As the first generation of fighting games tapered off the developers began looking for new influences. Team Japan and Team USA were pulled mainly from pop culture rather than fight culture. The references worked in favor of Team Japan. The team captain was Kyo Kusanagi was a young and handsome high school student. His design was was very clean cut but deceptive. His uniform looked like a traditional gakuran, yet there was something unique about his design. Think about a character like Ryu, he certainly looked like a traditional karate fighter, yet most traditional fighters did not wear a gi with torn sleeves and frayed pant cuffs. Nor did they let their hair grow too long and unruly. At first glance you were supposed to know that Ryu was a karate fighter, but the details of his costume told a story. Similar details applied to Kyo's design. His hair was long and held up with a headband rather than a cap, his jacket was open allowing him a wide range of movement. His sleeves were rolled up and he wore fingerless black gloves. He was certainly a fighter more than a scholar. His teammates represented other aspects of Japanese culture. The flamboyant Benimaru Nikaido, whose crop-top, earrings and tall blonde hair were very counter-culture. The character had a unique fighting style and the ability to generate electricity and shock his opponents. Benimaru was modeled closely on Jean Pierre Polnareff from JoJo's Bizarre Adventure. The third member, Goro Diamon, was the bruiser of the team and the one with the closest traditional fighting style. He was a Judo gold-medalist yet also had the ability to perform some superhuman feats of strength. When deciding who would represent Japan in the KOF global tournament there was an MMA tournament. Kyo defeated his two partners and became team captain.
The team that represented the USA was based on basic knowledge of the US. If anything they were stereotypes of Western culture. The team captain was a street boxer named Heavy D. possibly after the rapper with the same name. His partners were a basketball player named Lucky Glauber who was not unlike Kobe Bryant, even wearing the Los Angeles Lakers gold and royal colors. He even had a distinct "swoosh" logo on his cheek, certainly without Nike's knowledge or consent. He could summon basketballs to throw at his opponents instead of fireballs. The third, Brian Battler, had a football shoulder pad and a few tackling moves. In the KoF manga by Gamest the character was introduced as a stock car driver that was seemingly indestructible. Having walked away from a burning car crash just a few moments after being introduced in the series. It was obvious that the US team didn't have the same level of forethought that SNK had used when creating Team Japan. There was no doubt that international audiences would understand that they were typical "American" characters with their focus on sports. Past that there was little that made the US figures interesting. Each character had a few neat moves but none really looked like a fighter except for Heavy D. One character couldn't really carry the team and that was part of the reason why they faded into obscurity. The members were seen after KOF '94 but weren't the stars that SNK had hoped for. That gamble had only partially paid-off.
Team Japan and Team USA were planned as being the counter points to the Fatal Fury and Art of Fighting teams, so that no one country (or series) could claim to having the best fighters in the SNK universe. In canon Team Japan was written as the winners of the first three KOF titles. It was obvious from the onset that the team had some staying power. None of the new characters introduced had a bigger following than Kyo. The bancho had finally found a mainstream fighting game. Like Ryo Sakazaki and Terry Bogard before him there was a star that would help keep SNK on the map and give audiences somebody to root for, somebody to follow and most important somebody to play as. With the introduction of Kyo something was missing. He lacked a rival. In promotional material Team Japan was featured sided against Team Italy, the Fatal Fury group. Yet many players didn't see that as a balanced lineup. Terry was an older and more experienced brawler, his brother Andy had mastered the Shiranui ninjitsu art and Joe Higashi was also a muay thai striker and not a grappler. None of the men were as outlandish as Benimaru or as large as Goro. Also, despite being teams of three the team captain was usually recognized as the most interesting or most popular character. Whomever was going to rival team Japan needed to have someone as interesting as Kyo. This was going to be a problem.
Kyo wasn't just a really good fighter, he had the ability to project fire from his hands. It was the special attack that allowed him to hold his own against Ryo or Terry plus it was a very well animated effect. As the series grew it was revealed that Kyo had mastered the art of fire at the age of 15. It was a secret technique known only to the members of the Kusanagi clan. At a young age he had passed all of the trials of his family and had even surpassed his father Saisyu in fighting ability. Yet in typical fatherly (stubborn) fashion Saisyu would never admit that he was no longer the greatest warrior in his clan. Just as Takuma Sakazaki would never admit that he was ready to defer the throne to Ryo. Both men felt that they still had something they could teach the next generation. Saisyu would turn up in King of Fighters '95 as a sub-boss. He had an interesting design, his costume was closer to a fighting monk with the family crest, an eclipsed sun on the back of his robe. Kyo had the same logo on the back of his jacket. Yet Saisyu was not a great rival for Kyo. The animosity was not there. The two would never be rivals like Heihachi and Kazuya Mishima from Tekken. The studio had to dig a little deeper in order to create just the right rival. It turned out that the SNK had made a similar design error previously.
In 1993 the studio had released a smash hit called Samurai Shodown / Samurai Spirits in Japan. It was one of the first and best weaponized fighting games ever developed. It had very bold character designs, inspired by fictional and real sword fighters from the feudal era. The star of the game was the hard-drinking, wild-haired Haohmaru. A wandering swordsman very loosely based on the actual Miyamoto Musashi. While the first game had many other sword fighters none really matched the design of Haohmaru or could be considered his main rival. A year later the studio finally crafted a rival that was beat-for-beat every bit as interesting as the main character, if not more so. Genjuro Kibagami was the red-haired rival with a nasty scar running the length of his back. It was given to him by his mother after Genjuro killed her lover. In return he killed his own mother. There was a whole lot of drama in the series and I might talk about it some day, but the main beef among the cast was between Genjuro and Haohmaru. They used to be friends but that friendship turning into a rivalry. It made things difficult for the star of the game, knowing that not only did he have to deal with the main villain, usually a demon of some sort, but that there was another sword master out there looking to take his head. SNK looked at this rivalry and found the missing ingredient for the King of Fighters. It didn't really matter if Team Japan had a person to balance out Benimaru or Goro as long as there was somebody for Kyo to deal with.
Heavy D from the USA did not seem interesting enough to merit a rivalry with Kyo. Team captains Terry and Ryo had their own rivalries and their own villains to contend with, not to mention that they were older and more seasoned fighters than Kyo. SNK decided to create an age-appropriate and culturally similar rival. This young fighter was Iori Yagami, like Kyo he was a high school student, a bancho without a gang to lead. He had his own unique spin on the school uniform, with an un-tucked long shirt, bright red pants and suspenders tying his knees together. His look was so bold that audiences instantly knew that he was the perfect rival for Kyo. Nothing had to be stated in canon in order for audiences to see that this character was going places. As the series went on it was revealed that the fire powers of Kyo, and odd blue fire of Iori were from their respective clans. The two were part of a lineage that was destined to battle the Orochi, historically this was an eight-headed, eight-tailed serpent from Shinto mythology. In KOF canon it could instead be represented as a human. The original creature was an Earth god and required a sacrifice every year. The sun goddess Amaterasu (the star of the Capcom game Okami) cast her brother Susanoo down from Heaven for tricking her. While on Earth Susanoo found out about the sacrifices and fought the Orochi. First by getting each head drunk and then cutting the monster into pieces. There was a fantastic science fiction retelling of the legend in the manga titled Orion by Masamune Shirow. But I digress...
There was tremendous symbolism involved with the design of both Kyo and Iori. The fire techniques that each held were not scientific but spiritual in nature. The Kusanagi house symbol was a sun in eclipse. This unbroken ring represented both Amaterasu as the sun, but also symbolized the return of the Orochi. The eclipse was the moment that her light was no longer touching / protecting or enlightening the Earth. It was fire that would subdue the Orochi again. This layer of design was a bit more heavy-handed with Kyo's father. Saisyu had prayer beads, tabi socks and a robe that looked closer to that of a Shinto priest. The sun on the back of his costume was much more pronounced. Iori was a representative of the Yagami clan, they had built a blood feud with the Kusanagi clan going back untold generations. The Yagami had also been put in charge of keeping the Orochi at bay, and were also masters of the sacred fire techniques. At some point in the past they were seduced with promises of power. So they released the Orochi and in doing so they did gain more power than the Kusanagi. The family symbol on the back of Iori's gakuran was a crescent moon. The moon was a celestial counter to the sun, it was also mysterious to the ancient tribes on Earth. The silver globe in the sky seemed to have magical properties of its own. It illuminated the night and could even be seen during the day. The logo was more than the balance to Kyo's family crest. The sun was in heaven and the Orochi was bound to Earth. The Orochi could only break out with the help of the moon, the gateway between the Earth and the Heavens. It did this by blocking the sun during an eclipse or by following an opening at night. The crescent moon of the Yagami clan was specifically a waning moon. This was a moon that was on its way to becoming completely dark. The circle was broken, letting the darkness out, or perhaps in the case of the Yagami letting the darkness in.
The power that the Orochi promised was delivered but it came at a price. The sacred flame the Yagami created now turned blue. This supernatural power drove the Yagami members into a frenzy and shortened their lives in the process. Iori came from the same cursed blood and was a ticking time bomb. It wasn't high school pressure, nor was it runaway hormones driving him mad. The only thing that could satiate his bloodlust was the destruction of the Kusanagi lineage, at least that was what the Orochi promised. Kyo may not have believed in the myth or he may have been so confident in his powers that he actually seemed bored with his role. Kyo was young, the era he was living much different from ancient Japan. Bullet trains now criss-crossed the countryside, every phone had internet access and cars practically drove themselves. The superstition of the Orochi didn't quite fit in with his world view. It made sense that the high school student was being a little immature at the start of the KoF series. He was looking for a purpose and he found it in a girl, a classmate named Yuki. The sudden love interest was something that happened to bancho manga heroes Takagi Yoshiyuki and Taison Maeda in Osu Karate bu and Rokudenashi Blues. As Kyo grew up he also learned that his gift could be shared rather than coveted. Again, like Takagi and Taison there was a lot of growing and teaching happening in the series. Kyo and later-on his father, began teaching his classmate Shingo Yabuki their secret fighting techniques. Kyo would have an apprentice whereas his rival would have none. It seemed that the wisdom of Amaterasu did manage to get through to him.
Kyo matured into his role. He discovered other beings with inexpiable powers in the King of Fighters tournament. He discovered that cults and demons were real. The tournament was a front to bring together the greatest fighters and recruit them or kill them once learning their secrets. Kyo became central to the plot of NESTS; militant extremists bent on controlling the world with their super-powered clones. They were able to extract Kyo's blood and give other fighters some new powers. Iori was in the tournament not to represent his country but to finish the Kusanagi lineage. He didn't care for his teammates, opponents or anyone else in his path. If he could destroy the previous champion. If he could do it on the international stage with the world watching then it would be his perfect outcome. Kyo had an unnamed style of fighting but it was very direct and smooth. By comparison Iori fought like a wild man. Slashing at his opponent with his long fingers, stomping on them and just shy of biting their faces off. He would even slash at his own throat and draw out his blood for the temporary power boost it provided. The raw energy coursing through his veins made him one of the most dangerous fighters in SNK canon. Some villains tried to offer Iori a "cure" by allowing him to transfer his energy to them but that would leave him powerless to stop their agenda. At least one character, Ash Crimson, was able to steal part of his abilities and use it for his own devices. Ash would become a fighter that both Kyo and Iori would unite against.
SNK wanted to create a fighting game that would become a phenomenon. One that would steal the thunder away from Capcom, Sega, Namco and Midway. They took many chances, team battles, mixing old characters and new faces, and expanding the plot to make it more cinematic. Many of the risks they took paid off. The new stars of the series would hold up to the first generation of fighting game all-stars. The bancho hero and villain were definite Japanese character tropes. It turned out that fans around the world and not just the Japanese loved the duo. Kyo and Iori ended up eclipsing the popularity of the entire USA Team. Their inclusion worked out better than another pairing of martial arts masters. It was one of the first titles that brought the concept of the fighting master into the 21st century. SNK taught the industry that a great rivalry could make or break a series. For more than 20 years the most heated rivalry in the SNK universe wasn't between an orphan and a businessman, nor was it between two sword masters that used to be friends. The greatest rivalry was between two kids right out of school. No one could have predicted it. Especially not the Generation-X players that grew up living that rivalry.
Kyo and Iori had most of the elements that I had talked about throughout this series. They were well balanced, they represented unique styles, were visually interesting and had contrasting purposes. Both were headstrong, talented and dangerous fighters. They were assembled from various pop culture cues. They celebrated a cultural archetype, the roguish delinquent that just so happened to work perfectly for the genre. SNK also knew that they should plan a unique back story so they could keep bringing these fighters back. Best of all Kyo and Iori divided the community. The best rivalries always began with fans choosing a side. Some rooted for the hero and some for the anti-hero. Most rivalries I had talked about had fans siding with the hero. Great gameplay, great animation and great control were the things that kept fans coming back. After 25 years the King of Fighters tournament was still alive. Proof that a great fighting game could withstand the test of time. The feud between Kyo and Iori could now be enjoyed by a new generation. SNK would have it no other way. I would like to thank you for following me on this journey and I have some final questions for you. Through this series which rivalry was your favorite? Do you think that Kyo and Iori were the most memorable rivals in the SNK universe? Which series handled the rivalry best of all? Which rivalry do you want me to talk about? Please let me know and take care. As always if you would like to sponsor me please visit my Patreon page and consider donating each month, even as little as $1 would help make bigger and better recordings and videos.