King of Fighters 2003
SNK took back the reigns of the King of Fighters series in 2003 and it shows. The cast may be smaller, numbering thirty five not including the two unlockables, and the sprites are still low resolution, but they finally improved the basic gameplay to the point it doesn't feel like just another minor update. Three versus three is still the rule, but you no longer have to wait for your first character to get his lights punched out before switching to your second. You can tag in another member of your crew at any time, even in the middle of a special tag attack. The latter will cost you a power stock, but you start off the match with three, and are more than likely to end with none, if you finish at all. The action comes faster and more furious, with more opportunities for better combos and a greatly improved AI to test your skill. While it still might not be a match for KOF experts, at its highest setting, the AI can make every fight a true challenge for intermediate players.
Burning with an eerie green fire, Ash Crimson takes center stage of 2k3, a new character with a new team of his own. The rest of the cast are a selection of familiar and not so familiar faces, like the sumo schoolgirl Hinako who only previously appeared in KOF '00. Tizoc and Gato from the Mark of the Wolves have also joined up, while Terry has finally traded in his trademark cap for long hair and leather. Team stories are also back, but you wouldn't know it until reaching their endings, whose limited animation and text explanations feel woefully out of date. Two other newbies are the false and true bosses of 2k3, and what might be a first for the KOF series, they're both legitimately challenging instead of cheap, neither having an overwhelming advantage over other characters.
All extras except for those bosses are gained via the team and single survival modes, which is the only reason to play them since they're incredible boring. The AI is fixed to gradually increase after each fight, which means all the early battles are so easy that they feel pointless, only starting to get tough near the very end. Though besides the arcade mode, the more traditional team mode, and single character mode there aren't any other play options. It's a shame they couldn't have incorporated something like the freeware KOF-based beat 'em up Beats of Rage as a side game. As it is, KOF '03 is like eating nothing but ice cream. No matter how good it is, you'll get sick of it too soon without a more balanced diet.
2002 + 2003 = 4?
While neither game is perfect, they aren't standing alone as full price releases, but instead bundled together in one big value pack. On one side, you're getting the best characters to ever grace the series contained in a single game, and on the other you're getting a gameplay engine so improved and refined that it feels like a new experience even with returning characters. It would have been nice if both had been combined into a single game, but KOF 2002 plus 2003 still equals many hours of bliss for the obsessive fighting fan.