Characters and stuff introduced in The Rugal Saga ('94)
The creation of the Japan Team, their elemental powers, and their personalities are based off of the heroes from Getter Robo. This, in turn is a homage to a Japanese phrase of giving birth to fire (roughly translated as "lightning strikes the earth which sparks the flame").
Starting in Maximum Impact 2, there exists a separate version of Kyo known as Kyo Kusanagi Classic, who is garbed in Kyo's attire from The Orochi Saga (Normal)/The NESTS Chronicles (Another). He uses all of Kyo's moves from '94 to '98, as well as his Style 108 from '99 onward. Additionally, as a nod to the earlier KOF titles, his roll is his replaced by a sidestepping dodge (a la '94 and '95) and holding down the taunt button allows Kyo to charge up his meter (a la '94-'96, complete with the same charging pose).
One of his alternate color schemes in XIII is none other than Rock Howard. The activation of his Neo MAX is similar to his intro with Ryu in Capcom vs. SNK 2.
He has another color based on Rouga Zanma from Big Bang Age.
Benimaru Nikaido was modeled after Jean-Pierre Polnareff, in terms of appearance and personality. He is even jokingly called Polnareff by the dev team.
Other attacks have their namesakes in various anime and manga, including the Benimaru Collider/Corridor (Gunbuster), Elec-Trigger (Super Robot Red Baron), Flying Drill and Raijinken (Neo Human Casshern), and Iai Geri (Kako Teito: Ore wa Shubei!). (Daisuke Ono, the seiyuu of Nameless, voices Casshern in Tatsunoko vs. Capcom. See a trend here?)
Many of Clark's moves come from Kinnikuman, such as a variation of the Finishing Moves of The Hero of the final arc of the series: the Clark Spark. He has now the Clark Special, copying Robin Mask instead of King Muscle.
One of his alternate costumes in Maximum Impact 2 was modeled in the image of Tarma Roving from Metal Slug.
Ryo Sakazaki and Robert Garcia have win quotes in KOF 2002 against each other that reference Little Shop of Horrors.
Ryo and Robert's taunts in XIII have them perform their charging poses from Art of Fighting and the pre-'99KOF games, although this does nothing to their super meter. Robert also uses this animation before the final blow of his Ryuuko Ranbu EX DM.
The upper portion of his new (if not somewhat goofy-looking) stance in XIII seems to be taken from Doppo Orochi. His Biruto Appa/Built Upper Neo MAX from the same game ends with a brutal chop similar to Akuma's Capcom vs. SNK-exclusive Misogi.
Like Ryo, he too gets a Shin Akuma-themed outfit in XIII.
Kyoukugenryu Karate in general is heavily based on Masutatsu Oyama's Kyokushin Karate.
Yuri's taunt in KOF '96 is "Anta baka?" (Asuka's Catch Phrase) and one of her winposes had her saying "Service, service" (like Misato).
One of her alternate color schemes in XIII that restores her braid also gives her a hue resembling Cammy.
She also pinches various moves from the Shotoclones: in '96, she gains the Tatsumaki Senpukyaku; in '97, Sakura's Midare Zakura (multiple uppercut Super); in '98, the Shin Shouryuken (EX Yuri only); in 2001, the Shun Goku Satsu (with a 1/8 chance to inflict extra damage and copy Akuma's back-turning pose); in 2002: Unlimited Match, Ryu's Jodan Sokuto Geri ("Donkey Kick"); in 2003, the Denjin Hadoken (Ryu's chargeable electric fireball); and in XIII, Akuma's Demon Flip. From 2002-XI, she also borrows Chun-Li's vertical split kick; however, she gained her normal rushing uppercut (Yuri Chou Upper) as early as '95, one year before Sakura made it famous.
The Psycho Soldier team's ending in XIII is a parody of Gatchaman, right down to the silly costumes worn by Kensou (Red), Athena (Blue), Bao (Yellow), and Momoko (Pink). The team even goes by the name of the Psycho Rangers (no, notthem), complete with fans giving them a Super Sentai-esque naming scheme for the characters (i.e. Kensou = Psycho Red).
Terry's "Stand up!" finger point win pose (lifted from his older self in Garou: Mark of the Wolves) is evocative of one of Jotaro Kujo's signature poses, which can be seen in the games based on JoJo's such as Heritage for the Future.
Terry's battle intro against his brother in '98 is based on a gesture Kenshiro and Toki from Fist of the North Star made as a promise that Kenshiro wouldn't interfere in Toki's battle against Raoh.
One of Mai's color variations in Maximum Impact 2 is that of Cham Cham. In that same game, she borrows Andy's Chou Reppa Dan for her Level 3.
Brian Battler is an Expy of Johnny Maximum from World Heroes 2, who is also a heavy-hitting, aggressive power player. In fact, Brian's design was altered in order to differentiate him in terms of looks from Johnny, making this something of a Shout-Out as well.
Lucky Glauber's prototype design and fighting style were based on the character Hakim in the martial arts film, Game of Death. His later design might come from Dunk Dream/Street Hoop/Street Slam, a sports game for the Neo Geo made by Data East.
His default color scheme is the purple and gold, the same as the Los Angeles Lakers (the team that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar played for). In KOF '98 his alternate color schemes are references to the Chicago Bulls, Seattle Supersonics, and San Antonio Spurs.
Choi is a Captain Ersatz of Freddy Krueger. An alternate version of him called "Cool Choi" resembles Freddy even more. Made funnier when a bonus illustration in KOF '98 involves Choi having an encounter with Freddy Krueger.
This is taken even further in KOF XIV, where he wears a striped green sweater similar to Freddy.
Choi Bounge's Shakushi MAX2 move is identical to Captain Kuro's version, all the way down to the name and the random hitboxes. According to Word of God, his Maniac Striker ("Cool Choi") borrows his glasses-adjusting gesture from the same character.
There are also statues clearly meant to resemble Zangief, Akuma, and Fei Long. Clearly, Rugal really likes Street Fighter.
Given that SNK does enjoy having fun at Capcom's expense due to their competing fighters, this and the other tropes aboard the Blacknoah maybe part of a larger joke. Rugal is said to be attempting to become world's strongest fighter, now look at the sub-title of the first Street Fighter II...note The World Warrior, after all of that... Look at the collection. Now do the math.
Joe refers to himself as the Legend of Joe a couple of times in XIII.
Characters and stuff introduced in The Orochi Saga ('95-'98)
Due to his moveset revision in XII, fans called Iori an expy of Mark of the Wolves's Freeman. Ironically, when Freeman first made his debut, he was called an expy of Iori.
Here's one that comes from not Iori himself, but his theme music. In the OST and AST versions of "Arashi no Saxophone" in KOF '95, its rearrangement for the home port of XI, and the AST version of "Cool Jam ~ Arashi no Saxophone 3" in '97, a female voice can be heard reciting, "221B Baker Street", the address of Sherlock Holmes. Curiously, the OST version of "Tsuchi o Hau Bass", the theme of the Women Fighters Team in '95, also features this voice clip.
Iori design was partially inspired by Yasuhiro Nightow designs, and, if anyone has read Trigun before, can definitely see his design was inspired by Legato Bluesummers.
Shermie is based off of Fujiko Mine from Lupin III. Given her flirtatious tendencies and her "assets," it's not hard to see the similarities.
Her Diamond Bust is an obvious play on the Diamond Dust, a flipping stunner invented by Japanese wrestler Masato Tanaka.
Leona's Rebel Spark Desperation Move is frame-for-frame identical to Kamen Rider Black RX's Revolcrash, except that Leona uses her bare hand instead of a Laser Blade.
Her V-Slasher is based on Voltes V's V-no-Jigiri. Again, she uses her bare hand instead of a sword.
And her jumping CD attack is Kamen Rider Black's Rider Kick; she even has a red energy aura around her feet during the move.
Her Leona Inferno air throw is Kinnikuman Zebra's Muscle Inferno.
In '99, Leona gains two moves that reference JoJo's Bizarre Adventure. Her Earring Bomb 2: Heart Attack works like Kira Yoshikage's Killer Queen Stand ability, with the move's name referencing his Bomb #2: Sheer Heart Attack and her quote "Makete owari." resembling "Makete shine!" (an alternate reading of his Bomb #3: Bites the Dust quote). Her Grateful Dead (S)DM drains the opponent's life force, similarly to Prosciutto's Grateful Dead Stand.
According to Word of God, Chizuru's design was inspired by Yoko Shiraki from Ashita no Joe. Both are long-and-dark-hairedhigh-class young women who handle venues related to fighting: Yoko sponsors a boxing gym with her grandfather, Chizuru organized the KOF tournament more than once.
Western Shout-Outs also exist. For example, Angel uses the Rock Bottom and People's Elbow in 2002. One of her win quotes is "Can you taste The Angel's extraordinary skill?", a play on The Rock's "If you smell what The Rock is cooking!"
The names of all of her moves are song titles from left-wing Japanese band Soul Flower Union.
Maxima is both an homage to the main character of the SNK Beat 'em UpRobo Army and an expy of Harry Ness from the obscure fighting game The Fallen Angels, whom his character designer worked on before joining SNK.
Vanessa in general can be considered something of an Expy of Rick Strowd from Real Bout Fatal Fury 2. Not only are they both boxers, but in 2002 she gains a few of Rick's moves, namely his Hellion special and Gaia Gear DM. And as a bonus the name "Gaia Gear" itself is a reference to the story of the same name by Yoshiyuki Tomino.
Clone Zero is a living shout out to Han the Rasho from the Shura saga. His infamous Zero Fart special resembles a method of how Han dispatched a mook in the series. Some of his other special moves are named after techniques used by the Shura Generals in Fist of the North Star.
K''s Chain Drive DM may very well be influenced by this particular scenenote the final battle caps off with the main villain throwing his shades at Toby Wong, who catches them just in time for the Big Bad to attack him and reclaim his sunglasses from a 1998 Marc Dacascos film coincidentally named Drive.
Similar to his buddy Maxima above, K' resembles Cool from The Fallen Angels/Daraku Tenshi. His "Another" striker in 2000 (his prototype design, often theorized to be what K' looked like before he had Kusanagi DNA implanted into his body) makes the comparison more apparent, with the two sharing reference poses.
Although not a Bruce Lee Clone, one of K''s command normals (also shared with Kula) is the iconic one-inch punch. His Minute Spike could be seen as analogous to Bruce Lee's equally-famous flying kicks, complete with a yell that was more of a higher-pitched Kiaiin earlier games.
One of his alternate colors in KOF XIII has his outfit colored blue on one side, and red on the other, mimicking that of Kikaider. It can also be seen as a nod to Gill, who also has asymmetrical body coloring of blue and red whereby only his red half is capable of wielding flame. (Note that K' is only seen using flames from one of side of his body, specifically his hand with the glove.)
Foxy herself is a tribute to Cutey Honey, possessing a similar sword, fighting style, manner of dress, and even the ability to change clothes in a flash. Her bio even notes that Foxy owns a honey factory.
Another possible nod to K' and Maxima's origins comes from Whip's bio in '99, which lists "Angels, the fallen" as one of her dislikes.
The sequence in 2000's ending where Kula flies into space and destroys the Zero Cannon references Tetsuo Shima doing the same thing with SOL. In both instances, the Kill Sat in question manages to fire once and decimate the target area before the aforementioned character dismantles it, though Kula loses her Robot Buddy, not her right arm and the damage to Southtown is far more widespread than that of Neo-Tokyo.
Bonne Jenet is a pirate, there's the Bonne, and stalks a main character (Rock Howard in Mark of the Wolves and the Maximum Impact series). Yep, she seems to be SNK's matured version of Tron Bonne. Considering the time of her MotW debut (1999), she could also be a nod towards One Piece.
Gai Tendo and Ryo have a special intro pose in XI. This is because in Buriki One, Gai's debut game, an older Ryo appeared under the moniker of Mr. Karate II, which is also referenced in a special piece of artwork viewable upon beating the game with a team consisting of Ryo/Gai/Silber.
When Billy Kane faces Saiki in XIII, he thinks his opponent looks like some kind of monster, and wonders what would happen if he could catch 'em all, even wondering if he'll be considered an Elite Trainer, too.
In Maximum Impact Regulation A, Hyena has a new super that originally belonged to Oswald. It's his Joker LDM where he pins you in the corner and throws 52 razor sharp cards at you.
Jivatma is one to Krizalid in Maximum Impact Regulation A. He has a new super move where he shoots his arms out with blades on them and repeatedly stabs the opponent in the air. It looks similar to Krizalid's Desperate Overdrive SDM.
Lilly Kane's "Another" costume is modeledafter Billy's original outfit from Fatal Fury and KOF '95.
One of her color variations for her default outfit is that of Hotaru Futaba from Garou: Mark of the Wolves. She also has an outfit homaging Snow White.