Out of all the critically-acclaimed one-on-one fighting games produced by SNK over the decades, Garou: Mark of the Wolves has to rank as one of the most beloved and revered. Released at time when 3D visuals were taking the industry by a storm, it was seen by some as a companion piece to Capcom's equally gorgeous Street Fighter III; a bold proclamation that hand-drawn, 2D visuals still had a place in the market, despite the inexorable march of technology. Like Capcom's deep and rewarding fighter, Garou takes the tried-and-tested fighting game formula and adds layer upon layer of complexity and detail to create one of the most enjoyable examples of the genre.
Set ten years after the dramatic events of Fatal Fury 3, Garou is undoubtedly part of that popular series (it was even referred to as Fatal Fury 4: Mark of the Wolves when it was released on the Dreamcast in North America), but casual observers would be forgiven for not realising this fact; the only returning character is Terry Bogard, and the rest of the cast is entirely new - although some of them are clearly supposed to replace existing Fatal Fury stars and boast familiar fighting styles.
Terry is one of SNK's most famous faces, but he shares top billing in Garou with Rock Howard, the son of series antagonist Geese Howard. With his father's death at the conclusion of Fatal Fury 3 - a death which Terry tried to prevent, as shown in Garou's excellent introduction sequence - Rock becomes Terry's adopted son, remaining at his side for the next decade and slowly learning his fighting techniques. However, there's still some of his man in Rock; his moveset combines the talents of both Terry and Geese, and it's little wonder that he has gone on to become one of the more popular fighters in SNK's stable.
Outside of these two combatants, there are many other striking fighters to master. For example, Kim Dong-Hwan is the son of former Fatal Fury star Kim Kap-Hwan and plays very similarly, while Bonne Jenet is a female pirate who uses the power of the wind to defeat her opponents. Compared to the likes of King of Fighters, the roster in Garou seems pitifully small. This could present an issue to those players who spend months learning the moves of multiple characters, but it's not a massive shortcoming - especially when you consider the depth of the fighting system.
While Fatal Fury's trademark two-plane arenas have finally been removed, SNK has really gone to town on bolstering almost every other aspect of the game. Aside from the usual selection of special and super special moves, characters can evade incoming blows, taunt their opponents and roll out of attacks with timely button presses. The "Just Defend" system is SNK's answer to Street Fighter III's parry system; by blocking an attack at the last possible moment you can replenish a small amount of your life meter and gain the opportunity to unleash a devastating counter attack. Another big addition is the "Tactical Offense Position" or T.O.P. Mode, which has to be configured before you begin a game. You place your T.O.P. activation area on your life meter, and when it's triggered your moves gain additional power, you can use a special T.O.P. attack and your stamina slowly recovers. Understanding and exploiting this feature of Garou can mean the difference between success and failure, and it lends the game a surprisingly tactical feel.
Mastering Garou's battle system as well as honing your skills with each of its characters is something that will take weeks and perhaps even months, making this one of the most compelling fighters available on any system. During that time you'll also be blessed with some of the most exquisite 2D visuals ever produced; while the Neo Geo hardware was limited in terms of overall resolution, SNK's designers really went to town when it came to animation. Every character in Garou animates smoothly and convincingly, and the character designs are eye-catching and distinctive, while still maintaining an obvious visual connection with previous Fatal Fury outings, such as the similarly-striking Real Bout sub-series. The audio is perhaps a little less remarkable; the voices and sound effects are superb, and you almost feel like winching as each blow connects with a dramatic thud. There are some standout tunes here as well, but others seem forgettable and jarring - a possible consequence of SNK's audio team finally hitting the limits of what the Neo Geo hardware was capable of.
Hamster Corp's conversion to the Switch is faultless, and those 2D visuals really look incredible on the Switch's screen. As is the case with pretty much all the SNK fighters released on the console thus far, the game really benefits from the use of the Pro Controller, which has a proper D-Pad. Even so, it's possible to become pretty skillful with the Joy-Con analogue stick, if no alternative control option exists. A match between two skilled players is a joy to behold, so being able to host matches outside of the house is a real boon; the Switch's Joy-Cons really are a bonus for those who fondly recall the joy of local multiplayer matches.
While Street Fighter and King of Fighters continue to dominate the one-on-one combat genre, Garou: Mark of the Wolves will be remembered as an undisputed high-point for this style of game. This is the work of a company at the height of its powers, with an intimate understanding of hardware which was - by 1999 - almost a decade old. The controls are tight, the cast is varied and appealing (if a little small) and the visuals rank as some of the best examples of hand-drawn artwork ever seen in a video game. It therefore goes without saying that Garou is an essential purchase for each and every Switch owner, even if you don't consider yourself to be a fan of the genre.