In the mid to late 90’s many mainstream video game fans were well caught up in the fighting games arms race populated by Sega and Namco, as their flagship series’ Virtua Fighter and Tekken, alongside oddball offshoots like Fighting Vipers and Last Bronx, and the genuinely beloved Soul Edge/Blade/Calibur, vied for supremacy from Arcades to Saturn and PS1 and ultimately Dreamcast and PS2 (and we can all remember how that turned out for Sega). Unbeknownst to many though a shadow war was taking place in Japanese Arcades, not one of polygons, tap-tap dial-a-combos and CGI intros and endings, but of sprite sizes, animation frames, and highly technical execution.
Even those with no interest whatsoever in 2D fighting games have been informed (sometimes lectured) about Street Fighter III: Third Strike, be it from the Daigo Parry video, multiple re-releases across PS2/Xbox and PS3/Xbox 360 or the influences the game has had (for better or worse, depending on your feelings about Street Fighter IV) on current Capcom punch ’em up Street Fighter V. But Capcom’s “eternal challenger” in Japanese Arcade game development, SNK, also had an expertly hand animated, rigidly skill based, and woefully underappreciated (in its time) killer app up its sleeve. Code Mystics now brings a lovingly crafted port of said game to the modern console king, PS4, and Garou: Mark of the Wolves is all prettied up and ready to be re-evaluated as the overlooked classic it truly is.
Taking a page right out of the initial Street Fighter III playbook from a story/plot standpoint (yes, classic fighting games have those), Garou is basically Fatal Fury: New Generation, jumping forward in time and introducing an all new cast aside from blonde headed, bomber jacketed poster boy Terry Bogard. In the years since Terry’s defeat of the evil Geese Howard he’s become a mentor to the villain’s son, Rock, who fights with a style borrowing from both Terry and Geese. Rock’s estranged uncle now arranges a new “King of Fighters” tournament in the newly gentrified South Town, which can only mean one thing…
Fighting! In fighting games we fight and in this fighting game the fighting is definitely something worth fighting about. Garou sees Street Fighter III’s venerated Parry system and raises it Just Defense, basically the same principal but you hold back instead of forward at the split second your opponent attacks to leave them immediately wide open for a counter, while also gaining some health back to boot. Garou also introduces the TOP system, where you can choose a section of your life bar to gain extra attacks, strength and recovery during the match.
Stuff like this in old SNK games is always funny, but we’re not here to read…
The cast is mostly new but definitely not unfamiliar, bringing with it the son of Geese in Rock, and also Kim Kap-Hwan’s sons in Kim Dong-Hwan and Kim Jae-Hoon. Vengeful policeman and Sambo master Kevin Rian is a relative of Blue Mary, tracking down the murderer of his partner, the Iori-esque slasher Freeman. Kushnood Butt (don’t ask me) was trained by Art of Fighting’s Ryo Sakazaki, and corrupted, demonic sub-boss Grant is a dead ringer for the evil version of Ryo’s father Takuma AKA Mr. Karate. My favorite is 100% original though, or at least as original as any fighting game character can possibly be. Tizoc (AKA Griffon Mask) is an enormous grappler in the vein of SF3’s Alex, and as such employs both more traditional fireball-ish motions in his repertoire alongside the classic Zangief 360 spins. Tizoc was one of the better character designs to come out of SNK’s mostly derivative 90’s sweatshop, yet made only one other appearance in the excellent King of Fighters 2003 before “changing his gimmick” (in universe) and losing his super badass avian flavor to become the otherwise lame as fuck King of Dinosaurs in this year’s KOF XIV. Dear SNK: bring back Tizoc.
It’s in the graphics department though where SNK really went toe to toe here with Capcom, and for the first time, really. SNK was criticized heavily throughout the mid to late 90’s for constantly recycling the sprite work in its yearly KOF installments but here everything is freshly drawn and animated to perfection. The sprites may look just a tad small to the eyes of SF3 purists but they surprisingly, incredibly, animate even smoother. Seeing this game run on a good CRT back in the day was truly awe inspiring and Code Mystics have done their best to bring that feeling to the modern era, offering a handful of filter, flicker, scan line and screen size modes to satisfy any particular 2D nerd preferences.
Sound retains that low end heavy, bass-y, crunchy Sega Genesis on steroids quality that the Neo Geo’s audio hardware excelled at generating, and all of the voices and effects sound well sampled and balanced to these ears, though I seem to remember an arranged soundtrack option in the Dreamcast version that isn’t included here. CM adds a gallery to gradually unlock and view the game’s promotional artwork and the built in survival mode is still as addictive as ever, making PS4 Garou’s 14.99 price point a sweet spot that many small scale downloadable titles fail to obtain these days.
Despite its considerable graphical flash and meaty gameplay substance, Garou: Mark of the Wolves never became one of SNK’s staple franchises in the way that Metal Slug, Samurai Showdown and of course, King of Fighters did. Maybe availability was the issue. Aside from the 1999 Arcade and home Neo Geo versions, the game only made one appearance at American retail, in a hard to find Dreamcast version retitled Fatal Fury: Mark of the Wolves, distributor Agetec having little faith in SNK’s clever sequel naming conventions. A version was ported to Xbox Live in 2009, but got lost in the shuffle of the initial XBLA boom and has yet to be made backwards compatible on Xbox One. So all that means is that this well ported, easy to obtain and affordable release has been extremely long overdue. Garou: Mark of the Wolves is every bit the classic it’s built up to be, and Code Mystics has delivered a great modern version of it.