Whenever I review a King of Fighters game, I know that I'm preaching to the choir. The KOF series has a fanatical fanbase that would buy this game if it caused bone cancer, and thus they've already made up their mind.
Of the other people who'll read this review, I'd bet that 75% of them are going to take one look at the screenshots to the right, say something like "Ew! Ancient 2D!" and go straight back to Tekken 5.
For the remaining blessed 25%, who like 2D fighting games but who haven't heard of the King of Fighters series before now, you're looking at a mixed bag. King of Fighters 2003 would be worth a purchase by itself, while King of Fighters 2002 might be the most aggressively mediocre game in the core series.
Both games share the same fundamental gameplay, which is a sort of gaming throwback. Most developers abandoned the 2D fighter market after the short-lived genre boom in the '90s, but SNK stuck with it.
The King of Fighters is what it looks like when a series is allowed to evolve in a straight line on the same hardware for ten years; it's like 1992's best fighting game shot itself into the future. It's all about hand-drawn sprites, people shouting the names of their moves, fireballs, explosions, poorly translated Japanese, and bizarre martial arts.
There's a little bit of history behind this particular KOF two-pack. SNK, for a variety of reasons, has spent the last decade or so going into and out of business. In 2000, thanks to its purchase by a pachinko manufacturer, SNK looked like it was dead and gone.
The unknown Korean developer Eolith somehow acquired the rights to the King of Fighters franchise, and proceeded to churn out two games that, honestly, were only recognizable as KOF because they said that on the title screen. The visual presentation took a severe hit, the music went to hell in a handbasket, and Eolith introduced a number of truly bizarre new characters.
King of Fighters 2002 is the second game Eolith made. In the parlance of KOF fandom, it's a "dream match"; it has no plot to speak of, and several old characters make a return appearance despite being dead. (For example, the New Faces Team--Yashiro, Shermie, and Chris--died rather messily at the conclusion to King of Fighters '97. Being dead actually means something in KOF.)
KOF2K2 is also, like 2K1, phoned in. Part of the reason the KOF series was still worth playing was because SNK had totally mastered its hardware and had some amazing talent in its corner. Eolith gave it a shot, but they were just playing in the wrong sandbox.
KOF2K2 slams that point home nicely. Every facet of the game is poorly done, except for the sprites they inherited from SNK. Many characters have lost moves or combos, the backgrounds are straight out of an SNES game, the music sounds like the demo track on an old keyboard, and even the fonts look like crap. Some elements of the game have been given a fresh coat of paint for the PS2 release, such as the notoriously frightening winposes, but all the polish in the world couldn't help this from being anything less than a short-lived diversion.
King of Fighters 2003, conversely, marks SNK's return to the industry, a new beginning for the franchise, and the best game in the series since KOF98. The team-elimination system has been replaced with a fast-paced tag-team battle. If you're thinking of Marvel vs. Capcom 2, stop; this is nothing like that crack-addled twitchfest.
At almost any time, you can hit R2 to bring in a fresh character from offscreen. There's a short-lived window where your opponent can hit you and cancel the tag, so you have to be careful about it. You can also burn a level of super meter to tag your character out as part of an attack.
This new system forms the central dynamic of what's otherwise a solid entry in the KOF series. The cast is a little smaller than normal; many old characters didn't make the cut, such as Andy Bogard, and several of the returning fighters have been redesigned. There are only a handful of new arrivals, such as the fruitloops in the New Hero Team, who're at the center of a major plot twist. (Win the game with the old God's Caliber team--Kyo, Iori, and Chizuru--and you'll see what I mean.)
KOF2K3 isn't perfect--it has a few balance issues, like how the team with Duo Lon in it wins at the select screen--but compared to 2K2, it's the best thing ever. The music's back to its surprisingly catchy old self, there are a bunch of new and good-looking backgrounds, and the whole game has a great, solid feel.
The last time SNK tried to reinvent the KOF series, you got KOF99 and its readily abusable Striker system. This time, they've kept things relatively simple, and in so doing, created one of their best games yet.
King of Fighters 2003 is a great addition to anyone's Xbox library, and it's another great 2D fighter on Xbox Live. Just try to pretend it's the only game in its case, and leave King of Fighters 2002 to gather dust.
King of Fighters 2002: 69%
King of Fighters 2003: 90%