The launch of the original Killer Instinct came as a great shock back in 1994, as it marked a point at which not only had Nintendo begun to relax their stance on adult themed videogames, but they’d also allowed their name to appear on one. Killer Instinct was the first Nintendo published videogame to feature blood, and the fact that it made it out of the arcades and onto the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) intact was an even bigger statement.
At the time of Killer Instinct’s launch the gulf between home consoles and arcade cabinets was arguably the most noticeable it has ever been. The SNES was dragging its heels in the face of the impending launch of the PlayStation and Saturn, and it was arguably only RARE that where the only developer still managing to push the console into new territory. And Killer Instinct was most certainly that; a last hurrah for a system that had been responsible for bringing the beat-‘em-up genre to the forefront of the videoganes industry.
Killer Instinct was commended for it’s accuracy in replicating the arcade original. All characters made the transition – ten plus the hidden option to play as the boss in multiplayer modes – and all stages also; however they did appear significantly downgraded in their visual quality. What wasn’t scaled however was the combat system. Killer Instinct was just as impressively smooth on the SNES as it was in arcades.
Residing somewhere between Mortal Kombat and Dead or Alive (though only for comparison sake, as it did launch prior to the latter), Killer Instinct features a cast with moves list most closely resembling the 16-bit editions of Midway’s classic but the slickness of Tecmo’s then upcoming contender. It’s a videogame that is famous for its combo attacks and yet never pressured the player to learn set patterns: it was wholly possible to create your own high damage combinations of three-to-six hits with the elaborate repertoire of manoeuvres for every character.
Of course, given the fact that Nintendo had given RARE the go-ahead to make a mature themed beat-‘em-up, the British studio pushed it as far as they could possibly go. No Mercy moves replicated Mortal Kombat’s infamous Fatality, Humiliation the Friendship, and lift striking combos on high rises had a chance of sending the player hurtling to the ground below. Killer Instinct did offer its own innovation at the end of a match however, as competitive modes allowed players to regain a tiny amount of health during the finishing stage if they were quick enough. During this regain players will inflict much greater damage – more than ten times what would normally be the case – but can only sustain a single hit. If you’re going to go for it, you need to make it count.
Visually Killer Instinct is decidedly limited compared to modern beat-’em-ups, however it’s not as bad as you may imagine. Unlike the original Mortal Kombat the clarity of the characters still allows facial details and incidental animation to be easily noticed, and the pace of the videogame remains impressive given its slick combat system. The sound quality is of a similar fashion; an age away from the chiptunes most think of with cartridge releases and yet noticeably inferior to modern disc based 5.1 presentations.
Killer Instinct remains enjoyable to this day, a remarkable feat giving the huge advances that have been made in the beat-‘em-up genre in the intervening years. It’s quite simply remarkable that RARE managed to draw such clarity in not only the visuals from Nintendo’s aging hardware, but also the density and speed of the combat system. Killer Instinct on the SNES remains a landmark title for the beat-‘em-up genre, and if the forthcoming Xbox One rival can deliver even half of the quality seen here Microsoft Studios will have a convincing challenger on their hands.