I'm a King of Fighters fan, and not ashamed to admit it. I've played the series from '94 to '03, and the only one I never liked happens to the one I own two copies of, KOF 2002. It was supposed to be a dream match in the spirit of '98, but for me it was a clumsy nightmare; nothing more than cut and pasted sprites with ugly backgrounds, ear-grating music, and tedious unlocking challenges.
Neowave is '02 reborn, and more importantly in the hands of another developer. Made for the short-lived Atomiswave arcade board, it remixes KOF with a flashier feel, cribbing a number of notions from Capcom's Capcom vs SNK 2. Here you have the three grooves, 3D backgrounds, color edits, and even jazzy, upbeat tunes to spar to (though I still prefer old school KOF music). Then SNK does their former fighting rival one better by throwing in online play, which is lag-free against anyone in the same country, and with a decent connection.
I was expecting some classic KOF grooves, perhaps even a dreaded striker mode, but instead you have Super Cancel, Guard Break, and Max2. Canceling is for the aggressors, allowing you to dish out a Max Super right in the middle of a special attack. So if you want to turn Ralf's Vulcan Punch into a Vicious Vulcan before your opponent can block or blink, you can. Guard Break is more for the elusive sort of player, just defending for a quick advantage or smashing through their guard with a special attack that sends them flying. Max2 all about power. You only carry one super stock, but with it you can unleash the screen-shaking power of a Max2 Super. So it's a bit of an all or nothing gamble, crushing your enemy with one blow, to blowing it and getting pummeled as you try to rebuild your super stock. While still on the subject of gameplay, any mode can make use of the new Heat option, increasing your attack power while nibbling at your lifebar. Not something to use when playing on the defensive, but great for shutting down a dangerous opponent before he has the chance to blink.
Presentation has never been a huge draw of the King of Fighters series, but Neowave is still the best looking installment to date. The 3D backgrounds are always in motion, and don't jut out like similar attempts in the past. All of the sprites except for young Geese might be pulled from previous installments, but there's a soft graphics filter that can "almost, but not quite" fool you into thinking they've been bumped to high resolution. Of course, for people who like their pixels blocky, there's an option to shut it off, as well as six levels of softness... though honestly I couldn't tell the difference.
For modes, you have the usual team play and single play, along with versus versions of both. Neowave is sadly lacking any real story, so getting to the end just means facing cheap boy Geese, and watching a generic ending roll by. Besides that, you have the usual Practice, and then Endless mode. That's really another name for survival, where all of the game's art and its four secret characters need to be unlocked from (sadly two less than the Japanese-only PS2 version). If you can endure the forty five matches it'll take to get that far that is. I'm about as big as a KOF fan as I can be, and even using some of my favorite characters like Joe or Vanessa, I can only reach match thirty or so before I get too tired of those damned loading screens to continue.
If Neowave has one unavoidable flaw, it's how often "Now Loading..." flashes onto the screen. There's a brief moment of it after every time a fighter falls, and a too long one between the end of the match and the Winner screen...which is pointless without win quotes anyway. Then there's still more loading before getting to the next match. It may sound like a minor thing, and might have been if these screens had been done with a little style, but stark as they are, they quickly become something to dread. Puzzling since this wasn't a problem for any Dreamcast or PlayStation 2 ports of the series, despite the larger memory capacity of the Xbox.
It is more or less a rehash that doesn't bring much new to the series, but Neowave is a dream match that really feels like one, bringing together all the best characters from eight installments of this long-running series, adding grooves, tossing in online play, and slapping on a $20 price tag. It's fun for a KOF fan, and a great place to start for anyone looking to get into what, for me, is the king of fighters.