How the Original Killer Instinct Established the Early 2.5D Fighter
When the original Mortal Kombat launched in 1992 in arcades, it created a frenzy. Certainly there were parents and political figures concerned with the human violence in the game that would eventually create the ESRB and a standardized content rating for games, but the publicity and popularity it drew also attracted every developer who wanted to capture that same lightning in a bottle to get quarters into their own machines at the arcades. Tons of Mortal Kombat clones were produced, but only a select few ever came close to offering the level of hype that Mortal Kombat created. Among those games, there were perhaps none more compelling than Killer Instinct, originally released on this day in 1994.
Co-developed by Rareware and Midway, Killer Instinct began off of a joint venture between Nintendo and Midway’s parent company, WMS Industries. The contract allowed Midway access to Nintendo’s Project Reality hardware that was being used to develop what would become the Nintendo 64. Under the contract, Midway developed two games that would play in arcades before being ported exclusively to Nintendo consoles. These two games were Killer Instinct and Cruis’n USA, of which Killer Instinct was designed to be a perfect and fast-paced middle ground between the violence and visuals of Mortal Kombat and the fighting structure and input of Street Fighter.
Despite the deal, very little of the Nintendo 64 hardware was used to develop Killer Instinct. Instead, a custom arcade board using a 64-bit central processing unit and Nintendo 64’s file format was designed to specifically for the game. Despite skipping on the Nintendo 64’s graphics and memory technology, Killer Instinct’s custom board put it far ahead of its time. With the use of a hard disk drive alongside the board, the game was able to store immense amounts of data compared to other arcade games that were coming out at the time. This allowed for cinematic backgrounds, pseudo-3D character rendering and full-motion video movies. At the time, Killer Instinct was somewhat of the precursor to the 2.5D fighting games that filled the market a decade later such as Street Fighter IV, Guilty Gear Xrd, and King of Fighters XIV.
Like many fighters of the time, Killer Instinct is based around the most rudimentary of set-ups. A large mega corporation creates killing machines and creatures and organizes a tournament in order to test them out, all the while testing some dimensional technology that opens a dimensional prison containing the two headed monster god known as Eyedol. The participants are widely varied, featuring a special agent, ice monster, fire monster, cyborg, dinosaur and more clashing against one another with their own motive, each leading up to challenging Eyedol himself in fights to the death.
Killer Instinct was more than just revolutionary in its visual design. Despite the goal of obtaining the middle ground between the violence of Mortal Kombat and the technicality of Street Fighter, Killer Instinct found a niche all its own in the full and ridiculously over-the-top embrace of combos. Besides the standard special moves, quick, medium and hard attacks, and finishers popularized by its two inspirations, players could engage in lengthy and possibly unlimited combos to absolutely annihilate weary foes. The only defense was properly timed combo breakers that would interrupt the flow and save a character from taking a savage beating. Killer Instinct’s development of this mechanic not only became a staple of the series, but would also inspire many other forthcoming titles to pursue lengthier and flashier combo options in the fighting genre.
It would end up being somewhat ironic that the Nintendo 64 was not ready by the time Midway was supposed to port Killer Instinct over to a Nintendo system. This resulted in the game being ported to the Super Nintendo and Game Boy instead, both of which were heavily scaled down and limited versions of their arcade counterpart. Nonetheless, the Killer Instinct was an instant classic at the arcade, creating such a buzz that even the inferior Super Nintendo version would sell millions of units. The game would eventually come in proper form to the Nintendo 64 as Killer Instinct Gold, giving home consoles the true arcade experience they were promised. Killer Instinct took the rudimentary combo fighting established by Street Fighter II and refined it into something immensely amazing. The game built a hard core fan base that would sing its praises in the arcades and all but ensure its successful reboot years later.