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PS2/Xbox Preview - 'The King of Fighters 02/03'

by Thomas Wilde on June 1, 2004 @ 2:08 a.m. PDT

This eighth and ninth installments of the wildly popular King of Fighters franchise makes it way to the PlayStation2 and the Xbox in this ultimate double pack collection of 2D fighting. We had a chance to check out a build of one of the oldest & most favorite fighting games, read more for out initial impression...

Genre : Fighting
Publisher: SNK NeoGeo
Developer: SNK NeoGeo/Eolith
Release Date: TBA

Pre-order 'KING OF FIGHTERS 02/03': PlayStation 2

And so we return, and begin again. SNK, apparently wishing to avoid another quick volley of rapid bankruptcies, is once again bringing two of the latest King of Fighters games to the PlayStation2 as well as the Xbox, within the same affordable package. In this particular case, it’s a weird set; it takes the series from one of its lowest points, to arguably its highest, within the same package.

King of Fighters 2002 is the second of the two “placeholder” games, which were kicked out the door by the Korean company Eolith. Like KOF98, 2002 is a “dream match,” with no story, a final boss who’ll kick your face in by looking at you funny (as with 98, the boss here is Omega Rugal, the original carrier of the devastating SNK Boss Syndrome), and a character lineup that consists of SNK’s greatest hits.

The KOF97 New Faces Team returns, with their Orochi boss forms as barely hidden secret characters, as does the ’97 Special Team of Blue Mary, Ryuji Yamazaki, and Billy Kane. Kula Diamond, the sub-boss of KOF2K, gets teamed with Angel and K9999, while Iori gets his cohorts from 96, Vice and Mature, back.

In the arcades, KOF2K was mocked, and rightly so, for feeling a bit like it had been phoned in. From the underanimated backgrounds to the lame music to the near-total lack of presentation, to say nothing of the strange exclusions of King and Shingo Yabuki (both of whom are unlockable, although if the PS2 version is anything like the Japanese Dreamcast version, they won’t be worth the astounding amount of effort it takes), 2002 is about as bare-bones as a KOF gets. The gameplay innovations of the last few games—four characters to a team, Strikers, Counter Mode, Armor Mode, you name it—are all abandoned, in favor of the simple three-on-three single-elimination matches of the early KOF's.

In the place of Strikers, each character has been given a new super desperation move, available when they’ve been reduced to their last 10% of life and they’ve burned a level of super meter to MAX out. The new super desperations range from the devastating (Whip pulling out a huge gun, Ralf slamming someone into low orbit, May Lee’s fifty-two-hit combo), to the somewhat retro (Kim’s old Phoenix Flattener, Mary’s Splash Rose, Terry stealing Rock Howard’s Shining Knuckle), to the hilarious (Mai’s fanservice-laden series of aerial slams, Athena swapping out all her past uniforms over the course of one combo, Yamazaki’s open-mouthed screaming rampage), and may be the real reason to check out 2002.

Hopefully, SNK will take this opportunity to redo the backgrounds and music for the PS2 version; then again, that appears to be the entire point of the Atomiswave KOF Neowave arcade game.

If the KOF series had ended there, it would’ve gone out on a very low note. Fortunately, SNK returned to develop The King of Fighters 2003, the game which has revitalized the franchise, and the last hurrah for the ancient MVS arcade hardware. The old single-elimination format is gone in 2003, and is replaced with, of all things, a fast-paced tag-team match.

In 2003, we’re back to three characters on a team, who can be brought in and out almost at will during a single long round of fighting. While there are no assists, a la Marvel vs. Capcom, KOF2K is still an amazingly intense game. There’s enough lag on tagging out that you’ll need to be very careful about doing it, or you’ll wind up getting pasted across the floor.

The cast has been stripped down and streamlined for 2003, with quite a few old characters that didn’t make the cut. Most of the new characters who were part of the old NESTS storyline (Vanessa, Angel, K9999, May Lee, Foxy, Kula Diamond, Ramon, Lin, Seth) are gone, with only K’, Maxima, and Whip sticking around from that bizarre era. Several characters who’ve been part of KOF from the beginning – Andy Bogard, Choi Bounge, Sie Kensou, and Chin Gentsai – weren’t invited back for the new tournament.

The Fatal Fury team fills the hole in its lineup with Tizoc, also known as the Griffon, the Mexican wrestler from Garou: Mark of the Wolves. Another Garou character, the laconic kung-fu master Gato, makes up the new Outlaw Team with Ryuji Yamazaki and Billy Kane. Athena Asamiya now heads up a second all-girls’ team, with the sumo wrestler Hinako and a new, heavily-armed pixie named Malin, who has somehow been allowed to bring knives, swords, a yo-yo, and a giant hammer to a martial-arts tournament.

The new heroes of the game, Ash Crimson, Duo-Lon, and Shen Woo, are a varied lot, with bizarre and memorable character design. Ash, in particular, has an interesting secret, that you’ll only get to learn if you get the game’s true ending. I’ll say this much; as the same time as they’ve reinvented the KOF series’s gameplay, SNK apparently has decided to return to an older, and apparently wildly popular, storyline.

Kyo Kusanagi and Iori Yagami – the original hero of KOF and his longtime rival – are, once again, solo entries into the tournament. Oddly, the KOF99 clone of Kyo, known as “Kusanagi,” is this game’s mid-boss; it’s like fighting the ’95 version of Kyo, except this time, he’s got three lifebars.

How you beat Kusanagi determines who you fight at the end of the tournament. Defeat him with a super move to face Chizuru Kagura, the sub-boss of King of Fighters ‘96, and the fiend she’s attempting to defeat, an enormous fighter with powers relating to stone named Makai. If you beat Kusanagi with anything besides a super, the game ends with a pitched brawl against Rugal’s son, Adel Bernstein.

In either case, you’ll find that somewhere along the line, SNK figured out how to make decent bosses again; all these bosses, especially Adel, are challenging opponents, without the need for full-screen super moves or insanely high defense.

The KOF series is apparently going to be around for quite a while longer. Between the core series, the new Atomiswave arcade franchise (which will hopefully evolve beyond simple ports of other 2D games), and Maximum Impact, SNK is more or less carrying the torch for 2D fighting games. If you’re an old-school fighting fan, then you’re more or less obligated to pick these games up.

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