After nine years and nine installments, SNK finally decided to take a break from their long-running King of Fighters series in 2004, now that the Neo-Geo is finally gone the way of the CPS2. This gives KOF fans in the US a chance to catch up with the release of KOF 2002/2003 here in early 2005 as a double pack, with all the bounce, blood, and voices of the Japanese originals intact.
King of Fighters 2002
Developed by Eolith as a retrospective on the entire series, King of Fighters 2002 is a dream match with no real story, but for fans it only needs a large cast of familiar characters who bring their long histories with them, along with their own unique and tweaked fighting styles. Forty fighters take part in this battle royal, not including unlockable characters or alternate versions. Everyone from "I'm still the star of this series" Kyo to newer additions like the ravishing red-headed boxer Vanessa and the candy-loving Kula. Of course, people new to the series might be overwhelmed by such a mob, but they'll get to know them all as they struggle to beat one of the cheapest bosses in the history of 2D fighters.
Unfortunately, 2k2 isn't as polished as internally developed KOF games have been, with a number of niggling little flaws that manage to bring down the whole experience. Like a crude but functional menu, a soundtrack that feels like an artifact from the 16-bit era, and a weak attempt at 3D backgrounds inferior to the console port of KOF '99. There's also a minor control issue where more complicated attacks such as desperation moves, the super moves of the KOF series, don't always seem to happen despite entering the proper inputs. All of these problems are thankfully absent in KOF '03.
Another problem is the basic gameplay sticks a little too closely to the mold of the earlier games. Stripped of the strikers from the NESTS saga and even the different grooves from the Orochi storyline, what remains is a game that fans will feel they have already played to death, especially with the abundance of recycled sprites. It can still be fun with a competent friend, but the difficulty levels don't really seem to effect the AI, so normal enemies will always be too easy and the boss will always be too damned hard. Something you'll have to deal with anyway to unlock the large number of extras.
Aside from four additional characters, there's production art, concept sketches, and even humorous animations reusing game sprites. All of these are acquired by spending time in challenge mode, which could have been interesting if it didn't boil down to fighting more and more enemies with less and less time to defeat them. Why couldn't they have reused the excellent survival mode from Mark of the Wolves with its powerups, or something similar to the challenge mode in Maximum Impact? It's a shame that this home port didn't get the same level of effort that Arc Systems Works has given to their Guilty Gear series.