This is the first part in a series on notable kaiju video games. Giant Japanese-style monsters and games are two of my favourite things in life, so to cross them over like this was only natural. I’m going to highlight classics, hidden gems, and everything inbetween.
King of the Monsters
Players: 1-2, Co-op and Vs.
Release date: February 25, 1991 (Japan)
Platform: NEO GEO, SNES, Genesis, PS2, PSP, Wii, PS3, Switch, PS4, Xbox One, PC, NEO GEO Mini (international version)
Director: Hamachi Papa (aka H. Hamachi)
Publisher: SNK, Takara (SNES, Genesis)
Some of SNK’s most popular characters from their various game series
SNK is a legendary Japanese game developer. Responsible for a bevy of arcade classics like Metal Slug, Ikari Warriors, and most importantly, fighting game classics like The King of Fighters, Fatal Fury, Samurai Shodown, and more. SNK is undoubtedly the most prolific fighting game developer in history. So it should come as no surprise that plenty of the staff who worked at SNK came from Capcom, who released the arcade hit Street Fighter in 1987.
In 1990, the development team responsible for Street Fighter were at SNK working on a brand new multi-plane fighting game called Fatal Fury. Unbeknownst to them (or at least, as they claim), Capcom was hard at work on a sequel to Street Fighter in what would become the single most influential fighting game of the 90’s- kicking off a fighting game boom.
Fatal Fury (1991) Arcade Flyer NEO GEO
SNK’s Fatal Fury was beat to the punch, however, as Capcom’s game hit arcades in February of 1991 while Fatal Fury wasn’t ready until November of the same year. Fatal Fury still garnered some serious acclaim and success for SNK, and was followed by multiple sequels, but was always in the shadow of Capcom’s series. This lead to a decade-long rivalry between Capcom and SNK and a deluge of fighting games that defined the SNK brand. Nowadays, when people hear the name “SNK”- they think of King of Fighters, Samurai Shodown, and a screen with two characters and two health bars at the top. The NEO GEO hardware was a one-stop shop for the hottest fighting games available. Even their recent revival has been headlined by The King of Fighters XIV and the announcement of a new Samurai Shodown.
So what does this have to do with King of the Monsters? Well, before SNK garnered their legendary reputation for fighting games, they released a fighting game that rarely comes up in the discourse on fighting game history: King of the Monsters.
Street Smart (1989), ARCADE. SNK’s first fighting game. Produced before they created the NEO GEO
SNK had released a fighting game before KotM (Street Smart, 1989, Arcade), but this monster-brawler holds the distinction of being the NEO GEO’s very first fighting game. An important distinction given the history of the genre on the hardware.
King of the Monsters landed in Japanese arcades on February 25, 1991 (the same month as Street Fighter!). It’s an arena fighting/wrestling game where you take control of 1 of 6 monsters, listed below:
Geon is a clear homage to Godzilla, with his stocky build, bumpy skin, and fire breath (well, I guess it’s more like Gamera’s?). The main differentiators are a stark green colouring (depending on your player choice), stegosaur-like plates, and a Gomess-like horn on his head. This monster is a dinosaur from the late Cretaceous that woke from his slumber in Russia.
Astro Guy is an homage to giant heroes like Ultraman, Specterman, and Zone Fighter, though his design is reminiscent of American superheroes. He sports a superman-like “A” emblazoned in his chest, along with red underwear, arm and shin guards, and a Captain America-styled mask. He even strikes the “Specium Pose” when performing his special attack. Astro Guy is an elderly scientist who subjects himself to radioactive energy. This causes him to become gigantic and violent, so even though he looks like a hero, he attacks mankind like the rest of the monsters.
Woo is a giant ape, native to a 3000-year-old forest in China. When Woo’s habitat is threatened he sets out to rampage. (some manuals state he risks his life to save people from the other monsters. Despite this, like all the other characters, he levels Tokyo in his ending.) Woo is an homage to giant apes like King Kong (even down to his electric attacks inspired by Kong’s 1962 apperance in King Kong vs Godzilla), but shares his name with a yeti kaiju from Ultraman.
Rocky is a golem monster that emerged from the Sphinx of Giza when the other monsters started rampaging. There isn’t a strong tradition of stone/golem-like creatures in kaiju cinema, but Rocky could be an Egyptian-themed nod to Daimajin- a Japanese stone statue that comes to life in the 1966 Daiei classic of the same name.
Beeltemania is described as a possible extraterrestrial that emerged from the Amazon rainforest. Insect kaiju are fairly popular, and Beetlemania’s design might draw from Megalon and Antlar from Godzilla vs Megalon (1973) and Ultraman (1966), respectively. Beetlemania does not appear in the SNES or Genesis version of the game.
Poison Ghost was created by a collection of pollution near Japan. Apparently the sea itself became angry and created a creature of slime and sediment to wreak havoc on Japan. Poison Ghost’s design seems to be a nod to Hedorah from Godzilla vs Hedorah (1971). Poison Ghost is cut from both the Genesis and SNES versions of the game.
Being an arcade game, there are only three modes of play: Player vs Player combat, Player vs Computer combat, and 2 players vs 2 computers. There is no 4-player mode in any version of the game, but it’s nice to have a co-op option.
Once you choose your character, you are shown a map of Japan detailing which city you will fight in (Osaka, Tokyo, Okayama, Kobe, Kyoto, and Hiroshima). Each stage is a large isometric arena with day/night time variants (or, summer/winter variants, in the case of Kyoto). The left and right edges of the arena have “high voltage lines” that zap monsters and function like the ropes of a wrestling ring (you can even use them for a monster-sized Irish Whip).
The goal is to defeat your opponent, and at your disposal you have punches, kicks, running attacks, special moves (such as fire breath), and grapples. The lower a character’s health, the longer they will take to get back from being knocked down, and once a character’s health reaches zero, they need to be pinned. To pin a character you knock them onto the ground and then press “jump” next to them. A timer will count off, and if it reaches 3 they are pinned and thus, defeated. The only way to shake off someone attempting to pin you is to mash buttons, and when you’re at 0 health, you only get one “free” escape through button mashing until you’re done for good.
The button mashing is probably the most infamous part of this game’s combat. Since regular attacks barely deal any hit stun, using them usually devolves into a series of trading blows with your opponent, ending with one of you on the ground. From there, you can engage in a grapple attack where both monsters lock arms and start struggling to overpower one another. You can pick between four unique throws once you are grappling your opponent, and the throw you and your opponent pick, alongside copious button-mashing, determines who wins the grapple. And since grapples end with the receiving monster on the ground, they often lead right into another grapple, with more button-mashing and guessing.
You also have a power up system to tussle with. When you perform successful grapple attacks on opponents you can collect a bouncing power up ball that over time will cause your monster to change color and increase in attack power. A cool concept, but it doesn’t feel very meaningful as the attack increase isn’t large and the enemies get beefed up over time too.As you can probably guess, there is sadly not much depth to the combat here. It quickly devolves into running attacks, followed by grapples, into special attacks (they hit grounded opponents), wash-rinse-repeat. Sometimes monsters can enter a dizzied state, which just makes the combat even more one-sided.
That being said, the game’s redeeming values come from its presentation. Of all the giant monster games in existence, none offer a unique, showa-style presentation like this one. Despite being fairly small sprites to accomodate for the wrestling-game-style gameplay, the characters are packed with personality. The monsters may all play the same, but they strike unique victory poses after successful throws, all have unique skinned attacks, and all have bold and comical expressions.
The cities are incredibly detailed and little touches like moving cars, destructible buildings, and fires help give a feeling of scale and consequence. Military vehicles will sometimes appear and attack players, including helicopters, a Super-X knockoff, and a fairly faithful Maser Tank!
The game’s audio also fares well. Each monster has a unique showa-style roar, and every match starts with a news reporter frantically relaying the situation (“THE MONSTERS HAVE LANDED . . .”). Each leap has a satisfactory screen shake accompanied by a boom, and the music that plays for each monster is unique and fitting (Geon has a brooding track led by brass and accented with orchestra hits, while Astro Guy has a rocking heroic electric guitar riff).
While it’s easy to criticize the repetitive gameplay (especially when you have to fight every monster twice to see the ending), the game all in all makes a fun time out of giant monster battles. It’s certainly a case where the style makes up for the lack of substance(at least if you’re a fan of the source material), and it can be great fun with a buddy by your side. And it’s worth remembering as an important milestone in fighting game history! It laid a lot of the foundation for games like Godzilla: Destroy All Monsters Melee, Power Stone, and War of the Monsters.
For monster nerds, the most important aspect of King of the Monsters is just how faithfully it captures the look and feel of giant monster movies as an original IP. Even the uber-famous Rampage doesn’t capture the Kaiju aesthetic as well as King of the Monsters, and War of the Monsters has more of a 50’s b-movie vibe than a late 60’s kaiju-boom one. (Though one could argue the most accurate is Attack of the Friday Monsters!)
The game is available, in it’s original NEO GEO format, across multiple platforms. The most accessible of these is the GOG PC version from SNK, or the Arcade Archives edition from Hamster available on PS4, Switch and Xbox One. King of the Monsters used to be available on the Wii Virtual console service, and is available in the SNK Arcade Classics Volume 1 package for Wii, PSP, and PS2. The SNKAC package also includes unlockable promotional and concept art for the game, including work by veteran video game illustrator Toshiaki Mori (aka Shinkiro), who would later become famous for his work on the King of Fighters, Samurai Shodown, Street Fighter, and more. If you can find the Wii version of the SNK Arcade Classics disc, it’s noticeably better than the PSP and PS2 versions, with better performance and progressive video.
Some early concept art depicting Geon and Woo.
The Genesis and SNES versions are mostly straight ports with minimal differences. They are slightly easier than the AES/MVS versions, which is nice if you want to experience the full game. However, poison ghost and woo are not included in either version of the game, and the Genesis version loses the ending cutscene. The SNES version changes the ending cutscene from SNK to TKR news, since the port was developed and published by Takara (who handled all of SNK’s console ports at the time).
One unfortunate issue with KotM (and other games released in the same era) is that the credits of the game all use pseudonyms for the staff who worked on it. This is means we can’t trace the careers of the people who actually made it. We know Shinkiro did some character designs and artwork and that “Hamachi Papa” also directed the sequel and Beast Busters, but. . . that’s about it. A source of mine told me that original KotM staff still work at SNK, so hopefully some day I can share their stories here on Up From the Depths!
This game, despite the incredible popularity at the time of release, didn’t leave much of a legacy. Cameos in further SNK games were taken up by monsters from the sequel game. However, Geon and Rocky make brief appearances in High Score Girl (err- Hi Score Girl on Netflix). Interestingly enough, the appearance of these two along with plenty of references to other SNK games like KoF and Samurai Shodown led to a legal battle with the manga’s publisher. Who happened to be another gaming giant: Square Enix! The issue was eventually settled out of court, but it seriously delayed the anime and put the manga on hold for a while. Here is the page from the manga as well as a screencap from one of the episodes KotM is featured in:
I’ll leave you with some of the less common concept art from the game, including anatomical drawings (I told you this game nails the Kaiju aesthetic!) and the original logo diorama as well as a cheeky April Fools joke from SNK in 2016 advertising a fake King of the Monsters movie using Maxima and King of Dinosaurs as stand-ins for Geon and Astro Guy at Esaka Station. If you go see it in theatres, you can snag a copy of Robo Army 2! Definitely the most anticipated/requested SNK sequel out there.