classic and new characters to tell a newer version of the Ultratech story thus far.
Beyond that, fans of the original characters may be pleased to find that the story is much more fleshed out this time as well, though the wealth of details comes from material such as the Ultra-Combo.com website. Still, if you’re into just why everyone is slapping the taste out of each other’s mouths, it’s some nice reading and adds a bit more depth to this iteration of Killer Instinct that was a little lacking (but par for the course back then) in the originals.
Beginning with Season 1, the new Killer Instinct is releasing new character rosters incrementally, allowing you to purchase who you want piecemeal, or buy the whole lot together. This isn’t bad if you’re only at home with a small handful of characters, as you can still take on all available comers in many (if not all) of the game’s many modes. Of course, you can’t access the stories and see the endings for characters you don’t own, but if you’re the type who is only interested in playing one or two characters, it’s a very cost effective model.
The rosters released are a mix of new and old characters, with Jago, Sabrewulf, Glacius, Thunder, Orchid, Spinal, and Fulgore returning in the first season. This leaves the new characters of Sadira, a spider-themed female assassin, and Shadow Jago, a clone of the original, as the newcomers. Season 2 balances the new and the old a little better, with slightly more new characters than old, while the upcoming Season 3 will bring back three characters from Killer Instinct 2/Gold, accompanied by two guest characters — Rash from Battletoads and Arbiter from Halo (with more characters likely to be announced, if the numbers from the first two seasons are anything to go by).
For my part, I’m rather happy with the Season 1 set — my go-to characters are Jago, Fulgore, and occasionally Orchid. I will admit that T.J. Combo and Riptor make Season 2 pretty enticing, however. But again, if I just want those guys, I can buy them individually.
On the visual front, the game looks very good, albeit not impressive in the way that its predecessors were. Keep in mind, though, that the originals were on the cutting edge of technology back in the mid-90s, and had a very distinct look like nothing that had been seen before up to that point, shy of the similarly-employed graphics of Donkey Kong Country. So the new Killer Instinct looks good, with all kinds of neat effects throughout the backgrounds and across the fighters themselves; they just don’t stand out in a crowd the way they used to.
To that same end, the newer designs feel like they follow on from the earlier games pretty well. The original game was relatively crude by comparison, but it started to come into its own with the sequel, and this feels like a more evolved version of the latter to me, albeit a bit more stylized in some ways — more mechanical pieces that move across Fulgore’s armor, for instance, or the abundance of tattoos on Jago. Or perhaps a better comparison is in Jago’s sword, as the original more closely resembled a traditional katana, whereas the new version is far more distinct.
Those feeling nostalgic will also find there are “retro” costumes available to make the returning characters look more like their original appearances, albeit to varying degrees of success. I’m disappointed that they went with Orchid’s original appearance here, as I preferred her in the sequel, if only because I liked her tonfa instead of the Escrima sticks — then again, she’s using the latter again in this game, so that might have been the deciding factor for animation purposes, if nothing else.
The detail in these newer models is quite impressive as well. Not only in the intricacy of moving parts, tattoos, and other elements, but I also really appreciate that Shadow Jago is appreciably different from Jago visually despite being a clone. Rather than the rope-like sash across Jago, Shadow Jago sports a heavy chain, and their swords are different as well, with the clone’s looking appropriately more sinister, among other things like voice and effects. It’s a nice touch, and shows how far we’ve come from when you could create an army of ninja in different colors just to save space.
The tone of Killer Instinct‘s environment varied over the first two games, with the first utilizing a lot of contemporary/near dystopian futuristic settings. The sequel shifted things a bit with a time travel story, and you ended up with more jungles, temples, and things of that sort.
Killer Instinct for the Xbox One mixes these two elements up nicely, so that you have some natural and spiritual stages, but also more modern rooftops, factories, and the like. All the while, the soundtrack provides the thumping techno and hip-hop-ish beats that feel almost emblematic of the series, right down to a new remix of the classic title theme on the main screen. Mick Gordon apparently composed the soundtracks for the first two seasons, but did so by basing his work on the originals by Graeme Norgate and Robin Beanland. Again, it works as a nice blend between the old and the new.
In terms of gameplay, I find that this feels like what I feel to be the most satisfying Killer Instinct game up to this point: the Super Nintendo Entertainment System version — which is also sadly the only one not available in any way from Microsoft Studios (you can get the original arcade game by buying Season 1, the sequel with Season 2, and Killer Instinct Gold from the Nintendo 64 on Rare Replay).
The Xbox 360 controller’s Dpad received a lot of flack, and rightfully so — I rarely felt like I could reliably use it for anything from Mega Man 9 to Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix, and the analog stick isn’t a suitable replacement for me in those cases. But here, the Xbox One controller’s Dpad works like a dream, and using it here reminds me of playing the Super NES game, which I always found to have the tightest controls of the four releases of Killer Instinct and its sequel available back then.
Hell, for the first time ever in the series, I was able to pull off an Ultra Combo in the new game. And thanks to the Xbox One’s DVR, I’m happy to share it with you here:
It wasn’t just a fluke, either, as I was able to do so again with Fulgore later:
For comparison, I decided to give the original arcade Killer Instinct a go, hoping I might be better at it with the Xbox One controller than I was with an arcade joystick. No such luck:
And that’s me on a good day in that game. I’ve never been able to get the hang of that arcade game’s controls, at least when it comes to special moves, and thus I’ve suffered for it. But by contrast, the new Killer Instinct on the Xbox One is really quite pleasingly responsive, and a joy to play. Just compare the videos; it’s like night and day.
There is one small problem some may notice, however, and that is the lack of Humiliations or Danger Moves, finishing moves similar to Mortal Kombat‘s famed Fatalities. They aren’t entirely absent, as T.J. Combo’s stage in Season 2 features at least one that’s been found, but you’ll just have to settle for Ultra Combos for now and hope that the guys at Iron Galaxy Studios will add them in at some point later.
Also new to the series is online play, which I’ve included a video of above so you can see how well it goes. Your mileage may vary, but for my part, I didn’t encounter any lag, slowdown, or any technical problems of the sort in my matches (I’ve only played a few online so far for this review).
As I said at the top of this article, I’ve been a fan of Killer Instinct from the beginning. I’ve not always been good at the games, but I’ve always been a fan, hoping for years that Microsoft would finally greenlight a new iteration in the franchise that belonged to them ever since they first acquired Rare. And in all honesty, it always seemed like a good fit for the company, nestled in alongside the likes of Halo, Gears of War, and Forza as their own fighting game franchise.
And as a fan, this newest iteration definitely pleases me. It looks good, it sounds good, it plays well, and feels like a fresh new start that’s excellent for fans of the originals or newcomers alike. It’s not perfect, mind you (see: finishers), but it comes pretty dang close.
It feels like it took forever to get here, but with the care that’s been put into this long-awaited new iteration, I think it just might have been worth the wait.
Killer Instinct: Season 1 was released for the Xbox One on November 22nd, 2013 at a price of $0.00 (the game is free to start, with additional characters available for added fees whether piecemeal or in Season bundles).
A copy was obtained free via Xbox Live’s “Games With Gold” by the reviewer.
David Oxford is a freelance writer of many varied interests. If you’re interested in hiring him, please drop him a line at david.oxford (at) nyteworks.net.