King of Fighters ’98: Ultimate Match puts up a strong front. By it being a loving remake of a niche title in a niche series, it’s hard to feel welcome as a newcomer. Everything, from the unlockable art to the bonus disc with wallpapers and trailers, is a shrine to the original King of Fighters ’98. This is a title you go into the EB looking for, not one you casually come across, read the back of, and bring home with you. Odds are, you know right now if this game is for you.
Playing the two single player versions didn’t really change my mind. There’s a static lifeless feeling to them. There was no competitive drive, no reason to go forward. The natural habitat for fighting games is the arcade, and the competition is supposed to spur you on. It’s part challenge, part exhibition. Fighting games in the past have gotten around this either by creating robust single player modes, like the Soul Calibur games, or by working on fulfilling online modes, like Street Fighter IV. King of Fighters ’98: Ultimate Match lacks both.
It doesn’t help that the game’s age shows. I’m not one to be a stickler for the superficial, but certain choices baffled me. Sometimes some smooth 3D texture will appear in the rough, raggedy background. Instead of the intended visual flair, it just reminded me of how ugly everything else is. It’s more than just that, the design of some of the game’s 64 characters have some overlap, which is understandable, because, hey, it’s 64 characters. The flipside is that there are some inspired designs in the mix, such as the 500-pound ball-and-chain wielding Chang Koehan, or the frail-looking old man, Chin Gentsai. Admittedly, I didn’t get to unlocking most of these guys because the interest to replay Arcade mode and to try the challenges (which are aimed at those well versed in its mechanics) didn’t engage me.
What did engage me was endless mode. Competitors are thrown at you, one after another, and it’s up to you to beat them down. Strategy plays an important part; the amount of health you regenerate at the end of a match depends on how awesome your finishing move was. It sounds threadbare, but it’s fast and brutal. It taught me more about the game than playing the single player mode. Endless mode slowly ramps the difficulty, instead of the difficulty spikes of the single player game. By forcing me to play a defensive game, it acquainted me with a different side of the game, and made me a better player. Going back to the single player game afterwards felt like a breeze. Aside from the especially difficult (and cheap) end boss, the play seemed more balanced.
Still, the hurdles to accessibility are there. What’s a guard cancel emergency evasion? I still don’t know. And what are the key differences between the advanced mode and the ultra modes of combat? The manual tries to make it clear, but in practice I don’t discern a difference. I’m not saying this is entirely the game’s fault, but it doesn’t seem willing to meet me halfway. I want to learn the ins and outs of this game, but KoF ’98 refuses to even try.
Really, is there a worse time for this game? Street Fighter, long the bastion of combo-based gameplay, finally decided to change in its fourth installment to be more accessible, without losing the challenge. Even if you’re trying to recapture the thrill of 2D fighters, Marvel vs. Capcom 2 has just been re-released, with its vivid colours and audacious premise intact. KoF ’98: Ultimate Match makes no effort to appeal to anybody who isn’t a fan, so it’s not surprising that the only people who will enjoy this are the already converted.