Genre : Fighting
Publisher: SNK NeoGeo
Developer: SNK NeoGeo/Eolith
Release Date: February 2005
Pre-order 'KING OF FIGHTERS 02/03': PlayStation 2
Last year, a minor landmark in gaming took place. It wasn’t one of those landmarks that people get happy about, or anything like that. It just happened to be one. SNK announced that there would be no King of Fighters 2004 coming to arcades or home systems—in fact, the series would officially be skipping a year. Indeed, it is already 2005, and that statement has already come to pass.
The company hadn’t missed a year putting out an installment of their popular fighting game series since its inception in 1994, and hearing this news was off-putting to many people. True, SNK had spread out its resources that year with KOF Neowave and KOF: Maximum Impact, which made skipping a year understandable, but it did little to soften the blow of the news.
There is, however, a silver lining to this cloud—with a year being skipped, people who have been behind in the series, as well as newcomers, now have a chance to catch up.
King of Fighters 2002 marks the second and last year that the series was programmed by Eolith, a Korean company which took the reins when SNK was in deep financial trouble and unable to operate under normal means. It’s also the second “dream match” that the series has showcased, the first being in 1998. Dream matches have no cohesive or running plot holding them together, and, for those keeping track of this series’ storyline, are not even canon. They are, however, an excuse to gather as many characters from previous games as possible, and jam them all into one place to see how they would fare against one another. In short, it’s pure fanservice.
In 2002, the helper/striker system from the 2001 edition, which allowed other characters to jump in briefly and deal a hit, was removed; in fact, 2002 played more like the KOFs of old. It will also be the last time it did so. KOF 2002 is, to date, the last game to showcase the traditional KOF three-character one-after-the-other fighting system. In this system, a team of three is picked, and each fight one at a time until all three energy bars of a team’s characters are depleted. It’s traditional tournament style gameplay that’s been perpetuated for the last eight years—however, in the next year, quite a few changes were made.
King of Fighters 2003 is an entirely different beast. The biggest change is in the team dynamic—taking a cue from such fighters as Marvel vs. Capcom 2, fighting is three-way tag-team, where characters can be swapped in and out on the fly, until, again, all characters’ lifebars are expended. This brings about a whole new level of strategy for the players. The fighting engine has also been speeded up and refined, and the music composed is a marked improvement from 2002’s. New characters are introduced, and the beginning of a new storyline for the series is born.
There’s a good reason for all of these (mainly for the better) changes—in 2003, SNK had resurfaced, and taken control of their flagship series once again. Their direction is what made 2003 possible.
Both games contain some extras, as well as modes that one just can’t find in the arcades, for obvious reasons. These include practice and survival modes, unlockable art, the ability to play as some boss characters, and options to tweak the gameplay rules however one might deem fit. Also, in-game character movelists have been added, which are a welcome treat.
Outside of these, however... little has changed. These are otherwise straight-up ports.
One thing that the KOF series is known, or should I say, notorious for, is its graphics. This is because, ever since the series’ inception, the games have been programmed on the 16-bit Neo-Geo hardware—the same hardware which plays host to the Metal Slug games, for example. Said hardware can only go so far, and started showing its age years ago.
For those of you looking for new sprites or animations, be prepared to be disappointed. At best, the PS2’s horsepower and DVD disc format is used to eliminate slowdown and facilitate a few effects like parallax scrolling and some extra nifty polygon background elements. Even load time is still present, though it’s hard to notice unless one is looking for it.
Sound, too, is virtually unchanged. The soundtrack is the same as the original, as are the sound effects. For people weaned on the older console versions of KOF from the Dreamcast on down, and for purists who like their game ports as close to the originals as possible, this is all quite welcome. For people new to the series, as well as people who have tried of the Neo-Geo’s antiquated graphics, it’ll probably take a little bit of getting used to.
These two camps have been firm in their opinions for a while now, and it’s a good bet that neither will budge. However, despite disputes regarding aesthetics, there’s one thing that all KOF fans can agree on, and that’s the fact that the series has, with each installment, provided a solid gameplay experience, and fighting engines that stand up to all but the highest-level players.
Any way one slices it, this is two quality fighting games for the price of one. They may not be the prettiest ones on the market, but they’ve got the goods where it counts, and honestly, anyone who’s even vaguely heard of the King of Fighters brand probably couldn’t care less anyway. The double pack will be out on February 15th of this year. Longtime fans, as well as people who want to take a break from today’s polygonal, three-dimensional fighters, and cut their teeth on one of the granddaddies of the fighting genre, should remember this date—because that’s when a can’t-miss deal hits.