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In Memory
Sean Pettibone


King of Fighters '98 Ultimate Match (PS2)

SNK's legendary fighting franchise has delivered solid action to players for nearly 15 years now, and the latest installment, while seeming to be a look back is actually a nice compendium of the series' 2D era. King of Fighters 98 Ultimate Match on the PS2 is a rebooted version of the classic KOF 98 game with improved graphics, music and additional characters. It includes more than 60 characters in all with more than a dozen new to the series. Aside from this, the game offers some cool extra modes including challenge and endurance sections. While its clearly aimed at the hardcore KOF player, this solid release should satisfy those looking for classic 2D fighting.

With its extensive roster of characters, you can be forgiven for thinking that KOF 98: Ultimate Match is overkill. The game's 64 different fighters include all your favorites, each with a full compliment of moves, special attacks and techniques. Mastering each of them will probably be a daunting challenge, but the key is to focus on a character or two you like best. This makes the game much more accessible. While this version is based on the original KOF 98, there have been subtle changes made to give the game a facelift. Your most immediate impressions will probably be the visuals which look very nice. The original game's backgrounds have been retooled with a slick 2D/3D feel that mixes these styles effectively and makes the game feel more contemporary. The characters themselves look a bit smoother than they did in the original game but retain their original look and animation. KOF 98 UM's other significant change comes in the music which has been retooled as well and sounds much better. Aside from this, the game delivers the solid and traditional fighting gameplay that players have come to expect from SNK. With such a large collection of fighters to choose from, there's plenty of variety and style in terms of attack and technique. Most of the familiar moves and techniques from the previous KOF games are intact, and the characters should be well-known by now. Almost every major character in the series makes an appearance this time around, and there are several new ones including boss characters that add to King of Fighter 98 Ultimate Match's sense of completeness. It also makes a nice primer for those unfamiliar with the series that serves as a good prelude to the upcoming King of Fighters XII sequel on next-generation platforms.

This release retains the basic structure seen in the original KOF 98 to a very large degree. At the main menu screen, you can choose to battle it out against a series of opponents in either single character mode, which is a traditional one-on-one fighting mode or use the more popular team mode, where you select three characters and fight another trio for supremacy. Obviously both styles of play have different strategies. Knowing which combinations of characters to use and balancing your team makes the three-character mode interesting, while the solo matches offer a more focused style of play. In the traditional SNK style, you can also choose from one of three main fighting techniques: Advanced, Extra and Ultimate. Each of these presents a different method of building up your fighter to perform powerful attacks and counters. In Advanced Mode, you gain strength by attacking and the energy gauge builds up as you aggressively attack your opponent. Extra Mode takes a different approach where defensive moves are more effective, giving players a more strategic type of play. Ultimate mode is a combination of both modes and lets you select which moves and types of play you want to use, giving you the ability to set the game up to your liking. Each of these fighting styles has their pluses and drawbacks, but the flexibility offered in each mode makes for a well-balanced game. Learning to use the different systems and gearing your style to these techniques is one of the key reasons why KOF has been so replayable over the years.

KOF 98 Ultimate Battle takes this one step further and while its inclusion of so many modes is slightly daunting, it makes for a well-balanced game that offers plenty of depth. One of the more interesting new modes is the Challenge mode, where you have to meet a specific goal, such as knocking down an opponent 5 times or blocking their attacks. This mode lives up to its name, and progressing through each challenge unlocks additional content. There's also a new mode called Survival where you have to defeat as many opponents as possible using a single character. It's a pretty interesting approach and one that does add value to the game. KOF 98 also includes a Gallery mode where you can view illustrations and other artwork, some of which you need to unlock by playing through the game's various modes. The most interesting part of KOF 98 UM is its character customization options, which allow you to change the look of your character by swapping out color palettes. This gives you a very wide range of customization options, which makes this a solid purchase that allows you to go deeper into the gameplay than most standard ports would allow. KOF 98 Ultimate Match is a surprisingly deep and robust port that offers numerous enhancements and changes, but doesn't mess with the essence of the original game. This fact can be seen clearly when you boot up the original game in Neo-Geo mode and see how well the game's solid play mechanics have held up over the years.

On the PS2, players will find decent performance with a standard d-pad, but performing half-circle moves and sweeps is much easier if you use the analog joystick. Of course, an Arcade Stick is ideal, but the game's performance is solid either way. Visually, the upgraded graphics look quite impressive, especially if you're familiar with the original game, which is coincidentally included on the disc, making comparisons handy. While it might seem a little redundant because it's arrived only a few months after KOF Collection, KOF 98 UM is a fairly good release that offers a deeper more interesting remake of the classic fighter, with more features, options and upgrades than a straight-ahead arcade port would offer. Causal fighting fans might wonder what all the fuss is about, but gamers who are really into the series will appreciate all the changes in this remake. SNK fighters have never been as flashy as Capcom's and the streamlined style here allows players to focus on the nuts and bolts of fighting, without having to face endless streams of fireballs and other supernatural attacks. It's this somewhat down-to-earth style that is one of the reasons the series has endured over the years, you need skill, style and technique to beat the majority of your opponents, and can't rely on a flashy combo to compensate for your lack of skill. On the other hand, you definitely need to learn how to use each character's moves and master the timing for each attack or you'll find yourself button mashing helplessly until you fall down. This sense of balance, skill and technique carries to the new game effectively and makes Ultimate Match a solid brawler. Basing the game's engine on one of KOF's better installments was a good idea, and this version benefits. It is definitely very much in the classic SNK mold, and the new features, visuals and graphics definitely add to its appeal.

- Michael Palisano

Grade: B

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