In hindsight, I look at SNK as the runner-up in the arcades; the red cabinet with four games in one, I always thought it a blessing to get there and find no one on it. Rarely there was a crowd, but when there was, there was always the same crowd. You could always find a crowd around the Street Fighters and Mortal Kombats, but it was a different set of people almost every time. Around the SNK cabinets, it was the same people most of the time; people who didn't just enjoy the games, but had their favorite characters and storylines. You saw someone at an SNK cabinet and chances are you already knew what you were up against, because you had seen it before. Street Fighter had more of a tournament appeal than any of the SNK games, but SNK felt more like a small religion.
I used to think it was cool that SNK came out with a new fighting game every week, in hindsight it looked like they were desperate to find a hit to catch the success of Street Fighter II. This point couldn't be made clearer by the extremely average, forgettable World Heroes. Hanzou and Fuuma? Need I say more?
So recently I've been drowning myself in old-school nostalgia with the Art of Fighting and Fatal Fury anthologies. Up until playing these games, I had never played these franchises in their third incarnations.
Both Fatal Fury and Art of Fighting peaked out in their second incarnations, in my opinion. Having gotten used to such rock-solid, hard-hitting gameplay in the first two versions, I was hugely disappointed when playing Fatal Fury and Art of Fighting 3. It isn't just the gameplay that's been changed; the character set in both titles is so new and unfamiliar that I'm betting a lot of diehards felt alienated back in the day. Even now, playing these for the first time, I felt….betrayed. While one could argue gameplay in AoF3 until the cows came home, the graphics by any standard seem like they took a shortcut. Me, personally, I didn't care for the gameplay.
I don't know if SNK realized this (and I don't think it's by accident that neither franchise went very far beyond their third incarnations on their own. Art of Fighting went nowhere.) but it wasn't just the gameplay that drew the cult following. We would sit down and talk about our favorite characters, because they offered depth and charisma that Capcom couldn't give us. With Capcom we had to fill in a lot of the blanks. With SNK, we were thrust into this world of intrigue, violence, betrayal, and revenge, cheesy as it was.
Both Fatal Fury and Art of Fighting 2 offered us continuing stories and new characters who felt familiar enough to be friendly; they fit into the world well. In part three, we didn't know what the hell was going on. Change the character set and the gameplay so completely, you're gonna lose a lot of your fan base.
Oh, look at that. They did. Shame, because they were both good franchises, for awhile.
Almost all of my titles are inspired by what I played back in the day, rather than what I play now (which isn't much). I'm of this mentality; if you're lucky enough to develop a sequel, don't innovate to the point of alienation. People still love a good story if delivered correctly; Bioware is clear proof of that. But as you develop your world, remember the people who helped make it what it is. Stray too far, and people will turn on you.
But that's just me.