You probably wouldn't know it from looking at it, but The King of Fighters: Neowave, while ostensibly similar to the rest of SNK's flagship fighting series, marks perhaps the biggest departure so far in the series' history. While every previous instalment has made its home on the perennial Neo-Geo hardware, unchanged since 1990, Neowave made its home on the newer Atomiswave system before now making the jump to PS2. While this game, essentially an enhanced version of King of Fighters 2002, does little to move the series forward, it offers a small technical bump and slight gameplay tweaks that are unlikely to rile devotees.
It's slightly telling of the incremental way in which this series has been progressing that any new versions can be defined in terms of how likely or not to offend its more conservative fans it is, rather than how effective it will be at attracting new ones. This is SNK's toe in the new hardware pond, while the newer King of Fighters XI may be the game to move the series forward. The fans don't want a revamp in the vein of Street Fighter III, and SNK is obviously happy to tweak the base game with each subsequent edition, and why not? Many deep games are all the better for it - just look at Pro Evo.
Neowave returns to the three-on-three battles that seem to have fallen out of favour in recent years. The fights aren't fought as a tag team, as in the Marvel vs. Capcom series, but rather remain one-on-one affairs until there is a victor. The defeated character is swapped out for the next in line, and so on until one team has been exhausted. A traditional single-character mode is available, but team fights are tactically more interesting as you try to pick someone for every eventuality. It encourages experimentation more than other, more traditional, fighters, where there can be a temptation to get comfortable with one character and stick with them.
Otherwise the gameplay is fairly typical for a 2D fighting game, with little that's going to surprise anyone, with the possible exception of 'Heat' mode, which allows you to make your character more powerful in exchange for some health. Of course, the base gameplay has been refined over the last decade and as such is sound and balanced; it's just nothing spectacular. One feature, however, that I wish some of the competition would pilfer is that upon defeat you can choose to simply try again or lower the difficulty, lower the enemy's health, or give yourself more of a super bar. It's a great idea and can save some of the frustration caused by fighting cheap characters.
The big change for this game is, as I said, the new hardware that the arcade version ran on. Unfortunately, the change just isn't that great. Backgrounds look better than in games based on older Neo-Geo hardware, but unless you know what to look for you frankly wouldn't know there was any change. It's just a baby step out of the Neo-Geo comfort zone and therefore still looks like a game designed for hardware built over a decade ago - albeit hardware that has stood the test of time remarkably well.
It's unfortunate that Neowave doesn't look too inspiring because it comes with an excellent selection of graphical options to get it looking as good as possible on different TVs. Not only is there an option to choose whether you want the character sprites smoothed (read: really blurry), but you can also choose the degree of smoothing that you want, letting you find a nice balance somewhere between a jagged mess and covering the screen in Vaseline. It also has the essential 60Hz mode, though no progressive scan support.
So, Neowave doesn't reinvent the wheel, but it is a good home conversion of a solid fighter. As such, if you've played King of Fighters in recent years you'll know exactly what you're getting here, which is a fairly deep fighting experience that may not be as accessible or immediate as some of the competition, but is rewarding enough for those who are willing to put in the time. It's really a game for those who can't get enough King of Fighters, and especially for those who want more KOF2002.