The King of Fighters ’98: Ultimate Match

By the end of 2008, the situation concerning Western localizations of SNK games was at its grimmest. No one could tell what was happening with the US Branch. Did they actually have any power? If they did, why did they choose not to use it? Why were their games being released over a year after their announcements? What financial/business decisions forced them to use different developers for each port, leading to localizations of incredibly mixed (and now universally poor) quality? Why hasn’t their website been updated since last summer, and why are their forums dead?

At this point I have only a guess, based on the nature of their current lineup – after the remnants of old announcements are wrapped up and shipped out, SNK US may only exist for branding and licensing purposes, while all development, localization, and PR for future products is handled by Ignition Entertainment.

For your information, Ignition is one of many small localization shops that has been responsible for many SNK games in Europe, and has already been in charge of their last few products in America. With the announcement that they will be handling The King of Fighters XII this summer, all signs point to Ignition wearing the pants in this partnership, and I, for one, couldn’t be more pleased. If their work on King of Fighters 98: Unlimited Match is any indication, fans finally have a company in their corner that actually gives a crap.

So what exactly does Ignition give you with a fresh copy of Unlimited Match? Bonus disc with KOF12 trailers? Check. Color manual? Check. Game that runs exactly like the Japanese version? Double check. Missing features? As far as I can tell, the only thing that is gone is in-game blood, a vestigial artifact of the genre at this point. So – best SNK port on the PS2? There are others that run as well, but none with this kind of extra care. This Atlus-style love for an SNK game is a foreign concept to me, but one I can easily get used to. It is refreshing to have a shot at a review where I can talk more about the game and less about how it was screwed up.

With that in mind, just what is Ultimate Match 98? As the name suggest, the game is a remake of KOF 98, intended for its tenth anniversary. Its additions include new characters, new and remade background art, and an assortment of character and system tweaks, resulting in a definitive version of what many consider the best game in the franchise. These details alone were enough to convince me that this would be a quality experience before I even got my hands on it, but I was still curious as to just how much would be changed, as screenshots only say so much.

The verdict? Don’t expect the SNK equivalent of Street Fighter 2 HD. Capcom’s recent remake focused on dramatic overhauls of old content rather than adding anything new. Ultimate Match is quite the opposite, preferring to merely clean up the original game and expending its effort on additional content.

As such, aesthetically it can feel like a bit of a hodgepodge at times. The game boots up to the original intro video for KOF 98, then segues to a clean, modern looking menu, then to a character select screen that overlays the old music and character portraits on top of a modern looking menu. It is a bit jarring at first to see the old grainy sprites next to cleaner PS2 era artwork. A variety of graphical filters help clean up the sprites themselves, and the 3d versions of the backgrounds sport some of the cleanest polygonal models ever seen in an SNK game. With some PS3 upscaling and Progressive Scan enabled, it is possible to make the fights themselves look almost as good as KOF XI, which is a compromise that I can deal with.

The combat in Ultimate Match is as close to a perfect package as I can imagine. The original version of 98 had most, but not all of the cast members from KOF’s 94-97, partially due to the inability to fit the missing characters into a logical team, which would have led to too many single entries. At this point no one really cares about such issues, especially not in a game meant to be a “Dream Match”, and so faces like Eiji, Kasumi Todoh and (motherfucking) Geese are back, in addition to a few bosses and EX versions of certain characters.

Ultimate Match finally represents the entire Orochi Saga, which is a welcome sight for those of us who consider it to be the franchise’s Golden Age. There is also an entirely new “Ultimate” system, which is a combination of the original Extra and Advanced modes that allows you to choose which characteristics from each you want to use. It is a welcome bit of customization that doesn’t get overly complex (like the custom grooves in Capcom VS SNK 2).

Ultimate Match has the usual list of modes typical of 2d fighter ports, though they are all well executed. Training Mode and character color edits are rife with options, and the media galleries are robust (including mysterious artwork that looks like it was drawn in MS Paint, and the intro videos from perhaps every KOF98 port ever). It even has the original arcade version of 98 unlocked from the start. Best of all, the load times for these features are negligible, including the perfectly emulated ROM of 98.

At this point I have a confession to make – despite the large number of King of Fighters games I own, I have struggled over the years to play any for a significant amount of time. I would dig in for long enough to make a sound review, then find myself drifting off to something else. I thought the reason for this was as simple as the fact that fighting games are not that fun without human opponents. While this is true to some extent, this limitation has not yet affected my enjoyment of Unlimited Match. Rather than forcing myself to “give it a shot”, I look forward to it over every game I am currently playing. The last time this happened was with King of Fighters XI, and I realized what it is they have in common: neither game is a shitty port.

I didn’t realize it when it was happening, but every time I ran into long load times, half-assed features, poor emulation and finicky controls, my enthusiasm for the other entries decreased exponentially. It was different from a new game with these issues, as I could tell that these were ordinarily quality fighters that were being butchered, even if I had never played the originals. I was trying to squeeze out the fun when I shouldn’t have had to.

With Ultimate Match, these problems go away. Suddenly I find myself able to appreciate the quality in the game’s wealth of old KOF songs. I can discover the depth of the combat system that wasn’t readily apparent before, and can actually execute all of the techniques. Characters that were already chock full of style and personality spring to life as I see details in their animations. This is a classic reborn, and while I suppose I should have expected this to be the rule rather than the exception throughout the years, at this point I am simply glad to have any experience like this.

And so I raise a toast to Ignition Entertainment. I have no idea how much longer SNK fans will be dealing with you, but I know we hope for it to be as long as possible. If you can put this same amount of quality behind KOF XII, then you will have given this franchise more love and care than it has seen since the days of the Dreamcast. And if the powers that be should take you away from us, I can be content in knowing that Ultimate Match will last me for a very, very long time.

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