It seems my arcade stick skills are getting rusty. I used to play 2D fighters with an aptitude for meticulous motions and flawless timing, but since Street Fighter IV, the shift towards more lenient input recognition has made me complacent. It's not like I can't put together some decent combos, but when playing The King of Fighters 2002: Unlimited Match, I'm reminded of a less forgiving time.
A time when consistent super-cancelling wasn't achieved through rabid stick twirling and optimistic mashing, but instead demanded you buffer the motion perfectly within a strict window of opportunity – otherwise, there'd be no martial arts explosion at the end your epic combo. Unfortunately, this is something which has initially plagued my return to KOF, because Unlimited Match is both a tiger-kick up the backside for shoddy stick-work and a compelling revamp aimed squarely at SNK die-hards.
The original King of Fighters 2002 was a "dream match" instalment in a similar vein to last year's KOF XII. All the characters from the NESTS trilogy were pooled together for a non-canon slugfest, resulting in an impressive roster of 44 which included staples like Terry Bogard and Kyo Kusanagi as well as relative newcomers like Kula Diamond and K'.
Then, last year, Playmore exhumed KOF 2002 for The King of Fighters 2002: Unlimited Match on the PlayStation 2. This upped the running total to 59, and if we're counting character variations like the Orochi incarnations of Chris, Yashiro and Shermie – all with unique move sets – then the final tally tops out at a very impressive 66. That's ten more than Marvel vs. Capcom 2.
Still, what's the point of picking up a fighter which is eight years past its sell-by date? Well, just like barrelled whisky, KOF 2002 has aged very well. It's still sporting the classic four-button layout, but behind its streamlined exterior lies a technical fighting system which has been fine-tuned over many iterations.
Indeed, KOF 2002 ditched the selectable styles and Striker systems in favour of something more intuitive. You pick three fighters and then select an order in which to field them, and although you can't tag out, whoever goes last can stock the most Super Deadly Moves.
These form an integral part of the competitive composition and come in SDM, MAX SDM and MAX 2 flavours – with the former being your basic combo finisher whereas the latter is your ultimate coup de grace. Add onto this a powered-up MAX Activation state and all kind of rolls and blowbacks – most of which burn more meter – and you've got a methodical play style which rewards mind-games as much as flawless execution.
In the looks department, Unlimited Match is visually accomplished, but considering the original KOF 2002 ran on a 16-bit system that was released over 20 years ago, you need to have an eye for retro nostalgia to fully appreciate it. Plus, in terms of fluidity, this doesn't even come close to Mark of the Wolves. But when Unlimited Match has nearly five times the characters, this is to be expected.