For many 2D fighting game fans, The King of Fighters '98 represents the zenith of the series; the crowning glory of the only rival lineage to truly bloody the nose of Capcom's genre-defining Street Fighter.
It's not hard to see why this is the case; the game looks stunning, has a massive roster of characters and boasts one of the most balanced fighting engines in any game of this type. It also controls like a dream and features an excellent soundtrack.
For those of you that haven't already sampled any of the other entries currently available on the Virtual Console, allow us to educate. Unlike Street Fighter 2 — which pitches one fighter against another in a "best-of-three rounds" battle — SNK's King of Fighters series puts you in control of a trio of different pugilists. As each one falls in competition, the next steps up to the plate. This process continues until one of the opposing teams is out of combatants. Unlike Capcom's popular “Verses" series, there's no way of tagging a fresh fighter into the bout, but you can change the pecking order before each match.
The King of Fighters '98 is unique in the franchise as it doesn't try to tie in with any overriding story. The subtitle “Dream Match" is something of a give-away; the game is basically a celebration of the series up to that point, with (almost) every character from every previous game available for selection. Even Rugal — the final boss of The King of Fighters '95, who perished at the conclusion of that outing — is playable.
The exceptions are Geese, Wolfgang and Mr. Big, who formed the “boss" team in The King of Fighters '96, Leopold Goenitz and Orochi (boss characters from The King of Fighters '96 and '97 respectively) and The King of Fighters '95's mystical ninja, Eiji Kisaragi. It's a shame that the line-up isn't totally complete (SNK Playmore would rectify this oversight with the PlayStation 2 remake The King of Fighters '98: Ultimate Match, released in 2008), but if you're deadly serious about mastering each fighter there are enough choices here to keep you busy for many, many weeks.
The “Advanced" and “Extra" power-up modes which made their debut in The King of Fighters '97 make a return. Advanced allows you to stockpile up to three super moves at any one time, while Extra mimics the system seen in early instalments and grants one power gauge which can be charged manually. Most people will pick Advanced given the choice, but it's nice to see fans of the older titles being catered for in some small measure.
Built around SNK's familiar four-button control layout, The King of Fighters '98 is a brawler which rewards perseverance and technical skill. As could be said of the entire series, the focus is more on deep combat mechanics than dazzling the player with special moves and over-the-top visuals — something many SNK fans will argue was the case with Capcom's output from the same period. Few fighting games boast a single player experience so enthralling it has the power to suck you in for days on end, but this offering does exactly that. If you have people nearby who are willing to play multiplayer on a regular basis and have the discipline to learn the moves, then the game's appeal becomes even more enticing.
Visually, The King of Fighters '98 manages to remain impressive despite the low resolution of the graphics. Although previous instalments had their moments of beauty, this entry was when SNK's artists really nailed the aesthetic. All of the characters and backgrounds look and move wonderfully, and are accompanied by some classic tunes to make the experience even more pleasing.
Considered by many to be the pinnacle of the entire series, The King of Fighters '98 is a must-have purchase if you're a dedicated fan of the genre. The only conceivable reason we can think of for not picking it up — besides having an aversion to this style of game — is because you already own The King of Fighters Collection: The Orochi Saga. For everyone else, there's little excuse not to at least give this a spin, especially at such a reasonable price. This is one of the Neo Geo's crowning glories and arguably one of the best one-on-one fighters ever created.