Reviewed: May 14, 2005
Released: February 8, 2005
Street Fighter, Samurai Shodown, Guilty Gear. The world of 2D fighting games is a world filled with famous names and rabid fans, yet it is also a world which most gamers know little about. 2D fighting fans prefer to think of themselves as elite gamers, masters of a secret bag of skills that let them own all comers for months on end at the local arcade - yes, some might say, they like to see themselves as the kings of fighters. And no series, incidentally, has been such a recurring fixture in that world as the King of Fighters games themselves.
Beginning in 1993, KOF was one of the founding games of the entire 2D fighting genre, and every year afterwards until 2004, a new KOF game was released for the fans to test their skills on. The King of Fighters is one of the most well-known and beloved series of games ever created. While perhaps not quite on par with the likes of late comers such as the Street Fighter Alpha and the Guilty Gear series, their constancy throughout the years and surprisingly deep gameplay, kept them around for more installments than most fighting games ever dream of seeing.
The last two "true" King of Fighters games, King of Fighters 2002 and King of Fighters 2003, have been packaged together in a bundle by SNK/NeoGeo for play on the PlayStation 2. These 2D stalwarts in a 3D world aren't perfect by any stretch of the imagination. But they're fine examples of how the series managed to last so long and stay so beloved.
With a series as venerable as King of Fighters, there really isn't a whole lot to talk about in the gameplay department. KOF was one of the originators of its genre, and by now such things as pressing back to block and executing power moves with a quarter- or half-rotation of the control pad are so ingrained in almost every 2D fighting game, that it'd be hard to imagine any other way for them to be. KOF is a traditionalist's 2D fighter, and a purist's 2D fighter.
On the other hand, that doesn't mean SNK/NeoGeo wants to rest on its laurels with where the series has gone. With the declining popularity of 2D fighters that began in the late '90s, and some stiff competition from Capcom, the company has had to come up with ways to keep its fan base charged while hopefully still attracting some new players. Their endeavors leaned a bit too heavily on the side of tradition, though, and they were eventually more or less forced to take the series 3D in 2004 just to keep up with the evolving market. Whereas the Guilty Gear series has caused something of a revival in the world of 2D fighting, KOF can't escape its roots: character designs and skill sets seem tame by today's standards, but KOF just wouldn't be KOF without Terry Bogard, Blue Mary, Iori Yagami and all the rest.
It would appear that, for better or worse, the days of 2D King of Fighters games are over. But the last two installments, KOF 2002 and 2003, respectively (inventive names, guys), were nothing to sneeze at when they came out by any standard, and I'm happy to report that they aren't now, either.
KOF stands side by side with its brother series, Samurai Shodown, as one of the most technically deep and difficult series of 2D fighters around. Flash or no flash, depth of gameplay is what has always set this series apart, and its last two 2D chapters were no exception. Besides having to know exactly when to tap away from an opponent to block (an ingrained reflex in many gamers), KOF also offers grapple breaks, fall breaks, counterattacks and branching combo trees that depend on split-second timing and careful anticipation of the enemy's next move.
Between 2002 and 2003, the Max Power system, which is simply a gauge that fills up with regular attacks and is drained by one of a few super moves, underwent some changes as well. In 2002, an odd system was implemented wherein characters can enter MAX Activation mode once their gauges are completely full, which unlocks an ultra special move, as well as making all other moves that normally cost power to use "free" while Max Activation is in effect. Did you follow that? Me neither.
In 2003, things are kept simpler: only your team leader can use their ultra powerful move. The other two teammates must stick to normal super moves instead. This added a strategic option deeper than just trying to fill your gauge quickly, as well as being easier to keep track of. Both systems are a clear example of the obvious care and attention that the games' developers paid to adding some nuance and forethought into what could easily have been just a couple of punch fests.
The team mechanic, as always, adds a lot of depth to any play-through, offering between 3 and 4 combatants per team depending on the game. In fact, both games did away with the team striker concept from earlier games entirely. Since there's nothing that sets KOF apart quite like being able to tag-team your way through a barrage of enemies by picking your best weapon for each fight, I liked this streamlining of the system. Strikers (special actions wherein a teammate jumps in and hits the enemy, then leaves) are just another name for special moves, and though it was always fun to see what a given character would do when summoned, it never had the same satisfaction as actually being able to fight with that character.
In 2002, team matches are played in simple elimination, with the leader holding out as long as she can, and the second character taking her place in the next match against a weakened opponent. KOF 2003 upped the ante even further by making your 3-fighter tag team switchable on the fly - no "round six,” twenty minute matches here. There's just one battle royale to each stage. Whoever has one or more characters standing at the end of the fight wins the match. When a character is K.O.’d, he or she is automatically replaced by the next fighter in your roster. I found that this streamlined the whole experience of playing through 2003'sarcade mode, and made for a much more frenetic and enjoyable game than its immediate predecessor.
Overall, for everything that I liked about 2003, there was something that bugged me about 2002 - oddly fluctuating difficulty between fights; the "old" style of one fighter per match with no immediate backup; special moves that were so impossibly difficult to execute that they seemed only to be there for the benefit of my CPU opponents, who made liberal use of them. And those branching combos I mentioned earlier? Many characters in 2002 can hardly do anything without them, which makes the difficulty curve to get the hang of a good number of characters quite a bit steeper than it probably should have been.
Still, though I had my favorite of the two games (and I'm sure most gamers would), there's more similar between them than not. Regardless of the depth of combos, both games retain enough tolerance for button mashing that a newbie can occasionally turn the tables on a normally difficult fight. The entertainment value of any game depends on accessibility, and both games have it to enough of a degree that anyone can begin to feel like they're kicking butt after a couple of hours.
As always, the character rosters don't change much between games either, though they do differ enough to warrant playing them both. As near as I can figure, SNK/NeoGeo makes some feeble attempt to explain the rotating roster every year with some glorious bits of Zero Wing-esque story and dialog between matches, but it's still obvious that the main reason characters get rotated is to keep the game interesting. Why bother playing KOF 2003 if you already know all of the characters' moves? The new additions are always fun to see and try out, though a more drastic overhaul or two could quite possibly have saved this series from its swan song.
In the end though, no amount of tweaking would likely have saved KOF from its sink-or-swim situation. The bigger problem for 2D fighters is the way the market has shaped up, rather than the games themselves. These two games are perfect illustrations of this. While 2003 is most definitely a better game than 2002; both are solid fighters with a good balance between technical depth and up-front playability. As always with any NeoGeo fighter, they're not as easy to jump right into as, say, Street Fighter (and probably not quite as good overall, all things considered). But, given some patience to get used to the challenge, both games become worthy additions to the now fading world of 2D fighting.
While we're on the topic of fading genres, why not explore why? in case the phrase "2d fighter" didn't give things away, both games in the King of Fighters 2002/2003 collection are indeed 2D, side-scrolling, sprite based fighting titles. If that doesn't turn you off to both games immediately, we'd all like to be your friends here at GCM. To the general public, you see, sprites can only mean one thing these days: bad.
This is unfortunate, since 2D fighting games have long used sprites to achieve a hand-animated look and allow for truly ridiculous special effects (Marvel vs. Capcom, anyone?) that would just take too much processing power to render in 3D, and not look as good anyway. While there are some genres in which the appearance of sprites generally indicates old age or low production values (FPS games come to mind), the best home for them has always been the 2D fighter.
Now, I'm not going to make a big issue out of the point that, like any sprite-based game, a carefully done cel shading engine could have made either of these KOF games visually both stunning and more relevant to the casual gamer or arcade rat. The hardcore fans love their sprites, and developers like the level of customization they offer. After all, a hand-drawn sprite can do anything its creator wants it to do.
But I will say that, after ten years, characters like Ryo, Robert, Terry, Clark, Mai and Joe have begun to look a bit, well, less exciting than they must have back in the early '90s. Again, the problem comes back to appeasing fans of the series without wallowing in tired design. It's not all SNK/NeoGeo's fault; KOF did arrive on the scene before Street Fighter and the rest, but market saturation has made the karate guy and the random kick boxer dude all too familiar and dull-looking.
This isn't a personal issue (my favorite characters, Terry Bogard and Blue Mary, aren't exactly inspiring to look at), it's just the truth. Much of the KOF roster just looks generic, whether they really are or not. It doesn't help that, compared to the Guilty Gear games, these sprites look rough and jagged (though in KOF's defense, every sprite looks rough and jagged when compared to those found in the Guilty Gear series). Even the addition of some half-hearted 3D backgrounds in KOF 2003 can't do much but offset how yesterday everything seems about these games, graphically speaking. For many that's a good thing, and they wouldn't want it any other way. For the rest, it's easy to overlook these games simply because of the graphics.
Do you like the sound of an arcade ringing in your ears? Me too! You'll probably very much enjoy the sounds and music of King of Fighters 2002 and 2003, if so. Standing one room away, it'd be hard to convince someone you didn't actually own an arcade machine. Everything except the music (which fades back) is over-clocked, so to speak: the odd voices ("No problem!" Terry shouts excitedly), thwacks, thunks and booms of every duel ring out loud and clear, creating an enjoyable cacophony of sound.
On the other hand, if you've worked in an arcade (as I have), or perhaps spent a bit too much time in one over the course of your life, then you know that being around the sounds of the same machine day in and day out can wear pretty thin. And for those of you expecting a Soul Calibur-esque instrumental soundtrack of epic proportions, you'll just have to make do with the ambiguous and uninspiring synth-pop that floats unobtrusively in the background noise of both games.
If nothing else, this two-pack of video game goodness is a great value. Just to beat both games once with each character should take amateur players many, many hours, and with single or team versus modes in both games as well, adding a second player into the equation only adds to that time.
It's true that there are no truly alternate modes of play in either of the games included in this package - but then again, it isn't called The King of Fighters for nothing. While 3D games such as Mortal Kombat: Deception and Soul Calibur II add a slew of extras to the usual fighting fare to help them stand out from the crowd, KOF doesn't need anything except its staggeringly huge character rosters and a simple time attack mode to go along with the basic package. The effect is sleek and simple, rather than sparse and lacking.
Provided this sort of game is your cup of tea to begin with, the enjoyment you garner from KOF 2002/2003 should be nigh endless. And with a price like $39.99, you're getting two enjoyable, if not exactly magnificent, games for less than $20 a piece. That means you fence sitters might find it worth the risk and be pleasantly surprised if you pick it up.
The King of Fighters. If that's who you think you are, you probably already have your own opinion on these two games. For the rest of you, I'm going to lay it out plain and simple. The KOF games are difficult, since they are, after all, ports of arcade games. However, this difficulty hides a good amount of depth, which means that over time, with practice, you'll be able to whip your friends so badly they'll start refusing to play against you - kind of like owning a Virtua Fighter game, only in 2D.
And speaking of that 2D, be ready for anime-style cartoony sprite graphics, with over-the-top special moves and unrealistic movements. The sprites look rough around the edges; it's true. And the sound is one hundred percent dimly lit arcade, with dings, vengeful Japanese yelling and crashes to spare. If it sounds like something you'd be interested in, also keep in mind that $40 for two full games is a very good deal to begin with, and go pick up The King of Fighters 2002/2003.
If you aren't sure, though... well, let's just say that some games aren't for everyone. These games will remain as the last examples of one of the longest-running 2D fighting game series ever created, and fine examples at that. If you're looking for something a bit more modern, I suggest you look somewhere else.