King of Fighters has one of the most extensive and unique rosters in fighting games, owing in part to its origins as a crossover between SNK franchises like Fatal Fury and Art of Fighting. With dozens of playable characters introduced since the series’ inaugural 1994 release, fans can never really be sure which ones will make cameos in subsequent iterations. All except for one character in particular who SNK has made clear no longer has a place in their flagship fighting franchise.
The character in question, K9999, first debuted in King of Fighters 2001 as a member of NESTS, the secretive, criminal organisation that often serves as the main antagonistic force in the franchise’s overarching narrative. Much of the King of Fighters story focuses on NESTS’ ongoing experiments to clone series protagonist Kyo Kusanagi, the 9999th attempt of which resulted in K9999.
He was introduced as a shapeshifter with a short temper, often cloaked in a tattered red cape. After he made his a second appearance in King of Fighters 2002, K9999’s story ended abruptly after he distanced himself from NESTS. In subsequent games, a new character named Nameless took over many of the same roles that K9999 had played in the lore, and to this day is considered by fans to be a de facto replacement for K9999.
King of Fighters fan blog Power Geyser visited the developer’s headquarters in Japan and interviewed SNK community manager Jonathan “KrispyKaiser” Campana about several topics, one of which was K9999’s status. “About ‘the one replaced by Nameless’, you can’t talk about him at SNK at all, even if anyone wishes, for legal reasons,” reads Power Geyser’s report on the trip from last August. “[Campana] claims it is safe to say that from now on, in any SNK game, he will never return.”
Kotaku contacted Campana for more information, and while he has shared the interview publicly on his personal Twitter account and confirmed to me that he did speak with Power Geyser, he has yet to respond to requests to corroborate any of the specific information therein.
K9999’s disappearance, as well as the supposed “legal reasons” that prevent his return, makes more sense when you dig into the character’s origins. K9999’s design pays homage to the character Tetsuo Shima from Akira, the hit cyberpunk manga written by Katsuhiro Otomo that eventually became an animated feature film.
K9999’s bulging, bio-mechanical arm looks very similar to the strange body changes that happen to Tetsuo in Akira, and K9999’s signature cape draws easy comparisons with the garment Tetsuo wears during that story’s climax. SNK even hired Tetsuo’s voice actor, Nozomu Sasaki, to play K9999.
With all of this in mind, it’s understandable that SNK has attempted to scrub K9999 from King of Fighters lore for “legal reasons.” The official King of Fighters Character Encyclopaedia, for instance, still includes an entry for K9999, but he’s represented by a mere silhouette instead of his official design. And King of Fighters XIV, which features an extensive gallery of artwork from every previous game, makes no mention of K9999 at all, opting to present the teams he was part of in King of Fighters 2001 and 2002 with one less character rather than at full strength.
While he’s not as relevant as he used to be to the King of Fighters franchise, not least because he hasn’t been in any of the games for years, K9999 was pretty popular at one point. According to archived results of a popularity poll ran by SNK Playmore USA in 2005, K9999 was the community’s seventh-most popular character, beating out prominent fighters like Kim Kaphwan, Ramon and even Iori Yagami, the last of whom could be considered as a sort of anti-hero and secondary protagonist behind the franchise’s more traditionally heroic main character Kyo Kusanagi.
In talking to some of my more SNK-focused acquaintances, I found opinions to be a little more mixed; some characterised K9999 as “arse,” while others regarded him as one of their favourite cast members.
It seems impossible that K9999 would ever return, but there is at least one quote that has given his remaining fans some hope. During an interview at Gamescom 2016, competitive fighting game legend Ryan Hart asked King of Fighters XIV producer Yasuyuki Oda about K9999 after noting that the character’s in-game teammate, Angel, would be returning for the fifteenth instalment.
Oda was coy, as is typical for developers during these kinds of interviews, saying, “Maybe one day we’ll find out what happened to Angel’s partner K9999.” I’ve always found K9999’s story to be a fascinating one, rife with intrigue and secrecy, and I would love to see him return at some point in the future, although if he ever did, I doubt he’d look much like the K9999 we used to know.