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The Dream Match + NESTS Saga (1998 - 2001)

The King of Fighters 1999 Promotional Image

The King of Fighters ‘98

Nothing’s gonna stop, it’s 1998!

The Summer of 1998 was an important season for King of Fighters as the next game would be one that many who played at the time knew would become a timeless classic. When players think of King of Fighters, generally speaking, King of Fighters ‘98 is the one game that many refer to as the flagship title in the series. For a series that has 14 titles, with a fifteenth on the way, the fifth entry in the series remains one of the most important not just for KOF, but for fighting games in general.

The King Of Fighters '98 as it appears on modern consoles (In its original form)

‘98 was the first KOF to introduce the concept of a “dream match,” making ‘98 a non-canon game in the series following the aftermath of the Orochi Saga. Rather than beginning a new saga, ‘98 had a basic “tournament invitational” story similar to the original ‘94. This allowed almost every character that was featured from ‘94 to ‘97 to return in one game. In 2008, the definitive version, The King of Fighters 98: Ultimate Match, added the remaining roster of characters that were missing, including Eiji and Kasumi, boasting the largest roster in a single KOF at the time.

There was something for everyone as team compositions that weren’t possible in previous games were now possible. Rather than reusing stages from previous games, the stages and sprites were all-new, making the game feel less like an anthology and more like a new and complete game.

Gameplay is an improvement of ‘97’s, keeping the same Advanced and Extra gameplay mechanics while the amount of creativity means that no two players are playing the same team or, if the chance they are, not playing the same style. This differs from other games with large rosters, like Marvel vs Capcom 2, as while there are definitive “top tiers” (like Iori…) the game is fairly balanced to the point where players can build a team to cover their strongest character if they so choose.

The King of Fighters '98 continues to be the "gold standard" for the series today.

To this day the game is still wildly played thanks to its Ultimate Match remake on almost every major console currently. Speaking on its vanilla release, the original version is still played at arcades and game stores that bear the iconic red Neo Geo stand-up cabinet complete with heated fights and high-stakes tournaments.

As with most console ports, speaking on the original ‘98 game, it was released on the Neo Geo and PlayStation, omitting the Sega Saturn as the Saturn’s final game was ‘97. Instead, Sega would release an exclusive King of Fighters title for their newest console, the Dreamcast, which was leagues more powerful than the Saturn and the PlayStation in turn. 

The King of Fighters 1999 Dream Match

The following year was an important one for both Sega and SNK as they reached an agreement to not only announce the release of ‘99 first on the Dreamcast but exclusively port it to the Dreamcast as well. Thus, we got---

Oh wait, it’s just the Dreamcast port of ‘98? Well, yes. But actually no. It’s arguably better than the original arcade version.

Given the Dreamcast was the first system of the then-”next generation” of consoles, Dream Match was one of the many fighting games released during the Dreamcast’s short life span that would set the bar for future titles. Taking advantage of the upgraded system in comparison to the Neo-Geo, you’re greeted with a fully animated opening cutscene. The menus are touched up with animations and flair, even down to the loading screens. 

It would take some time before the actual King of Fighters 1999 would release on the Dreamcast, but this certainly confused fans at the time.

There are loading screens, which is to be expected as even the Dreamcast’s GD-ROM hardware was a tad bit slower than loading data from a cartridge. Despite this, the load times are very quick, with fights starting and moving in-between rounds seamlessly. The graphics are also upgraded from the arcade version, featuring 3D environments in the background for the first time in the series.

The major criticism of the Dreamcast version would be the controller itself. Anyone who has held a Dreamcast controller can attest to the difficulty of playing 2D fighters on it, with arcade sticks being made for the console yet it was nowhere near as much of a high commodity as they are now. Thus, the authenticity of the arcade gameplay is somewhat marred once players hold The clunky Dreamcast controller in their hands.

Despite this, not only would 1999 Dream Match be considered as close to “arcade perfect,” it excelled from the arcade versions in several ways. Although short-lived, the improvement of quality from Neo Geo to the Dreamcast would force SNK to take note sooner than later when it came to future hardware. The Dreamcast magic would continue with The King Of Fighters: Evolution, the Dreamcast port of The King Of Fighters 1999 which gave ‘99 the same treatment as ‘98. With that said…


The (actual) King of Fighters ‘99

The beginning of a new generation for King of Fighters started in ‘99, following the catchy intros and fun aesthetics of the previous title. For the sixth title in the series, a new chapter began in the series, named the NESTS saga. As usual for the beginning of a saga, new characters, graphics, and gameplay graced The King of Fighters, however, like most beginnings, it would take several games for the NESTS saga to find its soul.

Once again, The King of Fighters 1999 as it would appear on modern consoles.

While it may be a new generation, some things remained the same, including another Summer arcade release on July ‘99. The pressure was on SNK to piggyback off the success of ‘98 and ‘99 suffered from the previous game’s success. There were several mechanics exclusive to the title that would be built upon in the following two titles, including the addition of four-on-four fights.

While the classic 3-on-3 gameplay was featured in ‘99, an additional fourth character, known as a “Striker,” was introduced as the supporting character for each team. The Striker can be called in at any point, providing a specific effect depending on the character used as a Striker. Terry, for example, does his signature “Power Dunk” as a support attack, which can be used defensively or offensively. Other Strikers, like Athena, don’t have an attack yet can provide beneficial effects like the ability to heal her teammates for a set amount. 

The new “Striker” mechanic bears a lot of influence from Capcom fighters at the time, specifically the Marvel vs. fighting games in which players, similarly, call in assist characters. While it’s unknown if Capcom was a direct influence, it’s safe to assume that this was the case, considering the friendly rivalry and sway that the developers had for each other in the 90s.

Another mechanic was slight changes to the main gameplay for ‘98, foregoing the Advanced and Extra modes of gameplay in exchange for a simpler experience. The traditional three-stock system remains in ‘99, including a MAX mode. However, two specific “MAX” modes were included for variety’s sake, a Counter Mode and Armor Mode. Counter Mode is similar to traditional MAX mode with the exception that attacks deal more damage while characters are unrestricted to the number of super moves they can do in 15 seconds. Armor Mode grants the fighter “super armor” for 15 seconds, allowing players to brute force their way without getting interrupted by the opposing player. While the opponent is unable to use super moves in Armor Mode, the tradeoff for an unstoppable offense may be enough to turn the tides of a losing battle.

This was the first KOF game I played and it was the PlayStation version. I knew then how much I was getting ripped off as a kid.

The character roster for ‘99 shakes things up as a mix of returning and new characters make up the roster, unfortunately eliminating several staples from the series in the process. One of the newest additions in the NESTS saga, K’, “replaces” Kyo as the main protagonist, centering the next three games around him. This time around, Kyo is used as a test subject to create clones to make the “perfect fighting machine.” K’ was one of the results, having a part of Kyo’s DNA, and becomes an enemy of the NESTS following his breakout. 

Other new characters include Whip, a clone based on the older sister of K’, Bao, a kid who has the same psychic abilities as Athena and Kensou, Jhun Hoon who partners with Kim, and Li Xiangfei from Fatal Fury, who joins the Women’s Fighters Team. Returning characters include Kasumi and Takuma, the latter for the first time since ‘95. Goro Daimon is one of the characters who doesn’t return to ‘99, with the “Hero” team consisting of K’, his partner Maxima, Benimaru, and Shingo.

This marks the first time that Kyo was absent from the KOF roster as a focal point in the story, with SNK citing that they were initially considering removing Kyo and Iori, wishing to focus the story on K’ instead. However, due to the popularity of the character, both fighters were included as late additions, hence the reason why both are single entries and, in turn, are hidden characters. In the case of Iori, this is the second game in a row in which Iori is without a team.

The ACTUAL actual King of Fighters 1999 on the Dreamcast...

To coincide with the plot involving the Kyo clones, there are two additional “Kyo” characters named Kyo-1 and Kyo-2 respectively. Original naming conventions aside, these characters bear resemblance to ‘94-’95 Kyo and ‘96-’97 Kyo respectively, both with his dedicated move lists from those games. The final boss himself, Krizald, is also based on Kyo, dubbing himself the “perfect Kyo clone,” yet fighting him is like fighting a Kyo on steroids and hard drugs, complete with the “I’ll toss my coat on the ground to show you I’m serious” cliche. If he’s a perfect clone yet he’s better than Kyo in every way, what is the point of having Kyo around? 

Don’t pay much attention to it, it’s just another case of being salty due to SNK syndrome.

This was the first King of Fighters game I’ve played, back when I was a kid renting video games from Blockbuster (showing my age here…), and me not knowing a damn thing about games being an only child in a single-parent household. That meant most of the games I’d discover would be through sheer “trial and error” rather than word of mouth, although gaming magazines certainly helped back then.

The point I’m trying to make is, that had someone told me that the PlayStation port of The King of Fighters 99 was so terrible, I wouldn’t have bothered playing it. For the longest time, my first impressions of the series for me were negative due to my less-than-stellar experiences involving the title. Previously I mentioned that the PlayStation versions of The King of Fighters were the weakest ports, specifically for its long loading times, and things came to a head in ‘99. Fans would think that, after five years since ‘94, developers would know how to port 2D arcade fighters to the PlayStation, especially with games like Street Fighter Alpha 3 being a stellar port plus bonus content.

The absence of several fan-favorite characters would shake up the roster as well as the player base.

Not only is this barebones, but the long loading times between each fight, and each round, and the average-ish graphics aren’t doing the Sony version any favors. This was the final KOF game to be released on the console and as a sendoff, the port solidified the troubled history that SNK had with the PlayStation console.

As mentioned earlier, the Dreamcast port was released the same year as the PlayStation port, yet much like the ‘98 port, it’s considered better than “arcade perfect,” utilizing the power of the Dreamcast in ways that the aging Neo Geo console could never achieve, including animations and 3D backgrounds. Characters who would appear in 2000 would debut in this game as “Striker” only characters, which would now be a good time as any to discuss King of Fighter’s introduction to the new millennium.

The King of Fighters 2000

The beginning of the 21st century marked a new beginning to The King of Fighters as well as SNK in general as the company was going through a bankruptcy period. 2000 would be the last game that would be under the original SNK name. Continuing where ‘99 left off, 2000 ironed out many of the kinks left behind in ‘99 as the NESTS saga reached a turning point, refining what ‘99 sought to bring while keeping most of what made King of Fighters a recognizable fighter.

Modern consoles, King of Fighters 2000.

The Striker system was improved upon, allowing players to call assists in the middle of attacks and other actions rather than being stationary, making the flow of combat feel natural. Players can also indefinitely call as many Strikers as they wish by converting their power meter stock through the usage of taunting. Fighters have an alternate version of their Strikers, dubbed Another Striker, with other characters having a third Striker, Maniac Striker, featuring character cameos from other SNK titles and previous King of Fighters games. All of these updates added several layers of depth to a mechanic that seemed plastered on in the previous game.

The roster saw many new characters that would become staples in future King of Fighters minus the abundance of Kyo clones from the previous games, much to the relief of many KOF fans at the time. Fan favorites including Kula Diamond, Vanessa, and Ramon made their debut here, returning in the following King of Fighters titles with Kula appearing in every KOF game to date.

With an iconic trio of heroes, The King of Fighters 2000 set the precedent for modern KOF past '98.

Other characters, including Hinako, Lin, and Seth, have appeared in far fewer titles, the latter two only appearing in 2000 and 2001, not counting ‘02. To this day, these characters are highly requested, with Hinako herself being one of the most played characters in the games she was featured in. Aside from the new inclusions and various team shake-ups, 2000’s roster is rare in that there are no removals but only additions, largely in part thanks to the 4-person teams that remained since ‘99

The boss this time is Zero, or rather, a clone of Zero, who is the final boss of the game, following the mid-boss being Kula Diamond herself. While being difficult to fight in his own right, comments will be reserved for The King of Fighters ‘01 as the game not only features the true Zero, but a final boss who is even more annoying to fight, keeping up with the tradition of the final game in the series, The Clone Zero is no pushover, however, but, 2000 received praise for pushing the creativity of the series further than prior games in the series.

The increase in hardware power meant it was possible to bring the "arcade" to your home.

For the first time, the home ports were on par with the arcade titles as this would mark the debut of The King of Fighters series on the PlayStation 2, eliminating most criticisms from the PlayStation era of KOF games. The game was also released on the Dreamcast as one of the final titles released on the console officially, as the Dreamcast was in its twilight year in 2002. In 2003, The King of Fighters would receive an unexpected port on a device that players would be forgiven to assume that it’d be a weak port, but it honestly became a gateway for me to get into the series in more ways than one.

The King of Fighters EX2: Howling Blood

Released in 2003, The King of Fighters EX2: Howling Blood is the sequel to The King of Fighters EX, which is the GBA port of KOF ‘99. This would make EX2 a GBA port of 2000, but both games are different from their sources in their own right. Rather than having four players to a team, with the fourth being a Striker assist, EX2 returns to the series’ traditional 3-on-3 format, while also combining the Striker system from previous titles.

While '99 was my first experience, King of Fighters EX2 was the first KOF I owned so it gets its own section.

This time, your Striker depended on what characters remained on a team, with the final character on the team going without a Striker assist, adding a layer of strategy in building your team. If you feel you can close out a game with no assist, you’d want to pick your strongest fighter last versus having your weaker characters backed up by assists.

The most interesting about this game is the addition of new characters exclusive to the story of EX and EX2. Both games take place in an alternate timeline, similar to the alternate timelines of The King of Fighters Maximum Impact, in which Kyo is aided by a girl named Moe rather than being kidnapped by NESTS. As the involvement of NESTS becomes a non-factor in the EX series, the characters introduced in ‘99 and 2000 are not in any of the titles, focusing on an original plot with classic characters and new characters combined.

Moe and Reiji with Kyo (left) and Miu and Jun with Iori (right). To this day they remain EX exclusives.

The central character in EX, Moe, has attacks that are similar to Shingo, while in EX2 she is joined by Reiji, who fights like Chizuru. As the story relates to the previous Orochi saga, Kyo is joined by Moe and Reiji, both heirs of their respective sacred treasures. Two other new characters are completely original to their gameplay and are also treasure holders, Jun and Miu. 

Jun is a tall woman who is a grapple character, bearing some influence of Shermie, but with more wrestling-based attacks. Miu is a keep-away character, attacking with sharp features and close-range slashing attacks. Unfortunately, neither of these characters returns in any future King of Fighters titles, to the dismay of the five fans including myself who had grown up with the title.

For an early Game Boy Advance title, it remains a surprisingly decent handheld port of The King Of Fighters 2000

The roster is quite healthy for a GBA title, featuring 21 characters in total, while controls are similar to that of the usual King of Fighters gameplay. The GBA surprisingly fits KOF like a glove, thanks to KOF being a four-button game and the GBA, coincidentally, having exactly four buttons. The commands for each character’s move are faithful to their original, yet a simplified mode can be selected for GBA players who find inputting pretzel motions on a small d-pad difficult like my 11-year-old self felt. 

The graphics and sound are up to par with The King of Fighters 2000, including most of the stages from the game yet in a noticeably downscaled version. It is, however, faithful enough that it feels like a King of Fighters title in the palm of your hands and it was a great way to get introduced to the series after the abysmal King of Fighters ‘99. Nowadays, it’s worth a play for the nostalgia factor only, or for curious fans who wish to know how two GBA exclusive characters played on a rather niche title.

The King of Fighters 2001

The exciting conclusion to the NESTS trilogy was also the beginning of a new developer picking up the baton that SNK passed on following the company’s bankruptcy. For the next two games, Korean arcade developer, Eolith, held the intellectual properties of The King of Fighters series. This change of developer reflected on the gameplay, offering unique elements to the core KOF gameplay that wasn’t featured in prior titles.

The King of Fighters 2001 ACA Modern Consoles

The Striker system is once again revamped, making each game in the NESTS saga vastly different from the other. This time around, teams can decide how many Strikers are assigned to a team, ranging from one fighter to three Strikers and four fighters to no Strikers. A single-fighter team means that players will need to exercise great caution to ensure their time isn’t cut short immediately, resulting in a swift loss. In exchange for its sudden death scenario, single fighter teams are given an attack/defense boost, increased health recovery, four bars of meter, and access to three different Strikers, meaning depending on the team composition, 1-fighter teams are equal to playing against boss characters. 

Conversely, having a bonus fighter on the team may give players an extra chance to keep themselves in the game, however, compared to a 1-fighter team, each fighter is considerably weaker in overall power. Plus, the lack of a Striker and the access to only one bar of meter may be a deal-breaker to some, offering a layer of strategy similar to the Ratio System in the Capcom VS SNK series.

SNK's legal issues were one of several reasons why The King Of Fighters 2001 was vastly different from others.

Another addition to the gameplay is the addition of “Slayer Moves,” separated into two categories: Counter Wire and Critical Wire. Rather than explaining in detail what each move does, it’s simple to explain that each move that is listed as a “Slayer Move” are attacks that cause the opponent to bounce off the wall, leading to more combo opportunities. The difference between Counter and Critical Wire attacks depends on whether the attack is done in a normal hit or counter hit the state, meaning that 2001 is a more combo-heavy game than its previous predecessors. 

The new characters included in 2001 are a source of controversy among The King of Fighters as for the longest time, it was uncertain as to who owned the rights to the characters. The newest additions to the roster included the Mexican femme fatale lucadora Angel, May Lee, the South Korean Taekwondo Tokusatsu super-fan that would fit well within the likes of the Great Saiyaman from Dragonball Z, and K9999 (Kay-Four-Nine), the 9999th Kyo clone harking back to the original plot in KOF ‘99. For the longest time, I never knew the right pronunciation for K9999’s name, much like the pronunciation of K’ (Pronounced “Kay-dash” but initially pronounced “Kay-prime” due to Wester promotions).

In hindsight, we would see him again as Khronen in The King Of Fighters 15, but I miss Tetsuo.

The obvious controversy began with K9999’s design being heavily influenced by a specific anime character from a very popular movie, Tetsuo from Akira, from his appearance, attacks, and overall likeliness including the same voice actor. While the developers at Eolith may have intended K9999 as a tribute to the anime, future titles would replace K9999 with Nameless once SNK bought the series back in 2003

Internally, mentions of K9999 were strictly taboo, leading many fans to speculate that SNK hated the character in general. In a 2019 interview with community manager Krispy Kaiser, the character isn’t to be mentioned by name, only referred to as “the character that was replaced by Nameless,” and a Japanese tweet from an SNK account would further support the “He Who Must Not Be Named” stigma that K9999 currently has within the company.

It was uncertain who owned the rights to the other two characters, Angel and May Lee, especially after SNK’s complete disdain for K9999. Many fans assumed that the exclusive content would belong to Eolith and not SNK until The King of Fighters XIV brought back Angel for the first time in almost 14 years. This proved that not only did SNK own the rights to the two characters, but that there was a chance that May Lee could return for possible new games. It's 2023 now, where is my tokusatsu Tae Kwon Do girl? Please? May Lee?

Certain characters, like Foxy, had made their only appearance in this game and are long overdue for a return.

The final bosses, real Zero and Krizalid are some of the most difficult fights in the entire series. The mid-boss alone is as difficult as some of the challenging bosses, with the stupid animal and stupid bladed cape made to give players a hard time. While the developers may be unique from a different region, they were fans enough of the SNK style to keep the “SNK Syndrome” ordeal alive.

For the Western fanbase, The King of Fighters 2000/2001 was a double pack including both titles, making it easy for both the United States and the European regions to enjoy the titles from home. While the individual copies are Japan-exclusive, the series continued to support the Dreamcast versions. Following the conclusion of the NESTS Saga, much like The King of Fighters ‘98, the series would receive a second “Dream Match” game in its 2002 year, which would be the subject of controversy for many players.

It would take several years until it, too, became an arcade classic on the same level as The King of Fighters ‘98. The King of Fighters would go through several changes and upgrades in the 00s as the future would mark the comeback of a series that many considered to be on life support.

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