What's truly new in KOF NeoWave? Not much, really. The character graphics are all recycled, the soundtrack is mostly forgettable, and a lot of the audio is muffled and indistinct. There's still a lot of charm and personality on display in the different fighters, but this isn't a good presentation by today's standards. The character roster has been tweaked since 2002 to include a few old favorites who didn't originally make the cut, like Shingo and King. The three different fighting modes (super cancel, guard break, and max2) influence your character's moves and abilities, as well as how often you can use your most powerful techniques, though systems like this have been a part of 2D fighting games for years. The conventional four-button KOF control scheme (for light and strong punches and kicks) gains one more button this time around for what's called "heat mode," which causes your character to flash red and get stronger, though at the expense of health. It's not that meaningful of an addition. The game also sports some fully 3D backgrounds and nice-looking portraits for all the fighters. There are a few alternate modes of play, like an "endless" survival mode, and numerous graphical options you can tweak to slightly adjust how the action looks on your screen, but this isn't major stuff.
Online play, tweaked gameplay, nice new character art, and a budget price may be enough to attract the KOF faithful into giving this one a shot.
Other than that, The King of Fighters NeoWave feels rushed. The onscreen interface looks ugly, especially the life meters. There's no text dialogue in between matches, which might not seem like a big deal, but it's a glaring omission--in past installments, fighters' personalities tended to come across in the between-battle dialogue. The last boss isn't an original character, but rather a recycled hidden fighter from a much older game. Worst of all, there are brief but painfully noticeable loading times between rounds, interrupting the fast pace of the action. One might reasonably expect the Atomiswave hardware to improve on what the NeoGeo was capable of, but whatever improvements are on display in this game are negated by new problems. The translation to the Xbox didn't seem to do much to compensate, either.
In the end, KOF NeoWave is a decent 2D fighting game that's recommendable only to those looking for more King of Fighters, for better and for worse. It's not a substantial or impressive upgrade for the series, but if you're still a fan, chances are you enjoy picking apart each new installment, noting subtle differences to moves and abilities, comparing additions and omissions against past versions, and so on. And being able to play online against other fans is nice, too.