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In Memory
Sean Pettibone

King of Fighters 2003 & 2004 (Xbox)


By Michael Palisano

SNK's latest compilation offers players a pair of outstanding King of Fighters titles, KOF 2002 & 2003. Both games feature an extensive cast of characters, extensive moves lists and, elaborate fighting systems that offer plenty of challenge and depth. The differences between the KOF titles might seem subtle, but the changes make a huge difference in the gameplay. KOF 2002 has a larger selection of characters, and its Max power gauge system is quite elaborate but lacks internet play. KOF 2003's streamlined controls and moves lists make it a smoother, more refined fighter and its extensive online support with versus modes and an Xbox Live tournament mode. While both games are aimed at the hardcore SNK audience, they're solidly constructed and offer solidly entertaining action.

With arcades in general disappearing, and AES prices for these titles exploding off the charts, fans of SNK's classic 2D brawlers, King of Fighters will be thrilled that a double pack containing two complete conversions is now available on the Xbox console in an affordable, accessible package. Both games are faithful reproductions of the AES/MVS titles that suffer little in the way from load times and lost frames of animations. The KOF titles have always featured some of the deepest and most challenging fighting systems on the market and these titles are no exception. Playing very much like previous titles, the tight responsive controls, detailed character animation and extensive moves lists you've come to expect are very much present. Performing circle moves, chaining moves together and completing special attacks was simple enough, retaining the speed and intensity of the arcade titles. The games played well with a standard Xbox controller, but a solid arcade stick offers a more authentic experience that makes it worth the investment.

As you'd expect from the Xbox conversions at this point, both KOF titles on the disc offer solid gameplay mechanics with an extensive list of fighters to choose from, with KOF 2002 the victor in this department with more than 42 different playable characters. These range all the way back to KOF 96 and feature many of the well known characters from the series. These games represent a return to form in many aspects, with the backgrounds given a slight 3D makeover that gives them a refreshingly vibrant look this time around. At the start of each battle, you can choose from several different gameplay modes including the traditional versus battles, a revived team battle mode for three on three action and other modes as well. The game includes Survival modes for either type of gameplay along with extensive gallery and practice modes as well. Players can choose from several different levels of difficulty, set their energy bars, and the opponent AI as well. Other options include the ability to change the screen size and use either traditional arcade graphics or the enhanced 3D backgrounds created for the Xbox. None of these really changes the fundamental gameplay experience, which hasn't changed that much over the past decade.

KOF 2002 uses an interesting power gauge system that allows you to build up attacks with Stocks called Max units. Using Stocks allows you to use a variety of special moves and attacks while the onscreen timer ticks down. These include implementing Guard Cancels, Max Activisation, and using your characters' super special moves. The number of Stocks you can have in your Max bar depends on the character, and some moves require multiple stocks to perform. This power gauge system is quite elaborate, but versatile which allows you to attack opponents in your own style. This flexibility is a key element of the series' long-term appeal, and SNK's continued refinements makes the difference. The system in KOF 2003 doesn't use the MAX gauge becasue the super special moves, combos and attacks are integrated into the game's normal controls, making for a more streamlined approach. The biggest difference here is that you can switch characters during battles, allowing you to save a weaker foe from dying, which is a can make a huge difference in each round's outcome. Both of these systems offer a slightly different approach, but KOF 2003's simplified control interface wins out because it's easier to understand and makes for a better flowing game.

KOF's extensive character list means there's plenty of variety in the character's looks and attack styles, but the gameplay remains generally balanced throughout. KOF 2002's other main claim is its structure, which follows the patterns of previous games where you battle a succession of teams, then face off against a more difficult boss character. One interesting aspect of this system is its use of not one but three energy bars, you usually have one that represents a single character on your three man team, while the boss character takes up all three. This gives you a good idea of the challenge that lies ahead of you. While the main characters are fairly well-balanced, bosses are quite a bit harder to defeat and can perform devastating single moves that can drain your energy bar in a flash. KOF 2003 plays similarly to the other game, but the streamlined cast and improved fighting system makes for a slightly smoother experience overall. KOF 2003's graphics have also been slightly improved, with better character animation and more convincing 3D backgrounds making for a better-looking title overall. When you switch between these two games, you'll find plenty of similarities, but also a number of key differences, which makes both worth playing. KOF 2002 is definitely the more traditional playing of the two games, and definitely feels closer to the series' roots, though the tweaks in changes in KOF 2003 make it feel slightly more modern and actually edge the series closer to a Capcom-esque feel. Oddly, only KOF 2003 has been upgraded to include Xbox Live support, with KOF 2002 sadly left behind. These online modes include the ability to challenge another player online in versus mode, or compete in an online tournament against other players worldwide. Players can choose to play against a random foe, or set the rules to their liking and challenge an opponent in a specific set of battles with the Optimatch selected. Playing KOF 2003 online is just as intense as the regular game, and doesn't suffer from lag time or choppy animations, making for an excellent added value.

From a technical standpoint, both games look and play exactly like their arcade counterparts and don't suffer from the load times, missed animation frames and other compromises that marred many of the earlier SNK console ports. The gameplay remains as tight and responsive as you remember, and the familiar moves lists and controls for each character means KOF veterans should feel right at home with this conversion. While the sprite-based 2D gameplay is definitely old school in approach, the gameplay is still as addictive and exciting as ever, with the trademark SNK depth and challenge appearing in spades. Of the two games in the package, we found that KOF 2003's slightly more balanced gameplay and improved visuals made it the more appealing of the games on this disc. However, both of these traditional fighters are worth playing and offer superb balance, great animation and excellent controls throughout, making them a great value purchase for any old-school fighting fan.

Grade: B

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