SNK Heroines: Tag Team Frenzy kind of came out of nowhere. With no prior teasing or hinting, a big Nintendo Direct informed the world of the upcoming all-girls King of Fighters spinoff. The title promised a big departure from the usual King of Fighters formula with 2-on-2 action, party game-style items, and a cast clad in revealing Halloween costumes and KOF-character cosplays. Longtime fans of SNK are sure to remember their NeoGeo all-girl fighter Gals’ Fighters, and while SNK Heroines isn’t a faithful successor to that gem, it does a lot of things that make it stand out as one of the most surprisingly entertaining fighting games of the year.
In the year 2000, SNK put out Gals’ Fighters. It was a standard fighting game that featured an all-female cast of SNK heroines to duke it out with, but was still as much of a hot-blooded anime-fueled fighter as any mainline King of Fighters game. It’s a shame that SNK Heroines doesn’t maintain that same kind of presentation, because without it this is a game that’s guaranteed to turn plenty of people away. Every member of the cast is clad in some sort of revealing costume, and the game sports heart-themed menu elements and a sleazy, deep-voiced announcer.
The game ends up coming across as a fan-service fiesta along the lines of Senran Kagura or Gal Gun. You would expect the game to then lean into that and provide lewd story scenarios or suggestive audio, yet it does nothing of the sort. I’m hardly suggesting the game needs it – I’m relieved that’s not in this game – but it boggles my mind because it hardly seems like there’s a point to the sleazy surface presentation when the meat of it is as clean and wholesome as any other King of Fighters release. Every character even has their normal non-fetishy costumes available as unlockables, so what was the point of it all? There are so many things I love about this game, but with the way it presents itself, many would-be fans will likely be too uncomfortable to even want to engage with it.
One of the things I do love about this game specifically is how wildly different it is from other fighting games. So many fighting games have minor distinct mechanics or systems that are still built upon the same classic formula of fighters. SNK Heroines shakes things up so much that when I first turned it on and jumped into a match I truly had no idea what was going on. It was only once I read the brief in-game tutorial that things clicked and I fell in love.
SNK Heroines is a 2v2 tag fighter, and you can tag in your partner at any time. You and your partner share a health meter, however, and as that health meter grows smaller, the amount of special meter you can build grows larger. Your special meter charges over time, and this meter will decide whether you win or lose. See, unlike basically any fighting game ever, you don’t win by depleting your enemy’s health to zero. Your only path to victory is through getting your opponents health into the red zone, and then finishing them off with a Dream Finish attack. If you try to beat them with anything else, they’ll just keep getting up in a dizzy state until time runs out.
That Dream Finish attack, by the way? It uses 4 bars from the same special meter that you use to perform regular special attacks. So you can bust out a bunch of special attacks if you’d like, but that’ll leave you clawless when it’s time to finish the fight. While your fighters share a health bar, they have their own special meters, and your partner’s meter charges faster. This is a great incentive to get you tagging in and out plenty of times throughout the match. I love these ideas so much; no other fighting game I’ve played has operated like this, and it creates a whole new style of mind-games and combat-planning that make high-level fights a different beast to any other fighting game.
Even the way your characters control in SNK Heroines is a pretty significant departure from your standard fighting game. Your four attack buttons are weak, heavy, special, and throw. On top of that, there’s no crouching. You’re only ever standing. While some people might see this as over-simplification, I think these changes do two great things. They make it a lot easier for inexperienced fighting game players to have a good time with SNK Heroines, and they also make this a fighting game perfect for the Nintendo Switch, considering how notoriously difficult it is to play regular fighting games on the Joy-Con. Still, the ceiling for combo potential and intricate strings is much lower than recent King of Fighters games, which is sure to upset some veteran fighting game enthusiasts.
One mechanical mix-up that I wasn’t too fond of was the fact that block is assigned to a button. This is just… bad. No offense to Scorpion and Batman, but fighting games that don’t let you block by holding back are just incorrect. They’re wrong. I praise SNK Heroines for shaking up so many things that make up a normal fighting game, but this is one alteration that I think was for the worse.
As I mentioned earlier, SNK Heroines doesn’t really revel in fan-service or naughty scenarios. While there is a Story Mode in the game, it’s a brief, 20-30 minute adventure that basically ends up being a pretty standard arcade mode with an opening, an ending, and some brief scenes in between. What helps this arcade mode stand out, though, is the fact that it doesn’t use plain old visual novel scenes. Each combo of characters has unique interactions at the beginning and end of the mode, as well as brief bits of dialogue after each round. These scenes are all fully animated and voiced, and in a genre that tends to deliver stuff like this through character portraits and text boxes, this was such a breath of fresh air. The small yet silly character endings you get for beating arcade mode were the icing on the cake.
Another feature that many people might be excited about in SNK Heroines is the costume customization. I’m all about giving my characters a unique look in any game, but I felt let down to see how limited my options were in this one. Each character has three costumes with four colours each, and a few dozen tiny accessories to put on various parts of their body. It’s kind of cute to give Shermie a police hat and a dog tail, but there really isn’t as much substance to the customization as I would have wanted.
It’s almost heartbreaking how much fun SNK Heroines is, because all of that fun is wrapped up in a fetishistic presentation that didn’t need to be there in the first place. By putting out a cool, casual-friendly fighting game that happened to only have a roster of female characters, SNK could have reached a wider audience of people and rekindled some of the magic they made 18 years ago with Gals’ Fighters. Instead, though, SNK put Mai Shiranui in a cowprint bikini and gave Terry Bogard breasts, alienating a massive amount of people in the process. SNK Heroines: Tag Team Frenzy is one of the funnest new fighting games I’ve played this year, but I can only hope that a future installment trades the fanservice for familiarity, and gives us the Gals’ Fighters sequel the world deserves.
Version tested: Switch – Also available for PS4