Home to many great fighting games and shoot-'em-ups, SNK's everlasting NeoGeo finally seemed to retire a few years ago when SNK Playmore made the decision to switch over to the Atomiswave, a similarly designed but technically more powerful system. So what was the company's first order of business now that the time had come for a fresh, new beginning? Why, porting over one of its popular fighting games, of course. Enter The King of Fighters NeoWave, a spin-off of SNK's best-known fighting franchise. Based on The King of Fighters 2002 but featuring marginally improved graphics and various gameplay tweaks, NeoWave frankly doesn't look (let alone play) much different from a typical KOF installment. This budget-priced Xbox Live-enabled fighter still packs some good stuff for hardcore fans, but the touched-up paint job doesn't make this feel like a whole new game. In fact, in some ways it feels like a step backward from The King of Fighters 2002.
KOF NeoWave features the traditional three-on-three team battles that the King of Fighters series is known for. You can't change fighters in the middle of a round, so your fighter keeps going either until he or she is defeated, or until the other team of three gets wiped out. So even though you choose three characters going into the standard game mode, the battles are all strictly one-on-one. The mechanics of gameplay are very similar to previous KOF installments, especially 2002, which means you'll once again be attempting to string together various punches and kicks with special moves for damage-dealing combos, while occasionally busting out with super moves and other tricks. The roster contains three-dozen different fighters, including most of the popular favorites, plus three different fighting modes. It's a lot of variety, but at the same time, it's mostly well-worn, familiar territory. If you've already played KOF 2002 and moved on, NeoWave won't do much to draw you back in, and probably isn't worth your while.
That's not to dismiss the quality of the underlying action. More than a decade of tuning and refining has informed this King of Fighters installment, which contains a diverse and interesting cast of fighters, and plenty of room for individualized tactics and strategy. The fighting is fast and intense, especially if you take it online. When playing online, KOF NeoWave behaves just fine (unlike the Xbox version of King of Fighters 2002 released last year). Matches are relatively lag-free and it's possible to jump straight into a rematch. You can limit the roster to exclude hidden characters to keep things fair, and you can even try to organize or participate in player-made tournaments. Since the game is also available in Japan, you can look forward to some international competition, though not a lot. Nevertheless, getting to play online with other King of Fighters fans is probably the game's biggest attraction.
What's truly new in KOF NeoWave? Not much, really. The character graphics are all recycled, the soundtrack is mostly forgettable, and a lot of the audio is muffled and indistinct. There's still a lot of charm and personality on display in the different fighters, but this isn't a good presentation by today's standards. The character roster has been tweaked since 2002 to include a few old favorites who didn't originally make the cut, like Shingo and King. The three different fighting modes (super cancel, guard break, and max2) influence your character's moves and abilities, as well as how often you can use your most powerful techniques, though systems like this have been a part of 2D fighting games for years. The conventional four-button KOF control scheme (for light and strong punches and kicks) gains one more button this time around for what's called "heat mode," which causes your character to flash red and get stronger, though at the expense of health. It's not that meaningful of an addition. The game also sports some fully 3D backgrounds and nice-looking portraits for all the fighters. There are a few alternate modes of play, like an "endless" survival mode, and numerous graphical options you can tweak to slightly adjust how the action looks on your screen, but this isn't major stuff.
Other than that, The King of Fighters NeoWave feels rushed. The onscreen interface looks ugly, especially the life meters. There's no text dialogue in between matches, which might not seem like a big deal, but it's a glaring omission--in past installments, fighters' personalities tended to come across in the between-battle dialogue. The last boss isn't an original character, but rather a recycled hidden fighter from a much older game. Worst of all, there are brief but painfully noticeable loading times between rounds, interrupting the fast pace of the action. One might reasonably expect the Atomiswave hardware to improve on what the NeoGeo was capable of, but whatever improvements are on display in this game are negated by new problems. The translation to the Xbox didn't seem to do much to compensate, either.
In the end, KOF NeoWave is a decent 2D fighting game that's recommendable only to those looking for more King of Fighters, for better and for worse. It's not a substantial or impressive upgrade for the series, but if you're still a fan, chances are you enjoy picking apart each new installment, noting subtle differences to moves and abilities, comparing additions and omissions against past versions, and so on. And being able to play online against other fans is nice, too.