King of the Fighters '96 marks the third release in the popular SNK fighting game series, and while we've already seen KoF releases from both before and after this title, SNK has finally decided to go back and release this pivotal release in the series. With a host of new gameplay additions, many of which help balance the game out and make it a better fighting experience, it's not too difficult to see why this particular title is seeing a release on the Virtual Console.
King of Fighters '96 gets a few upgrades in the gameplay department with a host of new features. You can now control the height of your character's jump, which can be extremely effective for faking opposing fighters out. Combos are still in full force, but SNK has made a few tweaks to help balance out the cast of fighters a bit better. It's still not perfect, but much better than in past KoF releases. And if you find yourself in a pinch, you can always make use of your power gauge to pull off a Super Special move.
There are several different game modes to choose from. Single Play allows you to choose a character and duke it out with the leader of each of the respective teams. Team Play lets you choose your three-character team and go up against the CPU's own team of fighters. You can even go so far as to take on the Survival mode where you can choose only one fighter and take on the entire game's cast of characters, one team after another. Each mode has its own pluses and minuses, but the Team Play is probably the most manageable way to play the game as a single-player experience, especially given the sometimes lofty difficulty.
If you're looking for some competitive action, there are a few modes to choose from here too. You can take on the Single Vs. mode that allows you and another player to each pit one character against one another. Or if you prefer the more standard mode of the King of Fighters series, you can play the Team Vs. mode, where you each choose your team of three fighters and play until one player has bested all three characters on a team. Much like the single player version of this mode, it's easily the most enjoyable, competitive way to tackle the game and eliminates the fear of getting overwhelmed early on without having a chance to rebound.
From a musical standpoint, the audio package in King of Fighters '96 is a bit mixed. Some tracks feature some great synthesized rock whereas others seem a bit too docile for the intensity of the fighting action. It doesn't help matters that the voice announcer can be a bit annoying at times, especially if you find yourself playing the game for long periods of time. Thankfully, the visuals are upgraded over previous titles in the series, with much more vibrant backgrounds and more detailed, well-animated characters.
King of Fighters '96 has long been considered a rather significant step forward in the series and given the decrease in projectile cheapness and a more evenly balanced cast of fighters, it's easy to see why. There's no denying that King of Fighters '98 is most likely still the pinnacle of the series, but there's just something enjoyable about the streamlined and responsive gameplay in this third release that will keep many players coming back for more. But if you've gotten used to the greater depth of later releases, this one might feel like too much of a step backward.