Killer Instinct – Behind The Scenes
RARE. TO A GAMER that name means quality. To an English gamer it means ‘One of our flagship claims to the world’s gaming industry’, such is the acclaim that the company from Twycross, Leicestershire, has earned over the years. It has consistently delivered games of the highest calibre. Be it the 1984 release of Sabre Wulf, the 1997 FPS legend that is GoldenEye, or the upcoming platformer Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts. Yet there was a time, when the company’s future was in doubt. When the Stamper brothers sold Ultimate Play The Game back in 1985, and abandoned the Spectrum – a platform they had set alight within their first three years as a company – to take on the new and then un-proven Famicom, fans were left shaking their heads. Faced with an unlimited budget from Nintendo and tasked with developing games back home on a system few British people could even afford, Rare got into the business of licensed games and ports.
Though the constant string of NES releases brought in huge profits, Rare had lost its innovation and was in danger of becoming just another developer. Its best chance of breaking the mould and keeping ahead of the game lay in 16-bit consoles. If Rare wanted to win big, it had to risk big. And so it was that the company cut back its production and exchanged the massive profit it had garnered from the NES into the production of Silicon Graphics workstations. This move made Rare the most technologically advanced developer in the UK, but what would it do with this newfound power?
“It was the golden age of fighting games,” says Chris Tilston, gameplay programmer and lead designer on Killer Instinct. “They were more popular at that time in the arcades than they had ever been, and we were all big fans. It just made sense to enter this market with what people were playing most.” And therein lay the main competition for all beat- ’em-ups at the time.
Although Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat had brought unprecedented popularity to the genre, they had also set the basis for all that was to come. As a whole string of titles proved, differentiating a game from the two giants was far from easy. Whereas other genres benefit from the numerous ways in which they can distinguish themselves, the beat-’em-up is incredibly closed-set: story means nothing, environment means little. Great gameplay is essential, of course, but it’s difficult to market a game on something so intangible. If there is one element of the beat-’em-up genre that can be communicated easily it is the characters, so that’s where Rare began.
“A prototype started back in June 1993,” explains Tilston, “when Mark Betteridge [now studio head] had a couple of boxers [one of which became TJ Combo], which lead artist Kevin Bayliss had modelled on screen, running on Rare’s old arcade hardware. Initially the theme was one of ‘street punks’, where the characters were more based in reality – a basketball player, for example – but we changed this to more fantastical characters that would make the game stand out. Things that might have been familiar but you hadn’t seen before in the context of a fighting game, grounded by some more traditional characters.” By Christmas the game’s personalities had been designed and modelled, and animation tests had begun with an early motion-capture system.
Being such a transitional period in Rare’s evolution, the team were limited to working on old hardware. As Tilston states: “The archaic motion-capture suit was joined by wires and was a bit temperamental, and we didn’t even have any final hardware to work off – it was still being designed.” Thankfully, Rare founder Chris Stamper, who had “Raised eyebrows about the fact that he was designing the hardware”, produced the first prototype at the beginning of 1994, and the team began porting the engine over. “We put together a brief presentation doc with all of the characters Kevin had modelled, and came up with the theme that would glue all of these characters together. This was sent off to Nintendo who greenlighted the game, fact, it is difficult to name a 2D fighter that garnered the commercial success of Killer Instinct while deviating so much from the formula. Its Ultra Combos, accessible yet incredibly stylish stringing technique, three-dimensional backgrounds, Humiliations, No mercys, and its unique characters all stood it apart – according to Tilston, this is what kept them hooked. “We could see from weekly arcade reports how commercially successful the game was becoming,” Tilston remembers. “Although the Killer Instinct arcade machine was highly expensive for the time, in some arcades a single cabinet would take over a thousand dollars a week. It wasn’t long before the machines had paid for themselves… and that popularity continued for a long time.”
Creating the arcade version of Killer Instinct had been an arduous and chancy gamble, but porting it to the console market was an even riskier venture. Had the arcade game’s introduction ‘Available for your home in 1995, only on Nintendo Ultra 64’, been accurate, life may have been much easier, but when Nintendo announced that the then Ultra 64 was to be put back until September 1996, Rare had a major dilemma. The arcade’s success had ignited demand in a console version, but having to move the port of one of the most advanced arcade games around from a 64-bit system to a 16-bit machine that was rapidly going out of date, was a technological nightmare. “Memory was the big issue,” remarks Tilston, “and the multi-frame backgrounds and 3D backgrounds had to go. The other difficult part I remember was cramming all of the moves in. We had to take out 80 per cent of the frames that made up a single move and borrow from other places. It took both me and Kevin about four months of solid work, going through frames and cutting them down while trying to keep moves vaguely resembling the originals.” Needless to say, the changes were more than apparent.
The motion-captured, flawlessly smooth moves of the arcade version became choppy and fractured, the characters blocky and the backgrounds no longer 3D. What had far surpassed any other beat- ’em-up for graphics and sound in the arcade, at home – against the newly released PlayStation – suddenly looked dated. This placed all the attention and any chance of Killer Instinct’s success at home on the gameplay. It is testament to the game’s design that, despite its problems, the SNES version of Killer Instinct received critical acclaim and featured in Nintendo Power’s Top 200 Games On A Nintendo Console list. “That’s surprising,” comments Tilston, “as I honestly don’t think we ever did nail a definitive home version of the arcade Killer Instinct. There never really was a one-to-one conversion due to the hardware limits of the home platforms.” So, what does Tilston attribute this success to? “Characters that players hadn’t seen before is one reason. The graphical look is another. The ease with which you could pull off combos. And the music really helped give it this attitude. Maybe where Mortal Kombat was dark and Street Fighter II was cartoon, we were somewhere in the middle.”
The problems that Rare had suffered with the SNES port of Killer Instinct would once again surface with the N64 version of Killer Instinct 2 (Killer Instinct: Gold). The arcade version was an absolute powerhouse. The speakers damn near collapsed the cabinet; the characters were beautifully rendered, their moves seamlessly smooth; and the FMV sequences that were your reward for ‘special’ victories were slick and stylish. Fans pleaded that this conversion would give them the perfect port they had so longed for. Sadly, history repeated itself. Gone were the FMV sequences on N64, the characters were blocky, the moves often disjointed, and the audio lacked oomph. All this left a sour taste in the mouths of fans wanting a definitive home version. Hope turned to a third outing.
For any Killer Instinct fan, the fact that the series seems to have finished after its second outing is something of a sore point. Where Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat have put out more than enough versions of themselves to make the average fan penniless, Rare’s series seems to have died in its infancy. “I think management looked at the sales of Donkey Kong Country [9 million] and Killer Instinct [3.2 million] and just didn’t want to go after a market that was a third of the size of the platform game market,” Tilston explains. “This was probably why we started off on a 3D platformer [Conker, then known as Twelve Tales: Conker 64).”
Even now, a quick look on the internet will confirm fans’ hunger for a third instalment. The past few months have been littered with rumours of leaked sheet music for the title theme and purported slips from Rare nodding to a sequel. With such a constant flow of pseudo-news it seems impossible to know the truth. The only certainty on the matter is that there is and always was a definite possibility of number three. “In early-1999 I did start designing KI3 with a very small team,” reveals Tilston. “This was more of an evolutionary game, and we did get a prototype going with Jago in full 3D with motion-captured moves [and running at 60fps]. We had the advantage of designing the game for a home audience rather than an arcade audience, so we were going to move it in a different direction rather than just include a few new characters and a different story. This was stopped when I had to move onto Perfect Dark to help lead the design when a few members of that team left really early on in development. Looking back at the stuff I did in 1999, it’s probably still relevant ten years later, and the fighting game market – although much more refined than it was – hasn’t really gone forward that much,” Tilston remarks.
But if our hopes come true and there is another Killer Instinct, what form will it take? “I think if we were to do a KI3 now it would have to be more of a revolutionary concept, and we have a few ideas about where it should go.” So, what’s the definitive answer? Will we ever again strain our thumbs to pull off a combo of hits to single-handedly wipe out civilisation? “I don’t know,” Tilston concludes.