SNK Playmore's King of Fighters series has been going strong for over ten years now. Well, that really depends on your perspective strong in arcades outside of the U.S., and reliable, if not immensely popular, on the home units in any country. Despite a shakeup in management which led to development on the series moving from Japan to Korea (and resulted in the execrable King of Fighters 2001) it appears that everything is back on track, if this compilation is any indication.
As with 2003's King of Fighters 2000/2001, this pack offers up two games in the venerable series for one reasonable price. Unlike that collection, though, these games are actually potentially of interest to people who don't habitually and obsessively buy anything with a KoF logo on it. Time may have marched on, but it seems the SNK Playmore crew can still put out a reasonable effort when required.
King of Fighters 2002 is what initiates call a "dream match" title, a concept last used for KoF 98. Basically, instead of falling into the continuity of the series, it marks a return of favorite semi-retired characters for a big, meaningless brawl. KoF 2002, thus, is a good introductory game for the KoF newbie, as it offers a large menu of different characters drawn from throughout the series history. It also dispenses with the controversial (in hardcore fighting fan circles, anyway) "Striker" system, which I was not a particular fan of. The result: meat and potatoes fighting that you can rely on.
King of Fighters 2003 offers something important: a bunch of genuinely interesting new characters and well-implemented ideas. In fact, the game gives rise to an entirely original team of three fighters: The Hero Team, which features Shen Woo, Duolon, and Ash Crimson. Shen is a real up close and personal bruiser; Duolon is almost Darkstalkers-ish in his fluidity and silky style; and Ash Crimson ... well, I guess KoF needed a Guile clone.
Also entering the ring for the first time is Malin, a ridiculously acrobatic, speedy, and cute delinquent schoolgirl, and Gato, a renegade Chinese martial artist. And while he's not exactly new, Terry Bogard has metamorphosed from the Fatal Fury chap to the hatless, mature Mark of the Wolves version. Mark of the Wolves is one of SNK's best fighters, so it's nice to see that a vestige of it survives. These new characters highlight the overall ethos of KoF: variety over innovation, and though they vary in quality, they're welcome additions to the game's already large cast of brawlers.
Another nice new addition is unbroken round system -- when you defeat one character, the next in the team steps in instantly, ala Capcom's Vs. games. A small change, and hardly innovative, but it keeps the flow fresh. Another Capcom lift is the ability to finally change characters on the fly during a bout. In short, the game has a punchier pace without sacrificing the depth and variety of a KoF game, and that's simply a good thing.
To be blunt, a handful of characters and other unimaginative tweaks don't sound like reason enough for most people to pick up a new fighting game. And to be honest, it's not the kind of innovation that's required to mete out a stellar score. But for gamers who are interested in the KoF series but haven't collected all of the installments, this represents the best value in years. KoF 2002 offers a pleasantly large menu of fighters and seems to serve as a coda to what has gone before, summing up the series well. KoF 2003 offers new faces, a solid roster, and well-tuned gameplay.
For more information on this and other great SNK titles visit: www.snkplaymore.jp/official/kof2003/english/