A few months ago, SNK and Hamster released Savage Reign in the ACA NEOGEO mobile line. In my review, I gave it a bit of a drubbing due to its slap-dash mechanics, poor thematic consistency, and general lack of any real distinguishing features in SNK’s ocean of great fighting games. It was less about it being a bad fighter, since it wasn’t, but more about it feeling redundant in the face of the genre’s first major boom period. It somehow got a sequel in the following year, which shows you just how much money there was in one-on-one arcade fighters at the time. You wouldn’t be able to tell by the title, mind you. Kizuna Encounter ($3.99) is the follow-up to Savage Reign, but it doesn’t seem to want to advertise that fact. How much can change in just a year and a half, though? Let’s find out.
So, first of all, let’s talk about the roster. It mostly keeps the same characters, but it retires Carol the dodgeball girl and that one kid with the shield. In their place we get Rosa, a cool girl with a katana, and Kim, who wields a staff and has some mad Tae Kwon Do skills. He may or may not be related to the Kim we know and love from more famous SNK fighters. We also have a new final boss who is quite a bit cooler than the previous one. The rest of the bunch are essentially the same, but it’s impressive how swapping out a couple of the odder fighters for a pair of more grounded ones helps the roster feel more consistent overall. The backgrounds have also been reined in, with more thematically appropriate venues that actually feel like they’re from the same setting.
The mechanics have seen some heavy changes. The multi-plane fighting that served as the closest thing to a gimmick Savage Reign had has been tossed out entirely. It’s fully gone. The simple ranged weapon attack mapped to A + B is also gone, nixed in favor of more typical commands and special moves. One button uses your weapon, one button punches, and one button kicks. As to that fourth button, that’s where Kizuna Encounter gets interesting. You see, that fourth button allows you to tag in your partner character.
Let me hit you with a couple of release dates. Kizuna Encounter, released in arcades worldwide by SNK on September 20th, 1996. X-Men vs. Street Fighter, released in arcades in Japan by Capcom on September 25th, 1996. Both of these games introduced a feature that would become very popular in the genre in a hurry: tag team matches. Sure, the idea of having the player choose a team of fighters was well-established by this point, most famously in SNK’s King of Fighters series. But in those games, each character took their turn fighting. You couldn’t swap your characters on the fly mid-round. In Kizuna Encounter and X-Men vs. Street Fighter, you can. Check those dates. Kizuna did it first.
Kizuna Encounter also uses its tag system in a very interesting way. You can tag between your characters whenever you like, but you have to be in your tag zone. It’s basically the area where you begin each round. If you’re outside of that zone, you can’t tag in your partner. Further spice comes from the fact that if either of your fighters has their life bar diminished, the fight is over. No, the other character won’t jump in and continue the fight. So you have two full life bars to work with, but you have to juggle them to get the most out of them. On the other hand, if you can dominate your opponent and keep them away from their tag zone, you only have one life bar to whittle down. This… is a very intriguing hook. Wow, the sequel to Savage Reign has a solid hook!
I wonder if the developers understood at the time how ubiquitous this mechanic would become, albeit with a few tweaks? Probably not. But here we are, looking back almost thirty years later, and this game feels pretty darned good to play. That the tag zone element didn’t catch on serves to give this game a distinct flavor that helps it rise above a lot of its contemporaries. No, it doesn’t have Wolverine in it. I will admit that is a notable disadvantage versus the other tag-team fighter that came out that week. But when you compare it to Savage Reign, it’s frankly incredible how much of a glow-up Kizuna Encounter is.
As a cherry on top of all of this for mobile players, this is actually rather enjoyable to play in single player. The CPU isn’t too nasty, at least until you get to the last boss, so you can enjoy giving them a thrashing with the various characters when you have a spare minute or two. This is important because as usual you are probably not going to have the right set-up to enjoy this mobile version in multiplayer. You’ll need external controllers and some sort of means of displaying the game for both players. You know, unless you want to snuggle up around your iPhone screen. So yes, you’ll probably be flying solo and taking on the CPU opponents.
Time for the rest of the usual comments. As mentioned, you can use an external controller and it’s definitely the way to play. Hook up your Backbone or Kishi and you’ll be whipping out those special moves no problem. The touch controls are a bit harder to deal with, but Kizuna Encounter isn’t a game that relies heavily on fancy chains of moves or combos, so there are worse choices. The usual extra modes are here, along with all of the gameplay, video, and control options we’ve seen in the other ACA NEOGEO releases. The Score Attack and Caravan modes are an alright fit here, allowing you to jostle on the leaderboards if enough other players show up to the party.
With all the usual provisos about ACA NEOGEO mobile versions of fighting games in mind, I kind of dig Kizuna Encounter. I think you’re better off enjoying it on a platform where you can indulge in the multiplayer mode, but taking it for what it is, I can think of worse ways to blow a few bucks on a mobile game. It’s one of those NEOGEO games that I think a lot of people missed, and I would say that it holds up rather well for a game of its vintage thanks to that enjoyable tag team feature. If you don’t mind being essentially locked to single-player in a one-on-one fighter, give Kizuna Encounter a look.