Months ago, SNK Playmore released The King of Fighters Collection: The Orochi Saga for the PlayStation 2, a compilation of the KoF games from 1994 to 1998 that gave remaining PS2 owners a new fighting game to play and gave KoF fans a collection of some early titles in the series. While the idea was great on paper, the game failed in execution; long load times and control issues made the effort feel clumsy. The release of another KoF title for the PS2 so soon after The Orochi Saga wasn't exactly well-received news. Couple that with the fact that the game was already part of the KoF Collection, and the expectations were lowered even more. Luckily, all of those fears can be put to rest because The King of Fighters '98: Ultimate Match is not only a sign of redemption from the company that put out the mediocre compilation package, but also a very solid 2-D fighting game.
The premise of the game remains the same as before. You choose a three-person team from a slew of available fighters and go on a quest to become the ultimate fighting team. Before each fight, you can choose the order in which each player comes out, giving you the chance to exhibit a little bit of strategy against the opponent. Winning the fight lets you move on to the next bout, but losing gives you the chance to handicap your opponent for the rematch. The choices are random but include such things as lowering the opponent difficulty for that match only, nullifying their special meter, or reducing the first opponent's starting energy to just one-third. This is entirely optional, though, so traditionalists can simply decline the handicaps and play without changing any settings.
There are a few things that have changed in order to make The King of Fighters 98: Ultimate Match more of a director's cut of the original game. For starters, the original lineup of fighters has expanded to include some from KoF 96 and KoF 97 as well as variations of some of the more prominent characters, such as Iori and Leona.
The power meter system has also received a new variation called Ultimate, which is an edited combination of both the Extra and Advanced systems. You have full control of the editing, though, so you can have the Extra style fighting bar with the Advanced advantages, while the opponent could use the Extra advantages while utilizing the Advanced bar. Additions such as these make the game a bit deeper and give original KoF 98 fans something extra to master. For those who prefer the original game instead, it's also included here without any of the graphical or audio enhancements. Finally, the game features a Challenge mode that assigns you certain tasks, such as beating a character under a certain time limit or finishing off someone with a certain special move in order to unlock more artwork or movies for the collection.
The controls now feel right. The King of Fighters: The Orochi Saga was blasted for having a flipped control scheme where punches were on the bottom row and kicks were on the top row, a move that threw off many players. This has now been rectified with a return to the classic control scheme. Hitting Square gives you a light punch, and hitting Triangle gives off a heavy punch. The X button is for a light kick, and Circle does a heavy kick. The d-pad is still very responsive, though the option is there for those who prefer the feel of the analog sticks instead. Pulling off moves is now intuitive again, and that's all you can really ask for in a fighting game.
The graphics have received a substantial change, and it does benefit The King of Fighters 98: Ultimate Match slightly. The character models remain the same, delivering the classic Neo-Geo look that has prevailed in the arcades for some time now. They aren't exactly brightly colored, but the muted look is still pleasing to the eyes. The same goes for the special effects for the moves; Power Waves and Lightning Tackles still look the same here as they did 10 years ago.
The biggest change comes in the backgrounds. Just like The King of Fighters: Dream Match 1999 on the Sega Dreamcast, the backgrounds here all done in 3-D. Even though everything else is in 2-D, it's awesome to see elements, such as the cars in the background or the seagulls flying above the pier, animate so smoothly. The backgrounds are all dynamic with each round exhibiting some sort of change. For example, the fight at the foot of the bridge in New York could start off at sundown in the first round with a small crowd gathering to watch. By the second round, the crowd is gone and night falls over the city. Round 3 has a thick fog roll in, while the fourth round occurs at the crack of dawn. Small details such as these are great to see, and they make you wonder why most fighting games don't incorporate this technique yet.
The sound has only changed slightly for The King of Fighters 98: Ultimate Match in comparison to the original title, but only longtime fans will notice the difference. The sound effects and voices are the same as before. One can really tell the difference between a light hit and a heavy one due to the amount of bass delivered with each impact, and it is a very satisfying sound indeed. Each voice is audible enough when it comes out, but it still has noticeable compression to it, especially the announcer. The music is the only thing that has a changed. The original music is still available if you chose to play the original Neo-Geo game, but it's been rearranged for the updated version. Again, as good as the rearranged music is, the quality is the same as the original music, meaning only fans will notice the difference. What is noticeable, however, is the music change that occurs once a fighter is defeated. It's a pretty good touch to have the opponent's theme song start when you begin fighting them and end once they lose the fight.
The King of Fighters '98: Ultimate Match is a great example of how to update a good fighting game. The title doesn't make any changes that would drive away old fans of the series, but it makes a few good ones that would entice new fans to give it a try. With a solid package behind it, only the die-hard SNK haters would be resilient enough to turn down this game. It's a great addition to any fighting game fan's library.
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