This week sees the release of SNK 40th Anniversary Collection, a compendium of two dozen arcade games from the remarkably durable Japanese studio. If you know SNK, it’s probably because of their fighting games like Fatal Fury, Samurai Shodown and King of Fighters, the latter two which continue to the present day. But how did SNK get into the fighting game business in the first place? The answer lies with one of gaming history’s most fascinating tales. Let’s get into it.
Shin Nihon Kikaku — “New Japan Project” — was incorporated in 1973, but it wasn’t until the end of the decade when founder Eikichi Kawasaki made the decision to push the company into video games. They released their first title, Ozma Wars, in 1979. 1981’s Vanguard was licensed to Centauri for U.S. release at the height of the arcade boom, bringing serious coin into the company’s coffers.
In 1981, they established an American office of their own in Sunnyvale, California. The company would release nearly two dozen games before 1986’s Ikari Warriors, a run and gun title inspired by Rambo that was wildly successful. SNK also bet big on the new to market Nintendo Entertainment System, licensing and porting many of their successful arcade titles to the home console. By the end of the 80s, they were also producing original titles for the NES like action-RPG Crystalis.
When Nintendo and Sega moved into the 16-bit era in the 1990s, SNK also made a move on the home console market with the Neo-Geo, a $599 beast of a system that played their arcade software. It was insanely powerful, but the price point doomed it to a luxury for the super-fans at best. The Neo-Geo platform, though, would play host to the next step in SNK’s software evolution.
Round One Fight
It’s not an exaggeration to say that the arcade market was completely upended by Capcom’s introduction of Street Fighter II in 1991. Its two-player competitive mode revitalized the industry, with the winning player staying on while the loser slunk away in defeat. Profits were up and the company’s competitors rushed to cash in. Our friends at SNK were already two steps ahead, though, with their prescient hiring of Hiroshi Matsumoto and Takashi Nishiyama.
Also known as “Finish” Hiroshi, Matsumoto had been a planner at Capcom in the late 1980s. One of the titles he worked on was the original Street Fighter. Nishiyama was the original SF‘s director. Although that game wasn’t a robust success — its bizarre pressure pad buttons and slow, awkward gameplay were both drastically improved in the sequel — the two men learned a lot from it, and during their last years at Capcom were present for the early development of the sequel. SNK actively headhunted both men and other members of the development team because they knew they were onto something.
SNK released Fatal Fury, created by Nishiyama, just nine months after Street Fighter II. It had everything Capcom’s game had — large, colorful characters with a handful of special moves triggered by quarter-circle joystick motions — plus something else: the ability to move back and forth between two planes on the Z-axis. And, because it ran on the Neo-Geo hardware, arcade fans could play the very same game at home.
In 1992, Matsumoto followed suit with SNK’s next one-on-one game, Art of Fighting. That title had huge sprites that employed graphical scaling, so when players moved closer and farther away they’d change size proportionate to the screen, as well as a “spirit gauge” that powered the characters’ special moves. Both Capcom hires had left their mark on SNK, and the company would pivot heavily towards fighting games for the rest of the decade.
Matsumoto and Nishiyama would bring their two franchises together for 1994’s King Of Fighters, an innovative mash-up that let players assemble teams of three warriors to face off in traditional 2D fighting style. KOF would become SNK’s flagship franchise, with updates nearly every year adding new fighters and game mechanics.
While you’d think that Capcom staff were pretty sore at SNK for stealing the talent to make their fighting franchises, the Japanese game industry is a tight-knit world and Matsumoto and Nishiyama continued to talk to their Capcom counterparts. The companies also used their fighting games to poke fun at each other.
1995’s Street Fighter Alpha introduced Dan Hibiki, a ponytailed martial artist clad in a gi remarkably similar to Art Of Fighting‘s protagonist Ryo Sakazaki. There were many other similarities — he throws his fireball with one hand, like Ryo, but it travels an embarrassingly short distance. The thing about Dan is that he was an overt joke character, letting Capcom put a thumb in SNK’s eye by running down their flagship character.
SNK would fire back with the introduction of Yuri Sakazaki in the King of Fighters series. The perky young karate fighter has a moveset almost entirely plagiarized from a variety of Street Fighter characters, from Ken’s uppercut to Makoto’s intro animation. Unlike Dan, though, Yuri was more than a joke character and has actually been high tier in many KOF games.
There were no hard feelings, though, and soon afterwards the two companies would come together in a more productive manner. Starting in 1999, the SNK vs. Capcom and Capcom Vs. SNK games pit the greatest fighters of each roster against each other on a variety of platforms, from the Neo Geo Pocket Color to the Dreamcast. Of the entire series, 2001’s Capcom vs. SNK 2 has stood the test of time best, allowing players to select from six “grooves” that determine how their special bar charges as well as giving them different offensive and defensive options.
Like many companies focused on the arcade market, SNK had a rough time at the dawn of the new millennium. With the fighting game craze petered out except for a dedicated subculture, the myriad franchises slowly winnowing themselves down. In 2000, facing bankruptcy, SNK sold its assets to a Japanese firm called Aruze, which specialized in pachinko and slot machines. Aside from a King of Fighters pachislot, they didn’t do much with it.
SNK founder Eikichi Kawasaki founded a firm called Playmore, which ended up buying SNK’s assets back from Aruze a few years later. They then sued Aruze for using SNK assets without permission and were awarded over 5 million yen. With that in their war chest, the company moved back into the gaming market, seeing both successes and failures. They currently focus on home console gaming, with many FGC fans hype for the upcoming Samurai Shodown reboot.
Nishiyama and Matsumoto left SNK in 2000 to found Dimps, an independent studio that started out making licensed GBA games and Dragon Ball titles. Dimps also ventured into the original IP market with fighting game series The Rumble Fish. Capcom brought the pair back into the fold, hiring Dimps to co-develop Street Fighter IV and V.
That’s a great illustration of exactly how valuable those two guys have been to the history of the fighting genre — 30 years after they worked on the first Street Fighter, they’re still plugged in to the highest-profile franchise in the game. SNK’s hire of the duo was one of the smartest move in the firm’s history.
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