Much like the first two instalments, The King Of Fighters '96 gives you a diverse roster of 2D fighters to pick from as you assemble a team of three to punch, kick, throw and brag your way to victory. The third instalment in the series also sees the sprites of old discarded for an instantly familiar hand-drawn style, as well as folding in a series of much-welcomed gameplay tweaks.
For a start, there's the removal of the sidestepping ability, replaced with a much more tactile and intuitive roll that can be used to avoid attacks. Initially designed to perform the same function as the old sidestep, it enables you to get close to an opponent (or put some distance between you), possibly opening the door for a sweet counter attack. It's performed by simply pushing a direction with whatever buttons you've mapped for Neo Geo’s A and B, although for ease of use this particular button combo is mapped to Switch’s ZR button.
Another change is the ability to run by double-tapping forwards, quickly closing the gap between fighters without the need for a risky jump. Jumping itself is also different this time around as it's affected by whether you go from a standing or running position. You can also pull off a slight jump animation by quickly tapping up (useful for faking out opponents and potentially gaining the upper hand). The rolls, jumping options and run ability make for fast, frantic fights and offer plenty of player agency during fights, adding significantly to the entertainment (particularly during two-player bouts).
Character-wise, there are 27 fighters to pick from and the lineup is quite similar to that of the '95 edition, although that game’s boss characters (Saisyu Kusanagi, Omega Rugal) are gone, replaced with new final challengers Chizuru Kagura and Goenitz. As far as playable characters are concerned there are seven newcomers including the popular Leona, but four fighters (including Billy Kane) have been left out.
Should you grab The King of Fighters '98 from the eShop you’ll find all but one of the '95 omissions included alongside a chunk of this game’s additions, but not all of them. Art Of Fighting 3’s Kasumi Todoh is in this game, but not '98 and more notably this game features a Boss Team absent from the Dream Match title. The appeal of this team is that it is headed up by the Fatal Fury series’ ultimate bad egg Geese Howard, joined by Fatal Fury 2’s Krauser and Art Of Fighting’s Mr Big.
In addition to the regular arcade mode, the usual ACA Hi Score and Caravan modes are included, limiting you to one credit and five minutes respectively as you try to gain as many points as possible to move up the online leaderboards. It provides a slightly different way to play, but as with most fighters the modes aren't as appealing as with other genres. Other than team battles, you can still dive into the options menu and switch the arcade mode to a traditional one-on-one, best of three rounds fighter – although as with its predecessor, cutscenes/endings play out the same as if you had a full team.
Story-wise this is the second part of the Orochi saga, offering up a few scenes to read through towards the end of the game. There’s some replayability in going through the game again too, as each of the set teams have their own endings in addition to the standard one you get from fielding a custom group.
The King of Fighters '96 offers the usual enjoyable team battles with a good range of fighters to pick from. This particular entry introduces some nifty gameplay changes to the series. Of course, all of this and more would feature in the ultimately better The King of Fighters '98, but it's a confident entry in the series nonetheless. If you're interested in the ongoing story then The King of Fighters '96 is still a competent fighter, and there's plenty of entertainment to be had in its hand-drawn brawls.