Neo Geo CD
When it comes to SNK hardware, it is an absolutely cemented fact that the company’s console and arcade cabinets were developed with the fighting game enthusiast in mind. From Fatal Fury to The King of Fighters, the Neo Geo brand of systems became (and remain) synonymous with a genre that revolves around beating the tar out of your opponents. Eager to take some new competition to hamburger hill? One needn’t look far when surveying the Neo Geo catalog, as out of the 98 officially released Neo Geo CD games that exist, a substantial 38 of them stem from the fighting variety. What’s more is that the majority of them are excellent, equipped with their own unique senses of style, music and gameplay. So why is it that when the discussion shifts to beat ‘em ups, a genre that is undeniably akin to the almighty fighter, more than a few people’s opinions turn lukewarm, if not downright frigid, regarding SNK’s efforts in that stadium? For some, the opinion is that SNK just couldn’t manage to develop a really stellar beat ‘em up, releasing offerings of games that ranged within decent-to-poor, always coming up short when stacked alongside heavy hitters such as Final Fight, Double Dragon, and Streets of Rage. To some extent, I covered SNK’s difficulties in legitimately locking horns with the aforementioned legendary titles in my review of Ninja Combat, but in all honesty, that game looks and plays like a tech demo compared to the likes of Sega and Capcom’s entries in the rough and rugged class of pummeling waves of enemies beyond black and blue. What SNK needed to beef up their library was a real deal contender to the beat ‘em up throne, a title with enough brawn and aggression to make it sizzle Hotter Than New York. With the assistance of SNK’s founder, Eikichi Kawasaki, the fight for arcade supremacy was on once again, and it wasn’t just balmy, it was burning! (sorry…). So if you’re in the mood to kick ass and eat hotdogs, get ready to spin a game that’s guaranteed to deliver both in full.
Released in the very early 90’s (though ported to the Neo Geo CD in 1994), one of the immediate positives that Burning Fight slogged me with from the onset was its impressive attention to detail in the visual department. Modeled after the Japanese city of Osaka, the game fulminates to life with metropolis color and sound, even going as far as to allow the player to walk into a variety of shops, if for nothing else than to beat up more baddies or destroy a multitude of items and furniture. That said, it’s still really cool to have access to the different establishments, if only to see a few products on the wall of a convenience store or what the interior of a bar looked like. As I played through its stages for the first time, it was becoming clear to me that for all of the similarities that the game shared with its contemporaries, it managed to retain a unique identity of its own, packing enough caliber to legitimately separate it from the pack. The Sea Area stages are some of the best that the game has to offer, leading your character through different levels of a massive boat on water. Similar to Sega’s earnest attempts with Streets of Rage 2, SNK nailed the atmosphere of each area as they do a fantastic job of engrossing the player. A visual feast from level to level, Burning Fight is simply stunning for a title released in 1991.
Gameplay wise, Burning Fight proffers just about what one would expect from a game stemming from the beat ‘em up genre. With buttons designated for punching, kicking, jumping, and picking up items and weapons (hotdogs, knives, etc.), this brawler sticks to the time tested formula while adding a few of its own licks to the blueprint. There are three characters to choose from, with (unfortunately) only one of them being of redeemable quality. In contrast to the rest of the game’s visuals, Billy King and Duke Edwards sport disappointingly substandard designs, appearing both chunky and bovine. Slow moving and just not fun to play as, I never pick either of them when I’m playing Burning Fight. In stark comparison to his comrades, Ryu Saeba is swift and impressive, capable of dispensing punches at breakneck speeds. Another advantage that Ryu has over his allies is a really cool and effective special move, while Billy and Duke’s are clunky and difficult to pull off correctly. Overall, the game plays well enough but does seem to spin a little stiff in comparison to others from the genre. None of the three characters display any sense of urgency as they unenthusiastically stride into threatening confrontations with multiple men, ultimately making the experience a little less convincing. Other than that, gameplay is mostly tight, save for some poor hit detection here and there.
Burning Fight contains some amusing enemies, along with some really annoying ones. On the appreciable side of things, the game’s bosses actually stem from different subsections of criminal activity, as adversaries representing everything from the mob, to professional wrestling, to blood-curdling yakuza backgrounds will all be vying to get their hands on you. This adds some sorely needed variety to the archetypal grunts that tend to relentlessly charge you in beat ‘em ups. Typical of a game released in the late 80’s or early 90’s, you know that there absolutely had to be a character designed using Hulk Hogan’s likeness, and Tom Anderson fits that bill perfectly. There’s also another wrestling-type enemy by the name of Mad Dilly. He was apparently modeled after Macho Man Randy Savage, but he looks identical to Tom Anderson with a different color palette. There are also some really comical looking Mafioso guys that will attempt to mow you down with gunfire, with one of them going by the name of Bruce Stone. Awesome.
Alas, not all of the enemies in the game are satisfying to pound on, as these really irritating dudes brandishing chains will show up far more often than necessary, hopping over top of you while doggedly swinging a chain down towards your dome. Worse yet, they’re hard to avoid and equally difficult to hit. This is around where Burning Fight’s attention to detail comes to a bit of a halt, as these insatiable chain lovers are invariably named Jack or Johnny (but it’s almost always Johnny. You’re going to be beating up a lot of Johnnys). Home to almost every beat ‘em up game in existence; there also lives that infamous overweight guy that simply plows his way across a stage, seemingly unassailable as he breaks every bone in your character’s body by way of his breadbasket. You’ll get to know these chubby chaps in no time, their names consistently belonging to the Duffy or Gonzales varieties (but I always seem to get driven down by Duffy). I strongly advise against taking these two on in the earlier hours unless you’re invested in the idea of making day drinking an Olympic event. God bless unlimited continues.
Burning Fight’s soundtrack is pretty good. Not stellar, but good. Yasumasa Yamada did a fine job at matching some decent tunes to the game’s environments. None of the music is bad, but none of it is particularly catchy either. That being said, there are quite a few SNK titles that come packaged with some of the greatest arcade game music of all time, so maybe my standards are set a little too high. Oddly enough, the music that accompanies the conclusion of each stage actually sounds similar to the tunes in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV: Turtles in Time. Bizarre. Following the release of Burning Fight, Yamada would go on to refine his talents, contributing work to the likes of Art of Fighting, Samurai Shodown II, and The King of Fighters ’96, all of which sound incredible and remain held in high regard for their soundtracks to this day. In addition, Yamada has provided material for titles such as 2002’s Steel Battalion and 2016’s Paper Mario: Color Splash, proving that he’s not afraid to test the water in different arenas.
All in all, Burning Fight is a fun game. While it could’ve used some finer tuning, it ultimately became the precursor for later releases such as Robo Army and Mutation Nation, the latter of which arguably being the best beat ‘em up available for the Neo Geo CD. For what Burning Fight lacks in polish, it makes up for in charm, as its level of aesthetic detail and commitment to showcasing goofy, yet likeable villains, are excellent. With its adjustable difficulty and limitless continues, it isn’t taxing to get through the game in a half hour sitting, and it is most definitely worth checking out for that much. A capable beat ‘em up that’s sure to make you smile a few times, check out Burning Fight for a quick, yet worthwhile ride.