Reviewed on: Every platform it’s been on
Also available on: PlayStation 2, Sega Dreamcast, Xbox 360, iOS, Android
When people discuss fighting games, a few names come to mind almost immediately, and they’re usually going to be either Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat. What many players outside of the genre-faithful fail to realize is that there were many companies that made fighting games in the 90s — in fact, most companies tried their hand at capturing Street Fighter II‘s lightning in their own bottle, and all these attempts were met with varying degrees of success. Rare crafted Killer Instinct, Atari made Primal Rage, Interplay made ClayFighter, while Namco pushed into three dimensions alongside Sega with Tekken and Virtua Fighter, respectively. Trust me, this is merely scratching the surface of what was released at the time; everyone wanted that coin-op quarter, so fighting games were everywhere.
While Capcom created multiple famous fighting franchises, most other companies only dipped their toes into the water; even Midway stuck with Mortal Kombat as its sole fighting franchise until the release of War Gods, which was essentially Mortal Kombat 4 with a different coat of paint. With multiple sequels and multiple franchises released in such a short span of time, no other company could seem to match Capcom’s output — save for one. That company was Shin Nihon Kikaku, better known to the world as SNK, and their rivalry with Capcom created constant innovation and competition in the genre.
Some say that the genre reached its peak in 1999 with the arcade release of Street Fighter III: Third Strike. However, I beg to differ. I believe the peak happened elsewhere that very same year, and I believe that SNK finally achieved its goals and made a game that was more fun to play than any Street Fighter title before or since. That game was the final entry into the Fatal Fury (Garou Densetsu) series, known as Garou: Mark of the Wolves, and it was released as a direct competitive answer to the heavily skill-oriented Street Fighter III series — most notably its third, final and most famous revision. Even in the face of its (admittedly few) flaws, I am of the opinion that Garou: Mark of the Wolves is still the best 2D fighting game ever made in terms of sheer fun, ease of play and the sliding scale of skill-based execution that separates casuals from seasoned players, and the seasoned players from straight-up professionals.
Garou: Mark of the Wolves (hereafter shortened to Garou for the sake of brevity) is a 2D fighting game in the vein of Street Fighter, as two opponents face off in a one-on-one fistfight until one player gets dropped to the canvas. This wasn’t anything new in 1999, but the way in which they approached that standardized setup was — unlike Street Fighter III, Garou utilized a four-button setup instead of a six-button setup, and this was SNK’s modus operandi with every game released on their Neo Geo arcade hardware. You have a light punch, heavy punch, light kick and heavy kick button. That’s it. Pressing combinations of these buttons allows for multiple special abilities, such as special low strikes, overhead strikes to hit crouch-blocking “turtle” opponents, life bar-reliant moves (more on that later) and fast, on-demand special-move-specific animation cancels used to creatively extend combos. Your super bar has two levels of stored charge — the S-level weaker yet faster to execute, and the P-level is usually slower to come out, but is absolutely devastating should it connect.
Your health bar has a special area called T.O.P. — Tactical Offense Position — that takes up roughly a third of your meter. You have the ability to select where that area falls before the start of a match, and when your health hits that area, you begin to slowly regenerate that health, your attacks do 25% more damage, and you build super meter faster. You also get access to a special move called the T.O.P. attack that does significant damage on hit, and does insane amounts of damage against the invisible “guard crush” meter when opponents block. Thus, it easily creating openings for not only high-damage counterhits on a wide-open opponent, but they eat hits at 1.25x damage while wide-open. It’s pretty devilish when used well.
There’s also Just Defense, a defensive mechanic much like Street Fighter III‘s celebrated Parry system, but instead of pressing forward or down as the hit connects, you simply block high or low just as the hit lands. It makes infinetely more sense in terms of playing, as all it requires from you is blocking like you normally would, but just doing so in a precise manner. JD’ing a hit not only gives you the ability to cancel the blockstun (the window of time where you’re unable to launch an attack) to deliver a hit before your attacker can recover, but it also restores a small bit of health when a JD is done correctly, thus keeping precision defense a major part of the game.
Garou‘s character cast mirrors that of Street Fighter III in the sense that the roster is meant to show off the Fatal Fury franchise’s “new generation” of fighters. In fact, the only returning character to the series is Terry Bogard, who was the series’ protagonist and poster boy. Everyone else is either brand new, or related to previous characters in the SNK metaverse, such as characters from Fatal Fury or the lesser-known Art of Fighting.
For instance, Rock Howard is the orphaned son of Geese Howard, who was the Fatal Fury series’ chief villain. Kim Jae Hoon and Kim Dong Hwan are the sons of video game Taekwondo legend Kim Kaphwan, who has been in multiple Fatal Fury and King of Fighters series entries – and he even makes a cameo during one of Dong Hwan’s win animations. Marco Rodruiguez (who was rechristened Kushnood Butt outside of Japan, no reasons given as to why) is a star pupil of the Kyokugen school of karate, which is the same art created and taught by the Sakazaki family, the stars of the Art of Fighting series. Beyond that, there’s plenty of new characters as well, and although the roster is quite limited in number, there’s so much variety between characters that each individual character truly stands out. You’d be fooled into thinking that the Kaphwan brothers are the Ryu and Ken of this game due to their look, but you couldn’t be more wrong in that assumption — they’re completely different beasts in every sense of the phrase.
Also, the game has the two best bosses ever. The sub-boss in particular is my favorite character, for obvious reasons.
The sprite animation is top-notch, and even though games release since then – and some even during that time – have graphically outclassed it, Garou remains visually impressive, in no small part due to its level of technical achievement. The Neo Geo is a system that never saw an upgrade in the arcades, so developers were literally squeezing blood from a stone during development. The game is downright jaw-dropping when you consider that the Neo Geo arcade hardware is essentially a halfway point between 16- and 32-bit systems, so games like SoulCalibur and Marvel Vs. Capcom 2 were coming out around this time, and Garou still looked like it could hang with the current crowd. You must understand that this is like watching someone hold their own in a swordfight, except they’re armed with nothing but a set of chopsticks, and more impressive still — in some aspects, they’re winning.
It’s got a few issues, and the game isn’t perfect, nor was it lucky enough to recieve any sort of major polishing updates. Furthermore, the franchise came to a screeching halt after this game, and the only fighting game series that SNK has seemed apt to worry about since 1999 has been The King of Fighters. Still, if there’s ever a game that deserved a comeback, it’s this one. You can pick up Garou: Mark of the Wolves on Xbox Live Arcade for Xbox 360, you can import it for PlayStation 2, and you can even find a copy of it on Sega Dreamcast – although be forewarned that the Dreamcast copy is the most inferior version of the bunch, as it has loads of port-related issues involving slowdown and frame drops (plus it’s ridiculously expensive, as it’s one of the rarest games on the system, new copies regularly run over $150). You can also pick it up on iOS and Android phones, but playing a game like this on a touchscreen is like trying to play piano with a backhoe.
Still, the game is worth playing in any way you can, and is an absolute must-play for anyone who loves fighting games.
The best fighting game you’ve probably never heard of.