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Well, it took me a full week of searching after the listed release date to finally track a copy down, but I can confirm that I’ve at last gotten my grubby paws on SNK’s latest US release, King of Fighters ’98 Ultimate Match on PS2. Released in Japan mid-last year, the game is pretty much what it advertises – a retooled version of one of the series’ fan-favorite-est entries, and KoF’s first “Dream Match” (i.e. a game that pretty much dispenses with any plot and throws just about everyone into the cast list, continuity be damned). While the US previously saw the “original” KoF ‘98 released on the Dreamcast (as the misleadingly-titled Dream Match ‘99) and more recently on the PS2’s Orochi Saga, this revamp obviously packs in some new stuff to entice fans to snag it again – so how does it hold up? Hopefully I can give you a clear picture of what’s on offer, so please read on.
I suppose I should start by mentioning that the disc contains both the “Ultimate” and “NeoGeo” versions of the game, so any players who prefer to stick with the “pure” iteration are free to do so – that said, what exactly are the extras on offer? Well, for one thing, the game’s already-extensive “default” cast (around 40 fighters in the original) has been further beefed up, to nearly 50 total – the main additions are the “Edit” team (Eiji and Kasumi, with Shingo tossed in to round things out) and the “Boss” team (Geese, Krauser, and Mr. Big). Perhaps even cooler than this, however, is a neat feature from the Dreamcast port that has been carried over, namely the ability to play as “past” versions of certain characters, who come with movesets from one of their former KoF appearances – if you choose to count these “retro” choices as separate characters, the cast list swells by another dozen or more (and there are apparently a handful of additional “EX” types and bosses that can be unlocked after defeating them in arcade mode, though I haven’t gotten to any of those yet). And before you ask, yes, the “Orochi” versions of Chris, Shermie and Yashiro are present and accounted for – heck, even God Rugal can be selected from the very start, for the truly sadistic among you. Pretty much any way you slice it, there are plenty of faces to keep you busy – supposedly, every last character from ’94 to ’98 is somewhere in here.
Once you get around to choosing a team and charging headlong into a match, things will likely look pretty familiar to you – not much (if anything) has been done to touch up the sprites, though you can choose to utilize either the original arcade backgrounds or redone 3D ones (don’t worry, the latter look MUCH better than the revisions used in the Dreamcast port). Another thing to note is that you have the option to turn off the default smoothing filter in the options menu, for a sharper picture – when I tried it on my low-res RGB monitor it made some of the menu text shudder a bit, but once I got into the game proper the picture was nice and sharp. As far as the actual fighting mechanics go, most all the evasions and cancels you remember are still here, as are the “Advanced” and “Extra” fighting modes – one new addition is “Ultimate” mode, which is basically a do-it-yourself ability set which allows you to pick and choose features from the two default selections to customize your innate skills (sort of like a simplified Groove Edit from Capcom vs. SNK 2). About all else I can think to mention on this front is the ability to set certain two- and three-button combinations to any of the trigger buttons (handy), as well as the ability to pre-set a specific move or sequence to one of them as well (probably a bit too user-friendly for most of this game’s fans) – there were apparently a handful of balance tweaks and the like made, though I haven’t played enough yet to say too much about those. Outside of battle, yes, Color Edit mode is available, alongside the usual Arcade/Survival/Versus/Practice selection, plus a batch of 30 specific “challenges” to complete. Spending some time in these modes will unlock (aside from new characters) artwork and videos (not of particularly good quality, but there are a nice amount of them) to view in the Gallery, though you can opt for the Original or Arranged soundtrack from the get-go.
Believe it or not, there are even a few “extra” extras outside of the game itself – for one thing, each retail copy contains a small dual-sided poster (one side featuring ‘98 UM, the other the upcoming KoF XII). There’s also a second disc included, intended not for your PS2 but rather your PC – it contains four trailers and a dozen wallpapers (in three resolutions) for ’98 UM, as well as one more trailer and a half-dozen additional wallpapers for KoF XII. It’s nothing worth selling your soul for, but thankfully you won’t have to, as the whole package will set you back twenty whole dollars.
To conclude, I have not played the Japanese version of this, but based on a bit of research I’ve done it would seem that pretty much everything featured in that release has survived the trip across the Atlantic – the only major thing missing is online play (which anyone outside of Japan would have been unable to use anyway, even if they imported the JP version). I have no idea if the stores around your area are better-stocked when it comes to this game than the ones around here, but if you’re a KoF fan, or are curious about the series and are looking for a good place to start, I’d definitely advise you to keep an eye out for this one, or seek a copy out online if necessary. Unlike SNKP’s localization of Orochi Saga, which added in some things but cut out others, Ignition appears to have taken the more sensible and fan-friendly route, resisting the temptation to “jazz up” something that really didn’t need it. Not sure what else I can add – it’s full-featured, it’s cheap, it’s KoF ‘98, and it’s improved – and it comes with my recommendation (well, for whatever that’s worth).
Now at least I can indulge in some old-school comfort while lamenting the apparent demise of the PS2 version of Samurai Shodown Anthology – hey Ignition, any chance you’d consider picking that one up?