Friday, April 12, 2013

King of Fighters Retrospective: 2003

Some time after King of Fighters 2002 was released, SNK was born anew.  A young company named Playmore, owned by one of SNK’s founders, bought SNK, ditched Eolith, and continued their legacy under their new name: SNK Playmore, which they are known as to this day.

With the new company came a new story with a new hero and new villains.  As if a throwback to the saga that started it all, SNK Playmore returned King of Fighters to its urban fantasy setting.  They certainly knew what they were doing more in that setting than in the NESTS Chronicles, because the latest storyline, The Tales of Ash, is probably my favorite thus far.

Those of my readers who have played King of Fighters 13 should start paying particular attention, because King of Fighters 2003 begins what 13 ends.

With NESTS defeated in 2001, it seems the King of Fighters tournament can go according to plan without being interrupted by some kind of villainous presence, so new sponsors arise to resurrect it once again.  Something seems fishy though, as the invitations are suspiciously similar to a certain other person’s invitations.

In the comic I mentioned in an earlier post, King of Fighters 2002 actually happened.  From what I can tell from the comic’s flashbacks, K’’s team had to fight the resurrected boss from the game, and Whip got to fight Goenitz.  Don’t ask me how that happened.

Also, the comic didn’t try to hide who the sponsors to 2003’s KOF were, unlike in the game, where they’re never revealed until the finale.  In fact, in the comics, one of the sponsors outright murders a group of guys in front of a stadium full of people while being filmed on live TV, and every single KOF entrant sees it, with their only remarks being along the lines of “tough competition this year.”  Yes, even Heidern doesn’t do a thing about it.  I wish I were making this up.  (To be fair, the victims were undercover Interpol agents about to attack the sponsor, but how was the audience supposed to know?)  Ridiculousness like that makes King of Fighters so easy to poke fun at.

The “hero” of the Tales of Ash is the titular Ash Crimson, shown in the game’s opening.

Hey Ash.  Whatcha playin'?  Pokemon?  Groovy.
Ash has power over his own green flames.  In the comic, it’s shown that he can control these flames with incredible precision, letting him set specific things on fire while ignoring other people, or dissipating a fireball inches from someone’s face.  Furthermore, the flames can be made under his feet as well as his fist, unlike the other pyrokinetics who only shoot flames out of their hands.

Ash is also different from K’ and Kyo in that he does almost nothing heroic.  In addition to just being a French jerk, Ash pulls a number of traitorous and selfish acts that eventually results in all his former friends (and just about everyone else) turning against him.  He’s an enigma too, because nobody knows what the purpose behind his actions are until King of Fighters 13.
That’s what I like about Ash though.  He’s unpredictable and always looks like he’s calm and having fun.  Once you know the reasons behind his actions, his demeanor is actually kind of likable.

Ash is joined by 2 more newcomers: Shen Woo and Duo Lon, both of whom are also pretty shady individuals.


Shen Woo is a hot-headed Shanghai street brawler who is always looking for a fight and lives for the competition; no doubt a representation of the competitive fighting game community.  That may explain his popularity.

Duo Lon is another member of the Hizoku clan who, like Lin, is searching for Ron.  He is one of Ron's children and is considered something of royalty within the Hizoku.  Duo seems to have a theme of ghosts and spirits with his pale complexion and swift, tricky movements.  Even other characters note how dead and chilling he looks and sounds, and his projectile move is a ball of black smoke.  He's essentially a necromancer ninja, like his father.

In the comic, reenacting the actual back story, Ash invited his acquaintances Shen and Duo to a nice Hong Kong restaurant for breakfast in order to personally invite them into his team (after Shen and Duo duked it out for a bit).

Hi Duo.  How are you today?

Shen jumped at the chance to fight strong opponents, but Duo was skeptical, since he didn’t know Ash’s motives.  After being reminded that Ron appeared in 2 previous tournaments, Duo agreed, and the New Heroes team was formed.

Composing the Fatal Fury team in 2003 is Terry, Joe, and Mark of the Wolves' Tizoc.  Sadly, Andy stayed behind to take care of his sick disciple, Hokutomaru.
On the Korean team, the jumpy little bastard Choi got the boot, leaving Kim, Chang, and Jhun, returning after recovery.

Did you hear something Kim?  Me neither.
King, Mai, and Blue Mary form 2003’s women’s team this time around, and Ralf, Clark, and Leona once again represent the Ikari Warriors.  Fans of colonel Heidern may be disappointed that he is not playable at any point in the Tales of Ash.  The reason for this is because he picked a fight with the wrong person.

Or he’s just working with Interpol and staying behind as mission control.  My story is better.

Benimaru, hoping to make a name for himself (according to the comic) has made his own team with Shingo and Goro while also sporting a new leopard-print attire.
K’ enters with his 2001 friends Maxima and Whip, who was assigned to accompany the two as part of a new mission.  According to the comic, Kula isn’t present because she lost her powers (temporarily) and is living with Diana.  This is because in the 2002 comic, Kula had power drained out of her to power the game's resurrected boss.  It also shows that K’ once again wanted nothing to do with the tournament, but Chin Gentsai (who is not entering himself and was surprised Athena entered) convinced him that it would be best that they did due to the forces Chin sensed are involved.

Iori and Kyo (who has a nice new jacket) are benched as teamless once again, but by forming a team with them and a secret character, players can view the true, and most important, ending for the game.  In the comic, the two enter with the third member officially.

All of those teams are series mainstays, but there are a few fresher teams to spice up the roster in 2003.  Chin, Sie, and Bao are all off training with each other, so team Psycho Soldier is a no go.  Instead, Athena forms the high school girls team with Hinako and Malin, a nimble newcomer with a specialty in weapons attached to wire.

She's not important.
After a long absence, the local nutjobs Ryuji Yamazaki and Billy Kane also return with their new assigned mate Gato.  All 3 were hired by Geese to enter the tournament, but Billy was given special orders to watch Gato and Yamazaki for signs of betrayal (he didn't want their KOF ’97 ending to happen again).  Gato didn't want to join at first, but Geese promised him he would use his information over Southtown to find Gato's father, whom Gato is seeking to exact revenge on.  But who cares about that?  Billy Kane is back!

Welshy's great.

Although King of Fighters went back to their 3-member teams, the rules are different from the Orochi saga.  Instead of elimination-style one-on-one rounds, King of Fighters 2003 has players swap characters on the fly by pressing the strong punch & weak kick buttons at once, or the strong punch and strong kick buttons at once.  It’s much like the tag system in Marvel vs. Capcom.

Perhaps to discourage it, taunting was given a detrimental side-effect.  Taunting in KOF 2003 and its sequel gives your opponent a boost to their super meter.  That won’t stop me, of course.  In fact, giving your opponent an edge by taunting makes it even more insulting.  It’s like if you were to dodge an entire clip of gunfire and then toss the shooter another clip because you’re that confident you’ll dodge them too.  Just don't get carried away.
Lemme just stretch here for a sec.
2003 introduced the leader system.  On the character select screen, the first character you select for your team is the leader.  The leader is able to use a super special move a character can only use while they’re leader.  Each of the devastating leader super special moves requires two super stocks to execute and use two buttons at once with its required movements instead of a single button (with a couple of exceptions).

Something important to keep in mind going into KOF 2003 is that it’s fast; drastically faster than any King of Fighters game before it or since.  It may even be too fast.  I like my fighting games fast-paced, but this is ridiculous.  It’s like the game took speedball with my ADD medication and didn’t die.  Recovery times, attack speeds, and even most of the voiced dialogue all go by in milliseconds.

Not only does the speed take long-time players by surprise, but it lessens the effects of the artistic aspects King of Fighters is so good at.  It’s hard to truly take in the music and characters when you have to focus every part of your consciousness on the fight at all times.  There aren’t even any breaks thanks to the tag system, and no breaks means you see very few special character introductions, if any.
When it comes to game speed, it’s important to tweak it to just the right spot, depending on the genre.  I think 2003 overshot that spot, while the game after it, King of Fighters 11, hit it right on the mark.

That doesn’t make it unplayable, of course.  It's just difficult to adjust to and even more difficult to play against computers that have faster processors than you.

There isn’t that much to take in anyway, though.  As evidenced by the opening, KOF 2003 took a leap in its artwork for the cutscenes and victory screens.  The game itself, however, barely looks any different from the games before it, with only some smoother animations and sharper backgrounds.  Even then, most of the backgrounds lack the depth earlier games had, making it feel like you’re fighting in front of a mural instead of an actual city street or train track.  After 9 games plus SNK games outside of KOF, I expect better.

Holy Snifit!  A translation that doesn't totally whomp!

I also expect better from the music.  2003’s soundtrack is mostly… meh.

The arranged music tracks are far superior to the ones used in the original Neo Geo version.  The comparison between the two are like night and day, and I usually prefer the original tracks because the arranged tracks often remix things a bit too much.  It's as if the translation from live instruments to the Neo Geo's sound limitations wasn't as refined as the games from the Orochi Saga.

The whole game isn't much to write home about for the most part, but it’s still worth playing for fans thanks to its character selection and story.  King of Fighters 11 does have far more characters overall, many of which were already in 2003, but there are a few who don’t come back for it, including Joe, Jhung, Hinako, Leona, and Ryuji.

The story is also very crucial to know for the rest of the Tales of Ash, and features 2 bosses that haven't fought in any other game yet.  If you really don’t want to play the game yourself, then see my rundown of the game’s finale(s) here.  I don’t spoil the most important ending though, so you’ll still have to play yourself for the whole story.

The King of Fighters 2003 is once again preposterously rare.  There’s a PS2 and Xbox version out there, but like previous console ports, they're hard to find.  The PS2 & Xbox versions have sharper visuals, give the option for an enhanced version of the game with much nicer 3D backgrounds, the option to use the arranged soundtrack, and makes all the bosses unlockable.  It's definitely the best way to play it.  You won’t find it though.


A stage exclusive to the console versions.

KOF 2003 introduced a lot of new things to King of Fighters, but I don’t think it reached its full potential until the next game, which is one of my favorite in the entire series.  Find out why in the next post.

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