After finding instant success with Art of Fighting and Fatal Fury, both released by SNK as a competitor to the Street Fighter series in the East, SNK finally found its flagship franchise through the King of Fighters series from 1994. King of Fighters on a foundational level combined numerous characters from both Art of Fighting and Fatal Fury along with the addition to a few original characters and other characters from other SNK games such as Athena and the soldiers from Ikari Warriors.
The series continues to be a cult hit with numerous fighting game fanatics and has inspired an anime short and a very negatively received live action movie by its hardcore fanbase and critics alike. Putting that aside, with its twenty year legacy it is time to share what Honey thinks are the top 10 characters from the King of Fighters franchise.
10. Ash Crimson
Introduced in 2003, shortly after the end of the NESTS story arc, Ash served as a new kind of addition to the series but also causing unfortunate consequences to the status quo. In relation to the story, he wants to take the powers of Kyo, Iori, and Chizuru and actually took away Iori and Chizuru’s powers for a brief period! Despite his rather feminine design, he is rather powerful and his confidence is reflected in his relaxed stance with hands at his hips.
Like Kyo and Iori, he wields the power of fire, but emits a green flame. Due to how he positions his hands, a majority of his generic attacks are based around his devastating kicks And lets arsenal of projectiles do the bulk of the bulk of his dirty work.
Initially introduced in Art of Fighting, King has been a continuous mainstay in the King of Fighters history. In her initial debut, her design (and name) was intentionally meant to hide the fact she was truly female! Story wise, this was meant to have people take her seriously as a fighter. She skills led her to work as a bodyguard for Mr. Big and these circumstances initially introduce her as something of an antagonist, but later turns to Ryo’s side and even falls in love with him.
Despite his stance being influenced by Muay Thai, the technique to her kicks in which she extends her leg like a boxer’s jab as opposed to swinging them is more related to the French martial art of Savate (where she is originally from) and the acrobatic techniques she uses tends to be more related to Korean martial arts. Many of her techniques can be used applicable in all ranges which is what makes her a great character to play as.
Introduced in King of Fighters ’99, K’ (initially assumed to be a clone of either Kyo or Krizalid) became one of the most central characters to the NESTS story arc of the series. It was later revealed he wasn't a clone but in fact infused with Kyo’s DNA which gave him his family’s abilities to use fire. Unlike other previous heroes such as Kyo, Terry, and Ryo who share dark pasts, K’ tended to be more withdrawn while the others tend to be more outgoing. Like Kyo, K’ hones the power of fire. Initially, Kyo (along with Iori) was supposed to be removed from the roster and K’ would become the official main character, but the idea was dropped but continued to play a very important role.
Due to his personal background, in addition to coming across as anti-social, his hostile personality is also reflected in his fighting style which comes across as rough but not feral like Iori. Due to having the Kusanagi blood in him, as stated earlier he uses fire in his attacks and he comes at his opponent to finish them. It has been observed that some of K’s attacks are influenced by Bruce Lee. The way he positions his hands are rather wide in his stance (complimenting his lanky frame) and it allows him to have more mid-range to long-range attacks.
7. Higashi Joe
Next, we have a character initially introduced in the Fatal Fury series, Higashi Joe. Despite being Japanese, he was raised in Thailand and trained in the national art of Muay Thai. In addition to his realistic mid-range attacks based on the science of eight limbs, Joe has a few tricks up his sleeves such as the hurricane upper which is a huge hurricane made from an uppercut. Ever since his debut, though some Fatal Fury characters are written out and never heard from again such as Axel Hawk, Joe along with a small number of characters continue to be a popular mainstay in the King of Fighters legacy. In addition to his devastating attacks, Joe’s appeal also ranges from his provocative taunts. In some versions such as 1998, you can use the taunt button to moon the opponent.
6. Sakazaki Ryo
Ryo is another long mainstay who debuted in another prequel series, Art of Fighting. Ryo was initially influenced by Ken and Ryu from Street Fighter due to being a karate fighter that shot fireballs. Due to this, when Capcom made the Street Fighter Alpha games, the rival company made the character Dan as a spoof of Ryo’s fighting style and get up making him a joke character in that regard. But beyond that, Ryo’s Kyokugen-ryu Karate (influenced by Kyokushin Karate) is close ranged and relies on rapid fire combinations. Whenever they connect, they appropriately deliver high numbers on the combo meter and do devastating damage.
Training in his family’s art from a young age, in addition to that dedication to perfecting his technique, he preserves his family’s honor and has refused all deals to use his skills for evil. Later on, he was introduced as a secret final boss in Fatal Fury Special and as a hidden character. It is speculated that this addition was what influenced SNK to cross their franchise and create the King of Fighters series.
5. Shiranui Mai
The original bombshell of fighting games is the scantily clad kunoichi herself, Shiranui Mai. Introduced in Fatal Fury 2, Mai dazzled gamers with her exotic beauty. In fact, her (in)famous breasts were influenced by 1990s Japanese gravure model Hosokawa Fumie and her butt was a homage to one of the original idols of adult entertainment, the late Iijima Ai. When the games were released in the US, her outfit had more added to it and other movements had to be stopped in some places. But let's forget all that for a few seconds and talk about what makes her a fun character to use. Her attacks are graceful and tend to be useful in close range.
Like Kyo and K’, she uses the power of fire and can use her fans and outfit to ignite it. Despite how much fanboys love her, her love will always by Andy Bogard. Throughout many incarnations of her throughout both the Fatal Fury and King of Fighters franchises, she has had a number of voice actresses. In the games, she was played by Sogi Akoya, a Japanese actress, and in the Fatal Fury anime, she is voice by Sailor Moon herself, Kotono Mitsuishi.
4. Geese Howard
The original boss of South Town himself, Geese Howard. Most of his fame comes from the Fatal Fury and Art of Fighting games but he had a few good appearances in King of Fighters himself. The only main KoF appearance he has in the ’96 edition as a member of the boss team. However, he was also brought back later on in ’98, Neowave, Maximum Impact, and a small handful of others though his role in those games are not as grand as they were in the initial franchises he debuted in. The thing about Geese is that he is the original SNK boss that paved the way for the rest of the bosses of the franchise. The thing about SNK fighting game bosses, they are HARD! Even on normal mode, they tend to be hard and Geese (well, also along with Hwa Jai from the first Fatal Fury) tend to have an impregnable defense and a devastating offense.
To top it off, Geese’s Raging Storm and his grappling attacks feel like instant kills! As for his fate, it has always been debatable whether or not he truly died in Real Bout, but these other King of Fighters game tend to say the contrary. Thankfully his son Rock did not inherit his evil ways and grew up to become one of the good guys, though his ending in Mark of the Wolves says he must join the forces of evil to find his mother. On one last note, one of his most hilarious moments in any game is in Capcom vs SNK when he opens the fight in an intro which he says in a very creepy but hilarious Engrish accent, I sharr stain my hands with your brood.
3. Yagami Iori
Just as Ryu from Street Fighter has his Ken, Kyo has his rival in Yagami Iori introduced in the second KoF game, KoF ‘95. Even though Ken and Ryu and more friendly in their rivalry, throughout the first few years of the King of Fighters series, Kyo and Iori were intense rivals due to their families being at war for years. Iori’s fashion sense tends to have a strong influence from Japan’s version of glam metal, Visual Kei (in fact, he was a musician prior the events of the games). Like the Kusanagi family, the Yagami family wields the power of fire but as opposed to being a natural color, their fire is purple.
While Kyo is a more refined martial artist, Iori’s fighting style has no restraint and comes across as more feral. As opposed to punching, he tends to use scratch attacks and tends to emphasize on power over technique. All of his attacks have the intends of torturing you and ultimately killing you. To make matters worse, he is also capable having a much darker nature known as Orochi Iori, where he is consumed by the influence of the ancient Japanese God. It takes Iori’s fighting base, and takes it to the ultimate extreme.
Despite Iori’s initial intense rivalry with Kyo, he has never really been a villain. After the defeat of Orochi, Kyo and Iori finally put their blood rivalry aside and they have become more like reluctant allies (and Iori has a very bad history of being a team player after what he did to Eiji and Billy and it is spoofed in an intro between Iori and Billy in KoF ’98). Though Kyo had his own story released on an RPG, Iori actually happened to have his own story told through a drama CD. The drama CD tells how Iori once had a woman who loved him but couldn't be with her due to Orochi being within him.
2. Kusanagi Kyo
The main character of the franchise itself, Kusanagi Kyo. First introduced in KoF ’94, the inaugural game, like his predecessors (Ryo and Terry from Art of Fighting and Fatal Fury), he is a student of his family’s martial art. Due to his bloodline, he wields the power of fire and his attacks are excellently balanced whether they be close, mid, or long range. Depending on the version, some of Kyo’s attacks can be different. In some versions using the down, down-forward, forward and punch pattern, he can do a long range fire attack, or a fist on fire attack. In addition, after 1998, Kyo forgoes his gakuran and starts dressing in regular clothes a young Japanese man would wear. With his good looks, well rounded techniques, and his various costumes over the years, it all contributes to his charisma and overall popularity.
In addition to being the face of the franchise, Kyo is also the star of his own RPG called King of Fighters Kyo. The game takes place prior to KoF ’97 and it is about how he encounters everybody in the franchise throughout his hometown of Tokyo. The game is only for the PS1 and its release was exclusively only in Japan.
1. Terry Bogard
First introduced in the Fatal Fury games (though the tournament in those games were labeled as The King of Fighters tournament), Terry served as the main character along with his brother Andy and their best friend, Joe. Terry and his team join the tournament in order to defeat Geese, the host, and avenge their father Jeff. Despite Kyo being the main character of the King of Fighters franchise, Terry still maintains his status as something of a mascot to the SNK brand through many of its merchandise. Like Kyo and Athena, Terry’s fashion has changed over the years. Though initially famous for his red jacket, cap, and jeans, after the release of Garou, he loses the hat and trades in the red jacket for a brown one.
Terry’s fighting style is pretty much in a balanced mixed of boxing and Japanese martial arts and his generic button moves are excellent within close range. However, his special attacks are done long range such as his power wave, power dunk, and burn knuckle. However, after Garou, Terry developed the buster wolf (same can dispute his this move came from the anime) which is more of a close range move. Speaking of the anime, Terry actually defeated Mars, the God of War himself! What also makes Terry a great guy is even when he defeated Geese, he demonstrates heart by taking in Rock, Geese’s son and raising him to be a good man.
In addition to this list, some of our top honorable mentions are Orochi, Rugal, Athena, K9999, and Kuula. For many readers who are fans of the King of Fighters, who are your top favorite characters from the game. With the many rosters, it is undeniably difficult to make such a list. So please share.