The King of Fighters 2003 is the tenth game in The King of Fighters series. It's the last game of the series to be based on the Neo-Geo MVS hardware, and the first game in the series developed and published by SNK Playmore under their current moniker. This game also is the first chapter of the "Tales of Ash" story arc.
As indicated by the game's name, it takes place two years after the last canon King of Fighters game, The King of Fighters 2001. According to the game's storyline, a new King of Fighters tournament is organized by an unknown host. The several new rules are instituted, including a whole new team system, based in Tag Team, which allows you to change character at the time of the fight. Only in console mode, there is a fighting option without this mode.
At the end of the tournament, depending on how players defeat the midgame boss, Kusanagi, the players will either face Adelheid Bernstein or learn that the tournament organizer is Chizuru Kagura and that a group known as "His Distant Land" is working in a secretive plot. After defeating the mysterious stone fighter known as Mukai, Ash Crimson appears before Chizuru, attacks her in her weakened state and steals her powers. Kyo Kusanagi and Iori Yagami come to Chizuru's aid as Ash tells Iori that he's his next target.
King of Fighters 2003 returns again with its 3 vs. 3 team battles. For the first time ever in the series, matches are taken place in a single 3-on-3 round, unlike the 3-5 round matches of previous installments. This due to the new Tag Shift mechanic, where fighters can switch out with other members during a match, similar to the Marvel vs. Capcom series. By pressing either BC or CD, players can switch place with any standby team members, with BC switching out with the second member and CD switching out with the third member. Because of this, CD Attacks do not appear in this game.
It should also be noted that KOF 2003 also feature the traditional 3-on-3 team matches as well as singles fights in the console ports.
Another mechanic is the Leader System, where one member of your team becomes a "Leader". The leader will always be the first character you choose when picking your team, and during the match, the leader will be highlighted by a blue life bar, unlike the members, whose life bars are orange. The leader gains access to a 2 stock super, known as Leader Desperation Move.
The new characters added to the roster (between original and of other franchises) are:
- Ash Crimson, a mysterious young man and leader of the new "Hero Team" (with quotation marks), is the new protagonist of the series. He enters in the KOF tournament with unknown intentions;
- Duo Lon, one of the members of the "Hero Team", is a ninja who is part of the Hizoku assassin clan, and is son of Ron, the traitor of the clan. He decides to hunt him;
- Shen Woo, the last member of the "Hero Team", is a street boxer raised in Shanghai. Like Duo Lon, he enters the tournament at the invitation of Ash;
- Tizoc (A.K.A. The Griffon), from Garou: Mark of The Wolves, is the new member of the Fatal Fury Team. He enters to the KOF tournament in order to gain his passion for the ring and to hopefully find the mystery man who defeated him;
- Gato, another character from MOTW. He enters the KOF tournament at the request of Geese Howard and to prevent his probable sister, Hotaru Futaba, from being harmed;
- Malin, member of the High School Girls Team, is an enigmatic Japanese girl from an unknown organization that specializes in gathering intelligence;
- Kusanagi, the mid-boss of the game, is other creation of Chizuru. He also appears in the two versions of KOF 2002 (a non-canonical game) as an experiment of NESTS cartel;
- Maki Kagura, one of the sub-bosses of the game, is the dead elder twin sister of Chizuru Kagura. She appears in the tournament as an illusion created by the Mirror of Yata, the clan's artifact;
- Adelheid Bernstein, one of the final bosses of the game, is Rugal Bernstein's son, who lives with his sister Rose Bernstein in the Sky Noah, one of the old homes of his father;
- Mukai, the true final boss of the game, is one of the members of an organization known as Those from the Past. He is ordered to not directly intervene with this tournament, only making an appearance to test the winning team to see if they will survive "the new age".
- Note 1: With the end of Striker System, the return of the formation of trios and the implementation of the Tag Battle system, the new team formations are the following:
- Tizoc takes over Andy Bogard's place in the Fatal Fury Team. Terry's brother was training his student, Hokutomaru;
- Takuma Sakazaki leaves the tournament again, and the Art of Fighting Team takes the formation of the '96 tournament;
- Heidern also leaves the Ikari Warriors Team, passing the leadership back to his daughter Leona;
- Blue Mary joins with King and Mai Shiranui, of the Women Fighters Team, to investigate the movements of the Those from the Past;
- Jhun Hoon replaces Choi Bounge in the Korea Justice Team, after being left out of the last tournament for breaking his arm;
- The criminals Ryuji Yamazaki and Billy Kane reunite again after four tournaments off, and form the new Outlaw Team, together with Gato, who fills Mary's entry for this team;
- Benimaru Nikaido, Goro Daimon and Shingo Yabuki form the new Japan Team, after Kyo Kusanagi's left of the team;
- Athena Asamiya leaves the Psycho Soldier Team for a while, and forms the new High School Girls Team, with Hinako Shijou and Malin;
- Kyo Kusanagi, Iori Yagami and Chizuru Kagura, the Three Sacred Treasures Team, appears alone in this tournament, and Chizuru is, again, the host of KOF. However, they are still a team based on their character select background colors.
- Note 2: The K' Team remain with the same formation as the previous game.
- Note 3: About both sub-bosses and final bosses, there are some considerations:
- Sub-bosses are exclusive to the True Ending, and fight together as a two members team.
- Final bosses are NPCs in Arcade mode as Maki Kagura, and Hidden unlockable in home consoles.
Fatal Fury Team
Art of Fighting Team
Ikari Warriors Team
Women Fighters Team
Korea Justice Team
High School Girls Team
- Kusanagi (Hidden in Arcade version)
Three Sacred Treasures Team
- Kyo Kusanagi
- Iori Yagami
- Chizuru Kagura
Original Japan Team
- Kyo Kusanagi
- Benimaru Nikaido
- Goro Daimon
'94 Women Fighters Team
- Mai Shiranui
- Yuri Sakazaki
- Note 1: In the console versions, depending on the chosen fighting mode (Normal or Arcade), the stages may vary. In normal mode, all stages vary in time and space.
- Note 2: In this game, the stage are randomly chosen by the game's system.
- Japan: The temple complex of Tōdai-ji, in the city of Nara. In arcade mode, the fight takes place next to the Ango and Ungyo statues of the complex, in the Namdaimon Gate. The main temple can be seen in the background, along with various Shinto gods and lanterns in the gate, people cheering, sakura trees and a fountain. In the console version, the fight occurs next to the South Central Gate.
- Changes: In the 1st variation, the fight takes place next to a tree. Spectators can be seen cheering, along with a bridge, a big lantern in the gate of the temple and traditional Japanese buildings. In the 2nd variation, the fight takes place around sunset and occurs next to the other buildings; in the 3rd variation, the fight takes place near the gate, it's already night and the stage is empty.
- Czech Republic: In the arcade version, the fight takes place near the Orloj, in the city of Prague. In the first variation, spectators can be seen amongst the buildings. In the second variation, the stage is empty and it's already night. In the console version, the fighters battle on a flatbed truck that runs through the streets of the city (the Orloj can be seen for a brief moment of the fight). The flatbed truck passes through a tunnel next to a park.
- Changes: The 1st variation takes place during the day; in the 2nd variation, the battle takes place during sunset; in the 3rd variation the fight takes place at night.
- China: In the arcade version, the fight takes place on the rooftop of a building in the city of Hong Kong. The NEO GEO and SNK Playmore logos can be seen in the background. There are two variations of color in this stage: in the first, the hue is blue; in the second, the hue changes to green. In the console versions, it's the same rooftop, but there are 3D modifications to some of the signs in the background.
- Changes: In the 1st variation has a neon logo, an old man and cats; the 2nd variation has the game's logo and a helicopter; while the 3rd variation has children and a woman, and the light of various helicopters.
- Korea: In the arcade version, the fight takes place at a Korean seaside. People can be seen cheering on the fighters, against the backdrop of a boat with tires, fishermen and a zeppelin. The only change is that the stage turns green. In the console version, the fight takes in a beach instead.
- Changes: In the 1st variation, can be seen some people, a cabin, other zeppelin, boats and a moutain. In the 2nd variation, the fight takes near the sea, in a new angle. In the 3rd variation, the fight occurs on a pier, under the sunset. Boats, people, a new mountain and the same zeppelin from the arcade version can be seen.
- Mexico: The Mayan city of Chichen Itza, in Yucatán. In the arcade version, the fight takes place near the Kukulcan Temple. Amongst the ruins, crows, trees and a light fog can be seen. The only change is that the stage turns a greenish hue. In the console version, the fight takes at another area of the Mayan city.
- Changes: In the 1st variation, next to the Temple of the Warriors, some local people, stones and mariachi singers can be seen; in the 2nd variation, in the Columns in the Temple of a Thousand Warriors, with tribal dancers, under the sunset and with the Kukulcan Temple in the background; in the 3rd variation, it's night and the monuments previously mentioned can be seen.
- New Zealand: In the arcade version, the battle takes place at the Glenbrook Railway. The fight itself takes place directly next to the train and the tracks. Plaques, people, balloons, a cow and a house can be seen in the background. In the console version, the fight occurs on a moving train departing from a station. People can be seen cheering inside of the station with the city of Auckland passing by in the background. The train then proceeds through the New Zealand countryside where balloons and sheep can be seen in the background.
- Changes: In the 1st variation of the normal console mode, it's daytime and the rail line goes to the left. In the 2nd variation, the SNK Playmore and the game's logo can be seen in a truck, in the station and outdoors, and it takes place during the sunset while the rail line goes to the right. The 3rd variation takes place at night with the rail line going to the left.
- Egypt — Kusanagi: The city of Giza. In arcade mode, the fight takes place next to the ruins of the city and the Great Sphinx and the Pyramids can be seen in the background. Spectators and a camel can be seen in the background as well. The first variation takes place at sunset, while the second takes place at night. In the console version, the fight takes place on a boat that passes along the River Nile. The famous monuments of the city and various spectators can be seen in the background.
- Changes: In the 1st variation of the console version, the fight takes place during daytime. In the 2nd variation, the sun is setting. In the 3rd variation, it's already night.
- Sky Noah — Adelheid: An airship floating high above ground, featuring the Bernstein family lounging and doing their business. Multiple terminals and high-tech consoles are strewn across the stage. Rose can be seen playing the piano and at her feet rests the black panther of her father, Rugal. In the console version, the structures release vapors.
- Note: This stage also can be seen in KOF XIII, with some changes.
- Cave — Chizuru & Maki: A cave. Mirrors and a lava river are seen in the background.
- Boss Stage: Another cave. in the background is a statue of a snake with a green glowing eye, sparks and chains. In the console version, the snake moves. Associated with Mukai.
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