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.