The King of Fighters 2002 & 2003 Preview

We give this Xbox Live-enabled compilation a spin and are extremely pleased with our findings.

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Under SNK Playmore, we're experiencing quite the King of Fighters renaissance. For those not in the know, King of Fighters originated on the NeoGeo and combined some of the best characters and combat mechanics of SNK's existing fighting franchises. The King of Fighters 2002 & 2003 package that hit the PS2 back in February is poised for an Xbox launch later this month. Xbox Live play will be at the center of the experience, in place of the arcade competition that's not available here in the States.

Oh Mai!

While in most cases, a compilation combining two fighting games from consecutive years would be redundant, KOF 2002 & 2003 actually offer very different fighting experiences. Traditionalists will gravitate toward the earlier entry, while fans of lightning-fast 2D fighters, such as Marvel vs. Capcom, will likely favor the newer game.

The second and last of the KOF games developed by Eolith, 2002 is generally the more beloved of the two games--probably because it marked the return of the classic three-on-three fighting system, for which The King of Fighters is famous. You choose a team of three fighters from a huge roster of more than 40 characters and decide the order in which they'll do battle. 2002 also introduced QuickMax Activation. Like traditional Max Activation, QuickMax powers up your character's move for a limited time. As you might have guessed, QuickMax simply lets you do so more expeditiously, skipping the charge-up animation and canceling whatever attack you have in progress. This leaves you free to launch into some furious kung fu right away. So, with conservatively enhanced gameplay and one of the largest rosters in the franchise, KOF 2002 is the game for series purists.

KOF 2003 is a much more unorthodox offering, although it would take a fan of the series to appreciate this fact. In arcade mode, the game lets you pick three characters, as usual (albeit from a much smaller roster, including the new and very fey Ash Crimson), and select the order in which they arrive. Unlike previous KOF iterations, however, 2003 lets you switch between these teammates at any time. While this change greatly alters the game's pacing, it can be viewed as a natural extension of the "striker" system that originated with KOF '99 and let players attack with support characters. The twist here is that you can be attacked while whistling for your teammate. This will interrupt the switch and keep your poor, molested character in the match. This keeps switches to a relative minimum and prevents you from chaining combos between three characters, as in Marvel vs. Capcom. Also, it allows for more turnaround victories, because winning characters no longer get a health bonus between fights. Of course, you can always select team mode and do away with this newfangled nonsense. Either of these play styles can be used in 2003's new survival mode, which proceeds just as you'd expect.

Both games seem to run great on the Xbox hardware and aren't plagued by the long load times of the Capcom vs. SNK titles. If you didn't cut your teeth on NeoGeo games, you might not appreciate the arcade-perfect graphics and sound of these games, as they look pixelated and sound kind of low-fi on an HDTV equipped with a Dolby surround system. Yeah, these games were ported from hardware developed in 1989, but what hardware it was! Any gamer worth his salt will either love these iconic SNK visuals and sounds for the feelings and nostalgic memories they conjure up, or will at least pretend to.

Don't ask us about our three sacred treasures.

The main attraction in this version of the 2002 & 2003 package is the addition of Xbox Live play. These games include pretty refined artificial intelligence, but nothing beats the thrill of giving someone a royal thrashing using your sweet Fatal Fury squad. The menu system from Capcom vs. SNK is back, with Optimatch and Quick Match settings. The former will let you adjust a variety of settings and wait for a player to agree to them, while the latter just sets you up with the best available match, based on your rank and a few selected parameters. Players will square off in the hopes of increasing their respective ranks, relative to other Xbox Live players. We have every confidence that talking trash to and beating up 14-year-olds will prove as entertaining as ever.

If you're an SNK devotee or just a fan of fighters in general, there's reason to be excited about this package. Not only will you get what would cost you hundreds in AES cartridges and vintage hardware for the bargain price of $39.99, but you'll also be able to test and hone your skills online. In the words of Terry Bogard, "OK!"

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