One of the tough things about being a newcomer to the console manufacturing party is that you generally won’t get a lot of third-party support until you’re well-established. That means you have to carry your system with your own power, filling any and all gaps as needed. The NEOGEO was not a typical platform, of course. Indeed, the home console version was likely of secondary concern to SNK. But even in the arcades, it was selling a platform. If SNK couldn’t provide fresh titles in the genres players wanted on a regular basis, there was always going to be room for another company’s cabinet. It’s a big ask, and it’s a rare company that can handle that kind of demand with grace.
I’ll come right out and say that I think luck favored SNK to an extent. While it turned out the occasional hit and had several popular games under its belt, at the time of the NEOGEO launch SNK was not a company known for turning out varied, high-quality games across numerous genres. It wasn’t exactly Capcom, Konami, Namco, SEGA, or Nintendo. In a lot of ways, the NEOGEO was a very reckless move for the publisher. SNK tried to put out games in all of the hot arcade genres, but in the early going most of its successes and failures mapped its prior strengths and weaknesses quite closely. The one major genre where it found success where it hadn’t before was in one-on-one fighting games. Fortunately for SNK, that was soon to be the only genre most arcade-goers cared about.
Burning Fight ($3.99) is a good example of the pickle SNK could have found itself in. The company knew it needed an answer to the likes of Double Dragon and Capcom’s then-recent hit Final Fight, and somehow Burning Fight is what it came up with. It’s not even a little shy about pulling from its competition, and it’s hard not to come away with a first impression that screams “dollar-store Final Fight“. The game enjoyed very positive reviews and reasonable success in its time, but retroactively it seems to have become something of a punching bag among the overall NEOGEO line-up.
Let’s roll with the idea that not every game can live up to the best in the genre, and it’s not really a reasonable expectation that it should. Burning Fight is, without question, not as good as Final Fight. It’s not fit to be mentioned in the same conversation as Streets of Rage or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Not many games in this genre are. But how is Burning Fight compared to the average side-scrolling beat-em-up? How does it compare to things like 64th Street by Jaleco or Tecmo’s arcade Ninja Gaiden? In that context, it looks a little better.
It’s a perfectly serviceable brawler, neither amazing nor terrible. You have three different characters: the fast but weak guy, the strong but slow guy, and the average guy. Fast guy and average guy even look like Guy and Cody. They walk through a fictionalized version of Osaka with a lot of charming details in the backgrounds, battling a variety of punks, suspiciously familiar pro wrestlers, and even the occasional vehicle. There are lots of destructible objects, and a rather impressive array of weapons you can pick up and use. Seriously, this game tosses weapons at you a mile a minute. The areas you fight in sometimes are so littered in weapons that you can get caught in a cycle of picking them up when you just want to punch a dude.
Your moves include punching a guy, kicking a guy, jumping, and jump-kicking a guy. You can also throw a guy, but it’s not as useful here as it is in most other brawlers. There’s also the standard super attack that costs some of your life, here deployed by pushing the jump and punch buttons at the same time. Not exactly an overwhelming arsenal, and you’ll find that any attempts to get fancy get shut down pretty quickly by your foes. They, by contrast, have all kinds of ways to come at you. Generally speaking, if they’re close enough to punch, you’ll want to punch them. If not, try to kick them. If they’re too far for that, you need to get close. Jump-kicks are rather hit or miss in this game with the way enemies can mob you and shut down your offense, but if you’re feeling frisky by all means give them a try.
The hits have a very peculiar feel to them that you can see in a lot of SNK’s beat-em-ups of the era. It doesn’t feel so much like you are landing strikes on your foes as you are attacking the air they exist in and causing them some form of psychic damage. That said, there’s a certain charm to it and it’s hardly a problem that Burning Fight alone suffers from. One of the secret ingredients to a great game in this genre is making sure the hits have impact. Capcom and SEGA sometimes made that look easier than I think it probably was.
You get five stages to battle through, and they take you through a nice variety of locales. Each one is at the very least capped off with a boss fight, while some of them also feature mid-boss battles. You can also find bonus areas in some sections. Enter these places and you’ll be challenged to destroy some objects in a certain amount of time, with extra points and life refills as your reward for success. It’s a little bit of spice you don’t see in many other games of the time, and while it’s just a small thing I do appreciate it. As mentioned, the background details in the game are really fun. The main characters are a bit bland in terms of animation and so are most of the enemies, but the game does have a few enjoyable touches like having enemies scale in from the background.
As with most games of this type, Burning Fight is almost certainly best enjoyed with a friend. Of course, this is the mobile ACA NEOGEO line, which means the only way you’re going to get a two-player game going is by connecting two external controllers to your device. Games like these really make me wish Hamster had some kind of online multiplayer solution, but what can you do? I will say that you can have a good time here even if you’re using the touch controls, as there really isn’t much need for precise inputs. You’ll probably have a slightly easier time with a controller, but it’s not like you’re going to run out of coins here or anything.
If you’ve played any of Hamster’s recent ACA NEOGEO releases on mobile, you’ll find the array of options and extras quite familiar here. You get the Japanese and international versions of the game, a Score Attack mode, and a timed Caravan mode. There are online leaderboards to compete on, which helps add some life to the game as there are actually quite a lot of interesting scoring opportunities in the game relative to some other beat-em-ups. Difficulty, display, control configuration, and other options are essentially the same as we’ve seen so far in other releases in this line, offering just about everything you would want to see.
Burning Fight is a very, very mediocre beat-em-up for its time. You can have some fun with it, but you probably won’t remember very much about it after you’ve finished it. Nothing it does elevates it from being more than the uninspired Final Fight wannabe that it is, but there’s a certain core pleasure to knocking around heads that is alive and well here. Hamster’s done its usual good job with the conversion, and it’s one of those arcade games that plays decently even with virtual buttons.
It’s a shame there isn’t an easier way to get a two-player game going, because that would add some mustard to a game that desperately needs it. Without that, Burning Fight is what it always was: a completely forgettable scrolling beat-em-up that nevertheless will help you pass an idle hour or so should you require its services. It’s not the kind of game the NEOGEO is known for, and it’s extremely fortunate for SNK that it never had to be. There’s no reality where this should be on your device before Streets of Rage 4, but there are certainly worse ways to get your brawling on.