If you have ever approached the king of fighters series as a new player, there is something that you most likely will have heard or stumbled upon: “KOF is hard”
I am wondering though, how many people will have encountered an exact explanation of what might make the game hard to approach if that is a hard truth at all…
In this article, I will try and do just that by breaking down not only the aspects that supposedly make the game hard, but I will also do it in order of importance (in my opinion).
Before you set your mentality on a “why would anyone put up with learning it then?” there will be a section at the end, highlighting the positives of learning KOF and what it can bring not only to the fighting games table but also to your personal learning experience.
The Meta: The most important factor and the biggest difference from most other fighting games, is that KOF throws the meta at you instantly right before you even have a concept of what the meta is.
To explain this, if you watch two very competent KOF players play each other, you will notice that most likely the difference (and the openings) will come from a constant “conversation” and adaption to each other’s options. This is of course present in pretty much any fighting game from a decent to competent level, but I would argue that it isn’t something that you will be faced with and forced to use from your very first games in other titles, or at least, not this consistently and somewhat brutally.
SNK however has a habit of exposing the players of most of their games to the “choices matter” approach right off the bat, and this is especially evident in the reboot of Samurai Showdown, where a wrong choice can, in many cases, take away up to 80% of your life in a single touch. Fairly different from other more gradual approaches in other companies’ flagship titles.
Taking Street Fighter as an example, the usual pattern for beginners is to learn their best moves in a couple of situations and a pretty abstract idea of “a gameplan” and then learn the game gradually from there.
In KOF, even at a low level, if the opponent knows “how to play kof” you will be faced with a highly aggressive, fast, mixup based approach that can be challenging to “organically” figure out, especially if unknowingly playing with approaches from other games ( the classic “playing street fighter in KOF”.)
Admittedly, the wheel of mixups and the counters to them is something that players fully understand (hopefully) by the time they have some considerable experience, and sometimes not even then, due to many players not being used to lateral thinking.
Being faced by this concept at pretty much every single interaction in kof, due to the very nature, freedom and design of the game (running, multiple jumps, nature of backdashes, presence of rolls, and limited invincibility to shake off pressure) can feel really daunting, especially since you’ll slam onto it when you’re just learning how to move.
On top of this, since meter is very important in KOF (both offensively and defensively), beginners will have a natural (understandable) repulsion to using it defensively, since it isn’t rare to be introduced to KOF with long combos that are enabled by meter and new players will naturally want to execute those and feel “pushed” to land the opener that will grant them the combo.
Due to the inability of a new player to fully grasp neutral and the game behind it, they will rarely use the meter based defensive options such as a fully invincible guard cancel roll and a blowback, with limited invincibility but fast enough to be hard to punish and that will reset the game to neutral, granting the defender a breather.
Being KOF neutral so unique, approaching it with experience from other games, and not with “endemic” rules to kof, will surely lead to disappointment.
Many people stumble onto this, but due to the limited experience and/or understanding of “kof rules” may leave the game with somewhat undefined feelings of “I’m not allowed to play”, “I don’t like the neutral”, “I can’t deal with or shake off pressure”.
Basic rules such as preventing people from jumping rather than try to anti-air them, whether with st.A and far Bs at close range or with hop Bs offensively are often the first ones that will be forgotten in the midst of the action.
Jumps: A huge aspect of KOF is its aerial nature and at the same time the high reliance on jumps.
This is a very unique factor, especially if structured around the 4 separate jumps (5 counting the dynamics that a neutral jump adds) and also the substantial disconnect from the first dogma that will be imposed over new players in most other games: “DON’T JUMP”.
While this is great advice for a beginner in many other games, in KOF this is the equivalent of asking someone to fly but ripping their wings off.
Approaching KOF as its own game would be liberating for a beginner, due to how one of the first rules of other games, that feels somewhat superimposed, could theoretically be left at the door with a neatly written message in big bold letters: NO THANKS!
In KOF jumps are actually encouraged, even FOR beginners.
When I say jumps however, I mean the full array of jumps available, with hops, hyper hops, normal jumps and superjumps all having their distinct utility, especially when paired with air normals and, if your character has them, air specials and supers.
Often, beginners won’t practice the different kinds of jumps, maneuvers, (such as tiger knee cancels) and don’t get to understand how the same normal, with the same jump, maybe back or forth will perform completely different functions in the game meta.
This lack of practice could maybe be partly blamable on the easy execution of such a “simple” movement option in other games being non-existent and the repeated limited jumping extremely easy to deal with for the most part.
In KOF however, this is the equivalent of walking back and forward to pick your ranges and happens at a much faster speed.
If this is just the entry-level when it comes to jumps and movement, the depth here is in the understanding of how to maneuver against such a vast array of options with often creative and unorthodox solutions. Whether it is by expecting a jump and jumping over it yourself or running under it if it’s high enough and tripping it from the other side.
Not to be underestimated, running as a tool to pick your ranges is also often underused or forgotten, making the stationary character an easy target.
To summarize it, without mastering movement and jumping, and the freedom they give you, you can’t really play kof and there’s a lot of beginners that will navigate the screen with mostly just jumps and by walking, falling prey to easy anti-airs from a breed of players that have got used to anti-air short hops with 1/6th of the time and based almost entirely on reads rather than the broad reaction time given by a full jump.
With that, also comes the idea of “passive zones” in which nothing happens that are much smaller overall in KOF. In many other games, being fullscreen and throwing a fireball won’t see you fully punished by a short run and superjump fullscreen…
For a broader understanding of jump designs and a 2k2 UM specific overview, Peep the video below by Leon Massey (timestamped for 2k2 UM but I advise you to watch the whole thing when you have time).
Execution: To tie back to the jumps, execution in kof is ingrained into pretty much every aspect of the game and can make a big difference in gatekeeping the damage potential to be dished out once an opening happens.
Windows are much tighter, lights feel like lights for the most part (lack weight and frame advantage) and buttons are very height dependant with overall not the most generous of active frames (with some notable exceptions).
There are some specific rules in some specific games as well that need to be learned and taken in isolation, or generally, things that may be in several games but may be easier or harder depending on the entry of the series you’re playing (things such as post-run buffer timings, windows for bypasses, etc.)
To add to this, there is a phenomenon that is pretty much exclusive of KOF and can make new players easily confused: Longcuts
Longcuts are longer ways to execute the same input (as opposed to shortcuts that are shorter ways) and in KOF are often a necessity to avoid input overrides.
This can be puzzling for new players, which may already be struggling with execution and will learn that to cancel the special of their character into another special (when in max mode) they may need to use a longcut to avoid for example an accidental super cancel.
Execution also doesn’t come in Isolation, and is strictly coupled with the decision making required and the speed at which everything happens, which brings me to the next point:
(Yeah, I miss Tribes : /)
The speed at which everything happens is also to be taken in consideration when trying to define what people may find hard in kof.
Not to say that kof plays at the supersonic speed of hyper fighters, but the speed of action, coupled with how often the player is called upon their decision making as well as executing things at that pace can feel overwhelming at times.
Gone are most of the inactive phases (and as mentioned, rare are the non-threatening ranges), of players walking back and forth before picking up the opponent’s habits and intentions, a process that in kof happens regularly, at consistent almost rhythmed timings and that is dynamic, in both its applications and its solutions.
In some of the games (98 cough cough) the timer itself seems to be rushing you on, especially when coupled with the offensive nature of the game.
Don’t get me wrong, this aids players in learning quick thinking and learning in general is something that happens often in kof, just not at a very comfortable pace, at least for most people.
To close, defending against short hops empty low/jump-ins is a matter of a few frames, which makes reacting to them online borderline impossible, especially on titles without rollback netcode.
In kof it is largely (and some would say predominantly) an active aspect, especially since players are required mostly to air to air rather than passively anti-air, on the ground of anti-airing some stuff on reaction being impossible.
Considering that a lot of players, even very good ones, in other games, rarely problem-solve with air to airing, you can add this aspect to the “wheel of mixups and counters”.
With all the jumps and movement options available though, air to airing your opponent will put you in a much better position offensively than many other games, even against opponents with strong reversals and options, granting you a position in which you are very rarely at disadvantage after both characters’ air recovery, making air to airing an option that can and will lead to strong mixups and pressure when landing.
Now, imagine still being able to anti-air due to having a really good hard read, only to discover that, in kof (with the exception of 13 being juggle heavy) overall the damage you can dish out off anti-airs ain’t that significant anyway, both in raw damage, knockdowns and corner carry.
The game often forces players back into the neutral, which can be challenging due to the heavy lateral thinking needed to navigate it.
Invincibility: KOF games (and generally a lot of SNK fighters) don’t come with substantial invincibility in-built in their options.
It isn’t rare to witness a new player overwhelmed by their opponent’s tight and oppressive pressure attempt a desperation move (the name in kof for supers) on wakeup, being confidently meaty’d by their opponent and eat yet another full conversion.
DPs and most other reversals follow this rule, with few exceptions.
The only fully invincible options across the board are command grabs, which make perfect sense in a game with so many jumps and movement options to maneuver around them.
There are many tools in the game to avoid or shake off pressure (rolls,guard cancelled blowbacks, guard cancelled rolls, st.A to prevent people from jumping when close) but they aren’t exactly what most players are used to from other games.
Learning 3 characters:
This is most likely the biggest misconception about KOF and ALSO the least relevant.
As for other games that are heavily system based, learning the system and getting comfortable with is the priority here. Certainly, the character-specific execution
will have to be ironed out, but there are plenty of somewhat easy choices and interesting playstyles that won’t require too much tweaking when playing neutral phases.
On top of this, you don’t even have the hurdle of huge movelists to remember and skim through to figure out your best tools, as in kof, most of the toolkit characters have carry out a function.
“Synergy” also isn’t too big of a factor.
Sure, in many cases you will have to think (at least for long term) at character positioning in relation to meter building dynamics, but especially from a low to a somewhat competent level, the game is very permissive in its structure, allowing players to experiment and customize playstyles and positioning.
Why should you learn it then?: KOF and other SNK games at large (especially Samsho) are in my opinion the games that will most constantly challenge your decision making and the nerves associated to it, at a very high pace too.
Samsho when it came out definitely put me in a position to think “Woah!, I crumble way more than I thought I would” and had me re-evaluate how good I am at playing under pressure.
Playing meta way more and at a higher pace, will improve your hard reads and hence the rate at which you reads will be right, allowing you to open your third eye and see beyond reality and into the future: (this isn’t a guarantee and I will not provide refunds)
I’m not gonna lie to you, it doesn’t come easy, but damn is it incredibly fun.
You will feel like you’re having a constant meaningful conversation through neutral and adaption and will have a pretty large potential for self-expression through gameplay.
“I’m Getting it now” in KOF is a beautiful feeling that always seems to lead to more, a bit like eating cherries and it’s pretty easy (with some help) to identify the logical succession of someone’s gameplay based on previous choices and situations.
The series will undoubtedly make you better at the core aspect of fighting games, the mental aspect of competition, understanding and anticipating your opponent, and adapting on the fly to each other.
I kinda feel like “I am good at KOF” would be a perfect answer to a job interview question such as “could you provide an example of a situation in which you were required to quickly and creatively problem solve under pressure?”
If you end up developing an interest in KOF 2002 UM, the community has been incredibly dedicated to helping new players with plenty of already made resources and is very responsive to specific advice requests as well as motivating.
Discord Link: https://discord.gg/8JNXHxf
Credits: Leon Massey for his “Jump arcs” video. His youtube channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCo8186mZYAY49flt6HkbqlQ