Sometimes it may be best if the questions that are burning deep inside us aren’t answered. If they are, will we really understand the extent of it, or be faced with more questions or a conclusion that is deeply unsatisfying? Killer Instinct is back – but perhaps it may be best if we don’t ask why…
Finally, Killer Instinct is back.
For those a bit younger, Killer Instinct was a combo-heavy fighter in the SNES/N64 days that owed something of a debt to Mortal Kombat. It was a Rare/Nintendo/Midway union that was deeply surprising to anyone who was a bit oblivious to the idea that Shigeru Miyamoto can be perfectly capable of helping to oversee and produce a “mature” game – from a nude finisher to brutal stabbings, Killer Instinct had a strange albeit quaint charm about it that was hard to not like. There haven’t been many fighting games where we can use a werewolf, after all – except the obvious one.
The thing is this; a few weeks ago I was digging around to see where Killer Instinct was. We had lots of rumour and speculation about who owned what and why, but I came up with a few distinct facts that were indisputable at the time; the first is that Shigeru Miyamoto was the producer on the first Killer Instinct. Nintendo’s darling golden boy had an active part in the development of that game. The second was that Nintendo had the trademark up until 2006 – where they didn’t renew it. Neither Microsoft nor Rare had made any notable attempt to re-register it in their name, and when you consider the rather large figures involved in the Rare sell-off in 2002 with the eagerness of both Rare and Microsoft at the time to lay claim to as much of their work as possible (Perfect Dark, Banjo-Kazooie etc.), it comes off that the actual ownership of the IP and its rights seemed to be somewhat at odds with the transaction.
This was not helped in 2009, when people were asking the question – why on earth was Killer Instinct not part of the X-Box Live lineup? The answer was swift and unequivocal; to do that, Microsoft needed to get something drawn up with Nintendo. With Nintendo pissing over everyone else with insane profit margins and incredible sales figures, coupled with the devaluation of Rare as a studio, pride and stubborn dignity seemed to have gotten in the way of that at the time becoming a reality.
We have known for some time that Rare want to make a Killer Instinct 3. Rare have at numerous points made it very clear that it was something high on their agenda, although in the same breath they would also point out that it wasn’t high on Microsoft’s agenda. Indeed, Rare many times taunted and teased in their own games towards a new title in the fighting series. Mock-ups, artwork and reusing art and voice assets but still it seemed that Killer Instinct was out of their reach. It was their passion, but a passion that was doomed to remain under lock and key for the time being.
It was confusing. The mixed message were starting to wear thin. No-one had laid any claim to Killer Instinct since 2006. Indeed, Rare was sold in 2002 – so if Microsoft had it all along, then not making their ownership clear is an awful thing.
And that’s kind of the point isn’t it? We may ask; “Why has it taken so long to clear this up?”
But do we want to know? I mean, really. Will it help?
You see, Killer Instinct is a franchise that has been in a Schrodinger’s Box for some considerable time, existing but simultaneously not existing. Nintendo were there first in the SNES days, and helped port the arcade sequel to the N64 in the form of Killer Instinct Gold. This was in 1996. Midway seemed to have the rights to the arcade cabinets version of Killer Instinct 2, and they went the way of the Dodo officially in 2009, although for some years before that they were kind of in an existential flux themselves. Then you have the Rare sell-off in 2002, ten years ago. Where many Rare IPs that had been somewhat tied to Nintendo were included in the sale, and yet as we know, Nintendo held the Killer Instinct trademark up until 2006. For four years after the sell-off, the US Office of Patents and trademarks remained defiant that the registration of Killer Instinct was, in fact, by Nintendo themselves. How can you argue that? You can’t. And neither Microsoft nor Rare made any real attempt to claim ownership, only in 2008 did the murmurings begin from fans who were wondering where the series stood in the grand scheme of things.
So what did happen? Well – we may never really know. I doubt we will be told the real reasons behind this debacle.
Did Nintendo retain certain rights that Microsoft – now in a decent position in the market – felt that were valuable to attain? Nintendo, in a position where the Yen is weak and they have a new console coming out, may not have been too fussed about selling or giving up the Killer Instinct trademark. Did Microsoft or Rare forget to register it in their name for a decade – thereby suggesting they themselves had no real interest in the series revival? Were Midway – now a shell of a company owned by the state of Delaware as it continues to break up the bankrupt remains and divide residual monies and royalties that are still paid to it – a thorn in this whole issue? Is there something else we may not know?
Who knows. And who cares?
Thing is, we now know that Killer Instinct may have a future – a future that for the past decade it has been denied, because something went wrong somewhere along the line. No-one in this tale comes off clean – not Nintendo, not Rare, not Midway and not Microsoft. All four created the sort of perfect limbo-storm that allowed it to exist in a state of dark, unmitigated confusion for so long. All each company would end up doing is pointing fingers at the other. The truth is that the truth can’t be obtained in this situation. All parties have had legal powers and monetary motives to ensure its revival and none of them made a move until this week, when Microsoft suddenly announces that it has picked up the trademark. At long sodding last!
I’d like to think I had a part in this too. Because I had a really long whinge at a piece of Rare PR stuff where they wheeled out their hope for Killer Instinct. I told them I was a fan, and it was time they put up or shut up about it. There was no certainty about anything at the time, except the few facts I could dig up freely on the internet. And they all suggested that at no stage in a long time had anyone made any attempt to revive or coax the series back from the grave. I was annoyed. Annoyed at Rare because I was a bit tired of seeing them wheel out the series name in a cheap attempt to garner some hits and/or sympathy. When the series is in such a dark, dangerous place – the first thing you would do if you REALLY loved it was to try and get it into a hotel or something, anywhere but the awful streets littered with dead game franchises that deserved to be there. To me, their continued insistence they wanted to do it was undermined by the lack of effort being made to actually sort out the complicated crap over who owned what, why and when.
It was long. And wordy. And possibly a little too passionate. But a month or so later – Microsoft now have it. That makes me a little happy. I’d like to believe and go to sleep feeling that by calling them out on this galvanised them into making sure they had everything, and if not – ensure they did have everything. I’ll take my pay in the form of a Durango unit, please. Just e-mail me and I’ll forward you my mailing details.
But what they had to do to get it in the end, I think it may be best we don’t know. Not that we can’t rhetorically ask the question – this is the internet, and that is what we do, it’s just from what few facts we actually do have, we get the picture of a series that was abandoned and left to rot despite four very large and well-known games companies all having their hands in its future. We should be happy that it is back, and that Microsoft and Rare clearly want to do something with it. But we must remember they had a decade to sort this out with Midway and Nintendo. Ten years. That’s an awfully long time for the future of a game series to be in question, and second only to Duke Nukem Forever really.
So be happy it is back. But don’t expect answers – if anyone involved in this has any decency and intelligence left, they will know that we don’t need to know anything. And we can then look forward to a new or an HD remake of Killer Instinct (although I’d say it will be a new one – the idea they could HD up Killer Instinct 2 without redoing practically EVERYTHING does seem far-fetched!).
It’s back. Hug it, and just don’t ask where it has been or what it has been through.
It will be better this way, trust me…