Review by Kakihara
I really can't write a review of this lush fighter without mentioning two things, the more important of the two being our all-American hero, Terry Bogard. He's every bit the lovable goof you played and laughed with in King of Fighters and the earlier Fatal Furys, still thumbs-upping and POWA WAVE!-ing his way through the opposition of South Town in the name of good. Gone are the dorky hat and ponytail, but he's buffed-up some, and, of course, he's still damn fun to use with a spectacular array of special moves and battle cries screamed through a thick Japanese accent (HAY, GIT SERIASS!). But this latest 2D scrapper in the series that helped launch SNK sees him return all alone, which brings me to important subject number two: Capcom's mythical Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike.
There really isn't much Mark of the Wolves doesn't borrow from that top Capcom brawler. Like SFIII, the old cast has almost entirely been replaced by a fresh batch of combatants. Like SFIII, there's big changes in mechanics - here we no longer fight on two planes, for example - and unbalances have been corrected, the engine is more refined and a new defense system has been implemented. Actually, I say new, but that's also been swiped from SFIII: tap back just as soon as you're about to get smacked and you'll perform the Just Defense technique, not taking any 'tick' damage from special moves and receiving a slim portion of health - much like SFIII's parrying. Of course, Mark is still similar to its old FF outfit, you still have the same four-button weak / strong punch / kick set-up, still perform searing special moves with quarter-circle and Z motions, and you still have a bar at the bottom of the screen that, when filled up, will allow you to unleash some pretty rad super moves.
And to be fair, Mark doesn't entirely ape SFIII. It's just as tactical and strategy-heavy, sure - relying on nothing but projectile attacks or just turtling will only get you dismantled with ease - but the pacing is a bit quicker, thus making windows of opportunity, either to connect with a fierce combo or to get the hell out of the way of someone's wrath, a bit shorter. And while there's no deep juggle system to master here, there is the TOP bonus. Basically, you select a section of your lifebar - beginning, middle or end - and, while your energy is in that section, your power increases and you have a new move at your disposal. This helps further set it apart from SFIII and its very defensive nature, rewarding you for mixing up counters and Just Defense with bursts of all-out offense. Then there's the ability to break (stop in the middle of, basically) a special move, allowing you to follow up with other attacks, potentially creating some cruel combos out of this. Unfortunately, the timing on this is a bit ridiculous, being so strict it takes longer to perfect than even Just Defense does. The pay-off can be pretty damn sweet, sure, but I still mostly stuck with simpler combinations in fear that I'd botch it and then get hammered.
The characters themselves are both what shines most brightly and stumbles most embarrassingly about Mark of the Wolves, and, again, SNK takes from Capcom here. A lot of 3rd Strike's amazing personalities are just poorly copied: you have a young ninja, but this one is quite obnoxious. You have two similar fighting brothers with opposite personalities - the sons of Kim Kaphwan, in fact - but neither are as intricate. And by far the biggest blunder is Freeman, the long-haired freak modeled after SFIII's effeminate Frenchman (redundant?) Remy. Where as Remy was fashionable with a quiet personality - all-around a righteous character - Freeman is 'sadistic,' shaking violently and screaming bloody murder. He's also outfitted with carrot-colored hair, a half-shirt and flames on his goddamn pants. He's one of the worst designed characters in fighting game history, and most of the rest of the goofs on this roster - a '70-loving black guy named Butt, a former member of SWAT, a typical 'cute' girl with doves and so on - are barely even mediocre looking.
But - HAY, C'MON, C'MON! - they're at least all pretty damn enjoyable to use, some taking bits and pieces of older Fatal Fury characters to make up their arsenal of moves. That ninja kid, Hokutomaru, for example, plays like a perfect blend of Mai Shiranui and Andy Bogard, making for one very flexible and cool fighter. Other characters are pretty unique, too, like Gato, who wields some thunderous palms strikes and arching kicks, and B. Jenet, a delicious pirate with some of the flashiest moves in the game. Then there's our beloved Terry Bogard, of course, playing smoother than ever before. And in his time off from the last Fatal Fury, he's even trained young gun Rock Howard, son of the late Geese Howard, and the result is one of SNK's finest creations to date. Part Geese, part Terry, this blonde demon is all bad-ass, able to rip you apart with equal bits of grace and rage. He isn't outfitted with an equally awful voice as Terry's, but give his RAYZEEN STOOOHM! a few sequels and perhaps he'll be as dope as Bogard.
And, again, while most of the characters look like ass, the amount of animation put into them is simply astounding. Every little feature - from the ripples in Kim Hwan's pants, to the way B. Jenet's skirt tightly wraps around her succulent legs when she spins, to the angel wings Rock sprouts as he turns his shoulder during his pretentious win pose - is gorgeously layered with ****ing zillions of frames of animation. You've heard the worn-out phrase 'It looks like a cartoon!' given to countless other games before, no doubt, but few titles are as deserving of that claim as Mark. Sure, in the end, no, they aren't as detailed or colorful as SFIII's characters, but that SNK was able to take its stone age-old hardware and work such silky smooth wonders with it is absolutely remarkable. Hell, even the backdrops, various locations across South Town, from dirty streets to a Last Blade-esque waterfall, breath with genuine life and fluidity.
I had a pretty difficult journey with Fatal Fury: Mark of the Wolves, dismissing it for the longest time as just Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike Jr. And, yeah, I still don't believe this game would've been born had Capcom never moved past SFII. But if you're going to take, take from the best, and that game's unparalleled. Mark does just that, taking the foundation and building some new and interesting ideas on top of it, with faster speed and dynamic (and demanding) mechanics, as well as showcasing SNK's ultimate warrior, Terry Bogard, at the top of his game. The artistic end of things kinda fell apart, with the empty character designs and tiny SNES-like music unfortunately sucking out some of the atmosphere, but explosive moves, perfect balance and graphical wizardry save the day.
Rating: 4.0 - Great
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