Release Date: August 30, 2005
Buy 'KING OF FIGHTERS 2002/2003': Xbox
For a while there, I was really worried about the King of Fighters series. After the dissolution of the old SNK, I figured that it would be the end of King of Fighters, not to mention Metal Slug. Well, it turns out that King of Fighters just took a little break … from being even remotely good.
KOF 2001 was a low point in the franchise. The characters were all pixelated, the backgrounds were a disgrace, and doing a super move … well, it should never be that difficult. This is saying nothing of the music, which sounded like the composer was smashing his head against a midi keyboard and screaming.
To make matters worse, SNK released a game called SVC Chaos not long after KOF 2001. I played it twice. Also around this time, Capcom released Capcom Fighting Evolution, which was less a game and more of an admission that Capcom had forgotten how to make fighting games. I was rather distressed, I must say.
Some time passed, and it came to my attention that SNK had started to regain its footing. One of the games that was helping them do this was King of Fighters 2003. Before we move on, let me just say that King of Fighters 2002 follows in the path of KOF 2001, which is to say that it's UN-good. I won't be talking about it much, so just think of it this way: for every good thing I say about KOF 2003, count that as a bad thing about KOF 2002.
So, on an important note, I'd like to mention that KOF 2003 has actual, honest-to-goodness music in it, and it's pretty good. The series as a whole doesn't seem to get a lot of praise for its music simply because the games have been out of reach for the average gamer in the past. It's unfortunate, since KOF has a legacy of putting out some of the best music in video games, and oftentimes, this music rocks hard. That being said, when I heard a remixed version of Kyo's theme from King of Fighters '96, (a game that comes painfully close to being the best 2D fighting game of all time), I was rather excited. It's definitely a step in the right direction.
The character roster is decent; all the old favorites such as K', Kyo, and Iori, are, of course, present, and there's also a new team made up of some pretty interesting new characters. The old King of Fighters tradition of including at least one punk-rocking boxer in the game is present; unfortunately, they ditched the white-collared, shirt-and-tie-wearing Vanessa (possibly my second favorite KOF character ever) for a new character who looks alarmingly similar to the late Sid Vicious. This is one of the areas where 2002 outshines 2003: the selection of characters is just better. From the old favorites mentioned above to characters like Vanessa, Vice, and Yashiro, it really has an excellent lineup.
The play mechanics feel like they should feel in a King of Fighters game, which means you'll want to play this with an arcade stick, especially with the Xbox version of the game. You can't just make some half-hearted attempt at a quarter-circle or forward-down-forward motion; you really have to make sure you do it in a precise manner, or else.
Beating the game multiple times with different characters gives us access to a variety of lovely character art. Honestly, I shouldn't even have to mention the fact that we can, you know, access art galleries in the game. This should really be standard in all fighting games by now.
The graphics are nice, well-drawn, well-animated 2D sprites, and I don't see what's wrong with that. They aren't animated as well as the characters in, say, Street Fighter 3 (but what is?), and they aren't as crisp as those in Guilty Gear games nowadays, but they look fine; there's nothing bad or ugly about them, contrary to what you might have heard.
A big draw of the King of Fighters series has always been the vast array of personalities that its characters exhibit. It's always been great fun to see who's-betraying-who, or which characters have personal vendettas to settle. I'm probably a little biased here, but the dialogue translation is not very good, and yet I still enjoy the little story arcs. There's a good chance that someone who hasn't been playing KOF for the last eight years won't feel the same way.
The character design is, of course, gorgeous. If there's one good thing that happened as a result of many of the old SNK staff members leaving the company, it's that King of Fighters has seen a huge variety of artistic talent and some beautiful promotional artwork (not that the old artwork wasn't lovely and amazing). I have to make a little confession that might make some people hate me, though. I think the artwork for KOF 2001 is the cat's nightgown, and I actually prefer it over that of 2002 or 2003.
However, I really wish there were a couple of different selectable outfits for some of the characters, like KOF: Maximum Impact. King of Fighters characters have always had this weird trendier-than-thou type of style, and since trendy people tend to buy clothes quite frequently, this feature wouldn't have been incongruous with the series' overall style. Unfortunately, as King of Fighters 02/03 is a port from the arcade game and this feature wasn't present in the original, it makes sense that it's not there, but the title would definitely have benefited from it.
If you've enjoyed previous King of Fighter offerings, then King of Fighters 02/03 should be an inexpensive addition to your gaming collection. Let the world know that people still play 2D fighting games!