I don't like The King of Fighters 2002. I don't consider it in the spirit of the series, or more broadly in the spirit of SNK. Especially after the tremendous success of their previous collaboration, I'm pretty surprised -- and saddened -- that Eolith and Brezza managed to devise such an inane follow-up.
Out of curiosity, I just did an extended experiment. Working on probable links between characters, I set up every plausible match, in search for character interaction in KoF'02.
I found that most of the major intros simply aren't there. The only characters which have any really extensive interaction are the new heroes and villains. K', Maxima, and Whip mostly have unique interactions amongst themselves (although Maxima and Whip don't have anything to say to each other). All three surviving members of the NESTS team have intros with the others, and most of them are actually pretty amusing. K' interacts with both his immediate rivals: K9999 and Kula.
Then the three New Face members all interact with each other, in their oh-so lighthearted manner.
Outside of that, we begin fishing. Mary and Terry still have their old, moldy intro. Kensou and Athena do something. We've got a far lamer repeat of the Billy/Iori antagonism from '98. The Ikaris and the Sakazaki dojo members all interact amongst themselves in an unvariagated manner.
Aside from the above, there are a few other small one-way intros but not a lot else. No Kyo/Iori (!). No Kyo/Kyo. No Kyo/K'. No Andy/Terry. No Andy/Mai. No Terry/Billy. No Joe/Billy. (Joe is dating Billy's sister. You'd think one of them would make some comment!) Heck, Benimaru doesn't even mack on the chicks anymore. Athena doesn't particularly care about evil characters (although Kim still does). Chang and Choi don't do their little dance. Nor do they show any special emotion when they fight against Kim.
So, my point?
These omissions don't seem too important on their own, I admit. It's just that the whole character interaction bit is one of the best illustrations as to just what the problem is with this game. To wit: its core is gone. We've got a rather nicely-playing, reasonably attractive KoF shell. And... that's it, really.
The King of Fighters 2002 is what we call a "Dream Match" chapter of the series. Unlike most every other episode of KoF, there is no plot or continuity to worry about. There are no logical constraints. The developers are left free to throw in whatever they want, in order to make the best, most definitive version of KoF that they can. This is in theory.
The problem with this game is... well. As simple as it is conceptually, it's hard to explain. It's even harder to back up what I say. So let me give a counter-example.
This whole Dream Match thing has happened once before, in 1998. This is the pattern that '02 attempts to copy.
The thing about KoF'98 which makes it so worthwhile is just how much attention the development team paid to details such as the ones I brought up a few paragraphs ago. All of the characters which are even peripherally related tend to have something to say. I mean, Clark and K' both have sunglasses! In KoF'98, that'd be a special intro right there!
'98 also contains multiple versions of each character, showcasing the way that major characters had evolved since they were first introduced. It has both prominent play modes (or "grooves", for you Capcom vs SNK fans) that were defined in '97. These modes correspond to the two distinct game systems that the series had gone through up until that point. To top it off, the game included just about every major non-boss character featured in the series up until then.
Basically, '98 is shoved full of everything that was KoF up until that point. Every major game system, character, character version. Then it's wrapped it up into a sort of alternate universe tournament that kind of makes its own sort of sense. And which had a lot of energy and charm. Which is fun and engaging. Even if it isn't part of the larger continuity, it's "real"; everyone and everything is connected. (Well, basically.)
And the game does everything it can to emphasize this. To show how strongly KoF holds together, as a general concept. That's what makes '98 such a great showcase for what KoF, broadly, is.
In this case, it works really well. If I want to demonstrate King of Fighters to someone, I'll inevitably yank out '98. Why? Because it represents the essence of KoF. It is a compilation of all that is King of Fighters, up until the NESTS saga, wound up into one cross-referenced, accessible package. It uses it non-canonical status as an asset, in order to allow it to be definitive.
KoF'02, by contrast, isn't representative of anything. This game is, I exaggerate not, nothing more than King of Fighters '98 with a slight change in character roster (the USA Sports and Oyaji teams have been removed; three teams representating characters from KoF'99-2001 have been added) and with most of the extra options and surrounding context removed entirely.
No attempt is made to account for anything outside of the scant, uncreative objects with which the game is populated. It's just a collection of characters and themes and levels, and an old (or perhaps "classic") fighting system. No attempt is made to wrap everything together. It's like a Mugen game. Everything just... is.
To be sure, KoF was, from the beginning, a combination of disaparate elements. KoF is inherently a crossover game, pulling together all corners of the SNK catalogue. But what set KoF apart from, say, Capcom's Versus series is that, from the beginning, SNK made an attempt to knit it all togther into one continuous picture.
And... that's what draws me in to KoF, y'know? That's its glory -- how coherent it is. It's the showcase for SNK's entire universe. It's got this solid, glowing core. It lives. It breathes. It has a heartbeat. It thinks. It has context, both internal and external -- so even when it's taken out-of-context, it still has meaning. That's the one thing which truly makes this series unique in the face of all of the other fighting games out there.
King of Fighters 2001, while superficially kind of scuzzy-looking, is the most extreme example of this truth. It is strong and vibrant. Every element of its construction mirrors something else. The game engine reflects the stragegic nature of KoF. The character designs and uneasy overtones tap into the subtle emotional currents that have run through the entire series. The control changes tap into the dark, nervous panic of the plot. It all makes a nightmarish, elegant yet brutish kind of a sense, both internally and in reflection upon all of the past.
2002, by comparison, is just a fighting game that happens to use the trappings of all that came before. Which uses the KoF characters and game system. It doesn't showcase anything but confused fragmentation. It's not in the spirit of what KoF has come to be; of what it has come to mean. 2002 is just a random crossover game -- albeit a well-made one. Technically.
And that's not KoF. That's not the way SNK works.
That said, this Dreamcast version of the game... it isn't a bad port. It's good enough that it almost allows me to enjoy playing the game. Almost.
Playmore has this tendency with their DC ports to try to fix all of the most obvious surface problems with the games in question. KoF2000 has bland backgrounds -- so Playmore threw in a bunch of extra stages, to make up for it. 2001 has really horrible backgrounds and music, so Playmore again threw in some more stages and "fixed" the existing ones as well as they could. Unfortunately, they didn't do much about the music aside from (as far as I can tell) up the sample rate a bit. But that's another part of the pattern; Playmore doesn't mess with the core games any more than necessary.
The same goes here. Playmore added back in King and Shingo -- two of the flat-out most popular SNK characters and the two most inexplicable omissions from the rather paltry 2002 roster. Problem is, they're kind of difficult to unlock -- at least for me.
This leads into the other major bonus for the Dreamcast port: the Challenge modes. In order to unlock any of the four extra characters (Rugal and Kusanagi are the other two), the player has to play through a series of extra survival modes.
The team and single variants are pretty self-explanatory; fight a really long list of characters on a withering supply of life. Where things get kind of interesting is in the time attack mode.
This portion of the game reminds me a bit of Soul Calibur. You're presented with a bunch of specific challenges (sixty in total); each time you complete one mission, you unlock the next. In this case, the challenges aren't as interesting as they could be; it's all along the lines of "beat three opponents within forty seconds". Still, there's a lot of potential here for future expansion. Especially given the heavy plot-based nature of KoF, Playmore could do a bunch with an "adventure" mode based around challenges of this sort.
Sadly, there's not a lot else to this port. Since there's no arranged soundtrack album for the game, there's no arranged in-game soundtrack. Playmore didn't even add an extra puzzle mode, as in their previous two ports; a bit of a disappointment, as I enjoyed both of those.
Still, Playmore did put some thought in. The Challenge mode, while not groundbreaking, does add some subtle degree of intelligence to the game's overall structure. King and Shingo are back, even if they're annoying to find. I just wish there were... more. That the player was given the option to play with or without strikers. That the cast was a true representation of the history of the series, rather than a compromised "best of" list. That the characters did something other than merely exist, in most cases.
That the game... was just laced more tightly. That more thought and care went into it; into making it a true example of all that KoF is and has been, rather than just another well-playing fighting game. We've already got dozens of those. KoF used to be something more.
This game worries me. But at least its packaging is really well-designed. This surprises me, as I'm really not all that hot for the cover art (which is apparently by a certain Choy King Tung). It's a combination of Falcoon's disc art and the overall layout aesthetic that strikes me so well. The cover art might not be great, but it's certainly used well.
Anyway. We'll see what happens this year, with KoF'03. With any luck, SNK will stop listening to the dull, ill-considered fan voice for a while and do something truly original and interesting. After a bore like '02, I want to be surprised.
We'll see, we'll see.
Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh
is the victual!