Whenever I get my hands on a new King of Fighters arranged album, I never know what to expect. KOF '94 Arranged was a masterpiece, as was '97. On the other hand, '98's arranged album was a waste of a CD and 95's was a bit lacking as well. Finally, the two most recent ones ('99 and 2000) were great, but suffered from low sound quality. Would KOF '96 Arranged, the last one for my collection, turn my overall opinion on these albums? Well, let's just say it more than surpassed my expectations...
The first thing you will note about this CD is the length. This sucker is long! Most of the songs run to a full 4 or 5 minutes and you never feel shortchanged after listening to them. The second thing you should note about this CD is the sound quality. It is exceptionally good. The last quick note about this CD is the track selection. Many of the tracks are used in both KOF '96 AND '98! This is not a bad thing, though. Many people argue that this was the best set of music from the entire KOF series (also, the reason KOF '98's arranged album was so lacking was that it didn't contain any of these themes, only a couple of uninteresting new themes). As such, you can think of this as an arranged album for both KOF '96 and '98.
The styles of the tracks are pretty much divided up evenly. Half are intense power-rock arrangements, while the other half are jazzy and relaxing. Being a fan of Falcom power-rock arrangements, I nearly wet myself when I found out I was going to get my all-time favorite theme, "ESAKA?" arranged! Well, I was not disappointed in the least. Not quite as thrashing as KOF '98 OST's, but with live instruments, this incarnation sounds just as good (and it doesn't muffle when I crank up the volume!). Crisp and powerful, I love it! Also from KOF '98 OST, "Rumbling on the City" and "Fairy" get similar style arrangements. Fairy sounds about the same, but it opens with a very sweet and innocent tune before it rocks away! Very cool! Rumbling on the City ups the ante as far as intensity goes and sounds great. Kim's theme sounds similar to his '98 version, but it is a lot more intense! This is probably my second favorite track behind "ESAKA?". Others include another version of Geese Howard's excellent theme, Wolfgang Krauser's powerful classical piece and one of the harder versions of the Psycho Soldier Team theme. The Art of Fighting theme is very acoustic-sounding, while "Trash Head" (the final boss theme) uses a guitar to express its melody.
Moving on, the lighter side of KOF makes a great showing. Present is the best version of "Arashi no Saxaphone" and the very jazzy "Get'N'Up". "Rising Red" is the ending theme, a very beautiful, piano-based piece (it makes a great ending to Fairy, Geese's Theme and Trash Head, which all come right before it!). Finally, Athena's other song (Track 16) comes off great. It's soft and very sweet, with a small rap inside. It shows singer Tamao Sato's incredible range, as compared to the intense Psycho Soldier Theme.
Disappointments are very few and debatable. "Big Shot!" is really slow and is a big letdown, after hearing the excellent Fatal Fury 3 Arranged version. The two versions sound like complete opposites. "Dust Man" is a very odd, ghetto-ish style theme that can get into your head if given the chance. The problem is it runs for seven and a half minutes and really isn't THAT interesting. Finally, track 15 features the voice actors for Kyo and Iori, but is really boring. Why are two arch-rivals singing a duet together? These guys sound great in-game, but this really is the low point of the album.
King of Fighters 96 Arranged is a true classic, in every sense of the word. Even if you've never touched a King of Fighters game, give this CD a chance. It does just about everything right and presents itself with a style that has yet to be matched. Easily the best KOF arranged album to date, this CD is one that belongs in every game music collection.