The King of Fighters '98: Ultimate Match Review
If you see the title, The King of Fighters ’98: Ultimate Match, wouldn’t you assume it was a decade-old game? Well, this one actually just came out last month for the PS2, and we figured it’d be fun to take a trip down memory lane. See, even though it’s brand new, it still holds to the same old-school foundations that will appeal to all you veteran fans of the genre. This franchise never was able to compete with the heavy hitters (no pun intended) like Tekken and Virtua Fighter, but you will find that there are plenty of loyal KoF followers who have a penchant for colorful 2D visuals and in-depth, button-intensive gameplay. It’s obviously not the same as fighting in three dimensions but then again, they don’t want it to be the same. We refer to these fans because they are the target audience for Ultimate Match; the avid and hardcore will give it a chance, but it’ll likely be ignored by gamers who don’t fall into the niche KoF fan category. Really, that’s all this is- a nod to the niche crowd.
As we just mentioned “color,” we should probably start there in regards to the visuals. Of course, you can’t expect anything too technically proficient simply because it’s a PS2 title that only utilizes two dimensions, but there’s no rule that says 2D games can’t be pretty. In fact, if the hand-drawn artistry is good enough, you will see some of the more impressive graphical achievements with only two dimensions…we don’t necessarily get that with Ultimate Match, but the presentation will suffice. As we said, the target audience is the die-hard fans, and they certainly won’t find much to complain about. Even so, you would think SNK could’ve cleaned up some of the blurrier, jaggier textures and sharp edges; such an upgrade would’ve made the game shine brighter and wouldn’t have annoyed the intended demographic. There just isn’t a whole lot to talk about, but at the very least, you get that patented KoF flash that made the series so damn popular in the first place. Graphically speaking, it could’ve used some polishing, but we won’t get too anal. Bottom line- it looks like The King of Fighters. Nothing wrong with that.
The sound is in the same boat. All you really get is the old-school soundtrack and effects you grew accustomed to a decade ago, with virtually nothing in the way of freshness. But again, why should we complain if all we’re looking for is a re-release of one of the best fighters of the era? You’ve got those funky Japanese electronic beats and the occasional rock track superimposed over the in-your-face effects, which are quite sharp (perhaps sharper than we remember them in the original King of Fighters ‘98…?), and satisfying. For the most part, absolutely everything you see and hear in this game is extraordinarily similar to what you saw and heard in the original title ten years ago. How exactly are we supposed to analyze it? And isn’t it exceedingly difficult to assign a number to the category? Comparing it to other fighters of this generation is ridiculous, of course, but we’d still like to think a few new tracks, effects, and visual bonuses would’ve had a positive impact.
Okay, let’s get this out of the way right now: because the game is old and because they’re basing it on an old arcade/Neo-Geo title, the character models and animations appear hazy, out-of-focus and almost entirely devoid of intricate detail. Heck, the game didn’t really impress even back then, so what chance does it have now? But outside of that, we get exactly what we expect with the addition of the meat of the gameplay, Ultimate Match. Not only do we get over 60 characters to mess around with, but there are a few new ones you didn’t see before, and when you enter the Ultimate Match option, you can choose between three Command Modes. These Command Modes let you determine how your fighters behave in combat; the first two Modes are Advanced and Extra (neither of which are new), but that Ultimate Command is cool. It’s simple, really- you can choose a specific fighting type from each the Advanced and Extra Mode and combine them for “ultimate” effectiveness! For extra fun, you can even alter how your power gauge fills; you can either do it the traditional way and let it fill by landing blows, or you can fill it manually.
As for the controls themselves, let’s just say that KoF has never felt like any other fighting franchise. At first glance, there doesn’t appear to be much of a learning curve, but once you play for a while, you’ll quickly start to realize just how much practice is required before you can consider yourself a good player. For the most part, this re-issuing of a great arcade fighter reminds us of this fact, but it also reminds us of just how cheesy your computer opponent would often be. If you remember the older generation, you’ll probably remember instances where you – or somebody you know – flipped out on a fighting game for being uber-lame, and ended up breaking a controller. Perhaps even over the family dog’s head (see what violent video games can do to you?!). But for a select few, this challenge is exactly what they desire; while we can sit here and call the computer pathetically cheesy, they will claim it only adds to the difficulty. …well, yes and no. The problem is, when your opponent continually executes the exact same move over and over again, you’re going to get annoyed and that’s not necessarily legitimate. No matter how you rationalize the situation, we never thought this was fair.
But what is fair is the ridiculous amount of tweaking and customization you’re allowed; we say “ridiculous” because we’re still thinking of a decade-old game and we’re not comparing it to anything current. There really is a lot to get involved in, though; the robust Practice mode will help you a great deal when you get started, the Neo Geo version is specifically designed for all you purists out there, and being able to select between Extra, Advanced and Ultimate on a continual basis will keep you fighting fans absorbed for quite a while. We also have to admit to liking the way KoF is set up: it’s basically a three-on-three setup, but each character fights individually. The first team to eliminate the opposing three fighters wins the match and moves on, and of course, you never have to worry about a storyline. You do, however, get the amusing flawed translations many of us remember from a time long past. Just look at what the characters have to say after winning or losing a match. HAha.
There really isn’t much else to talk about. The King of Fighters ’98: Ultimate Match is pretty darn similar to the original game, with a few nice gameplay tweaks that make the complexity really stand out. The two biggest drawbacks are obvious to us: first and foremost, what we’ve been saying all along; i.e., there really isn’t much in the way of upgrades or enhancements, and secondly, the lack of balance. Perhaps it’s only because there are so many characters, but it just seems as if too many of them fail to stack up against certain other fighters, regardless of skill. This can get very irritating during later stages of the game, but we figure it’s just something you have to pay for if you want a gigantic roster. In the end, it’s really just for the fans. They’ll probably love it, but as far as anyone else is concerned, it may seem alien and incredibly old-fashioned. It’s just one of those times where you have to say, “you needed to be there.”
4/8/2009 Ben Dutka