A combination of international politics, tariffs, and piracy turned this beloved arcade game into a cultural phenomenon. 

If you’re a fighting game diehard then you’ve probably heard the jokes hundreds of times before.

“Mexicans love The King of Fighters.”

“Latinos are the best at The King of Fighters games.”

“In China, The King of Fighters may as well be their Street Fighter.”

A search of various fighting-game forums, like the once-popular community site Shoryuken.com, will show that these aren’t just jokes for a quick laugh. I’ve come across stories about fans of the series finding out their non-gamer Hispanic and Latin American friends held a spot in their heart for the series. Other stories tell of traveling to cities in Mexico and playing with neighborhood friends on family owned arcade cabinets.

After hearing so many similar stories, it’s easy to see that the game has some cultural history. In Mexico, the classic breakdance move known as “flare” was renamed “La Yashiro” after the KOF character.

Even before there were internet forums, people familiar with the The King of Fighters’ competitive scene knew there was some truth to these statements usually tossed around for laughs. This belief was strictly based on the nationalities of the players topping tournaments, whether one witnessed it or simply heard the stories from more-traveled players.

This trend continues today. These communities from China, Mexico, and the rest of Latin America, with their star players, are expected to be a dominant force in the upcoming KOF game, The King of Fighters XV. While the strong showing from these countries in the competitive KOF scene is evident, not everyone knows how the series came to be so significant globally. Funny enough, all of those players share very similar stories that go back to SNK, the company behind KOF and its legendary MVS arcade system, the Neo Geo.

It All Started With a Cabinet and an Idea
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Screenshot: Alamy

The NEO GEO “Multi Video System” was a coin-operated arcade machine released in Japan and North America in 1990. It was special because it allowed cabinet owners to put six cartridges into a single unit, allowing players a choice of game titles. This made the MVS an obvious choice for arcades that didn’t have much space, allowing them to save money and room while still offering the selection of larger shops. Since the games were stored on cartridges, it was much easier to swap out games and cabinet artwork. Additionally, this new arcade unit offered exclusive SNK titles like Fatal Fury, Samurai Shodown, Metal Slug, and of course The King of Fighters, adding to its appeal.

Before explaining why this new arcade unit and The King of Fighters dominate the minds of Latin American, Mexican, and Chinese fighting-game players, we have to look at the origins of the legendary series. KOF wasn’t just another completely built-from-the-ground-up fighting game like Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, or Tekken. The series is actually among the originators of one of the most loved concepts in the fighting game genre: the “crossover fighter.”

SNK’s many game series it developed for the MVS and its other cabinets and consoles shared a continuity. Though the story ties were rather loose, they presented the company with a genius idea: What if we were to bring together characters from our different series to battle it out in a fighting tournament? Obviously, everyone liked the idea, and, while it was conceptualized as a beat-’em-up title, it would later be changed into the fighting game series people now know and love.

Money, Bootlegs, and the Love of a Game

Software settled, back on the hardware side arcade machines were quite expensive. The popularity of Capcom’s titles made the field competitive and difficult to get into, but this gave SNK’s Neo Geo cabinets an edge in Mexico. They were a lot more cost effective, especially in comparison to Capcom’s competing CPS2 units, which ran games like Street Fighter Alpha and Darkstalkers. Thanks to the cartridge hardware, instead of ordering an all-new cabinet, owners could just buy the cart and the art, then throw them into an already owned system. Tariffs on home consoles in Mexico and Latin America—which put consoles popular in North America and Europe out of reach for Chinese, Mexican, and Latin American gamers—pushed this love of arcades even further.

For example, Brazil has always been hit by extremely high tariffs on gaming consoles, going all the way back to systems like the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis in the 1990s, due to them not being recognized as “essential goods.” When it was released in 2013, the PlayStation 4 cost $1,845 in Brazil due to import tariffs, and Nintendo completely stopped game distribution in the country in 2015 because of the import tariffs (though the company thankfully returned to bring Brazil the Switch). According to Media Piracy in Emerging Economies, a publication from the Social Science Research Council, rampant piracy in these countries is often brought on by these same high tariffs on media goods, and it often results in other surcharges. Those price increases meant that most kids wouldn’t be able to afford and play games at home but would instead run to arcades. So a lot of kids in communities already in love with the fighting game genre would get introduced to The King of Fighters. Then, thanks to bootlegging and piracy, they’d get more than enough chances to compete in this virtual fighting series.

On the other side of the world, another country would follow suit. China, like Brazil, Mexico, and the rest of Latin America, also embraced the Neo Geo arcade hardware due to the space savings and cheaper prices. Also much like those countries, China saw the potential in bootlegging rather than going straight to SNK for more arcade hardware and more game cartridges. At that point, however, this was due to the aging of SNK’s hardware, and gamers with a DIY spirit could reverse engineer the cabinets. This resulted in tons of KOF bootleg machines all over China, mirrored in Latin America and Mexico. But don’t believe for a second that the hardware did all of the heavy lifting in the popularity department.

On the software side, SNK had been busy pumping out great title after title. The company released Psycho Soldier and Ikari Warriors, as well as fighting games like Art of Fighting and Fatal Fury. While these saw success, the SNK fighting games didn’t steal the hearts of these communities like Street Fighter II did. However, SNK’s brilliant idea of combining its franchises into one big “team three-vs.-three” crossover fighter captured the imaginations of players. Many fighting games have used this concept since, but none have come close to the success and impact of The King of Fighters for these countries.

While in China the most-loved game is The King of Fighters ’97, and in Mexico and the rest of Latin America it’s The King of Fighters ’02, it all comes back to the fighting game series that changed not only arcades but the genre itself. These various cultures’ love of KOF has resulted in knife fights, giant fighting game viewership, character styles being introduced into real-world fashion, and even actual embrace from SNK. The company went as far as to show each national community some love by introducing Mexican characters to the series in KOF ’02 and giving each mentioned country their own teams named after their locations in KOF XIV, with Teams China, Mexico, and South America.


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