Review: The King of Fighters 2002 (DC/Playmore)
by Brandon Sheffield

My Dreamcast was liberated from the horrible pain of existence by Southwest Airlines Baggage Destruction Engineers on a return trip from spring “F@#$N’” break last march. It wasn’t really a good thing. I had a ’98 model Japanese Dreamcast – I’d bought the thing the month after it came out, paying nothing more than retail costs, as a friend was taking a trip to Japan anyway. I wrote up a letter in Japanese for her to give to the sales clerk in my ridiculously inept scrawl. I actually found that letter during some far more recent spring “F@#$N’” break cleaning. I’d asked my Japanese teacher to look over the thing twice, and it still came out wrong somehow. The thing arrived regardless, so something must have gone right. It came with an alarm clock and a pillow, indicating that I was going to play the thing so damned much as to need both. They were right, for a while.

I was the first kid on the block to own one – I recruited three others into my camp of Sega fanaticism within two months. Scott Mollett and Aaron Meyers were among the new devotees, and we flaunted manly, robust graphics in the faces of our dreaded Sony enemies, as had been so many times in reverse when the Saturn was my machine of choice.

So what I’m saying to you is that the thing is not easily replicable. The drive is screwed, and I tried installing a new one. No luck. Went to Japan to look for a new one, but couldn’t find anything under $45 bucks. Apparently they hadn’t gotten the “d00d that system suxors” memo yet. I wanted me a Gamestop $29.99 with-free-something-or-other-so-please-take-it Dreamcast. But one from Japan. See, when you own a Japanese Dreamcast, all of your games have a tendency to be Japanese too. Which means you either need a chip or a boot disc to play imports if you go the US route. I find both options obnoxious and invasive, and would just prefer to own the thing unaltered, especially since it’s so unconsciously homebrew-friendly to begin with.

I hate paying to replace something. I just want it to be fixed, to be free, and to be right in front of me right now. Neurotic as that sounds. But more than that, I hate paying for something than does less than the original item/object, or does a worse job of it.

I was pretty lackadaisical about the whole thing until KOF 2002 was announced. I wasn’t playing the DC much, because I have to review all this other new business that comes out. You know how it is. But KOF I had to get, even though I knew that this particular iteration wasn’t really my cup of tea.

So I went for the temporary fix - I borrowed Chris Woodard's Dreamcast.

I got my KOF. And here we are again – paying for an inferior product - one that does less than the one that came before.

KOF 2002 has nothing on 2001. That’s just it. It plays fine, it looks fine, and it sure as hell sounds better than KOF 2001. But it’s got no damn soul. Without that it's just another fighting game. It’s like a KOF statue, completely empty and devoid of feeling.

I was talking to Meelad Sadat about the mind, body and soul of games just recently. Meelad may be PR, he may currently be on ‘vacay’, but he’ll talk about the metaphysics of games if you kick him in the nuts about it. In talking about their can’t talk about it till July 7th preview build, I mentioned something about the mind and soul of the game not being integrated. Where mind is intention and soul is implementation. The body is gameplay, engine. It’s the raw play, if you can possibly divorce that from intention and implementation for the sake of argument.

KOF 2002 is a game with ambiguous mind and (ok, it has one but it’s a) tarnished soul. The body however, is robust and extra beefy. It plays like your mom at bridge; fierce, deliberate and responsive.

hmmm – all brawn and no brains or conscience. How ironic that the Sports Team was removed. HAH!

But at the same time, responsive though it may be, I cannot play it properly. This is because of the implementation. I’m simply not compelled to advance. The interaction is gone, not only between the characters, but between the characters and the player, with a mere two exceptions. May Lee screams to be played in 2001. She’s so utterly vital and dynamic in that game, the exemplary product of the new lineage that Eolith was creating.

But an ambiguous something caused ‘2002 to be made without care. Bad blood between Eolith and the newly re-formed Playmore could be one piece of the jigsaw of mystery. Until I get that Playmore interview in earnest, we may never know.

So in 2002 we have a May Lee in stagnation. She’s no longer the dynamic new face, she’s huddled in with ‘the girls’ in the Women’s Team. She’s not as present as she once was, and certainly not as central to the universe. She’s an extreme example, but the rest of the roster does nothing to stand out or stake their claim. Why the hell are they fighting anyway? Read Eric-Jon’s piece for more on this.

Only two characters escape this curse. Angel’s voice has been redone with astounding care. The directionless cuteness she possessed in 2001 has been replaced by a deliberate attention-demanding sensuality the likes of a Japanese porn star. As an associate once mentioned, they’re the “only stars in the sex industry that you’d take on a walk at the beach.”

Must be experienced to be appreciated – her conspiratory language, her lithe body movements, it’s all very otaku-oriented, but pleasing even with that knowledge. Why does she stand out so far above the rest? It’s impossible to know without direct response from the developers. It seems possible that they started here, and lost interest thereafter. That’s obviously pure speculation. She plays to this act in her movements, which like all other characters, have been refined for this version. But with her, there’s a correspondence now. She’s constantly talking as she performs her fluid techniques, and she’s brilliantly alive. This could have been done with everyone. But it’s only her. Well…there’s also Kusanagi.

Kusanagi’s just all over this thing. The AI doesn’t know what to do with him. That’s a problem. But it fits with his dominant personality. And his voice recording is very rough, giving you that raw furious feeling you expect from ’94 Kyo, but which hasn’t been really delivered that well in the past. Now I see him as the shoto-killer. But he hasn’t been integrated into the game. Playmore just made him the best he could be, not really balancing him against the other characters. So you’ve got two points of light, surrounded by a drab cast of familiars.

The coloring does little to help this. There’s a lot of middling grey and somber brown in the backgrounds, and the characters don’t seem to care about them at all. So why should we?

The characters themselves, while they animate perhaps the best that they ever have, are also a bit sparse-looking. I can’t pinpoint why this is, but again, I think it has something to do with the chosen subdued color palate.

And I feel that I must address the packaging. I care not what anyone else says about it, the cover art is amateurish and out of place. It makes me wonder if it's not the work of some higher-up's progeny. The originally planned cover now graces the inner sleeve, in squished form. But it's so small that I can't even turn the manual around and pretend. The original was sparse and stylish - which would have fit. This...does not. And if you're going to put some Falcoon art in there, put it on the front, not the back. So the visual aesthetics weren't really emphasized for some reason.

At the same time, the music is better recorded and better composed than the last three games combined. Not to say that it’s great – KOF music has never really been tops per se – but it’s a damn sight better than 2001, I’ll tell you that. Too bad the game doesn’t play with it, like…at all. So there’s not much more to say about it.

The removal of the 4-character system is baffling. It allowed choice between having strikers or not, while also adding greater team customization potential. Returning to the bare 3 on 3 as 2002 does…it feels more like a cop-out than a deliberate move. As Eric-Jon mentions, if this is to be a retrospective of sorts, shouldn’t it have the modes to support this?

And the extras are puzzling. And not puzzling in the way that 2000 and 2001 were. They added things then. Puzzles. But 2002 adds…characters? That’s a pretty standard-issue extra, showing nothing of the love and devotion we saw in 2001.

The Challenge Modes that one uses to unlock the characters are laughably easy, no matter the difficulty level set in the options screen. First time through with Terry in the single challenge, I made it clear to Rugal, then lost by a hair. That is to say, I beat every character in the roster except for Krauser, in a row, gaining only a moderate amount of life after each battle. You’ve seen me play. And I’m not as good as that should suggest.

It’s a tedious chore to go through, especially in the time attack mode. Just beat larger and larger numbers of enemies in longer and longer amounts of time. The only time I didn’t end with over 1:00 of extra time was when I had less than 1:00 to start with. This is a slight exaggeration, but not by much. I was averaging 15 seconds per enemy, and they were giving me at least 30, usually 40. So it’s not difficult or ‘challenging’, merely extremely time consuming.

There’s no arguing against the fact that it plays well. So if you’re one of those who cares not a whit for the story, the interaction, the feeling of KOF and merely wants to build combos and such, this is actually a rather good choice. It animates nicely, sounds even better, and plays rather sharply. Might be a good one to show your buddies when they just want to beat things up.

But if you look for an integration of mind, body and soul in your games, 2001 is without question your ultimate prize.

brandon sheffield hates nothing more than what he loves













My feeling





Release Date
June 19 2003

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