SNK fans probably know the company’s tumultuous history, but the short version is that the company hit some financial skids in the late 1990s and got bought up by a pachinko company named Aruze. That company was mainly interested in using their newly-acquired brands for their pachinko business, but they did continue to manage the NEOGEO platform. Some new games in the more popular NEOGEO franchises were outsourced to mixed results, things went badly, and SNK’s former owner managed to buy most of the company’s assets back. Largely a happy ending, for a while.
So what happened to what was arguably SNK’s most popular series during those lost years? Development on The King of Fighters 2001 and The King of Fighters 2002 was handled by a Korean company named Eolith and a group of former SNK employees who had formed a company called BrezzaSoft. With KOF 2001, they closed off the storyline that SNK had been building in the previous installments. By the time KOF 2002 ($3.99) came around, SNK was back in the hands of its original owner and BrezzaSoft had been folded back in. This would be Eolith’s last work on the series, and in some sense that’s a shame because The King of Fighters 2002 is really a fine entry in the series. Some consider it the best, even.
The King of Fighters 2002 is another Dream Match entry, where canon is set aside and characters past and present can come together regardless of where they’re at in the story. While this one doesn’t include every single fighter from the past, with characters like King notable by their absence, you get a whopping thirty-nine playable fighters along with returning boss Omega Rugal. It reverts back to the three-on-three set-up that was used in the earlier games in the series, discarding the Striker system from King of Fighters 99. In a lot of ways, it felt like a throwback to better times for SNK.
It’s an excellent fighting game, with lots of characters to learn, a strong presentation, and good balance. The only real downer with this version is that it’s naturally based on the NEOGEO original. Through various ports and an outstanding remake, more features and characters were added to this game over the course of the decade. The NEOGEO version is the most bare-bones take on the game, and while it’s great on its own, anyone who has played a later version will notice many things are missing. Well, these are the NEOGEO Arcade Archives, I suppose. Can’t fault them for accuracy.
Indeed, as ever we can’t fault Hamster for much here. You get a full array of options for video display, controls, difficulty, and more. There are save states you can use at your leisure, which helps mitigate some of the intense difficulty of the story mode. You can play with an external controller, and even hook up two in order to play with a friend. The standard arcade mode is here in both regional forms, and you can also play a ranked Score Attack and Caravan Mode to try to climb up the online leaderboards. The emulation is as sound as it has been in previous Arcade Archives releases, so there’s nothing to fear on that front.
If you have an external controller, this is a fantastic way to play a really great fighting game. I wish it had some kind of online multiplayer support, but I don’t think the console versions of Arcade Archives have that either. The question, as always, is in how well it adapts to touch controls. If you’ve played any fighting game ports on mobile before, you probably know the story. The touch controls are okay, and if you practice enough you may be able to make a decent go of things, but there’s just no substitute for a physical controller or joystick when it comes to fighters with complex commands like this one. Of course, without external controllers you are also limited to playing against the CPU.
So we end up with a very similar conclusion to when I reviewed Samurai Shodown IV. This is a really strong game, but if you don’t have an external controller or two you’re really not going to get to enjoy the game at its best. While the touch controls aren’t a complete disaster like they were in Puzzled, they’re not as accurate as you’ll need to pull off all of the wild moves packed into this game. On top of that, the lack of online play means you’ll be confined to playing in single-player mode. Hamster has done its usual fine work here, but there’s only so much that can be worked around. If you’re just looking to crack some skulls when you have a spare minute or two, however, this will do the job.