Street Fighter II took the arcades by storm in 1991, leading to a slew of one-on-one brawlers in the months and years that followed. SNK would develop a number of fighting series in the hope of tempting players away from Capcom’s game, samples of which have already arrived on Switch via HAMSTER’s ACA Neo Geo series. Now Art of Fighting arrives on the eShop and - despite some interesting features - this early effort is the weakest of the SNK fighting options.
 
It should be said that visually the game looks great. Generally Neo Geo titles did, but here the sprites are noticeably larger than those featured in other fighting games of the time. Moves connect with a good sense of weight behind them and there’s a neat battle damage feature for faces that sees glasses knocked off and cuts and bruises develop as the combatants take a battering. Stages also look impressive (despite static spectators), with some good features like glowing signs, steam and furniture reflected in a polished floor.
 
Another good touch is the way the camera zooms in or out based on how close the fighters are to each other. Later used in Samurai Shodown, it isn’t always smooth, but it adds to the experience as does the moody music and the various yells, grunts and other noises from impacting fists or background police sirens. There’s also a story that plays out between fights (and in pre-fight chatter): Yuri Sakazaki has been kidnapped and her brother Ryo and his friend Robert are out to get her back. It’s basic stuff, but it gives the game the feel of an action movie that actually works well.

Whilst the game is a good showcase of what SNK’s hardware was capable of visually, it falls down on the gameplay side of things. A wider choice is available when fighting against a friend, but it is only possible to play through the game as either Ryo or Robert. Despite some dialogue differences the story plays out the same way, so there isn’t a big reason to try and clear the game with both other than the fact that as you’ve only got those two characters, you might as well give it a go.

The fighting is limited to a button to punch and a button to kick. A third button will perform a strong attack, but what this is depends on whether you previously threw a punch or a kick. This is awkward (especially as the button can also be used for throws) as you may find yourself in a situation where a strong kick would be useful but your previous attack was a regular punch. Do you then go for a regular kick or unleash a strong punch and hope for the best?

Ryo and Robert have similar movesets, but they do have differences (more so than Ryu and Ken did at the time) and players may find one more suited to a fight than the other. Our heroes also have a few special moves they can perform including a flying double kick and a fireball, although these are limited due to the presence of the spirit gauge.

Located under the traditional energy bar, the spirit gauge decreases each time you perform a special move. It’ll slowly recharge over time or you can charge it up by holding an attack button down, but should it be empty your special moves will be useless with fireballs quickly fizzling out in to nothingness. This would be the inspiration for Capcom to create Dan for the Street Fighter games; a lovable parody character with similar moves and a look based on a combination of Ryo and Robert.

The game also has a taunt button and this actually has a practical use; it decreases your opponent’s spirit gauge. This along with managing your own spirit gauge leads to a different kind of fighting game. Being different can work well for a game and indeed in the years that followed SNK would treat gamers to the weapon-based fights of Samurai Shodown and the team battles of the King of Fighters, but the result here is less successful.

Despite the size of the sprites it’s surprisingly easy to miss with a special move, which can frustrate especially when the CPU fighters have much greater success. You need to judge the distance correctly, but even then there are problems due to the slow startup time on your specials. Get too close and your opponent has a chance to give Ryo or Robert a kicking just as they are beginning to make their fighting noises. Get too far away and they can use the distance to perform a spirit-depleting taunt.

As you get to know when best to use your various attacks, the game should entertain, but despite the possibilities of what you can do in a round it feels very limited. After a few fights your opponents increase the tempo of their assaults, meaning you don’t really have time to recharge your spirit gauge. You’ll also find they favour certain attacks and that outside of your special moves there’s only a few effective ways of dealing with them. Figure out what works (be it a jumping punch or a kick to the shins) and it’ll help you make it through, but it’s not a particularly fun way to fight.

More successful are the game’s bonus stages encountered after the second, fourth and sixth fights. Typically in games these would just award points bonuses but here you can gain useful rewards. One requires timing as you attempt to karate chop the tops off a row of bottles, rewarding you with a larger spirit gauge; useful if you’re not getting a chance to recharge it. Another is the traditional “hammer the button as fast as you can” as you attempt to break blocks of ice to gain a larger life bar. The final one asks you to perform a new move a set number of times within the time limit; manage it and the devastating move is added to your repertoire.

This release features the standard ACA features such as those for remapping buttons and adding scanlines to the image. Specific to this game the number of rounds (and the time of those rounds) can be changed and there are eight difficulty settings. The one credit Hi Score and five minute Caravan modes provide the usual alternate challenges as well as giving you a online leaderboard to try and move up. Although at the time of writing those leaderboards contain less than ten people, and that includes the Hamster account.

More appealing is two-player competition, as this allows you to play as the other fighter in the game. A second player can join in at any point and in addition to Ryo and Robert, this makes the initial six fighters you encounter available to select. If you want to play as Mr Big or the mysterious Mr Karate, however, you’ll have to reach them in the single player game first.

Some characters have more special moves than others (and Mr Big can’t jump), but the variety of brawlers makes for some interesting fights. Moves are still limited and at times it becomes a battle of who can pull off a special move first, but there is some enjoyment to be had. Battles can get tactical as you decide whether to execute a special move or recharge your spirit gauge after your attack has left them stunned. Of course your friend might also be stunned that you’ve got them playing this and not The King of Fighters '98 or Garou: Mark of the Wolves instead.

Conclusion

Art of Fighting was certainly visually impressive when it arrived in 1992 with large sprites, a good camera system and a (simple) story that works well. Unfortunately the game is quite limited, with only two of the ten characters available in the single player mode. The strong attacks are awkwardly implemented and whilst the spirit gauge could provide an interesting way of playing, it is quickly forgotten about as you move to fight against the CPU's repetitive attacks. There are some good ideas here and a two-player fight can provide a little entertainment, but SNK would produce more successful fighting games after this. Some of them are available on the Switch (for the same price) and would be a better choice than Art of Fighting.