This one's been a long time coming. The upgraded version of SNK's most popular installment in their flagship fighting game series was first unveiled about two years ago. It was then released in Japan to arcades and the PS2 in 2008 to celebrate the game's tenth anniversary. Like all of SNK's recent console titles, however, the localization time was ridiculously long, suffering from multiple delays and revised release dates before Ignition Entertainment, SNK Playmore's longtime European partner/publisher, finally brought it to North America two weeks ago. Even players who were once looking forward to it likely stopped caring in the wake of multiple newer and/or bigger 2-D fighter releases during that interval, including Capcom's Street Fighter IV, Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix, and the Japanese release of KoF 2002 Unlimited Match. Heck, it was even beaten to the punch by SNK Playmore's own North American release of KoF Collection: The Orochi Saga, which included a port of the arcade version of KoF '98, rendering one of Unlimited Match's back cover bullet points--"The original KOF 98 has never been released in North America on any PlayStation system"--a complete and utter lie. (The back cover also enthusiastically lists other selling points, such as "This is the most characters ever included in a single King of Fighters game" and "Challenge mode consisting of 30 various matches.")
The original KoF '98 has long been regarded as the pinnacle of the series and the Neo-Geo hardware, but, truthfully, I always felt that SNK's fighters back then, with a few exceptions (Samurai Shodown II, Garou: Mark of the Wolves), lacked the depth and refinement of Capcom's games. The KoF series could be fun, but, too often, it seemed that moves and features were implemented because the developers thought they were cool, rather than because they made sense. The overall "cool" factor, particularly in the eccentric designs of the characters, many dressed like runway models, helped the series attain a cult audience of fans looking for an alternative to Street Fighter, but, playing Unlimited Match now, I have to say that the game has aged badly. The essentially 16-bit graphics are a good deal worse than I remember, the awkwardly choppy animation is definitely inferior to Capcom's contemporary Street Fighter Alpha games, and, worst of all, the bizarre designs, freakishly Japanese to begin with, now seem long past fashionable. The gameplay, always of chief importance in fighting games, is solid, more so than ever thanks to many subtle refinements by a reformed, more methodical SNK Playmore. Compared even to the older Street Fighter titles, however, there's a nagging feeling of softness, easily mistaken for shallowness, due to some floatier jumping and dull sound effects on impacts. I'm not a good enough player to go any more in depth than that--frankly, I don't know that there even are any legitimate KoF '98 experts out there, as the game just never had a competitive scene to really push exploration of its depths. I just know that, when I play, there isn't the feeling of consequence that I get from Street Fighter, and, as a result, it's not as fun.
Even though there are some new characters and rebalanced gameplay to make this the definitive culmination of the '94-'98 period, I can't really regard it as a classic on a par with any of the Capcom fighters from the same period or earlier. Considering that SNK was pumping out KoF installments on an annual basis back then, it's doubtful that even its creators ever intended for it to live on and still be celebrated ten years later. It's maybe a little sad, but fitting nonetheless, that, in contrast to the well-timed event that was HD Remix, this so-called Ultimate Match should see release as a delay-plagued under-the-radar budget title on a last-gen platform. Amid this apparent fighting game renaissance, there are other simply better and more current titles to enjoy and already more to look forward to, namely KoF XII and BlazBlue. Only in the area of Engrish victory quotes (including some new ones, such as Eiji's "My ninja arts is matchless") might this game still be considered a contender.
Priced at $19.99, Ultimate Match is five dollars more than SNK Playmore's own recent PS2 budget releases, but Ignition did see fit to include a nice full-color manual and poster, as well as a bonus CD-ROM with wallpapers and a trailer for the gorgeous KoF XII, which Ignition has optimistically scheduled for a summer 2009 North American release simultaneous with Japan.