PlayStation PlayStation 2 Reviews

Second Dream Match + Tales Of Ash Part 1 ('02 - 11)

Kyo (far left), Elizabeth (left), Shen Woo (right), and Ash Crimson (far right)

Another Preface?

As I'm editing these posts and attempting to preserve my thoughts during the time these were written, I wanted to briefly pull up a timeline for this King of Fighters retrospection. I tried my best to leave "no stone unturned" and with the amount of information in each post, it becomes obvious that all of this wasn't written in "November 2020."

There was a huge hiatus between now and then and this chapter was written around July 2021. At this point, The King of Fighters 15 was announced, character trailers were released every week, and the theme shifted from could KOF 15 exist to KOF 15 does exist.

This doesn't change much about the content moving forward and there are two more chapters after this, but I wanted to mention first that we were closing the gap on KOF 15 a lot sooner than the previous chapters. Now, moving on to arguably the most popular dream match and the beginning of the Ash Saga.

King of Fighters 15 Ash Crimson Sketch by Tomohiro Nakata

The King of Fighters 2002

While 2002 would mark the release of The King of Fighters 2002, it was, for lack of a better term, an unpolished mess that SNK would later polish in 2009. Despite its rugged and rough edges, 2002 became a popular game on the same level as 98, with both games still being played on red Neo Geo cabinets across the nation at your local laundromat and game store. 

2002 was the second “Dream Match” in the King of Fighters series and much like ‘98 prior, it’s a non-canon game that aimed to bring back as many characters from the previous titles as possible. The problem with the original release of 2002 is that the roster, for a “dream match” title, was severely lacking compared to ‘98 at launch. Many character staples, including King and Geese, were infamously missing, limited to cameo appearances although they along with a handful would return on the console version.

Despite questionable roster changes, King of Fighter 2002 remains a staple in most communities.

If 2002 was “just another game” in the NESTS chapter, then the omissions wouldn’t be an issue. However, in a title where it’s expected that all of the cast would be returning, like the previous “dream match” ‘98, this was inexcusable. At least, listening to popular demand, another Kyo clone was added at the very least in Kusanagi, based on ‘95 Kyo. Sarcasm aside, this would be the final game to feature K9999 as mentioned prior, due to SNK retaining the license and eliminating all mentions of the character.

Lackluster roster aside, 2002 marked the return of the series 3-on-3 action, eliminating the Striker mechanic and providing a familiar experience to veteran KOF players who didn’t catch on to the newer style at the time. The “Wire Whip” system introduced in 2001 returns in 2002, yet the gameplay itself was an overall safe experience to bring back the fanbase lost from its more unique mechanics in previous titles.

For arcades, it was a solid enough experience for players to remain hooked to this day (Every team has at least an Angel or Vanessa) but for consoles, it would be the final game in the series to be released on the Dreamcast in 2003, which is an impressive feat for a console that has long since been discontinued.

The King of Fighters 2002 Ultimate Match

Jumping a bit ahead in time to the year 2009, SNK’s updated remaster, Ultimate Match was released in arcades as the definitive edition to the dream match title. The first major improvement was its impressive roster, not only adding every character from 2002 but also almost every missing character who existed between ‘99 and ‘2001 at some point. Unfortunately, veteran characters who appeared from ‘94 to ‘97 and did not return from ‘99 onward, including Chizuru and Saisyu, didn’t make the cut.

The "better" King of Fighters 2002

But, hey, just in case fans were dying with anticipation, the two Kyo clones from King of Fighters ‘99, Kyo-1, and Kyo-2, would return in 2002 UM. They would join Kusanagi, introduced in 2002, to form an entire team labeled the “Clone Team.” This meant that, including the three Kyo clones, Kyo himself, Krizald, K’, and the newly added Nameless, there are seven different “Kyos” all under one roof, although the last three mentioned are a bit of a stretch while being “clones” in the story only.

As hinted in 2001, Nameless would replace K9999, inheriting a similar move list and a fleshed-out story compared to his predecessor. To this day, Ultimate Match would be his first and only appearance, while many consider Nameless to exist purely to replace K9999.

The game finally saw an American release, first on the Xbox Live Arcade in 2010, and a few years later on Steam in 2015. It would remain relatively dormant in online play until October 2020 when it would receive rollback netcode support by developers Code Mystics. The upgraded online support was enough to increase the player count to levels that most games would dream of reaching, much less a fighting game and even less so a King of Fighters game. 

In 2021, the game would receive a rollback netcode patch, improving online playability and serving as a base for future titles.

The engine used to improve the netcode in The King of Fighters 2002 Ultimate Match served as the basis for the PlayStation 4 version released earlier in 2021. Since the late success of 02 UM, bringing a relatively older title to relevancy, many fans have waited with bated breath for the future of online in The King of Fighters 15. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves as there’s still plenty of King of Fighters to go, including the return of a company that never truly left.

Ash Saga / Tales Of Ash Part 1

The King of Fighters 2003

During the Eolith era of The King of Fighters, SNK was in the process of a resurgence due to crafty planning of the company’s rebirth long before the original company went belly-up. Before the company filed for bankruptcy, company founder Eikichi Kawasaki left SNK to form his own company, Playmore, which following SNK’s bankruptcy was able to attain all previous assets. Outsourcing the King of Fighters series to a South Korean company allowed Playmore to resource itself with its former staff and assets. By the time The King of Fighters 2003 was out of the oven, Playmore became established enough as its own company that Kawasaki was able to change its name to SNK Playmore, fully solidifying that SNK was back from the jaws of death.

The King of Fighters 2003 a.k.a SNK if they made Mahvel.

As inspirational as the story of the SNK’s rebirth was, highlighting the business savviness of Kawasaki himself, The King of Fighters 2003 is just as inspirational, marking a new beginning of a new saga, led by the development staff of the original SNK. 2003 was also the last King of Fighters to be released on the Neo Geo hardware, a device that has been with the series since its birth in ‘94. It’s impressive that the Neo Geo has been pushed to the absolute limits for as long as it has, considering that at the time of 2003’s release, the Neo Geo has been through the Sega Genesis and SNES era to the PlayStation 2, Xbox, and Gamecube era. The graphics in 2003 hadn’t missed a beat, only increasing in quality over time that most fans would be forgiven to forget that the Neo Geo was older than it appeared.

Much like 2002, 2003 was a return to the series’ iconic 3-on-3 gameplay with a unique twist that changed the pace of gameplay to a faster one with the inclusion of tag teams. Instead of the traditional round-based gameplay that the series was known for, the match ends as soon as all three members of a team are KO’d. Each fighter replaces the current one in real-time, not unlike other 3-on-3 tag games like Marvel vs Capcom 2, and characters can tag in freely although health does not recover over time like those titles. This new system, combined with the wall bounce attacks introduced in 2001, and initial game-breaking glitches for the arcade version meant that matches were often chaotic. While this change may have turned some players off, it’s become common for the series to switch up its mechanics with every new entry in the series, 2003 being no different.

The King of Fighters 2003 was one of two games to incorporate on-the-fly tag team action as opposed to the conventional team battle.

This game marked the beginning of the “Tales of Ash” arc, focusing on the new series protagonist Ash Crimson and filling many of the tropes the series has been known for, including the clash of character bloodlines, secret societies, and terrorist organizations. The white-haired slender protagonist differed from Kyo and K’ as an ambiguously moral character who seemed to act on his own accord, with his teammates also on a similar spectrum. Duo Lon, for example, is an assassin who shares the same target as Lin, while Shen Woo is a street brawler based in Hong Kong who lives and breathes fighting.

Kusanagi returns with a retconned origin story, where instead of being a Kyo clone created from NESTS, he’s now a...Kyo clone created by Chizuru who was more than likely under the influence of possession, which would be the basis of summoning her deceased twin sister, Maki. Due to this, Chizuru returns as a sub-boss along with the introduction of Maki, the latter of whom is unplayable as she bears elements of ‘96 Chizuru. In many ways, the return of Chizuru harkens a throwback to seven years prior.

There are more characters to mention, as 2003 shook up the roster once more, transitioning from the 4-on-4 gameplay to the 3-on-3 gameplay, including the absence of Andy Bogard for the first time since the beginning of the series and Takuma once again leaving altogether. Other characters who would take their leave include Choi and Heidern, while characters who were once mainstays in their respective teams would form their teams, notably Athena and the “High School Girls” Team following the removal of Kensou. Iori and Kyo are, once again, single-entry characters, entering the tournament for their reasons.

Many characters from Garou Mark Of The Wolves would appear for the first time in KOF history.

Replacing some of the veteran characters introduced newcomers, including Tizoc and Gato from Garou, joining Team Fatal Fury and Team Outlaw, with Yamazaki and Billy, respectively. Malin, a fast and agile young woman, joins Athena and returning sumo wrestler Hinako for the High School Girls team, rounding out the newcomer and returning cast of characters. Everyone else was characters included in 2001, offering a sizable roster.

There are many sub-bosses and boss characters in 2003, each with their agenda of participating in the tournament. Some aren’t “evil” per se, but rather have their reasons to fight, much like Kyo and Iori moving solo. One such character is Adel, who is the son of Rugal, engaging in his investigation with the main villain sect in the Ash saga. The true final boss, Mukai is one such member of the villainous group, whose other representatives appear in future titles within the Ash Saga up to its conclusion.

The American release of 2003 was bundled alongside 2002, keeping with the tradition of offering two titles in one package following the release of The King of Fighters 2001+2002 on the PlayStation 2 and Xbox. As with every game in the series up until this point, all of the titles from ‘94 to 2003 were released on PC and modern consoles including the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Switch under the “Neo Geo ACA” or Arcade Archives brand. Exceptions include updated releases that were already on the PC like the aforementioned online remaster of The King of Fighters ‘97 and the definitive versions of ‘98 and 2002. The following addition in the series marked a turning point for the KOF series, birthing a new generation with the intensity of a snowball rolling downhill.

The King of Fighters XI

For the past ten years, the King of Fighters was released each year consecutively in the arcades without skipping a beat, even when SNK was in its restructuring phase. When not even a bankruptcy can disrupt the flow of a yearly release, King of Fighters is in a different league than most sports titles that have been on hiatus throughout its history (Hi, NBA Live!). However, the company was going through burnout and the aging Neo Geo platform wasn’t doing any of the development team any favors. While The King of Fighters 2003 was a step in the right direction, their next title needed extra love and care while being groundbreaking enough to turn heads and impress naysayers who believed that the series was on life support.

After 2003, the series went on hiatus for almost two years until the game’s inevitable release in arcades in 2005. As the series wasn’t going for a yearly release anymore, it didn’t make much sense for the game to continue to name itself after the dates of the year. Thus, the next game in the series, including the following games, would be named in numerical order, something that most players didn’t pay attention to that The King of Fighters was 11 games in.

The King of Fighters 11 picked up right where 2003 left off and remains a unique entry in the series.

XI was also the first time that the series would be released on an entirely different engine, the Atomiswave, putting the aging Neo Geo to rest. As the Atomiswave was based on the Naomi and in turn the Dreamcast platform, the power of the engine was considerably more than the Neo Geo. Graphics included 3D rendered backdrops, improved stage transitions, higher quality sound, and colorful palates that simply weren’t possible before.

The best instance of this being showcased is via the graphic interface of XI, offering a simple array of shapes and colors, yet with crisp visuals that made the game appear modern. For a title released in 2005, a game appearing “modern” sounds redundant, but remembering the history of the series and the hardware used, this seemed like a jump into present times rather than being stuck in the past.

The gameplay remained largely unchanged from 2003, maintaining a single-round format where fighters can freely tag in and out during the match. In addition to the power gauges used for super moves and cancels, skill gauges were also added to use with the game’s upgraded tag mechanics. One major improvement over 2003 is the ability to tag in a character during an offensive attack, meaning combos can be continued on hit as the player’s teammate is switched in. Attacks on block can prove just as advantageous, canceling an attack’s recovery frames short through the use of a tag attack. 

The Atmoiswave hardware marked the return of 3D backgrounds with sharper graphics at a higher resolution.

Likewise, while under attack, supporting characters can do a “saving attack,” interrupting the opponent’s offense and forcing the game back to neutral. These adjustments added a new layer of strategy as meter management is of utmost importance alongside team composition. While “touch-of-death” combos are certainly possible due to the ability to continue combos, the ability to get out of said situations is also as important depending on the gauge available. Super cancels were also improved upon, called “Dream Cancels,” which canceled a super into an even more powerful super, a system that would be improved upon in later titles.

Much like in 2003, the roster was once again shaken up but had its fair of controversy thanks to the removal of series staples Andy and Choi from the previous game, but also Robert, Joe, Leona, and Mai, all of whom were participants in every single King of Fighters game to the dismay of many character loyalists. In exchange, many new faces were highly requested characters including Fatal Fury’s own, Duck King, joining Kim and Terry for the first and only time.

Many fan favorites would make their one and only debut here. Please give us Momoko, SNK.

The return of Kensou also marked the return of the Psycho Soldiers team, alongside newcomer Momoko who is a young girl studying the art of Capoeira. Kula also returns to the series after her absence in 2003, forming a team with her rival-turned-friends K’ and Maxima. B. Jenet from Garou would join Tizoc and Gato, introduced in the previous title, to form the Garou team as all three were from the same game. Eiji and Kasumi, the former whose last and only appearance up until that point was The King of Fighters ‘95, exactly ten years ago, would return with Malin to form the “Anti-Kyoukugenryu” team, meant to, as the name suggests, antagonist Yuri and Ryo’s fighting style for personal reasons.

Two new characters introduced, Oswald and Elizabeth would enter the fray, both characters being important to the Ash story, especially the latter. Lastly, for the first time officially, Kyo and Iori settle their bad blood at the request of Chizuru to form a team to investigate the villainous group of the Ash saga, with superfan Shingo tagging along just because.

The combination of existing teams, the elimination of teams due to the lack of presence of the team’s staples, and the influx of new characters made XI its most unique game yet in terms of roster. The bonus characters included are all from other SNK titles including Buriki One and Savage Reign, which, if counting the console-exclusive characters, bumps the roster to a size that’s on par with previous Dream Match titles.

The PlayStation 2 version featured characters that surprisingly didn't make the Arcade cut, like Mai of all people.

The PlayStation 2 version, which spoiler alert The King of Fighters XI’s only home release was on the PS2, is the most complete version, adding back the characters that were absent in the original arcade release. Mai, Robert, Geese, and even Mr. Big, all return as well as two new characters who would only appear in this version of the game, Tung Fu Rue and Hotaru Futaba, from Fatal Fury and Garou respectively. In case you were also wondering, yes, there is a Kyo clone in this game in the form of “NESTS” Kyo, based on ‘99’s Kyo. All of the exclusive characters were based on their appearances in Neo Geo Battle Coliseum, another Atomiswave-based game that is an SNK “Dream Match” title in its own right.

Adel returns as a mid-boss character including a new mid-boss entirely, Shion, who was one of my favorite character designs. An androgynous young man wielding a spear who can also engage in hand-to-hand combat should the opportunity calls for it. While most mid-bosses fight with brute force, Shion fights with beautiful movements based on various Chinese martial arts, which wouldn’t seem out of place on the main roster. The invisible flying darts were BS, especially when I played the game during my younger years, but I always enjoyed Shion as a character and he’s up there, along with Momoko, as one of the characters I’d like to see make a return to The King of Fighters.

He is indeed an alien.

Magaki, or the “pink alien” according to Maximilian, immediately sucked whatever fun I had with Shion as good ole “SNK syndrome” returned. Magaki’s fight was more relatable to how one would play King of Fighters at the arcade if they had access to a beefed-up Athena who would play keep-out all day with her Psycho Ball and her shield. Now add multiple air fireballs that come from seemingly nowhere and a teleport to get in close should you dare to enact the same strategy. That’s how it is fighting Magaki, meaning players will have to make use of the new tag system to ensure their team is healthy enough to make it through to the long haul.

The King of Fighters XI was the end of an era, which was ironic at the time as the game would be the first and last time that the series would run on the Atomiswave engine. Behind the scenes, the development team was cooking up a new King of Fighters that was different from any game before it. SNK would move away from its traditional sprite-based routes and reach the level of next-generation gaming that was expected at the time, should the veteran company have any hopes of keeping up with the curve. The next entry wouldn’t just keep up with the curve of other 2D fighters at the time, but in some ways, it would go ahead of it. SNK just needed to test the waters first.

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