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.
What is surprising is Playmore's insistence on – once again – locking the aspect ratio to 4:3; although this is arguably the best way to experience Neo Geo's finest, the lack of a full-screen option feels like an oversight. Nonetheless, the 15 available stages are dripping with SNK fan-service and filled with every character cameo imaginable. And yes, that does include Duck King and Tizoc.
There's also a healthy selection of game modes which include Team Play, Single Play and an Endless survival mode. Plus, if you can make it past 60 consecutive opponents in Endless, you will allegedly unlock Goenitz from KOF '96. Although so far I've only made it to 24, so it could just be a massive lie.
The robust Practice mode sees the return of the command macro system from The King of Fighters '98 Ultimate Match. So if you're having trouble taking down the likes of Omega Rugal and Igniz, you can program in a one-button auto combo. This is obviously cheap, and thankfully doesn't make it into the online game, but to give novices something to fall back on it's an interesting addition. This also goes for the Challenge mode.
The 50 challenges start out as helpful tutorials designed to teach the basics of the various Guard Cancel and Anywhere Cancel subsystems, but before long you're tasked with clearing a boss rush while the controls are inverted as well as going toe-to-toe with the cheap-tastic Nightmare Geese. This guy can throw more fireballs out of the air per second then even Shin Akuma (unverified).
Fortunately all seven bosses are banned in the online player rooms by default. But if you absolutely have to see who would win in a fight between Original Zero and Clone Zero, then the option is available. Otherwise, Unlimited Match's online functionality is more or less a carbon copy of KOF '98 Ultimate Match and contains all the usual features like ranked matches and leaderboards.
In terms of netcode stability you'd also probably expect this to be the most lag-free KOF yet, but in truth Unlimited Match is about on par with Neo Geo Battle Coliseum. It doesn't compare favourably to the likes of BlazBlue, but if you can find a local match with less than 100 ping, then input latency is minimal.
But if Unlimited Match has one crowning achievement, it's that its fighting system still feels relevant and competitive. The original KOF 2002 was a series highlight and this remake treats the source material with respect while adding so much more.
This is why I'd rather play Unlimited Match than KOF XII: not because KOF XII was lacking (it was), but because in execution Unlimited Match plays like the king of King's. This doesn't mean you don't have to be a fighter fan to appreciate its many charms and nuances, but for the paltry asking price, this is clearly a lot of fighter for the money. Just don't expect a welcome return after frolicking with today's less punishing fighters, because this KOF is far from forgiving.
8 / 10
The King of Fighters 2002: Unlimited Match is available now on Xbox Live Arcade for 800 Microsoft Points (£6.80 / €9.60).