The real-life competition between Capcom and SNK ended permanently some weeks ago, when SNK officially closed its doors. One of the grandfathers of fighting games has passed away, but it's great that SNK's progeny--dozens of memorable fighting-game characters--live on, along with about as many from Capcom's camp, in the new Capcom vs. SNK 2: Mark of the Millennium. The PlayStation 2 version of this 2D fighting game is essentially identical to the Dreamcast version that was recently released in Japan. As such, this review is mostly the same as that of the Dreamcast import, only it mentions a few points of interest regarding the PlayStation 2 version in particular.
Capcom vs. SNK 2 is an arcade port of the sequel to last year's fighting game that brought together many of the most popular characters from both Capcom's and SNK's fighting games. For fans of one company's games or the other's, this was unthinkable: the bitterest of rivals--not the characters, but the companies--had joined forces. About a year after the release of Capcom vs. SNK (available only in arcades and for the Dreamcast), the sense of shock may be gone, but it's still a solid 2D fighting game. The sequel is similar. Like most of Capcom's fighting games, it's an incremental enhancement to its predecessor and introduces some welcome new features but just barely enough of them. Capcom vs. SNK 2 still provides plenty of lasting value, especially for those who haven't played the first game, and its appearance on the PlayStation 2 promises to give it a lot more exposure than the first game ever had. Besides, unlike the Dreamcast, the PlayStation 2 doesn't have a lot of good 2D fighting games available for it yet, so Capcom vs. SNK 2 can be easily recommended by default.
Capcom vs. SNK 2 adds some new characters, some new moves, some new game mechanics, some new backgrounds, and some new music. There's a lot of the same graphics, same sounds, and same gameplay. The changes in the game will have a more significant impact depending on how serious you are about your 2D fighters. The new additions make the game technically superior to the first, but not necessarily better enough to merit purchase if you've already got the first one--let alone the half-baked Capcom vs. SNK: Millennium Fight 2000 Pro, an intermediary rerelease of the first game with a couple of throwaway characters added and all the hidden characters already unlocked.
Depending on how you count, Capcom vs. SNK 2 adds about a half a dozen new characters over the original. There are about 40 different characters available in the game, though of course not all of these are completely unique. Some of the most exciting new additions to the roster include Eagle, the British stick fighter who dates all the way back to the original Street Fighter game, and Haohmaru, the cocky sword-wielding samurai from SNK's Samurai Shodown series, whose katana would presumably give him an unfair advantage. Fortunately, other characters have no problem deflecting Haohmaru's long, slow slashes with their forearms. Other notable additions include the kung fu fighter Yun, from Street Fighter III, and Rock Howard, the bastard son of Geese Howard who first appeared in SNK's Fatal Fury: Mark of the Wolves. Some of the other new characters, such as the over-the-hill martial artist Ryuhaku Todo, from SNK's Art of Fighting, and Maki, a rip-off of SNK's Mai Shiranui who appeared in the sequel to Final Fight, are surprising additions to the lineup, but not necessarily good ones. Capcom and SNK fans alike will probably find that they can think of a few equally rare characters that they would have rather seen in the game.
The original Capcom vs. SNK let you unlock an additional version of each character, sporting a different arsenal of special moves. Capcom vs. SNK 2 basically merges these "EX" characters with their standard counterparts, making for characters that for the most part have more moves and more options and are therefore generally more interesting to play. Capcom vs. SNK 2 also shows that its designers are being rather wishy-washy in deciding just how many attack buttons you can use. The Street Fighter series famously used the six-button layout of three punches and three kicks; on the other hand, NeoGeo games have always used just four buttons, and the original Capcom vs. SNK took this streamlined approach. But now, the sequel throws in with Capcom's old style and all of a sudden forces you to use more buttons on your controller. This will be a welcome change if you prefer the six-button style of the Street Fighter series, especially since the PlayStation 2's standard control pad fares a lot better with the extra buttons than the bulky Dreamcast controller does. There's no option to use the previous game's four-button layout, so in any event, those experienced with the first game will just have to get used to using six buttons again.
Aside from all the characters, perhaps the most interesting gameplay feature in Capcom vs. SNK 2 is the availability of six different fighting styles to choose from, compared with two in the original. The game calls these "grooves," and they're designed to mimic the gameplay styles of previous Capcom and SNK fighting games. Whether your character can do a quick forward hop or a full run, whether or not he or she can block in midair, can quickly recover from a knockdown, can counter from the blocking position, and much more is governed by which groove you select. As in the original Capcom vs. SNK, you choose a team of fighters, and the groove you select applies to all of them.
The newly added grooves are interesting. The Street Fighter III-style "P" groove lets you parry attacks as in that game--you can tap forward as you're about to get hit, and you'll absorb the blow and have a moment to counter. The Samurai Shodown-style "K" groove displays a gauge that increases as your character takes damage. When it's full, your character is in an enraged state (his or her skin turns all red), and you can dish out much more pain. This groove also gets the "just defended" system from Fatal Fury: Mark of the Wolves, which works just like parrying, only you tap backward instead of forward as you're attacked. If nothing else, the P and K grooves are fun additions to the game, though they're not as versatile as the more-conventional styles you may be accustomed to from games like Street Fighter Alpha II or King of Fighters '97. The other grooves remain basically unchanged from the previous game.
Capcom vs. SNK 2 also revisits the "ratio" system from the first game. In the original, each character had a preassigned ratio of one to four, and your team had to be composed of four points total--so you could either pick two characters with a ratio of two, one character with a ratio of three and one with a ratio of one, or something like that. The character's ratio was meant to correspond to his or her relative power, though in practice, this didn't perfectly work out. It also limited the sorts of teams you could create, at least until you unlocked the option to do away with the ratio system altogether. Capcom vs. SNK 2 takes this more open-ended approach and lets you decide how to split the power. Under this ratio system, you can choose a team of three characters, where one will be slightly stronger, or a team of two equally powerful characters, or you can put all your chips in one basket by choosing just one proportionally powerful fighter. There's also a three-on-three gameplay option, as well as a single match, a versus mode, and a survival mode that isn't so interesting since you get most of your health back whenever you win a bout. The color edit mode from the first game is also available, though now you can save only one custom palette per character, down from two. You can also fuss around in the practice mode to try out new combos.
The game has only a few hidden secrets, the most interesting of which is certainly the option to create your own groove. Here, each of many groove elements is assigned a certain number of points that you can earn and then spend to create a custom groove. Want to reproduce the frustratingly defense-oriented matches of Samurai Shodown IV, for example? You can--just enable short hops, running, air blocking, and the Samurai Shodown-style rage gauge. It's possible to use this custom groove system to reproduce almost any fighting game's special mechanics pretty faithfully.
It still doesn't change the core gameplay of Capcom vs. SNK 2, which is much like the first game. The action still feels a bit flat--it doesn't help that the sound effects of punches and kicks aren't very good, but more importantly, the game's timing isn't quite like how you might remember it in classic 2D fighters. There's not much of a stun pause when a hit connects, making most of the attacks seem very light and the timing for combos somewhat too abrupt. Ranges on normal and special moves don't necessarily correspond to what the character sprites look like they're doing. The control itself is precise--special moves can be unleashed with little effort. And in general, the game's characters can reasonably hold their own in battle, though some--especially old blowhards like Ken--are as powerful as ever. Overall, Capcom vs. SNK 2 certainly plays well, but it doesn't play so differently from or any better than various 2D fighting games from years past.
Capcom vs. SNK 2 looks about the same as last year's game. It's been said before, but some of those characters look simply archaic by now--one-eyed Sagat hasn't changed since Street Fighter Alpha from 1995, and Morrigan, the succubus from the Darkstalkers series, dates back even earlier. Some of the new characters look pretty good and are smoothly animated--in particular, Eagle and Haohmaru look like the imposing fighters they're supposed to be. Others, such as the silly duo of Chang and Choi, the two Korean ex-cons from the King of Fighters series, look poor and use the bland, comical art style used for some of the uglier Street Fighter Alpha characters, such as Blanka and Balrog the boxer (who look as ugly as ever in Capcom vs. SNK 2). The game's biggest graphical problem is still that the art style throughout is so inconsistent from character to character.
At least the characters all seem to blend in well with the game's attractive, new fully 3D backgrounds, which are filled with some really obscure references to some of Capcom's and SNK's older games. It's too bad that the likes of the tastefully done introduction animations used for the original Capcom vs. SNK stages are nowhere to be found in the sequel. Likewise, there's no real semblance of a story and no real character endings. Capcom vs. SNK 2 recycles most of the speech and sound effects from the first game, and the all-new music mostly consists of the same sort of forgettable, even grating dance beats found in the original. However, a couple of these tracks are quite good and actually use vocals to good effect. But you'll want to turn off most of vocals, all the more so because of the game's irritating albeit fluently English-speaking announcer.
Fans of the first Capcom vs. SNK game should be pleased with the sequel if they don't expect too much from it, which they probably won't if they're fans of either Capcom's or SNK's games in general. Capcom vs. SNK 2 offers just enough additions and changes to be justifiable as the next complete game in the series, though it doesn't take any major detours. If by chance you missed out on the first game, you'll find that Capcom vs. SNK 2 is one of the best 2D fighting games available, not just on the PlayStation 2, but on any system. It's cut from the same cloth as countless other Capcom fighting games, but it's got more features, more characters, and more depth than a lot of them.