While SNK's premier fighting game series is King of Fighters, the company tested the waters of the one-on-one combat genre with 1991's Fatal Fury, a title designed by none other than Takashi Nishiyama, the man behind Capcom's original 1987 Street Fighter. Street Fighter II was the game which kickstarted interest in this style of brawler and Fatal Fury was very much SNK's attempt to capitalize on this trend; it's not a bad first effort but it pales in comparison not only with Capcom's classic, but also SNK's later takes on the genre.
Fatal Fury feels very much like a "lite" version of your typical one-on-one fighter; there's only one punch and one kick button, so the game lacks the tactical depth of Street Fighter II, which had three strengths for both punch and kick. The third button is reserved for throws, while the fourth button does nothing at all. That means that the focus of the game is more on executing special moves correctly rather than chaining together combos. As you might expect from a game released before the "Turbo" craze kicked in, Fatal Fury feels sluggish by modern standards, like you're fighting underwater.
Fatal Fury's biggest innovation is the ability to switch between the foreground and the background. While this might sound like it gives the game added depth, it actually feels tacked-on and proves to be an annoyance more than anything else; this is partly down to the fact that when fighting a CPU opponent, the player can't switch between the two rows independently - you have to wait for your rival to do so, or wait for them to kick you from the foreground to the background (the 1992 SNES port would remove this element of the game entirely).
Another disappointment is that there are only three characters to choose from, despite the game having a roster of 11 fighters. This drastically limits the longevity of the game, as you'll master the talents of Terry Bogard, Andy Bogard and Joe Higashi in no time at all, leaving you little opportunity to experiment with other characters (the console ports fixed this by allowing players to use the full selection of characters in the versus mode). On the upside, the game boasts a unique team-up mode; if a second player joins in the middle of a single-player fight, they will be able to assist the other player in defeating their current opponent before challenging them to a bout.
Many of the characters in Fatal Fury would go on to become fan-favourites in later games, and the main bad guy Geese Howard is a famous face in SNK's history. Another highlight is Tung Fu Rue, who initially appears to be a frail martial arts master before transforming mid-fight into a massive, muscle-covered monster. The uniqueness of the cast makes the fact that you can't play as them even more annoying.
Visually, Fatal Fury still looks somewhat impressive with its large sprites which scale smoothly as they leap between the background and foreground, and the locations in which you fight feature plenty of detail. However, the animation is very choppy, a consequence of this being quite an early release with a relatively low memory count. The music on the other hand is great, with some cool guitar-based tracks and even some sampled singing.
Given its advanced age and the fact that SNK released so many sequels and other fighters, it should come as no great surprise to learn that Fatal Fury hasn't aged all that gracefully. The big, bold sprites still look great but the animation is poor, and the fact that you can only play as three characters drastically curtails the game's long-term appeal. SNK would refine the series as the years went on, culminating in Garou: Mark of the Wolves, perhaps one of the finest one-on-one fighting games in existence. Fatal Fury is therefore interesting as a historical piece or purely for nostalgia, but newcomers should probably avoid it and pick a more worthy example of the genre.