Hamster is doing a great job of populating the Nintendo Switch eShop with classic Neo Geo titles but the order of release is a little puzzling. Metal Slug 3 has arrived before the original, and King of Fighters '98 was available at launch, only for King of Fighters '94 to arrive slightly later. Given the refinements that occurred during the lifespan of these series it goes without saying that the later titles are going to be superior, so is there any point in playing the debut of the King of Fighters franchise, beyond mere curiosity regarding its place in fighting game history? Let's find out.
Regardless of what has happened in the genre since, King of Fighters '94 was groundbreaking when it first appeared in arcades, offering players the opportunity to use not one but three different characters per battle. The setup is simple; you have to knock out all three of your opponent's team members before they do the same to yours. When a character is defeated the match pauses for the next combatant to rise to their feet, and the damage taken by the winning party is largely retained, small top-up notwithstanding.
This arrangement means that instead of focusing your attention on a single fighter you have to master the moves for three, giving bouts a lot more variety and depth. Embellishments include special "Super" moves which require your "Pow" gauge to be full (this is done either by manually charging it by holding down all four buttons or taking damage) and the ability to duck into the background to avoid incoming blows (a throwback to the days of Fatal Fury), but this is a very bare-bones experience in terms of mechanics - as you'd expect from a fighting game from 1994. There's no mid-air blocking and you can't even edit the members of each team - that wouldn't be possible until the sequel, King of Fighters '95.
Despite these shortcomings, King of Fighters '94 certainly puts up a good fight; on its default difficulty setting it's a lot tougher than King of Fighters '98, and gives an insight into why the series became so popular during the '90s - it really did separate the amateurs from the professionals. The CPU opponent is rarely caught napping, and you have to string together effective combos to open up a crack in its defense. King of Fighters '94 may be light on content and features, but there's no denying that it's a real challenge.
Visually, the game retains its ability to surprise - when it arrived in 1994 it was slicker and more striking than pretty much any other one-on-one brawler available. While subsequent entries in the series look better - not just in the detail of the visuals but in terms of animation as well - this is still a handsome game. The music is also excellent, mixing traces of hip-hop with the usual high-energy fighting game tracks.
It goes without saying that as part of the ACA Neo Geo range King of Fighters '94 benefits from modern-day features such as screen filters, online leaderboards and save state support. The Hi-Score and Caravan modes remain, although as we've said before, these make less sense in a fighting game than they do in a title like Metal Slug 3 or Shock Troopers, as getting the best score isn't always your key concern in this kind of title.
King of Fighters '94 may be the title that started the entire series but it pales in comparison to its sequels - such as the superb King of Fighters '98, also available on the Switch eShop. With that in mind, there's little point in buying this if you already own that particular title, unless you're keen to see how far the franchise advanced in the four years that separate them. King of Fighters '94 is fun to play and presents a stern challenge, but it's a long way from being the best the lineage has to offer. Unless you're really keen on this entry, you're better off buying King of Fighters '98.