The King of Fighters 02/03 is a compliation pack that should not be missed if you're a fan of the fighting game genre.
Each game has a nice, varied assortment of characters to choose from, bringing back stalwarts to the series like fan favorite Terry Bogard, as well as mixing in 'new' characters. In 2002's case, the characters all hail from previous installments of the KOF saga, making it a bit of a combo game in itself. Still, characters that weren't available in the original Arcade release are unlockable. In 2003's case, while there are fewer characters, the same holds true, though not only do they introduce three completely new characters in Ash Crimson, Duo Lon and Shen Woo, but characters from the infamous Garou: Mark of the Wolves make their KOF series debut, and they do not disappoint. Now, to get to the gameplay.
Gameplay: The gameplay in KOF 2002 and 2003, while at the heart of the premise are basically the same, there are key changes that make all the difference. Some are subtle, while others are blatantly obvious.
Mode-wise, each of the games have the same assortment that you've come to expect over the years if you're a fan. From the choice between team play, where you choose up to three characters and duke it out one character at a time, to the single player mode, where you choose one character and fight a set number of rounds, it's all there. There's also your standard survival and practice modes as well. KOF 2003 inrtoduces a feature, though, that is new to the KOF series. A tag feature, like the one used in Capcom's vs. series of games. Depending on the way you like to play, and whether or not you can become accustomed to it if you're an otherwise veteran player of the KOF games, it can change the pacing for the better or for worse.
As far as the feel of the overall controls go, 2002 hearkens back to the days of 2000/2001, in that when compared to some other 2-D fighters, as well as 2003, it feels a bit stiff. Precise motion input has never been more important than in 2002, as even the simplest of moves tend to give some people trouble to pull off. Thankfully, the speed at which you actually have to input these motions is a bit forgiving.
2003's controls, on the other hand, are a lot less unresponsive compared to 2002's controls, and feels smooth, more like one of Capcom's games than one of SNKs.
The mechanics of the games is where the biggest difference can be seen for seasoned players. 2002 uses the Maximum mode super gauge, in which you can stock up multiple gauge levels. At first, in standard team play, you can only hold up to three gauges at once, but that number increases by one each time you lose a member of your team, making it possible for you to hold up to five gauges in stock. It takes one gauge to use a "level 1" super move, though you can do a MAX super move after "powering up" your character when you have more than one gauge in stock. There are also other uses behind powering up as well, such as being able to cancel almost any of your special moves into another of your special moves, pulling up posssibilities for creating your own damaging combos. Last, but most cetainly not least, when you're in the "powered up" state, you have more than one gauge, and your health is low, you can use MAX Super Special Moves, which are normally far more damaging than any other moves, super or otherwise in that character's arsenal.
In 2003's case, things change up quite a bit, thanks to the tagging system. First, you have to pick a leader character. That character can sometimes make or break your team, as they are the only ones allowed access to their "Leader Desperation Moves", which are this game's MAX Super Special Moves. The remaining characters can only use their level 1 super moves. There is no "powering up" wtith your gauge this time around, but it still has its uses. Allowing attacks during tag-ins, for example. Super cancels are in full effect in '03, however, allowing you to stop in the middle of a move to pull out a super move, though the super will cost one gauge extra than it usually does. Nevertheless, it leads to some very impressive combos.
In both games, however, lies a slew of collision problems, and it's most apparent in 2002. Some characters' attacks will nail you from akward positions, and sometimes, things like that are to be expected, but it's not really acceptable when it's so bad that you can be hit by a high kick from behind. While you're crouching.
Graphics: We'll start with 2002, of course. While there isn't much difference between 2002 and previous installments graphic-wise, it's not really a problem, considering that the graphics weren't really bad or anything to begin with. Character movement will sometimes seem stiff and kinda disjointed, but for the most part, things come across smoothly. No skips in the framerate, though a bit of slowdown does occur from time to time that will throw off your moves until you're more used to it. Any fan of KoF will probably fall in love with the backgrounds, which are almost all cluttered with cameos from characters from past games, like the Jin brothers, and Mr. Big.
In 2003, the graphics have taken a nice little step up, and things move along at a much quicker pacing as well. Effects and such are a lot more vibrant in 2003 than in 2002. Some staple characters have new stance animations, while others have new designs and stances altogether, like Robert Garcia, and Terry with his Garou look.
Sound: 2002's sound comes straight from the arcade version, music and all, which is good. The music is standard fare for the KOF games, with mixes on character themes blaring along with the face-smashing sound effects that go along with the devastating attacks each character pulls off. The only real problem for most might be the fact that all the characters' voices and such are recycled from games past.
2003's sound is like a fresh start for the series for the most part, with new music tracks that fall into the standard KoF fare quite nicely, and most of the older characters getting new voice bits and such. Some of the attack sound effects, however, tend to sound a bit muffled, like someone did them while they had their head under a pillow, but that's really nothing to nitpick about.
Needless to say, as with the games before them, KOF 02/03 are for those that can appreciate 2-D fighting gamesm though I think there is enough there to turn one into a fan. Add to everything the bonus galleries that each game has, and you've got one hell of a compliation on your hands. If you're a fighting game fan, don't pass this one up.