EXCLUSIVE: The History Of Killer Instinct

The Origins Of Killer Instinct

Killer Instinct began development at Rare in the early 1990s under the moniker of Brute Force. It was Rare’s intentions to go after the Street Fighter fanbase from the beginning, but the game evolved into something much different as development progressed. A couple of weeks after Ken Lobb joined Nintendo and visited Rare, he learned of Brute Force’s development and pitched his own ideas of auto-doubles and linkers to the studio. Rare came up with ideas for combo breakers, finishers and so forth, all of which were gradually implemented into the game.


During its Brute Force days, the game underwent many changes. Elements of gameplay were constantly changed and modified until finally reaching a satisfying level of execution. The names of the characters were even different from the finalized names they later became. TJ Combo, for instance, used to be called “Mr. Fist” and Sabrewulf’s original name was “Newton”. See the list below for more examples:

  • Mr. Fist—>TJ Combo
  • Magma & Meltdown—>Cinder
  • Toxin—>Riptor
  • Argo—>Spinal
  • Roxy Rave & Wanda—>Orchid

This image is an early render of Glacius…


Whereas this is an early look at Orchid, when she was still known as Roxy Rave and Wanda…


By all intents and purposes, Brute Force was intended to be the actual name of the game. Name checking and copyright claims for the title didn’t come until later in the project’s development however, and this led to Rare being unable to secure the rights to the name. Thus, the game eventually received its official title of Killer Instinct.

A First Of Its Kind Arcade

The Killer Instinct arcade game was developed by Rare, published by Rare and Midway, and marketed by Nintendo. It was the very first arcade machine to have a built-in harddrive. This allowed Rare to develop the game with better detailed graphics and effects that other fighting games were unable to achieve due to the lack of a harddrive, rendering them unable to store the same massive amounts of data that Killer Instinct was utilizing. The pre-rendered sprites for the characters were created using Silicon Graphics computers, the very same hardware that allowed Rare to create the pre-rendered 3D graphics in Donkey Kong Country.

Sound wise, the arcade game ran on Williams own DCS hardware with four megs of RAM and four voices (one for music and three for sound effects). This helped Rare to achieve the astounding music and effects present in the game, which was compromised quite heavily in the SNES port.


There were a around 17,000 Killer Instinct arcade machines produced in total, each receiving five ROM updates, one of which happened just before release. An additional update was required some time after release after coin sales began to decrease. This was due to an infinite combo glitch that allowed players to perform infinite combos with Cinder. Nintendo literally had to send a team to all 17,000 arcade machines and manually update them to correct the bug.

The Ultra 64 Dilemma

Before being ported to the SNES and Game Boy, Killer Instinct was originally going to be released on Nintendo’s upcoming Ultra 64 (later named the Nintendo 64). Promotional videos even announce the game as coming soon to the Ultra 64. Unfortunately, due to a delay in the Ultra 64’s release, the game would be to ported to the SNES and Game Boy instead. But all was not lost. A couple of years later, and the Ultra 64 would still receive its own port, though it would be of Killer Instinct 2 under the title of Killer Instinct Gold.

Killer Instinct Infiltrates Homes And Pockets


About a year after Killer Instinct was released in the arcades, a ported version for the SNES was released. Limited copies of the SNES version came packaged with Killer Cuts, a CD that consisted of the game’s soundtrack. This version of the game included a few things that its arcade counterpart did not such as a training mode and tournament mode. The game played extremely well on the SNES and was a very successful port; however, due to the severe limitations of the SNES hardware in comparison to the arcade, there were a number of reductions in sound, graphics, and other things that had to be made. In fact, some of the KI team didn’t believe that the detail could be chopped down, but Tim Stamper (one of the two founders of Rare) was insistent that it could be. He was correct, but eighty percent of the animation had to be removed. Here’s a full list of things either downsized, altered, or entirely removed from the SNES version that was featured in the arcade:

  • Sound effects and voices had limitations by being shortened and some missing altogether.
  • Graphic details were reduced.
  • Character sprites were smaller.
  • Some graphic effects such as the Shadow Move were removed.
  • Scaling and zooming were removed.
  • The 3D panning camera was replaced with 2D parallax scrolling to create a pseudo-3D effect.
  • The full motion video (FMV) victory poses were replaced with still images.
  • Eighty percent of the animations were removed.

The game received a very warm reception from critics and fans alike and went on to sell over two million copies in North America and three million copies abroad. It was the twelfth best selling game ever released on the Super Nintendo.


In addition to the SNES, Rare also ported the game to the Game Boy where even more reductions were made–most notably, the removal of both Cinder and Riptor from the game. Movesets were also altered due to the lack of available buttons. Color and a two player mode was possible, but only when played on the SNES via the Super Game Boy add-on. Due to its many alterations, it wasn’t as widely received by fans as the SNES version.

An Arcade Sequel Is Born

Killer Instinct 2 began development almost immediately after the release of its predecessor. It maintained a similar 2D combat structure but was updated and tweaked to perform better. As is common in most sequels, new features were added to the game including upgradeable combo finishers, mini-ultras, a rock/paper/scissor approach to special moves, ultra breakers and super linkers. There were also bars that had to be filled in order to perform specific moves and all of the returning characters had new moves to go along with their old ones. Another new feature was multiple endings for every character. The endings were decided by certain scenarios being played out in the single player game, such as having to No Mercy a specific character.


Graphically, the game received a major overhaul with the rotating 3D backdrops now being much more diverse. Limited character interaction with the backgrounds was also now possible, paving the way for breakable items, more stage knock-offs and hidden sections of the battleground. Returning characters also received a few tweaks to their previous designs. TJ Combo, for instance, no longer donned his boxing gloves and fought with only his hands.

When the time came to make a decision on which characters should or shouldn’t return, they selected to replace Chief Thunder, Riptor and Cinder with newcomers Tusk, Maya and Kim Wu. The basis of the decision was determined from researching character popularity on Killer Instinct arcade boards.

A 64-Bit Golden Port

In a similar fashion as the original Killer Instinct arcade, Killer Instinct 2 received its own home console port, this time for the Nintendo 64. Named Killer Instinct Gold, the game was originally planned to serve as a hybrid between both KI 1 and KI 2, but constraints on storage and time prevented the team from achieving that goal. Despite some restraints with hardware capabilities between the arcade and Nintendo 64, Rare was able to maintain the majority of the arcade game’s material. Every character move remained intact and backdrops were transformed into full 3D polygonal fighting arenas. Also with noting is the game ran at a solid 60fps, which assisted in the gameplay remaining consistently fluid and precise. Some things that were not present in the Nintendo 64 port were the different character endings and the full motion videos were once again replaced with still images.


New features and modes were also created specifically for KI Gold that wasn’t available on its arcade counterpart. A robust Training mode was included to aid players in perfecting the game as well as all-new Team and Tournament modes. There was also unlockable content that included alternate colors for characters and scenarios as well as faster degrees of speed. It was also compatible with the Nintendo 64’s controller pak, which allowed players to save options and high scores.

Killer Instinct Gold released in November 1996 and wasn’t nearly as successful as its predecessor. It sold around 600,000 units in North America and around one million units worldwide; a marginal difference between the five million its SNES prequel sold.

The Death Of Killer Instinct 3

In 1998, Killer Instinct lead designer Christ Tilston along with a few other members at Rare, began to work on a prototype of Killer Instinct 3. They had intended for the game to be released on the Nintendo 64 and it would have been a full 3D fighter. The development of the game ended, however, when key designers of Rare’s upcoming Perfect Dark left the company, resulting in the Killer Instinct 3 team moving on to work on Perfect Dark instead.

Nineteen Years Of Teasing

So since the last time Killer Instinct was released the fans of the game have been teased over and over of its revival as Killer Instinct 3.

In October 2003, Rare’s first original Xbox game released, Grabbed by the Ghoulies. And with that was our first poke at a new Killer Instinct. In the game one can find copies of Killer Instinct 3 for the original Xbox on a shelf of other games.


The Viva Piñata games developed by Rare featured a card scanning feature. Well this feature was used to get the Killer Instinct fans riled up again. For Viva Piñata: Trouble in Paradise, Viva Piñata vs. Killer Instinct Vision cards were created. They were found on Rare’s official site. According to Rare, if you use the cards by showing them to your Xbox Live Vision Camera, a Killer Instinct Piñata would appear in your garden. The selected cards portrayed were Fulgore, B. Orchid and Tusk.


Moving on from Piñatas, in September of 2008 a mysterious piece of sheet music made the rounds on the internet. The music was titled, “Killer Instinct 3 – Main Title -“.

KI3 Sheet Music

No one really knew where in the world it came from and unsure of its legitimacy until MundoRare contacted an annoymous person at Microsoft who responded with a higher quality photo. Just recently Robin Beanland confessed to the whole thing. The sheet music was put out in the wild to gauge the interest of a new Killer Instinct.


Shortly after the sheet music, in November 2008 Rare’s Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts released for the Xbox 360. The game hinted at Killer Instinct 3 several times. For starters, while conversing with an NPC by the name of Bottles the player could access the Useless Rubbish conversation menu that had an interesting question and answer.

Bottles KI3 Tease

Q: “What do you know about KI3?”
A: “I’ve heard its going to star Mighty Bottles. I’m knitting myself a bandana just in case that turns out to be true!”

The next tease in Nuts & Bolts came to patient players. While standing next to the Jolly Dodger NPC, if you waited long enough he would eventually make a “Shhh!” noise and show you a suitcase full of Xbox 360 copies of Killer Instinct 3.


The last one in Nuts & Bolts was an accessory for the players vehicle. It was called Fulgore’s Fist.

Killer Instinct Lives Again

Killer Instinct began development exclusively for Xbox One in September 2012, the same month that Microsoft publicly announced the renewal of the KI trademark. Microsoft approached several different developers about the project and selected Double Helix when they delivered an actual, playable build of the game. The development team consists of game industry veterans with previous experience in the fighting game genre. They have worked on titles such as Skull Girls, Weaponlord, and Street Fighter II: Turbo. Ken Lobb, a key contributor of the original KI and the Creative Director of Microsoft Game Studios, is leading the game’s development.


While the game will maintain its key roots that makes Killer Instinct the popular brand it is, Double Helix is ensuring that the game is also modernized. One example is the introduction of the combat triangle of “zoner” , “rushdown”, and “grappler” characters. The previous games consisted of only rushdown fighters.

Microsoft and Double Helix intend to develop the game in ‘Rounds’. Each year will introduce a new round of characters and downloadable content. If the game is well received and meets their financial expectations, then Killer Instinct will be in continuous development throughout the duration of Xbox One’s life cycle.

The gameplay for the new Killer Instinct is still similar to its predecessors. The primary focus is still on the franchise’s groundbreaking Combo system, openers and linkers, enders, Combo Breakers, and so forth. New elements to the gameplay are Counter Breakers, unique character Instincts, and Shadow Moves. A Training mode will also return and the game will feature online play. Also new to this game is character customization via accessories and a point system.


The returning characters to the franchise have been redesigned, but are still instantly recognizable. There will be classic skins available via downloadable content as a fan service to the older Killer Instinct fanbase. Characters new to the KI universe will also be introduced for the first time, with the first, Sadira, officially revealed in late August 2013.

A number of things in the previous games will either not be available at launch or not be in the game at all. The story mode will come a few months after the game has released for instance while other popular features such as No Mercies and Humiliations have only been hinted at returning, with no guarantee that they would ever appear again.

Killer Instinct will be available digitally for Xbox One simultaneously with the console’s release on November 22nd, 2013.

Special Thanks

I want to give a huge special thanks Amir, Robin Beanland, Graeme Norgate, Chris Tilston, and Chris Seavor for their contributions to this article!


About Daniel Duncan

Founder/Writer For Killer Instinct Central. Twitter: @devin_durock