THE KING OF FIGHTERS '96 / SNK / Arcade
The King of Fighters '96 is the first of the really epic entries in the King of Fighters series. Not that the preceding two games were bad, but most of the little flaws of those two have been cleaned up here.
First, and most importantly, this is the first King of Fighters game that is accessible to newcomers. Instead of having brutal difficulty right from the first match, the computer AI starts out easy and then scales up gradually. The final boss is one of the most brutal (and more badass) of the series, but getting there is more than possible for players of even average ability if they put in a little time to practice.
The play control has been tightened and refined, as well. Characters are better balanced and tweaks have been made to their key moves, mostly for the better. The biggest addition here is the "rolling dodge", which really added both a strategic and reflexive element to the game. Memorizing complicated combos and special moves are no longer a requisite for competent play with this mechanic in place, and it also mostly eliminates the annoying practice of "turtling".
The game also has a really great soundtrack, which introduces most of the really killer tunes that would go on to become series staples. The sprite work is as good as the previous entries, if not better, but on the whole the backgrounds are more creative and teeming with life. The well-animated backgrounds and awesome music do a lot to make the game compelling and a satisfying experience.
The roster is also pretty good this time out. It is mostly unchanged from King of Fighters '95, but a new Boss Team featuring Geese Howard, Mr. Big and Wolfgang Krauser has been added to the playable roster. These guys are admittedly a bit overpowered, but they also take skill and practice to use - a scrub can't just mash buttons with them and win.
The only real downside to this one is that it retains the rather ugly portrait art of KOF '95. Aside from that, though, this is fighting excellence.
* Gameplay Video