Pretty darn awesome port of both KOF 2002 (see entry 141 for the DC version and comparative screenshots) and KOF 2003.
Why awesome? Well, two-for-one, to begin with. Expectedly, the manual is cut-rate: black and white, and actually, to my surprise, entirely lacking character portraits, not to mention move lists. But the games come on separate DVDs, where I had expected mere CDs, so you get nice quick load times, and--get ready for it--both support progressive scan! WHOA! Progressive scan is rare enough in PS2 games, but in ports of low-res arcade games? Unheard-of! Big ups to SNK for that. 02 looks easily as marvelous here in 480p as it does in VGA on the DC.
Better, in fact, because in place of 2002's rather crappy 2D backgrounds, you can enable pretty darn nice 3D backgrounds. The 3D work is at least on par with the 3D backgrounds in the earlier DC ports, and heck, if you don't like it, you can switch back to the 2D backgrounds. Actually, the 2D backgrounds in 03 are really nice, but more on that later. Most of the time there will be multiple versions of a 3D background, for different times of day, but I should mention that a couple of these use too much colored lighting, over both background and character sprites, and sort of muddle the whole picture out in an icky yellow or red color. Thankfully, those are the exception.
Other than the background option, I didn't notice much different from the DC version of 2002. You can put the backgrounds on random select in Practice mode, which is nice. Oddly, you can't switch Practice mode to use 2D backgrounds, which is a shame because that's the mode where it's easiest to select backgrounds just to view them, but oh well.
While KOF 2002 was never one of my favorites, I really like 03. The character roster is much smaller but they got some good people in there: Tizoc and Gato from Mark of the Wolves are much appreciated and look nice, if not quite as animated as in their native game, and the three brand-new characters in 03, while a little punked-out compared with the older KOF crew, aren't nearly as stupid as the characters introduced in 01 and 02, and--shock--actually play really, really well.
What else can I compliment 03 on? It has both team and solo Survival modes, a nice distinction. Oh, the final boss, although rather extremely quick, isn't even all that cheap for an SNK boss. Has the universe ended? Has hell frozen over? You mean I can actually hope to enjoy the end of a KOF game, rather than having to use one of the built-in continue cheats (lower the skill level, boss health, etc) to win? Huzzah!
On the down side, I haven't seen per-team endings, just a single generic one. Doh. And really there isn't much discernable story at all here, if you care about such things in your fighting games.
As in the 02 port, the 3D backgrounds for the most part look quite nice, but do try the 2D backgrounds, as they are surprisingly smooth and rich, and take things back near the quality level of the backgrounds in 2000 (see entry 139), which I do so love.
I really like 03. I haven't this excited about a KOF in quite some time.
Download added: terry_super_duper.gif (133196 bytes) "In 03, the team leader (first person you chose) gets an extra, huge super. Neat."
Oh man, I forgot to talk about 03 character switching! Rather like the Marvel vs Capcom games, you can now switch your active character during the fight in team battles. Normally though they just jump in and land: if you want them to attack, you have to throw in a bit of a joystick twist and spend, I think, a power stock. The switching really opens things up; although hardly original, I think it works well for them. You can also play a "Team" mode or something, that doesn't have the character switching, if you prefer old-school KOF style.
I am definitely off the 3D versions of the 2002 background. : P The 2D backgrounds are bland and oddly colored at best, but at least they don't poke you with low-res, weakly-filtered polygons. Not sure why I thought the 2D backgrounds can't be enabled for Practice mode, because they definitely are if you change the setting in the main game options.
Like other SNK PS2 ports of the era, you can set the game's Practice mode to run endless 1-round Vs CPU battles with randomized opponents and stages. It's a fun way to play, and really smooth in 2002, maybe particularly because of how the stages all sort of blur together into an oddly tinted melange. Partner this with the weirdest alternate character palettes (I find that selecting characters with Square tends to give the weirdest color schemes) and you've got yourself a near psychodelic experience. : o
I did that in this video, although I didn't get the character palette choice right (picking them with Square) until 3:36 in: