The History of KOF Part 1 – Pre-2000 to Mid-2000s
It’s been over 25 years since the release of the original KOF ’94, and many a gamer have had heated battles throughout The King of Fighters series. The spread of the fighting game movement has matured even further with the recent release of this series’ new entry. The theme of these articles will be asking players who were there first-hand about the history of the KOF series. And we’ll be introducing some experts from within the KOF community.
Today we have with us Dune, a pillar of the Japanese KOF community. He’s been organizing the biggest privately-run KOF tournament in the country since the mid-2000s. We also have Gosyo, known as a top KOF player for many years and winner of the KOF 2002 championship in the 2003 national tournament (known as Tougeki). We’ll be asking them first-hand about their KOF experiences from 2000 to 2010.
Dune – Originally a top KOF ’98 player, he’s now a pillar of the Japanese KOF community as the founder of the nation-wide privately-run tournament “Dueling the KOF”, since 2004.
Gosyo – A top player of the KOF series. Since he won the KOF 2002 championship at the first Tougeki tournament, he’s built up an incredible record in many tournaments throughout the country. Specializing in grappler characters, he’s known as the God of Throws.
KOF ’98 – KOF 2001
The fighting game genre is associated with the 1990s. Arcades all over the country had back-to-back fighting game cabinets set up prominently in the center, and thrilling battles between skilled players happened no matter what the title. Here we’ll be covering the later part of that era up to the 2000s, where that boom had subsided. It was in era in which passionate fighting game players, regardless of the state of that boom, were thirsting for new places to take on other like-minded players.
What was the KOF scene like before Tougeki, from the 1990s through the mid-2000s?
(Dune) It had died down from it was at its peak, but the amount of people playing was still pretty big. So, it still had a pretty good scene. To be more specific, you could find a match in KOF ’98 no matter where you went in the country. The way the game played had changed a lot with KOF 2001, and so the amount of people around to play against decreased little by little. You can think of it as like a changing of generations. Then all of a sudden, an advertisement for Tougeki appeared in a 2002 issue of Arcadia magazine. I can’t deny that there was a real difference between people who were excited by this and who weren’t. But because of Tougeki, it felt like people who should have by all rights retired were able to keep on going.
There was an aspect of Tougeki that really appealed to core players.
(Dune) This isn’t something you typically hear, but I personally think that the appearance of Tougeki was huge for the KOF scene due to it being “anything goes”, in terms of everything in the game but bugs being legal. Though maybe that wasn’t the aim that the people running Tougeki had. Back then different arcades had different sets of rules, like “no turtling” and “no anti-air uppercuts”. So, there were factions of people who played with these kinds of local rules. To cite a pretty extreme example, something like “He comes here often, but I won’t play him because he uses empty jumps into low attacks!” (Laughs) But as Tougeki’s atmosphere took hold, doing all of that stuff became okay. Perhaps maybe, little by little, it created an attitude of not being able to deal with those things being bad? Anyway, that doesn’t have anything to do with KOF directly. It’s just what I felt as a high-level player at the time.
(Gosyo) In the early 2000s you’d typically just hear people saying “Please stop chipping me to death!” (Laughs)
Where were you playing most of your matches back then, Dune?
(Dune) I was in my hometown of Ofuna. But around the year 2000, there wasn’t anyone playing KOF at all. This is one of the reasons why I’d later start a big tournament myself, but in 2001 a privately-run nation-wide KOF ’98 tournament was being held. At the time I was really surprised at the idea of being into older titles like KOF ’98. I felt it was very rare for people to be playing an older title in a series on a mainstream-level when a newer one was already out. The idea had just never occurred to me, and that realization gave me a lot of motivation. But even if I decided to play a three year old game, there weren’t even any opponents for the newer one in my hometown! (Laughs) I figured the only way to create hype for an older game was to do it myself. It was either organizing a tournament or going out to play in other areas. So, I reached out to some of my classmates, which increased the player base at least. That would all have to do with starting “Duelling the KOF” later on.
Was it a time when matches would get gradually more difficult, since there tended to be less dedicated players the further you got away from big cities?
(Dune) Yes. After the year 2000 there were definitely places where you could get matches and couldn’t get matches, even in Tokyo.
How about you Gosyo?
(Gosyo) I started playing KOF games a little after ’98. Up until then I’d had this image of KOF games being too fast, or the combos seeming really difficult to pull off. But KOF ’98 looked really cool. The players in my hometown of Kashiwa were really good, and contrary to the times they played with an “anything goes” style. I was invited to play as a part of that group, and the experience of playing in an environment like that was huge for me. I’m only as good as I am thanks to that. KOF is based around a 3-on-3 team system, so my friends and I would even sometimes each play a single character on a team. We had a lot of fun holding small tournaments like that sometimes, when there were over like 20 people around playing.
Did you ever make the trek over to other areas to play at that time?
(Gosyo) I went to some other nearby areas. There were definitely some regional differences in play styles and how people had fun with the game. For KOF ’98, in Tsudanuma in the Chiba area, finishing off someone with a guard cancel was initially looked down upon. But that gradually changed more into “Well if you’re playing against someone from Kashiwa, where anything goes, it’s not that lame”. By continuously going and challenging people in other areas that had different ways of playing, I believe we influenced each other’s play culture and ways of thinking. The Tougeki rules of “anything goes” that Dune was just talking about a little bit ago were great to me.
Were there any famous players that lived near you at the time, Gosyo?
(Gosyo) At that time, I think Poporin did. He played until around KOF 2002 and was in a lot of tournaments. I tended to win most matches I played there, but I had more losses than wins against him. Then there was also Finger, who taught me a lot about KOF ’99. And though he didn’t play at my local arcade, there was also Score, who’s now a programmer. We’ve actually known each for quite a while now and met during an online tournament. Then he said “Hey I play KOF too, so come to Osaka sometime!”, so I paid him a visit. I was winning a lot of casual matches in Kashiwa, so I was pretty confident in myself, but I remember feeling a real sense of culture shock at how good Score was when I played against him in Osaka.
The Fight Against Korea: Japan vs. Korea
One big topic in the history of the KOF series is the fight against Korea. This is when Japanese players came to know the full strength of Korea at the series, which had previously been completely unknown.
I’ve heard that 2001 was the beginning of Japan vs. Korea. What was that like at the time?
(Dune) Back then pieces of information about there being a lot of KOF players in Korea started floating around in Japan. I heard that it was so big that they aired KOF matches on TV programs, and I was like ‘Really?!”. I wasn’t playing KOF 2001 very much, so I wasn’t very in tune with the competitive scene. It was a period where I was getting a lot of my information from magazine articles. Since KOF 2001, which was being used at this particular event, had involvement from a Korean game developer. So, it was a great opportunity for Korea to get excited about the game. I think that’s how this all may have happened. Four of the top players from an event just before this one called “GCN” were representing Japan, but that’s when I saw just how good Korean players were with my own eyes.
(Gosyo) I didn’t place at the top of GCN personally, but like Dune was saying, I’d also been hearing bits of information about how into KOF Korea was. And upon hearing this, I remember getting excited in wondering just how good they were. Foxy was so broken that she was banned from Japanese tournament play, because she had a move that was unlockable. But I guess in Korea, the strongest character was May Lee. I remember hearing from Yama-chan, who participated in that event, about just how strong some Korean players’ May Lees were.
So then Korean play ended to be more “anything goes”?
(Gosyo) Not exactly. It was being broadcast on TV, so there was this idea of a particularly turtle-y style of play not being a good look.
(Dune) It really depended on the type of strengths the character had. For example, May Lee’s strength was rushing down and triggering a guard crush. Anti-air uppercuts didn’t play too well on TV, so they were banned. It was kind of like, if you’re going to lose then lose with an Oniyaki. And you couldn’t tell just from watching, but techniques that made projectiles unlockable were also banned. And amidst all of that, a character with few obvious strengths like May Lee was widely used. That’s how I understood it, anyway.
Having a play style that takes into account that the matches are televised is pretty amazing.
(Dune) I played matches on an actual TV program back in 2006 myself, but it’s really cool that a culture has sprung up around airing fighting games on TV.
(Gosyo) Later on I fought Bash, one of Korea’s top players, in a Tougeki finals match. And he was aggressive right from the start then too, though the character he was using was also not one that was regarded as being the strongest. He was using one that had Vanessa-like combos.
So that deepened the cultural exchange with Korean players.
(Gosyo) I asked more about the style of Korean players through an interpreter when I was taken out for Korean BBQ after the match. Even though it was 10 vs. 10 head-to-head matches between Japan and Korea, but they really did show us a lot of hospitality to deepen that cultural exchange.
The Tougeki Era
In 2003, arcade game magazine Arcadia announced a nation-wide arcade fighting game tournament called Tougeki. KOF 2002 was the game from the series chosen for that event, resulting in a change in player motivation.
Tougeki started up in 2003. What was the player stance on it at first?
(Gosyo) There were a lot of people in Kashiwa who felt it was too much of a hassle to go outside of the local area. But Tougeki had enough influence to at least give them the motivation to want to try taking part. There were Korean players that participated in Tougeki, and we were aware of how good they were from our previous matches. There was a sense of pressure given that it was a nation-wide tournament, and the participation of Korean players was also a real threat. But I played against Bash casual matches just before the tournament and thought that I might be able to beat him if the match was a single round.
(Dune) I don’t think there were any nation-wide tournaments that featured different games in the line-up like Tougeki did, up until this point? And not only did they have the latest games, they also had older ones. My expectations were high, thinking that games that I viewed as classics were going to be featured in real events now. But my hometown was in an area that didn’t have a lot of players to begin with, so when Tougeki was announced there wasn’t much of a change in the player-base there. So, I was very positive about the idea of participating in the tournament, but unfortunately, I had no one to play against where I lived. For better or worse, it was a time where everyone was too busy being a working adult, and you could feel the difference in levels of enthusiasm. When Tougeki cemented itself later on, people became more aware of it and entered. But it was a difficult situation for me, for a while there.
(Gosyo) KOF 2002 was really exciting during that first year. I won the tournament, but everyone’s enthusiasm was so high. KOF 2003 was played for the second year (Tougeki ’04), and the nature of the game really changed. I got the impression that the overall number of players shrunk slightly. But the “anything goes” Kashiwa players still stuck around, and I had a lot of opponents that were looking to win Tougeki. Dune even made it out to Kashiwa during that time.
(Dune) I felt a lot of personal motivation, but as I said earlier, the player situation in my hometown was not great. So, I practiced combos against the CPU every day, and I made the trip out to Kashiwa once a week to play matches for who knows how many hours. Even though it took 2 hours one-way for me to get to Kashiwa! (Laughs) When KOF Neowave was chosen for Tougeki ’05, players in my area had accepted that Tougeki was here to stay. A lot of them came back, and I felt that player motivation and game interest were in good places.
The Privately Run National KOF Tournament “Duelling the KOF”
As mentioned previously, Dune organizes a national tournament for KOF ’98 and 2002 called “Dueling the KOF” (from here on referred to as “Duel”). It’s well known among the country’s KOF player community. And regardless of the fact that it’s privately run, I wonder what the details are of how such a big tournament came to be in the mid-2000s are, as well as what the player reaction was at the time?
When was the first Duel held?
(Dune) The first finals were held in August 2004. As we were discussing earlier, I realized that it was still okay to play KOF ’98 in a tournament around March 2001. At that point I was completely blowing off studying for entrance exams to start playing KOF ’98, and that title ended up occupying a position within me to where it felt like a home that I could always go back to. I was playing the latest entry in the series to practice for Tougeki too, but I didn’t want the porchlight of the new home I found in KOF ’98 to go out either. So, I recruited some friends and started a tournament, in order to increase the excitement around KOF ’98. Thinking that Tougeki will always use the newest title in the series, I figured the only way to create hype around a KOF ’98 scene would be to start a national tournament myself. If no one else was going to do it, I guess I just I just had to be the one to.
It sounds so obvious now, but I’m surprised that you came up with that idea.
(Dune) Since KOF is a game where you have three characters per team, I didn’t think there was any need for the tournament to be a team-based one for the players, like they did at Tougeki. But seeing that they were doing 3 on 3 with other titles, it made me a bit jealous. So, thinking that I’d introduce my own interesting set of rules, I tried making it a 2 on 2 tournament. It was right around then when the Internet was becoming more widely used by fighting game players. And thanks to that I gradually became acquainted with more and more players in Japan, and started thinking that with everyone’s help, national preliminaries would actually be possible. The other sponsoring members and I organized, took responsibility for setting up preliminaries in different areas of the country, and ran them. Then the winners of the preliminaries all gathered at the famous Kyoto arcade a-cho, and we held the finals.
It’s really pretty amazing that you individually organized and ran a national tournament.
(Dune) I guess thinking about it, we did a pretty good job of winging it for a bunch of 20 year olds! (Laughs) I think that compared to some other games, we were fairly early to establish a privately run national tournament. It’s on hold for the moment due to the Corona Virus, but it’s turning into a tournament with some history behind it.
From an organizer perspective, what was the reaction from the players and community when you started this up?
(Dune) I couldn’t really ask the participants directly in order to keep a necessary distance between us, as the tournament organizer. At that time, I had to judge reactions based on the atmosphere and number of participants. Tougeki was already around, and new games were coming out continuously. And so, amidst all of that, of course I felt insecure about whether or not people would come to a privately-run national 2 on 2 tournament that was focused around old games. If the first one didn’t work out, I wasn’t going to do it again. But once things got started, I discovered that there were a lot more people than I thought that actually loved KOF ’98 and 2002 but felt that they couldn’t keep playing them because of new games in the series.
How many participants did you have?
(Dune) Over 100 people showed up for the Kyushu preliminaries, for example. I wasn’t able to see for myself, but I read the reports from the people running the other locations and I was really amazed. I really felt grateful on the day of the preliminaries. People who weren’t able to qualify during them came to the venue we were holding the finals at to participate, and those participants all entered into KOF 2002 (2 on 2). They made for 6 team entries in total, which was the same number of total teams that entered for the finals. It made those of us running the tournament let out cries of delight.
You really felt the level of commitment that the participants had.
(Dune) After the tournament was done, I excitedly announced “This first year is over! (We’ll do it again next year!)”, and the response suggested that if we held it again next year that everyone would come back again. It’s a great memory for me personally, and I think it accomplished something that really had an impact.
Gosyo entered as a participant, so what was it like from that perspective?
(Gosyo) Up until that point I’d just played 1 on 1 matches in tournaments, so that was the first time I experienced the intensity of teaming up with another player in a 2 on 2 match! (Laughs) I was determined to team up with someone I got along well with instead of someone who was just a really strong player. And I remember feeling very shocked at realizing that there were so many strong players throughout the country, as I lost matches to players that I’d never even played matches against before.
You meet players from other regions, which by extension feels like a big chance to bring the larger community together.
(Gosyo) That’s right. It also strengthens the spirit of the Kanto vs. Kansai rivalry too. After Duel, we decided on 10 Kanto and Kansai players, and had an actual east vs. west battle. The pressure of that match was ridiculous, and it made for another interesting memory! (Laughs) That kind of match really lays bare the competitive spirit that older players like me have.
Do you suppose it acted as motivation for people to continue playing KOF ’98 and KOF 2002?
(Dune) I think it was a chance to make people think “Maybe I should try playing these games again?” since they were featured in tournaments, and not just let the conversation end with “Yeah, those were good games”. It may have made things difficult for developers who want new versions of these games to sell, since for better or worse, it extends the life cycle of these older titles. Actually, the price of KOF ’98 boards went up at shops that sold used arcade boards! (Laughs) I also feel that in its own way, it had some influence on the player base in an era when bringing out a new game in a series was historically hard to get them to adopt. And apart from that, I also think that there being a place where people can gather together to have matches was an important factor in preserving the community.
Discovering China’s Strength
The relations between Japanese and Korean KOF players continued to deepen from then on out. But then events happened that led to learning about the existence of Chinese KOF players. How good were players that came from such a huge country? It was a real discovery of the overwhelming strength of their player-base.
I heard that you participated in a tournament in China in the mid-2000s. Could you give us some details?
(Dune) It was in 2006, and someone involved in the Chinese KOF community had come to Japan on business. This person asked both Gosyo and I if we were interested in going to a KOF tournament in Shanghai. So, us and two other players that he invited played in a KOF ’98 tournament in Shanghai called “TGB” (The Great Battle). And that’s when we realized just how good your average Chinese KOF player was.
They were that good?
(Dune) I thought they were good when I had casual matches with players from Shanghai and Beijing, but we were still able to play on an even field with them. But a player named Heipi, who travelled 30 hours one-way from out in the countryside, was by far the strongest of them all. He won two 128 player tournaments without being defeated.
(Gosyo) I actually fought him at this tournament, and I wasn’t able to get a single win…he utterly defeated me.
So, he was a very uniquely strong player.
(Gosyo) Yeah. His play style made me feel like he was obsessing over very fine details, it really left an impression.
(Dune) Even though we were asking “Which country has the best players, Japan or Korea?” up until then, we suddenly completely turned around after that and said “What!? Maybe it’s China?”.
It’s like the actual skills of previously unknown Chinese players were gradually becoming clear.
(Dune) When I talked to him, he actually said that there were people in another area that he couldn’t beat! (Laughs) At the time I figured he was just joking with me. But then the following year, in 2007, I went to Shanghai for GB again and learned that it wasn’t a lie after all. The players that Heipi couldn’t beat were Xiao Hai and Dakou, who would later become top KOF players. They were there at the tournament.
To think that their names came up that early!
(Dune) It seems like we didn’t even have the full picture of the Chinese KOF community in 2006, even among the Japanese player-base. At any rate, they’re a big country, and it wasn’t a time in which you could easily find names of strong players on the Internet. They were treated as urban legends, even though they actually existed.
It’s something that could only happen in such a large country.
(Dune) It was like all the Shanghai and Beijing players were astonished by Heipi turning out. So then in 2007, they invited great players from all over China, and Xiao Hai and Dakou participated as a result of that.
You also took part in TGB 2007, who went with you that time?
(Dune) Gosyo wasn’t able to participate due to other commitments, but apart from him it was the players from the previous year plus several more. The tournament from that year was the one that left the biggest impression on me in my entire time playing KOF.
What kind of tournament was it?
(Dune) It was a 5 on 5 tournament with players from Japan, China, Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong. It was really a dream match between all of those different communities. I couldn’t help but wonder just how much money the sponsors must have spent! (Laughs)
That’s a pretty groundbreaking idea for a time in which there weren’t nearly as many world-wide fighting game tournaments as there are now.
(Dune) Xiao Hai and Dakou were on the Chinese team, the two that Heipi couldn’t beat. The Japanese and Korean teams also aimed to have best-in-class lineups, but they were both just completely crushed by Xiao Hai, who was a high school student at that point. It made us question what we’d even been doing up until then! (Laughs)
So, you’re saying that Japanese and Korean players became aware of the might of Chinese players?
(Dune) It gave rise to a common understanding that Chinese players were on a whole different level than we were.
(Gosyo) When we got back to Japan and started talking about how good Chinese players were, hardly anyone believed us.
(Dune) People who played other games even said things like “Are you sure it isn’t just that you’re really weak?” (Laughs)
(Gosyo) And now Xiao Hai is a pro gamer that’s known throughout the world.
(Dune) He came to Tougeki to compete in August 2007. We’d heard that he did things like played with only one hand, and would use random to pick his characters, and those things were actually true! (Laughs) Back then, Xiao Hai was in high school. But the top ranking Japanese players weren’t just going to go down without a fight. There were people who won several matches against him, but there wasn’t a single player that ended up with more wins against him than losses. We hadn’t been aware of Chinese players dominating a single game for quite some time, but Tougeki made us understand the situation very clearly.
And now the whole world has witnessed it.
(Dune) Thinking about it, it’s way more fun when other areas have great players that give Japanese players something to strive for. In a sense, I think the KOF scene really benefitted from it. If it’s all Japanese players in the finals of an international tournament like EVO, it doesn’t actually feel like an international tournament at all. I believe that having rivals in other regions and countries is the realization of SNK’s practices in the 90s of trying to make Neo Geo development more internationally focused.
Article, Editing: Toyoman
Cooperation: Yae Ooseko, Dune, Gosyo, Takuma no Oni
(To be continued)
(The original article can be found here)