Don't call it a comeback, suckas; if you ask the boys and girls crunching bits and bytes behind the boards at SNK NeoGeo, they'd tell you they've been here for years. SNK arose from what seemed like certain doom a few years ago, and they've been moving towards the future with vintage vengeance as of late with new installments of their classic franchises. Make no mistake, however; they also made sure to pay homage to their storied past as well with re-releases of their classic titles, and King of Fighters 2002/2003 is their latest example. Featuring two very different takes on their popular yearly tale of fireballs and fisticuffs, KoF 2002/2003 for Xbox is an intriguing twin-pack throwback to those heady arcade days of yore when the winner played and the loser paid.
King of Fighters 2002 is the older game of the pair, and though it's somewhat maligned (and rightfully so) for less-than-inspired gameplay, it still got props for the "dream match" premise it revolved around ala KoF '98. The "dream match" idea means that KoF 2002 is a megamix of fighters from throughout the series mythos, so it's no surprise that the character lineup doesn't disappoint, with over 40 combatants running the gamut from fan favorites and series mainstays to new characters and obscure choices.
The fights go down in the traditional three-man team style, without any of the crazy stuff from other installments. The major gameplay hook is the MAX mode system, which allows players to tap stored power to temporarily enable more powerful combos and devastating super moves - among other things. The obligatory one-player and versus Single and Team Play modes are here, with Survival, Challenge and Practice modes along for the ride. All the play modes are nice to have, but the game isn't one of the better series entries. As excellent as it is to see the vast array of playable characters, it's disappointing to deal with the wonky hitboxes, messed-up juggles and other flaws in the actual combat.
Tag – You’re It
King of Fighters 2003 took things in somewhat of a radical direction for the series; the simple three-man teams and one-on-one matches have been transformed into fast-paced tag-team tussles that wouldn't seem totally out of place in one of Capcom's "Versus" titles...short of the screen-filling death rays, superpowered mutants or marathon Cable/Sentinel deathmatches, of course. This tag-team mechanic means you not only have to manage your team properly in battle, but select them in a strategic order as well; the character you select for your team as the leader is capable of doing the most powerful combos and super moves in the squad, so you'll have to choose wisely. KoF 2003 is also equipped with all the same gameplay modes as the 2002 edition, so fans can jump into any version they please and have a ball fighting the computer, a friend, or training to improve. The game is definitely more fun to play than KoF 2002; sadly, that doesn't mean that much either, since the fighting (despite being way tighter than in 2002) is still less than mint.
Old-School Sensibilities, New-School Feel
For what is essentially a package of old stuff, SNK NeoGeo went out of their way to add some compelling new features that are sure to make even the most grizzled KoF veterans crack a smile. Right off the bat, the dual-DVD packaging makes the set immediately collector-friendly - excellent decision on their part. Both games have lots of bonus content and tweaks to play with, like a media gallery, multi-language support, new 3D graphics for the stage backgrounds, and even slightly cleaner graphics (with the option for the original arcade resolution too, for all the purists out there). Every possible combat setting can be tinkered with as well, from control schemes to round length and everything in between.