The King of Fighters 2002 & 2003 Preview
We test out this exciting compilation of two highly refined 2D fighters from the classic KOF series.
We just got our greedy mitts on builds of the PlayStation 2 versions of The King of Fighters 2002 and 2003, and so far, we have just one complaint: How come these games aren't hitting the streets sooner? Previously promised for a November release, the officially titled The King of Fighters 2002 & 2003 set is now slated for a PS2 release in January or February of 2005. This is probably for the best, since a couple of 2D fighting games running on the ancient-yet-timeless NeoGeo hardware aren't exactly going to draw a ton of attention amid this ridiculously action-packed holiday season. So think of it this way: The King of Fighters 2002 and 2003 are a couple of games that any avid fighting game fan should be looking forward to. True KOF purists may not favor these games to some of their predecessors, but the fact that these two offerings will be bundled together at a less-than-full price is great news.
This year The King of Fighters is celebrating its 10th anniversary. It's been updated with a new installment each year, and even though it's just one of many different fighting game series from SNK, it quickly became the most popular. Ten years after the original The King of Fighters, the series' fundamentals haven't drastically changed, but the character roster has been greatly expanded, and so have the gameplay options. The fact that the underlying gameplay and tight, responsive controls have survived for this long, more or less intact, speaks to the quality and true classic status of the intrinsic design. For those unfamiliar with the series, The King of Fighters is basically reminiscent of Street Fighter II and other 2D fighting games, but its main twist is that it invites you to pick several characters at a time, not just one. This introduces a considerable level of depth to the series, because it means having to master fighting as and against multiple characters. And The King of Fighters has always featured a colorful, memorable cast.
Actually, one of the great things about The King of Fighters 2002 and 2003 is that each features the return of many players' favorite characters, who, for whatever reason, were omitted from the character lineup at some point. It's great to see guys like the judo master Goro Daimon (who was out on paternity leave, apparently), the hipster kickboxer Yashiro Nanakase, and the criminal Ryuji Yamazaki back in action again. Best of all, both games feature dozens of characters, so there's just a whole ton of fighting styles and depth to explore here. What's even more interesting, though, are the specific differences between the two games.
Longtime King of Fighters fans often cite '98 as the series' high point. That installment featured a huge and diverse roster, excellent character balance, and tons of personality. Since then, The King of Fighters has changed gears on a number of occasions, introducing new attempts at main characters, as well as new mechanics. None of this stuff has really stuck, so The King of Fighters 2002 ended up being a throwback to '98, bringing the gameplay back to its three-on-three basics and bringing back a lot of popular, old characters. It's great to see some of them redrawn or employing totally new or updated versions of their signature special moves.
But then there's The King of Fighters 2003, which features probably the most significant shift in the core mechanics that the series has seen to date. Previous KOF games all featured multicharacter combat, but rounds were still fought one-on-one. However, this time, there's just one, big, long round. So each time a fighter is defeated, his or her partner jumps out, and a winner is declared when one team knocks the other out of contention. It is possible to switch characters midround, which makes for some dynamic fights reminiscent of Capcom's Versus series...but with King of Fighters gameplay.
These are both solid 2D fighting games, though they maybe aren't the greatest ones that The King of Fighters series has ever seen. Nevertheless, it's the contrast between the two that's so interesting. It's fun to switch between 2002 and 2003, because the feel of the gameplay changes radically. So even those characters who haven't been heavily altered from one game to the next must still be managed differently between the two games.
The builds we've played look to be pixel-perfect ports of the NeoGeo originals. It's true that these graphics look pretty dated at some level, and the music is especially weak by today's standards. However, the memorable character designs are still brimming with personality, and the controls are still great. Each game has a few different modes of play, including survival and practice modes. A few unlockable extras, like artwork of the different characters, are also available, but don't expect tons of frills in either game. What's there to look forward to is a lot of rock-solid, time-tested 2D fighting with a great cast of characters.
The King of Fighters 2002 and 2003 help show that 2D fighting games need never go out of style. It's ironic that this year's King of Fighters: Maximum Impact, which was the series' first foray into full 3D, lacks both the depth and personality of these 2D offerings. It's also worth mentioning that these two games originally retailed for about $300 apiece for the NeoGeo (and NeoGeo fans would tell you they were well worth it). Since you'll soon be able to get both for about $40 in total, we'd just like to say that's going to be a pretty sweet deal.
Take a look at our new screens and footage of The King of Fighters 2002 & 2003 to get a sense of the action.
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