Burning Fight is another beat-em-up from SNK that, while superior to Gang Wars, shares some of its faults. While the game's premise is a bit more complicated than the story found in most beat-em-ups, none of this information is ever presented in the game itself. At a glance it seems like a needlessly convoluted explanation for the basic video game set up of some cops teaming up to tackle the criminal underworld. However, once the first level begins and we're almost immediately subjected to a motorcycle gang attack, the pieces come together. After ripping off visual and aural stylings of various science-fiction sources ranging from Tetsuo: The Iron Man to Space Battle Fleet Yamato to Flash Gordon, Burning Fight is SNK's take on the 1989 Ridley Scott film Black Rain. The story is even specifically about two “dangerous” NYPD detectives who team up with a Japanese officer due to a connection between an NYC crime lord and the yakuza to track down some criminals in Osaka. As the back of the game's box awkwardly informs us:
For many years, the Casterora Family, a huge cimre syndicate, literally ruled over the streets of New York with overpowering control. Two police detectives named Duke Edward and Billy King fought against the syndicate for years trying to bring to justice the leaders of this murderous clan. Then, just when Duke and Billy were closing in on the family, the Casterora fled the country to Japan. Word has it that the Casterora's have now joinred forces with another crime family, the Heiwa-Gumi, and have produced a powerful team of modern day gangsters that now control most of Osaka. Their looting and criminal activities have reached uncontrollable proportions and the one concerned detective, Ryu Saeba cannot overthrow the combined forces of the families alone. This is the action packed, vandalous story of 3 detectives joining together to “once and for all” rid the world of these violent criminals. Can the endless funds of the Casterora's and the Heiwa-Gumi defeat the efforts of Duke, Billy and Ryu? One thing is for certain…this 54 megs of jaw crushing, head bustin' battle of good guys vs. bad will drag you into one hell-uva BURNING FIGHT!
Of course, similar to other SNK beat-em-ups like Mutation Nation, the wording is a bit different on the 1994 Neo CD release of the game. SNK went to the extra effort of making a slightly different, but still stilted and grammatically questionable, description of the game's events:
WIPE OUT GANGSTERS! The Castella family of Metro City started running the peaceful city of Osaka with the violent Japanese group, “Heiwa-gumi”. To stop the fight, Metro police despatched two dangerous characters, Duke & Billy to Japan. With the support of the famous Japanese detective Ryu, they decided to rush into the enemy's fortress. Ruthless violence in the neon lights of Osaka. Will there be an end to this war?
This slightly altered timeline happens on several Neo Geo games as descriptions were compressed to work on the smaller packing of the Neo CD. However, with many early Neo Geo games having almost no story at all appear in while playing, the actual timeline of the game changes as well. Here, rather than actively pursuing Castella, Duke and Billy are sent in response to their joining up with the Heiwa-Gumi. Mutation Nation's alteration is similar, with the reason for the action changing from preventing an invasion to venturing through an already conquered city, even though in every case the actual games are exactly the same. Whether SNK would make these changes to what little story exists for the games out of indifference or because it was somehow seen as an improvement is unknown.
Besides the more overt parallels to Black Rain, Yasumasa Yamada's soundtrack even homages both Hans Zimmer's score and some of the film's jazzy diegetic music, though the game's three protagonists rely more on fisticuffs than the extensive use of firearms and driving skills seen in the film's climax. Still, as a movie that looks and sounds cool while having basic, archetypal characters, it's pretty good inspiration for a beat-em-up. The classic Final Fight was similarly inspired by the Walter Hill film, Streets of Fire, though again focusing on brawling action rather than the gunplay and sledge hammer dueling seen in the film.
Yamada's Burning Fight soundtrack is generally good, with a few standout tracks like the one used for the game's final level. As SNK was attempting more cinematic atmosphere with many of their early 90s Neo Geo games, several of Burning Fight's tracks make effective use of samples found in electronic and percussion heavy action film scores of the time. The most obvious is the final level's music, it's good because it's actually plagiarized from Giorgio Moroder's score to the film Over the Top.This can also be heard in Yamada's approach to several of the themes in his soundtracks for Art of Fighting and its sequel. In contrast to most of SNK's fighting games of the late 90s, his work for SNK vs. Capcom: Chaos (2003) feels like a step back to this time, with several tracks that wouldn't be out of place in Robo Army or Burning Fight itself.
Burning Fight looks nice at first, with some impressively detailed backgrounds. However, while the graphics never dip on a technical level, an entire section of the game takes place in a warehouse, while another is mostly set in an underground walkway to a train station. These areas are extremely repetitive, and a huge letdown after the variety of colorful storefronts other environments used for the rest of the game. Ryu Saeba (whose design is shamelessly ripped off Capcom's design for Guy in Final Fight), Duke Edwards, and tough Billy King begin their “investigation” by beating up a bunch of gangsters in a seedy depiction of the Doutonbori district of Osaka, famous Glico sign and all. After beating up a truck (!) at the end of the level they confront a yakuza member named Yujiro Heike who, despite his size, is actually quite agile and able to roll around the detectives to avoid attacks. Once that is done, our detectives enter the underground shopping center of the much longer level two.
Battling through a mall, they eventually encounter and defeat a shameless rip off of Hulk Hogan named Tom Anderson. The next part of the level is a bit silly, as players make their way to and eventually through Umeda (rendered as Umida thanks to SNK) Station via a people mover populated with annoying hopping enemies and military guys throwing sticks of dynamite at you. Before our heroes can actually board the train, however, they have to confront a relative of the first level's boss, Azusa Heika. This fight is sort of cool, she walks onto the screen with two bodyguards who, despite having guns, immediately ditch her and walk off. Azusa is modelled after Reiko Ike's portrayal of Ocho Inoshika in the 1973 cult film Sex and Fury. For a game so focused on late 80s crime cinema it seems weird for SNK to reach back so far, but either way, the level still isn't over. Now players can actually board the train, which in Burning Fight means they can walk along the top of the train beating up enemies while dodging gunfire from a nearby helicopter. Eventually they reach they level's actual boss, a Dolph Lundgren wannabe named Marshall.
Up to this point, Burning Fight is pretty cool, but from level three on things become tedious and frustrating. The game is now flooded with a frustrating enemy type: A fat construction worker that charges into players almost constantly and takes way too long to defeat, and like other beat-em-ups of the era, players will have already stopped seeing new enemies by now. As a final insult, during the game's final level Tom Anderson and stage three's boss, a samurai named Nitou Ryuji, must be confronted again along with all of the other game's bosses. For some reason these two characters are given new clothing and names (Mad Dilly and Nitou Ryugo amusingly) despite looking and behaving exactly the same as their original incarnations. SNK didn't even bother to be consistent with their shortcuts for creating “more” enemies to fight. The game's environments also become much less interesting from level three on, as the detectives leave the urban sprawl and spend the rest of the game in a construction site, a warehouse, and eventually Castella's boat. Once Castella is defeated, the game doesn't even have a conclusion, instead, immediately rolling the credits and thanking us for playing.
The way the game peaks with the colorful opening and varied second level before crashing spectacularly is disappointing. That and the lack of even a simple ending show that, like Ninja Combat and some other early Neo Geo games, Burning Fight was rushed out the door. It's still worth playing for a bit, however, as the three detectives can be fun to play and the action has some unique touches. While the game is of course heavily inspired by Final Fight, characters actually have separate buttons for punching and kicking that they can combo together however they want instead of having a single pre-made flurry of attacks like in Capcom's game. While this doesn't make a huge difference as one fights their way through the game's levels, it makes the boss fights more fun. With the right timing, the various punches and kicks can be combined to do tons of damage on a boss with a single combo. This is a nice change of pace from how long and boring some beat-em-up boss fights can get.
Ryu, Duke and Billy are also nicely balanced. Billy, as an example, moves more slowly than the other two characters but his attacks do more damage. He can also charge forward, knocking down any enemies in his path, buy pushing the punch and jump buttons simultaneously. Ryu and Duke also have special moves performed in this way that complement their own speed and moves. There also the expected assortment of weapons and items to be found by breaking pieces of scenery throughout the game's levels. There are also, however, bonus rooms players can enter throughout the game. In these, one has a short amount of time to break objects throughout the area and collect some bonus points along with some much needed energy replenishment. Each one only takes a few seconds to easily complete, so there's no reason to ever not enter these areas.
Some of the game's weapons were unique when Burning Fight was released as well. Most unusually for the time, players can actually pick up a pistol and shoot enemies instead of just beating them, though ammunition is very limited. One of the weapons is also a beer bottle which is used as a club at first, but soon breaks and can then be used to stab enemies. Streets of Rage would also feature this a few months later. Despite these touches, Burning Fight still gets boring quickly, both by the level design running out of steam halfway through, along with the severe lack of variety in its enemies (a problem that would plague other early SNK beat-em-ups like Sengoku and its sequel as well).
Burning Fight failed to have any real impact when it was released, receiving average reviews. Critics were generally happy with the game, but recognized its failure to do anything truly unique along with how boring it gets as one gets closer to the game's end. While this cool reception kept the game on the Neo Geo and Neo CD, it was made available to players again via the SNK Arcade Classics Volume 1 compilation in 2008 for the Wii, PSP and PS2. Burning Fight was also released on the Wii Virtual Console that same year. It was once again received with faint praise, with sites like Nintendo Life being clear that while the game is solid, it fails to really do anything that other beat-em-ups hadn't already accomplished years earlier. So while it's worth a quick play once or twice for beat-em-up fans, it's more important as a time capsule of SNK's many aggressive attempts to cash in on whatever was popular before truly hitting it big with their many groundbreaking fighting games.