Review: King of Fighters ’98 Ultimate Match (PS2 Import)

King of Fighters ’98 Ultimate Match
Genre: 2D Fighting
Developer: SNK Playmore
Publisher: SNK Playmore
Release Date: 06/26/08


The original King of Fighters ’98, which is itself now celebrating it’s tenth anniversary, marks the point, arguably, where the KOF series propelled itself over the proverbial man-eating fish; it’s more or less a giant collection of characters from the first four games in the series, marks the end of the Orochi Saga, and is essentially the last game before K’ and his storyline took center stage and more or less signaled the downward slide in interest in the series. This is not to say that the games post-98 are bad, however, so much as to note how fantastic a product ’98 was; from ’94 to ’97, SNK had been experimenting with different styles of visual and gameplay elements, trying to find styles that clicked, and by the time ’98 came around, it pretty much set the gameplay tone for the next several games in the series until ’03 came along, as most of the later games are derived in large part from the strides made in the first few games. It’s also a “Dream Match” title, meaning there are a metric ton of characters in it, for those who love their variety. In short, it’s generally considered one of the best KOF titles ever, and could well be considered one of the best fighting games ever, period.

So leave it to SNK to re-release the game and make it BETTER.

King of Fighters ’98 Ultimate Match is a strong reinvention of the original decade-old title, featuring a whopping sixty-four characters (IE pretty much everyone from KOF ’94-97 and a bunch of alternate versions of characters), new moves for old favorites, and a ton of stuff to do. Assuming it comes to the US with the exact same features it has on-board in the import version, any fan of fighting games NEEDS to own this, especially considering the low, low price tag of twenty dollars (for the US release, as of this point, anyway… importing it costs… a whole lot more, shall we say, but the pain, it is worth it).

So, okay, KOF98UM doesn’t come with a story build in, as it’s a “Dream Match” title, and as such represents more the idea of getting a bunch of characters together and letting them beat the crap out of each other. That said, the game modes more than make up for that. You’ve got the classic Arcade style three-person team play, either in tournament, versus another player, or versus the CPU for one match. You’ve got single character play, with the same above modes. You’ve got Endless mode, which is Survival Mode, basically, Practice Mode, which lets you practice move combinations and such, Gallery Mode, which amounts to a gallery of stills from the various earlier games, Challenge Mode, which lets you take on various challenges (beat these characters with this character, do this combo, etc.), and you’ve got Network Match, which lets you play online (though, as this is a Japanese game, I can’t exactly test that out, sadly, though if it’s in the US release, I’ll finally be able to live out my life-long dream of getting my ass whipped by Alex Lucard, WHOO!). As if all of that wasn’t enough, you’ve also got Neo-Geo Mode, or, in other words, you also get the original KOF98 as a playable title on the disc in addition to this remade version, in case you want to play the older version of the game (or never have). In short: OH YEAH there’s a lot to do here.

Visually, the same sprite quality has been present in the KOF games (Re-Bout excluded) for years now, and KOF98UM is no exception. You can soften up the sprites however, which actually makes them look significantly less dated than they otherwise look, which helps the visual quality significantly. You’re also offered a choice between the normal 2D backgrounds and the ’99 Dream Match 3D backgrounds, which both look pretty good and lively, though which one you prefer depends on you, really. As for the animations, well, they’re all pretty much as detail-oriented as ever, and the characters all move and flow as well as they ever have. As some characters have new moves/animations/intros added to this version, it’s obvious some effort was given to make sure this isn’t just another KOF game, and all in all, it looks damn good, if dated compared to more modern 2D fighters. Aurally, however, the game is top-notch. You’re offered a choice between the original arcade tracks or an arranged mix of tunes, both of which sound stellar, and the various sound effects and vocal samples sound generally clean and effective all in all, and sound as good as they did ten years ago.

Now, if you’ve never played a King of Fighters title before, the simplest way one can describe it is as such: imagine Street Fighter, with four buttons, different strategies, and teams of three fighters, and that’s the most basic gist one can give. KOF98UM more or less follows that tradition; if you’ve played a 2D fighting game in your life, you can figure out reasonably quickly how it works. You’re given two strong and weak punches and kicks to work with, and aside from the standard combos that can be strung together with those, all of the characters have their own special and Desperation (super) moves to work with. If you’re a Ken and Ryu fan, Ryo, Robert, Terry, Andy and Iori should fit you okay. Like Guile? Kim, Leona, or Ralf might do you fine. More of a Zangief fan? Try Goro or Clark. Love Chun-Li? Mai, King and Yuri have you covered. This is not to say that these characters are identical maps of the mentioned Street Fighter counterparts so much as it is to say that they fit into similar play styles; the characters in KOF98UM all have their own unique and interesting ways that they can be played, and part of the fun is finding the characters you work best with, and with sixty-four characters, well, you’ve got a lot of options.

The three-on-three team aspect is a big part of what makes any KOF game work as well as it does, however; in KOF98UM, you put together a team of three fighters to do battle against one another, and when one team member is eliminated, you move to the next one. At first, this is a simple matter of simply assembling a team of three members who you happen to like, but the longer you play the more of a mental chess game the experience becomes to the point where you pick out characters because of what sort of opposition they can shut down and counter as much as you pick them because of their play style. “Oh, they’re using Terry? I’ll use Yamazaki to keep him at a distance and fake him out with counters. They’re using King? I’ll pick Athena to get over the fireballs and counter any attempts to bring the fight to me.” You get the point. There’s a significant amount of strategy involved in picking characters, not just for their effectiveness, but for their effectiveness against others, as it’s generally not a good idea to bring someone slow in against someone with projectiles and speed who can dodge around them and shut them down, unless you’re really skilled.

Of course, there’s more to the game than just combo and special moves. KOF98UM has all sorts of additional tactics crammed into it to make the fighting more strategic and intense than just spamming buttons and such. For one, there are three basic modes for you to choose from; “Advanced”, “Extra”, and “Ultimate”. Advanced uses the Stock Building concept from other games, where damage dealt and received builds up your Desperation Move bar, to build up stocks which can be used for DM’s. It also allows for various evades, recovery rolls, and fall breaking rolls to be made, allows your characters to dash forward, and offers you the option to burn stocks to power up DM’s or escape roll away from DM’s you’ve blocked and don’t want to take chip damage from (or want to exploit). Extra Mode offers you one DM bar to use, period, and offers different dodging and recovery options from Advanced Mode, but also offers the ability to manually charge your DM bar as well as the ability to use DM’s while your life bar is low (though UM has been balanced to not allow them to be spammed rapidly anymore) and offers “hopping” instead of a forward dash. Ultimate Mode is an interesting new option that allows you to mix and match the options of Advanced and Extra between their dashing, evasion and DM charging options, so if you want to evade while charging supers and dashing, go for it. This isn’t a huge change, but it allows players to pick and choose their favorite options, meaning that opponents will have to adjust accordingly, which is always interesting, if nothing else.

Now, as noted, there are sixty-four characters available to be played as in the game, though perhaps that’s a bit of an over-simplification: there are forty-five original characters to choose from, and nineteen variants of characters that can be chosen as alternate versions of old favorites. Generally speaking, these eighteen variants offer somewhat, though not completely, different styles of play from one another; alternate Kyo uses fireballs and an upward moving hurricane kick-like move, while regular Kyo uses chained strikes and an up-down arcing kick; alternate Terry retains most of his regular moves but loses one dragon punch, adds a slide kick and a wide ground strike, and changes his other dragon punch back to a charge motion, you get the point. Some alternates play completely differently from their regular variations, but most are just mild modifications of one another, mostly related to special move modifications and such, so they’re not completely different so to say. That said, they’re different enough to require different strategies from one another, and often the special moves make all the difference and can make one character who initially feels useless instantly become deadly simply because their specials work an entirely different way. So, in other words, it’s a cheap way of adding more characters to a game than there really are, yeah, Ryu and Ken were the same character for years and no one cared, so it’s not that big of a problem, and anyway, forty-five original characters is still a freakin’ huge roster.

For those that were fans of the original KOF98 and are wondering what the differences are, well, most of the changes that have been made are balance changes more than anything. For those who play at a competitive level, priorities have been changed, some combos that were deemed exploitable have been removed or their timing has been changed, and in general the game has been mucked around with a bit to make certain characters more or less useful than they might have been in hopes of improving character balance. For those that just play casually, well, a few characters have been given new special or Desperation Moves, but otherwise, the major change here is in the fact that there more characters in this version of KOF98 than in previous versions. Insofar as balancing goes, well, on one hand the characters do feel generally more balanced in general, which is good to see, but on the other, bosses are still a bit more… “cheap”, we shall say, than other characters, though it’s not like you can’t simply NOT PLAY AS THEM or anything.

As noted, there are plenty of play modes to keep you busy, and you’ll have to do at least some of them to unlock everything in the game; various artwork galleries and hidden characters reside in the game, and unlocking them will require going through the challenges or, for the characters at least, Arcade mode. Arcade and Single Mode both amount to either playing one set versus battles or going through the normal tiers of fighters ala a standard arcade tournament, and should be familiar to initiated players. Endless Mode works as sort of a survival mode, where you’re just trying to demolish everyone in your path without dying, which is either a significant challenge or child’s play depending on the character you use (with Omega Rugal, Orochi and EX Geese having a significantly easier time of things than many other characters because of the ability to spam certain supremely cheesy moves the computer isn’t entirely capable of working around). Challenge Mode works as it has in the past several KOF games, where you are presented with a list of challenges to do, and completing them unlocks more challenges (and stuff like characters and artwork where applicable). As noted previously, Neo-Geo Mode allows you full access to the original KOF98 if you’re a purist, though the characters in this version of the game lack the modifications of their UM counterparts, so this is more for those who remember and love the old game than anything else. You’re also offered the option to change the color palates of the various characters, in case you want your characters to be a specific color for one reason or another, if that appeals to you. It does bear noting that the game is a bit more challenging to play through, as even the easiest difficulty setting has been ramped up in difficulty in comparison to the original game; it’s not as bad as a lot of other modern 2D fighting games and it’s manageable, but if you’re not too good at these sorts of games, the Arcade mode and Challenges might be a bit of a pain at first (though, through repetition, you’ll actually find yourself managing them, so this is positive). If you’re just looking to goof around with the game with your friends, though, you’ll most likely just want to unlock the hidden characters, and surprisingly, this is VERY easy to do:

1.) Go to “Options”, set the difficulty to the lowest level and Player One’s supers to “MAX”.
2.) Play Arcade Mode, and choose Omega Rugal (hold Select and press a button) and whoever you want as a second and third (you won’t be using them anyway).
3.) Using Omega Rugal, spam Vanishing Rush against all opponents until their life is low, then press R1 to activate MAX mode, use one of his three SDM moves, and repeat until dead.
4.) Repeat this tactic against six or more opponents, but do not do it against one opponent (as in, kill the opponent without an SDM). Also, don’t lost a match.
5.) Face Orochi Iori or Leona, beat them however you like.
6.) Do what you want for the next battle.
7.) If you’re facing the Orochi Team (Chris, Shermie and Yashiro) next, you’re on the right path. Beat them, then beat the following boss Orochi. You should now have unlocked one of the two Orochi characters.
8.) Play again, use Orochi, and spam his SDM’s (especially Marukare, which, well, fills the whole screen. Yeah) to beat six to eight characters with SDM’s until you face Orochi Iori or Leona. If it’s the same character, reset; if it’s the other character, beat them and finish Arcade Mode.
9.) Play AGAIN, use Orochi, spam his SDM to defeat between three and five opponents, then rely on his fireballs (or another character) to win the rest of the matches. If done successfully, you will face Goenitz; defeat him however you like.

And you’re done. That’s it. That’s how to unlock all five characters with little to no actual effort. I mean, hey, it worked for me.

So. Sixty-four characters, awesome balanced gameplay, lots of options and challenge to spare, what’s the downside? In a word, age. King of Fighters ’98 is, as you might expect, a game that originally came out around a decade ago, and while those who were of an age to be playing such games will be perfectly fine with the antiquities of the experience, those who are younger and were raised on Street Fighter 3 or Guilty Gear are going to think the visuals are archaic. The 2D, even softened, is low-tech, and the 3D backgrounds are less than exciting, all things considered; while the general attention to detail in the game is nice, the visuals are old, and some will find this intolerable. The game franchise itself has also been through at least seven games since this point (counting only the core releases and Neo-Wave; with ReBout, SVC Chaos, and the 3D games it’s twelve), meaning that there have been character changes and advances made to the franchise at this point that some may well miss (Strikers, Tag fights, different move sets, Captains, whatever), and even though most of the characters in KOF98UM are arguably in their best forms ever (Mai, Terry and Iori definitely so, at least), some players may simply like other versions of the characters better. You also can’t play the online mode in the US, though that’s less “missing a vital feature” and more “it’d be nice, but I can live without it”. Also, if you want to unlock everything in the game, you’ll need to play through Challenge Mode, which is problematic in the import partly because it’s entirely in Japanese and you’ll have to follow an online guide to get through it, and partly because it’s a bit of a pain in the butt in the later challenges unless you’re a tournament level player. And, last but not least, while the game is fairly balanced out all in all, yes, Omega Rugal, Goenitz, and Orochi (among others) are significantly cheap as all get-out, and if you happen to have friends who don’t actually listen when you say “No, we don’t play as these characters”, this can be a pain.

But come on now. This is one of the greatest fighting games ever made, with a ton of content added to it, a bunch of characters added who weren’t available in the previous release, and it comes with the older version ON THE DISC. King of Fighters ’98 Ultimate Match is a 2D fighting game fan’s dream game; a ton of characters (most of whom are useful, even) facing off in a game that’s fun to play, well balanced, features a ton of options, features unlockable hidden characters who are easy to unlock for play and is still FUN even ten years later. It’s not as pretty as some newer games, some of the characters are still a wee bit cheap, and it might be a bit challenging to the new player, but honestly, even if the Neo-Geo Mode and Online play were stripped from the US release, this game will STILL be worth the $20; hell, it’s worth what I paid for it NOW. KOF98UM is not just one of the greatest fighting games ever, it is one of the greatest THINGS ever, and anyone who loves 2D fighting games, or fighting games period, has absolutely no reason to not buy this as soon it is available to them, period.

The Scores:
Game Modes: UNPARALLELED
Graphics: GREAT
Sound: UNPARALLELED
Control/Gameplay: UNPARALLELED
Replayability: CLASSIC
Balance: GOOD
Originality: ABOVE AVERAGE
Addictiveness: UNPARALLELED
Appeal: GREAT
Miscellaneous: UNPARALLELED

Final Score: CLASSIC.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Let’s lay this out simply: unless you hate fighting games with a passion rivaling the explosion of a million suns, you have no reason not to buy King of Fighters ’98 Ultimate Match. No self-respecting fighting game fan has any reason not to buy this when it comes to the US, if not as an import. It still looks and sounds good, it plays great, it’s got a ton of stuff to do built right into it, and it features one of the largest character rosters ever. Is it old? Sure. Is it a little unbalanced when playing as certain characters? More or less. Does it cater more to the skilled fighter? Sometimes. Does that make this any worse of a game? Hell no. If you like fighting games and you don’t buy this you are doing a disservice to yourself and to SNK for giving you something so awesome to love, and that, folks, is terrible. This is one of the best fighting games ever, and even the most casual fan shouldn’t let it pass them by.

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