King of Fighters 02/03
SNK’s King of Fighters series has always been the unkempt, rebellious cousin of Street Fighter. Every family has one of these sour apples – even yours. He’s the guy with the tangled mullet and wife-beater that you try to avoid during family reunions. He may not be keen on the whole issue of personal hygiene, but you sure as hell wouldn’t want to get on his bad side. SNK Playmore has packaged two of these volatile, scruffy-looking cousins into one game, and unleashed them in the sanctity of your living room. The result isn’t easy on the eyes, but it does give you a chance to experience some seriously brutal ass-kicking firsthand.
Apparently, it’s going to be a hot time on the old town tonight
The two cousins in question here are King of Fighters ‘02 and ’03. Released in Japan as two individual, fully priced games, these bad boys have been bundled together for North American consumers at the affordable cost of $39.99. That’s not such a bad deal, especially considering the ridiculous amount of money people used to pay to bring arcade perfect translations of these King of Fighters games home on their NeoGeo systems. Though, the real question is, with the recent surge of 2D fighting games entering the market (such as Capcom Fighting Evolution, SVC Chaos, Guilty Gear X2, etc…), should you really care about a few dated arcade ports, particularly considering how rough they are around the edges? The answer? Of course you should! After all, even your unhygienic, scowling cousin needs love too.
In case you completely whiffed on my cousin analogy, I’ll just come out and say it – these games are none too pretty. Based on the same 16-bit arcade board that SNK has been using for a decade, the character sprites are pixilated, backgrounds rudimentary, and animations often very choppy. Even the menu system looks excessively simplistic. For what it’s worth, SNK Playmore did redo some of the backgrounds for KoF 2003 in 3D, but they still look like something out of a PSone game. That said, once you accept the fact that these games don’t look anywhere near as good as Guilty Gear X2 or Street Fighter III: Third Strike, some positives aspects of the visuals do become noticeable.
Hey look! It’s Ken! Oh, wait…
First off, the character design in both games is top notch. Brawlers like K-dash and Iori are drawn with a rebellious flare that comes out perfectly in everything from the style of their walk to the way they kick butt on screen. Many of the female characters, such as Shermie, Mai and Mary, still manage to convey a certain sexy attitude, despite their pixilated appearance and often jerky animation. And then there is Benimaru – the leopard print wearing, spiky haired dude who wins the “What the #$@% Were They Thinking Award,” but remains hip in his own eccentric way (maybe it’s those chiseled abs?). Also, most of the backgrounds have multiple variations for different times of the day, and stages like Holland in KoF 2002 actually feature comical touches, like spectator sheep with the letters K O F shaved in their woolly sides. The games don’t push the PS2’s hardware to any new limits, but what they lack in technical wizardry, they more than make up for in subtle aesthetic charm.
Iori is good at two things: scowling and kicking ass
Really though, 2D fighting games are ranked far more heavily on the tightness of their gameplay than the brilliance of their visuals. Anyone remember Rise of the Robots? The game looked phenomenal. It was also about as fun as skinny-dipping in a leech infested bog. Thankfully, both KoF 2002 and 2003 are remarkably responsive, and feature massive casts of characters (44 in ’02, 35 in ’03) and deep gameplay systems that compare very favorably with Capcom’s famous Street Fighter franchise. Whether you prefer the “tag-team” mechanics and Tactical Leader System of 2003, or the larger cast of fighters and traditional 3 vs. 3 gameplay of 2002, you’ll find more than enough reasons to keep both discs spinning in your PS2 for a long, long time. Personally, I get greater enjoyment from the frantic character swapping, sharper visuals and CD-quality soundtrack that 2003 has to offer, but I do still pop in 2002 to play with some of the older brawlers like Vanessa, Mature, Shermie, Ramon and Takuma.
Those poor sheep
Similar to what SNK offered in SVC Chaos, both games feature a gallery mode – a place where you can view high-res images and movies unlocked via Challenge or Survival mode, depending on the game being played. KoF 2002 even has a nifty Time Attack feature (comparable to the Mission mode in Guilty Gear X2) that challenges you to defeat a certain number of opponents in increasingly smaller periods of time. Time Attack is worth your while because it unlocks slapstick animations of the fighters doing things like playing baseball, ogling Shermie’s mammories, and flirting with each other, among others.
Audio-wise, the games are definitely dated. The old King of Fighters arcade board just wasn’t capable of putting out the same high quality music that we’ve come to expect from CD-based game systems. Although the soundtracks feature songs that are much more spirited and original than the ones from SNK’s SVC Chaos, the music quality is still comparable to what the SNES was putting out in the early nineties. Thankfully, SNK added an Arranged option to 2003, which switches the arcade perfect soundtrack to hip, CD-quality remixes of the same tunes. As you would expect, the voices for the characters are spot on in that over-the-top, anime style that we’ve come to expect from 2D fighting games. Terry’s “Are you OK?.. Busta WOLF!!” may not be as recognizable as Ken and Ryu’s “Hadooken,” but it’s certainly up there.
Terry’s infamous, “Barn…KNUCKLE!”
Sure, King of Fighters 2002 and 2003 are visually dated, but they are arguably two of the deepest 2D fighters that SNK has ever released. Fans of the KoF series certainly don’t need me to lecture them on the games’ merits – they have already rushed out and purchased this combo pack the moment it was released. Diehard followers of Capcom’s Street Fighter, on the other hand, might never have given these titles a try, what with the steady decline of the arcades and the bloated cost of NeoGeo cartridges. To them, I strongly recommend picking this compilation up. Who knows? They might even find themselves switching allegiances.