Killer Instinct

The technological sands may have been shifting dramatically back in 1994, but the ripples from the groundbreaking impact of Capcom’s Street Fighter II were still being felt in the games industry. While the 32-bit era was looming and sophisticated new games machines were introducing players to the immersive thrills of 3D worlds, the humble 2D one-on-one fighter was still a big draw in both arcades and at home – so when Nintendo announced that it was producing its own take on the genre via the Rare-made Killer Instinct, it understandably caught the attention of the entire industry.

Killer Instinct turned 25 yesterday and was a landmark release not just for Nintendo, but for Rare, the company that, in the early '90s, Nintendo bought a 25 percent stake in (this would eventually rise to 49 percent before the entire company was purchased by Microsoft for $375 million in September 2002). Back in 1994, Rare was a relatively compact UK outfit which operated out of a quaint farm building in the middle of the sleepy English countryside – a million miles away from the grim battlegrounds portrayed in its one-on-one brawler.

Announced alongside Donkey Kong Country and the highly divisive Crusin’ USA, the game was part of a technological offensive designed to keep Sega, Sony, Atari and 3DO at bay. Rare’s far-sighted investment in expensive Silicon Graphics systems resulted in some of the first truly convincing CGI visuals to be seen in a video game; while the SNES-based Donkey Kong Country would arguably extend the lifespan of its host console by a few years, the powerful coin-op Killer Instinct was destined for the upcoming Ultra 64 home system, previously known as Project Reality. The thunder of Nintendo’s rivals had been well and truly stolen.

The Killer Instinct team, photographed in Rare's motion capture room. Top row, from left: Rob Harrison, Martin Hollis, Mark Betteridge, Chris Tilston, Robin Beanland, Ken Lobb. Bottom row, from left: Chris Seavor, Graeme Norgate

A lot was riding on these games, with Killer Instinct, in particular, being a point of intense interest for the games media. This was, Nintendo promised, a solid indication of what the Ultra 64 (which, of course, would later become known as the Nintendo 64) was capable of; the arcade unit’s splash screen even dangled the carrot that it would be “available for your home in 1995, only on Nintendo Ultra 64.” In reality, Killer Instinct was running on largely bespoke hardware that had little in common with the N64 system, but it was a marketing beat that worked.

"Rare managed to persuade Nintendo that it should make a game which represented the N64's power, but which did not run on the actual, final N64 hardware," says Martin Hollis. "The problem with new platforms is that first, you need the hardware, then you can produce the software; this obviously means a huge delay in getting to market. Nintendo had some incentive to put the cart before the horse, you could argue; it wanted to show off its powerful new home system sooner rather than later. Also Rare had a history of developing amazing coin-op hardware, and there was a team at Rare with an interest in making a fighting game. All of these factors made Killer Instinct a reality."

Robin Beanland still has the mic used to record the vocals for the game© Robin Beanland
Robin Beanland still has the mic used to record the vocals for the game

For Hollis, Killer Instinct was his first project at Rare, and was something of a baptism of fire. "The original plan was to make a new machine based on the R4600 MIPS CPU, which was very similar to the Nintendo 64's target CPU," he explains. "Rare would design the machine, memory and motherboard – basically everything except the hard drive and the soundboard, which I believe originated from Midway, which was also involved with the game. The central hardware was basically an N64 without the graphics chip." Hollis would write the operating system for this platform but also found time to include a few little bonus features. "Like many arcade games, Killer Instinct had a high score screen where you entered your name using a laborious system where you scrolled through all the letter options to find your initials. I added a second method of entering your chosen letters, where the player could press two buttons simultaneously – like with many combos in-game – and each combination of buttons would produce a different letter. So, if you know the correct combinations to use, you could enter your initials in less than a second."

Given Nintendo’s family-friendly stance, the decision to create a one-on-one fighter was seen by some as an odd one; while arcade behemoth Williams – which owned Midway – was involved from a distribution perspective (the deal between Nintendo, Rare and Williams also included the much-maligned Crusin’ USA), there were some who doubted that a Nintendo game released post-Mortal Kombat would deliver the goods in terms of old-fashioned violence, prompting Nintendo's director of marketing George Harrison to publicly assure fans that no limitations would be placed on the developers in terms of content.

At the core of Killer Instinct’s game engine was a fascination with double-digit combo attacks. Combos had been a part of fighting games almost since the genre began, but it was Street Fighter II which made them a key component of gameplay. While mastering special moves was of utmost importance, expert players could memorise combinations of attacks which would slot together elegantly, giving their rival little time to respond. Killer Instinct took this concept to the next level, creating massive chains of moves which, to a certain degree, were automated – but they still required the player to commit to memory a massive sequence of inputs and could be halted by the other player using “combo breaker” moves.

While Killer Instinct’s gameplay was distinctive enough to ensure that it stood out against the likes of Mortal Kombat II, Samurai Shodown, Fatal Fury Special and Super Street Fighter II, it was the CGI visuals which predictably generated the most interest. The pre-rendered fighters looked stunning, while the backgrounds (in reality FMV sequences which played backwards and forwards as the stage scrolled left and right) gave the game a sense of depth and scale that few other fighters of the period could muster. “My first ever job was modelling a haunted house for a werewolf,” says Chris Seavor, who worked on the game just after joining Rare and would go on to create Conker’s Bad Fur Day. “It reminded me of a comment my mum constantly heckled me with as a kid... ‘You’ll never make any money playing games all day..’.. I won that one.”

Kev Bayliss, who would craft the unique character designs as well as many of the moves, felt it was a dream project. "For me, it was all I ever wanted to make, a fighting game," he tells us. "So I was really excited not just to be able to make one, but to use the new tech for the graphics which I thought would really help make it stand out. Street Fighter 2 and Double Dragon were so great looking in my opinion and I was worried about being able to make something that looked as iconic, but fortunately it all worked out and I’m really over the moon that the original still gets talked about today."

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Killer Instinct felt like the future, and was supported by an excellent soundtrack courtesy of Robin Beanland and Graeme Norgate. Like Hollis and Seavor, Killer Instinct was Beanland's first game at Rare. “Myself and Graeme started at Rare on the same date – 5th of April, 1994," he tells us. "I had no idea what I’d be working on, or how I’d be creating music for a video game. I had visions of slowly inputting hexadecimal into a computer keyboard. As it turned out, we were going to be making music and SFX for a new arcade game using the Williams DCS sound system. Which meant we could use all the MIDI synths and samplers we were used to – we just had to squeeze it all into 4MB, a luxury at the time. I had a makeshift vocal booth at the end of my office which was made up from washing line and blankets! It did the trick though and we used it for Killer Instinct 1 and 2.”

Hitting arcades on October 24th 1994, the game made an immediate impact on fighting game enthusiasts, and those Ultra 64-teasing splash screens naturally got people excited about an arcade-perfect home release in a year’s time. Of course, this didn’t quite happen; the Ultra 64 was delayed by Nintendo, and to plug the gap, Rare ported Killer Instinct to the incumbent SNES instead, albeit with a wide range of cut-backs and changes. While everything was noticeably weaker in terms of presentation, the 16-bit home port still retained the core gameplay that made its arcade parent so compelling – and the fact that it came with a ‘Killer Cuts’ CD soundtrack album only made it even more appealing.

2013's reboot on the Xbox One introduced the series to a whole new legion of fans
2013's reboot on the Xbox One introduced the series to a whole new legion of fans

"That was a lot of fun," recalls Beanland. "With no memory constraints, we were basically given free rein to make extended versions of the tracks. We picked AIR Studios to do the final mix as they had the only fully digital desk (at that time) in the UK. Our thinking was that we could run the audio out of our digital outputs to the digital desk and keep everything in the digital domain and lossless. The fantastic Geoff Foster had other ideas though; he took the audio out of the desk to an analog tape machine and then back so it sounded nice and warm. He was absolutely right of course!"

Despite missing the much-hyped Ultra 64 release in 1995, Killer Instinct would become a tentpole release for Nintendo and Rare; it was even ported to the monochrome Game Boy, a real leap of faith that wasn’t quite as successful as the SNES port, but still undeniably impressive. An arcade sequel did the rounds in 1996 with additional characters in tow, and was almost ported to the SNES. However, it would ultimately end up on the N64 under the guise of Killer Instinct Gold, which replaced the FMV backgrounds with full-3D stages. The N64 controller was never going to be the best input device for an intense 2D fighter, but Killer Instinct Gold was nonetheless an excellent home version and finally allowed fans to experience something closer to the visual glory of the coin-op original in their living rooms.

And that was the end of the story, until quite recently. Microsoft revived the Killer Instinct brand with the 2013 free-to-play Xbox One reboot, handled by Double Helix Games (and later by Iron Galaxy Studios, following Amazon’s purchase of Double Helix), under the watchful eye of Ken Lobb, who worked with Rare on the 1994 original. The game has been positively received and shows that, even after a quarter of a century, Killer Instinct still has an audience. While it’s unlikely to appear on a Nintendo console again (we’re not giving up hope, however), it would be nice to think that we'll still be talking about this remarkable fighting game in another 25 years.