The King of Fighters 98 Ultimate Match
Omega Rugal is a rarity in gaming. Few characters can be loved and despised at the same time, but he pulls it off perfectly. He’s a bloodthirsty, power-hungry beast of a man. You might appreciate how well he’s been crafted, but hate how he always finds a way to slaughter you. He embodies everything a good fighting game boss should be: someone whose design is based solely on predicting any of your potential strategies and ripping them to shreds. The guy has everything, from ridiculously overpowered regular attacks and projectile reflectors to anti-air kick combos and insane supermoves. It’s entirely possible to lose a match without even landing a hit on him. It won’t take long before you start hating him; you’ll lose track of how many times he‘s pummeled you into raw hamburger, forcing you to endure the humiliation of having to use another continue.
That’s probably why I love killing him. Rather than taking him down with Kyo, Iori, Terry or any of the protagonists, I go with Goenitz. There is nothing, nothing more satisfying than slaughtering Rugal with Goenitz’s utterly broken moveset. Veterans of The King of Fighters ’96 know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of one of his onslaughts, and finally being able to dish it out is an amazing experience. That’s one of the biggest draws of The King of Fighters ‘98 Ultimate Match; it includes several characters that weren’t in the game’s original version. Not only do you get Goenitz, but you get every single character ever playable in series prior to ‘98. Geese Howard and rest of the Boss Team? Check. Orochi Iori and Leona? Present. Eiji Kisaragi and Kasumi Todoh? No one really cares about them, but still. That’s on top of all the alternate versions of the returning fighters, each of which features new moves and abilities. The size of the old roster was already mind-blowing, but Ultimate Match trumps it with a whopping 64 fighters. If there was ever a dream match for SNK fans, this is it.
It’s not just about the numbers, though. It’s the variety that makes the game so appealing. The lineup includes fire-wielding champions, martial art masters, wrestlers, ninjas, murderers, criminals, schoolgirls, psychics, mercenaries, demons, and goofy-looking athletes. Each one has their own personality and style, and it shows. Decking someone with Kyo’s flaming fists might seem cool at first, but Iori’s skin-ripping Maiden Masher will widen a few eyes. The same goes for the old Korea Team, which includes a dude hauling a massive iron ball and a mini-Freddy Krueger among its ranks. Half the fun of Ultimate Match – and any version of 98, for that matter – is trying out the different characters and learning which ones conform to your playing style. It doesn’t matter if you prefer to play aggressively or defensively, sling fireballs from afar or throw your opponents; there will be someone that works with your strategies. You don’t have to stick with the preset teams of three, either; you can mix and match your favorite fighters without ever having to worry about balancing or plot significance.
Regardless of their differences, the characters are all ruled by the same gameplay mechanics. The combination of directional inputs and button presses is standard fare, but each character comes packing a slew of special moves and abilities. It’s not just about projectiles or uppercuts; depending on who you’re using, you might unleash some devastating grappling combos, forward rushes, aerial juggles, and tons of other unusual stunts. That’s on top of all the counters, dodges, rolls, throws, taunts, and supermoves crammed into each fighter. Some of this stuff is kind of complicated to pull off (Geese’s moveset is as convoluted as it is deadly), which means you’ll need to practice to get the most out of your character. With so much emphasis placed on the specific commands, it’s not surprising how well the controls handle. Everything is as responsive and accurate as they should be, making the gameplay flow with a smoothness and fluidity that few fighting games can muster.
That’s only the basic stuff, though. The original version of 98 boasted two distinct energy gauge and tactical maneuvering systems, and they’re both back in all their glory. The Extra Mode lets you charge up power by holding down a couple of buttons, then unleashing it in the form of a supermove. It also allows you to temporarily sidestep oncoming attacks, which can save you from otherwise unblockable attacks. While it was awesome in the early King of Fighters games, it’s fundamentally flawed; you’ll spend more time charging up than actually fighting. It’s too easy to get distracted and let your defenses down. The sidestepping trick might look pretty slick, but it doesn’t work well with the speed and combo-oriented gameplay. The Advanced Mode, on the other hand, lets you build up energy by dishing out or taking damage. Rack up enough power, and you can unleash multiple supermoves in a row. More importantly, its tactical rolling feature does the same thing as the sidestep, but lets you close or widen the distance between the fighters. Even if you can’t charge your energy freely, this system works far better in terms of building strategies and keeping the fights fast-paced. It‘s what made the original game awesome, but Ultimate Match does one better; the Ultimate Mode lets you choose among the features of each option and combines them into unique system. This update on the old mechanics give 98 veterans something to chew on.
Speaking of which, the Neo Geo version of 98 is included as a separate mode. It’s a good treat for the fans, but there’s no reason to play it; Ultimate Match takes everything from the original and revamps it slightly. The Arcade Mode and its three-person teams of fighters remain almost unchanged, though the menus and a bunch of other little stuff have been modified. Same goes with the obligatory Single Play, Versus, Color Edit, and Practice options. The Endless Survival mode might seem pretty basic, but getting through all 64 opponents with a limited amount of health is no easy feat. The same goes with the Challenges, which test your abilities with the finer points of the game’s technical stuff. Can you do tactical rolls and guard cancel five times in a row? How about breaking a fall while Daimon throws you around like a rag doll? What about countering supermoves? You’ll be rewarded for your efforts, mainly in the form of unlockable artwork and bonus movies. There’s nothing particularly impressive, but it’s decent.
The majority of SNK’s creativity went into all the little details and secrets crammed into the regular gameplay. Some of these characters have never appeared in 98 until now, which makes for some interesting pre-fight exchanges. Most of these make some reference to the story, but several of the newer ones are there purely for fanservice. Hearing Terry growl “GEEEESUH“ brought back some good memories. There’s nothing quite as bone-chilling as Omega Rugal’s sinister laugh before he takes on Goenitz. Or as hilarious as watching Shermie *****-slap Brian Battler. Not to mention Krauser’s “I WILL CHISEL YOUR GRAVESTONE…SLEEP WELL!”, and his epic theme music from Fatal Fury 2. Many of the characters have been given either remixed or entirely new tunes; Blue Mary’s secret vocal theme is a pleasant surprise. The same goes with the updated backgrounds. Nearly every stage from 98 – along with several others from the previous titles – have been given a 3D makeover. There’s nothing stunning, but at least it’s better than the bland, poorly drawn stuff from the original. Between Rugal’s bleeding skull fountain and Goenitz’s wrecked arena, there’s enough nostalgia for any SNK fan.
That’s exactly who Ultimate Match is for: the fans. It’s one last visit to the series’ glory days before The King of Fighters XII steals the show later this year. That doesn’t take anything away from its quality, though. It takes all the stuff that made the original great and expands upon it. With literally every character from 94 through 98 available to play, the no other fighting game has such an extensive roster. There are so many different fighting stylus and potential teams to use, which means you’re bound to find someone that works with your gaming preferences. The controls are as responsive as ever, and the combined supermove and tactical mechanics make this version so much deeper than its predecessor. All of the little extras and secrets will overwhelm the SNK faithful with nostalgia. If there was ever a reminder of why The King of Fighters kicks ass, this is it.