It’s time again for SNK to do precisely what it does best, and that is release a new yearly entry to their venerable King of Fighters series. With the recent flop of Capcom’s Fighting Evolution for PS2 SNK could capitalize on the gap left in the hearts of 2-D fighting game lovers. Everything that SNK is known for is present and accounted for here in King of Fighters 2002/2003. King of Fighters 2002 seems more like a pack in for this compilation though as all the strength lies in the newer King of Fighters 2003, from slightly improved graphics to finally making the sound not as grainy as before KoF 2003 is a game that will cleanse your mouth of the bitter taste left by Capcom Fighting Evolution. The game is far from perfect but it is a change that SNK needs to do to get back in the running in the world of fighting games.
Starting off with King of Fighters 2002, there is really no reason to put this into your PS2. It’s a pack in game and it shows, everything of it smacks of KoF 2001 and it plays in almost the exact same manner. The few things you’ll find changed here is a little bit of the roster (taking out King alone made me not want to play this game, bringing back Chris, Yashiro and Shermie does not constitute new characters either), there is almost no story to speak of, all of it is conveyed very poorly by images that contain little to no frames of animation and very little variance. The sound and graphics are also sub-standard, the inclusion of 3-D backgrounds populated with the very low resolution 2-D pixels helps cut the eyes into ribbons. Pick up some earplugs for this game as well as the sound is just unattractive on so many levels, voice samples are as low quality as ever, which appears to have finally run its course. Balance is also severely lacking thanks to bringing back an even more super-powered Rugal as the final boss.
Now that the bash-fest is over let’s go over to the much more attractive piece of this game. King of Fighters 2003. First of all a new story arc is present, involving the new character Crimson Ash that leans towards the Orochi line of the story, but. Two other new characters also enter the fray, Shen who’s just a straight up brawler, and Duolon, the cheapest inclusion to the KoF series. Duolon reeks of unbalance and is a powerful new addition to the King of Fighters series. There are also a few blast from the past characters which include Chizuru and Maki and a variant of Kyo in Kusanagi form. Chizuru and Maki also do a great job of destroying all the balance of the game. You’ve also got Tizoc, and Gato from Garou: Mark of the Wolves and a new female fighter Malin who will kind of remind players of Bridget from Guilty Gear and I don’t mean that in an effeminate looking boy dressing like a girl kind of way. I welcome a lot of the new characters but they’ve removed Kula one of my favorite characters in the series from this game making this year’s roster a little sour for me.
Getting in to the visuals it’s noticeable that even with the new Atomis Wave engine there is still a lot of work to be done but it is a definite step in the right direction. The presentation of the game is also what makes this a definite stand out from previous iterations. You’ve got a nice looking opening movie, art by Japanese fan artist Falcoon, and an actual story line that has individual endings for each team should you choose to play with the pre-constructed teams. The only thing that really needs work is slapping 2-D sprites on to 3-D backgrounds, it really should not be done any more unless you’re using very high resolution sprites otherwise it just looks ugly and this game is a testament to that. Audio has been tweaked to the point that the vocals are no longer death on the ears as well, and props go out to the audio guys for using Chopin’s “Revolutionary” within the game, nothing better than fighting to a piece of classical music.
The nitty gritty of the game, the fighting, at this point is something you’re either going to love or hate. SNK has the habit of switching up one or two things with each year that goes by. This year you are now able to switch out members of your party in the middle of the fight a la Marvel vs Capcom, though the timing is a for such a tactic is not as easy as most fighting games will allow. There is also the ability to interrupt moves in order to switch out a teammate in exchange for a stock of your super meter. Another change is how the maximum supers are performed, a lot of these abilities before required two super stocks and a much more complicated button combination. Well the combination is still present however now the first person you pick for your group will be called the leader and they will have access to a special that is a lot more powerful than a standard super and requires two stock..
Aside from those changes the game play remains largely unchanged, there’s the standard story mode, which involves team play and a singles mode where it’s just one person, and versus mode. Then for ‘bonuses’ you have single and team survivals which unlocks a large portion of the beautiful fan art. There’s not much else to do in the game which makes it very cut and dry. So like I’ve said before if you’re a fan of the SNK stuff then you’ll easily find your fix, but if you’re looking for something more, the look elsewhere towards Guilty Gear or Street Fighter.
SNK is finally starting to add a bit of visual polish to this game that should have been present a good two to three years ago, it’s good to see that they are attempting to get the Atomis Wave engine work for them. But even with the aesthetic changes there is a lot here that is so vanilla that if you’re hardcore interested in this series then you’re going to want to pick it up otherwise you’ll head elsewhere for your fighting game fix. I like the King of Fighters series but I would love to see SNK do more with it, the attempt to move to 3-D wasn’t all bad and showed signs of promise, but before they move in to the next dimension they should refine what they have in 2-D. King of Fighters 2003 is a step in the right direction and the inclusion of King of Fighters 2002 kind of sweetens the deal, though I’d say it soils an otherwise slightly above average fighting game compilation.