Arcade-game developer SNK officially went out of business in 2001, but that hasn't seemed to slow down what is apparently a new generation of games for the company's NeoGeo arcade hardware. One of the last projects the company was working on was The King of Fighters 2001, the latest edition in SNK's annual fighting game series, along with a new developer, Eolith. And while certain aspects of KOF 2001 may seem very different from previous games, spend some time with it and you'll eventually realize that it's one of the deepest, most technical 2D fighting games ever made.
It's no secret that SNK's NeoGeo hardware is old. Over 10 years old. That's why its games still use low-resolution, hand-drawn sprites for its characters, rather than switching to a 3D engine or at least using high-frame-rate, high-resolution graphics. The age of the NeoGeo hardware seems painfully obvious when you look at KOF 2001's shoddy background stages, which look generic at best and ugly and pixelated at worst. But over the years, SNK's artists have perfected a bunch of visual tricks to help add detail to their characters and give them lots of personality. And KOF 2001's characters have lots of personality--as much as you'd expect from SNK, a company with a history of making some of the most distinctive and memorable 2D fighting game characters ever. You'll see it in your character's win poses and taunts and in other extra animations. It's true (and unfortunate) that KOF 2001 reuses a lot of old character animation from previous games, so that some characters--especially the newest ones--look better than others. But most characters have at least some new animations, win poses, and special attacks--more than enough to make each one more interesting than they were in the previous game, KOF 2000.
Another KOF tradition is good voice acting; KOF 2001's voice work is about as good as it was in 2000. Sullen, moody characters like Iori and Kyo snarl and sneer appropriately, while upbeat, smart-mouthed characters like Ramon and Joe hurl insults at their opponents and laugh in their faces. KOF 2001's sound effects are pretty much adequate; they resemble those from previous years, which is just fine. Quick jabs sound like quick jabs, strong punches sound like strong punches, and KOF's infamous suite of flashy explosions and fiery bursts of flame sound just like you'd expect them to. Unfortunately, KOF 2001's music isn't as good. From the series' beginning in 1994, its soundtracks were eclectic mixes of funk, jazz, '80s-style guitar rock, and heavy metal, though in later years, the soundtracks have degenerated into generic techno music. KOF's music is at an all-time low in 2001. Though it tries to hold to a theme of mostly bass and percussion, it all ends up being the same kind of bland, forgettable techno music you've heard about a zillion times in every other video game with a techno soundtrack.
Fortunately, if you play KOF 2001, you'll probably ignore the game's awful background stages and mediocre music, because you'll be too busy fighting it out to notice anything else. KOF 2001 has a roster of 40 different playable characters, but they're all remarkably well balanced; you can pit just about any of them against any other and have a fair fight. And every character has enough special attacks and strategies to be interesting--unlike in KOF 2000 and KOF '99, which simply dumbed down a lot of characters to favor the new striker system. Strikers--extra characters that you call in from offscreen to do a single attack or two--are still in KOF 2001, but they're much more balanced than in previous games and are actually completely optional in 2001. Basically, the game gives you four character slots, and you can choose as many playable characters as you want--four playable characters with no strikers, two playable characters and two strikers, and so on. If you don't pick any strikers, you characters will do less damage and won't be able to perform their most powerful super attacks; if you pick one or more strikers, you'll be able to do more damage and access super attacks, but you'll have fewer playable characters on your team. It's a system that resembles Capcom vs. SNK 2's ratio system, but it's much more balanced.
But that isn't all. KOF 2001 also has super cancel attacks, which let you quickly cancel a special attack and turn it into a super attack, as in Street Fighter EX and Street Fighter III. 2001 also has "wire attacks," which bounce your opponent off the corner of the screen and let you quickly hit your opponent with a follow-up attack, like the wall juggles in Guilty Gear X. You'll find plenty of skills to master in KOF 2001 without getting into the specifics of each of your favorite characters, though you'll definitely want to do that too, especially with some of the new characters in the game. For instance, the newcomer Mei Lee is a martial artist with two completely distinct fighting stances that you can switch between in an instant, while another newcomer, Angel, is a completely original and completely bizarre character with a huge set of special attacks that are keyed off of a single kick. And if you're playing the game at your arcade, you should actually be able to play some decent practice rounds in a single-player game, since the computer opponents generally aren't too tough, at least until you get to the end. The final battle with KOF 2001's boss character is probably the most insanely difficult and frustrating fight in the entire series. But if you're lucky enough to play KOF 2001 at an arcade with some actual competition, you'll find that the game holds up extremely well in head-to-head play.
Most King of Fighters diehards will tell you that '98 was the best game in the series because of its excellent character balance and its huge character roster (38 characters, plus 12 "alternate" versions of some characters) of very deep, interesting characters. KOF 2001 doesn't have the sort of flat-out character-against-character matchups that '98 did, because of its strikers and its varying team sizes, but it's still a great game in its own right. Its different options, striker and wire attacks, and sizeable character roster will let you play KOF 2001 for a good long time before you tire of it--and they also help make KOF 2001 one of the deepest 2D fighting games ever.