Turns out that ditching the Striker system wasn't such a bad idea!
The intro to this game already sets it at an "all-time classic" status to me. Some will say 1998 was a better "dream match" game, but I honestly prefer 2002 much more. The mix of the Orochi Saga characters against the NESTS Saga ones feels more like a "dream match" to me. 1998 felt like just another sequel, while 2002 felt like the developers actually wanted to shake things up here.
As I said in the title, the Striker system is gone. Fights are now back to being 3-on-3, with the usual power gauge system that has a twist to it. MAX mode is back from KOF 1997 and 1998.
There are numerous characters that don't return here, but most of them were characters I could live without. Lin, Shingo, Bao, etc. - I do miss Heidern and King, though. The returning characters are Mature, Vice, Yamazaki, Billy Kane, and the New Faces team from KOF 1997 (Shermie, Chris, Yashiro).
The final boss this time around is...Rugal - a little disappointing to have him back, but I guess that was part of the gimmick with dream match games. The NESTS team (Kula, K9999 and Angel) has the possible sub-bosses - you face one of them when it's time. It's a little pointless, but I guess there was something bigger planned here. Console versions of the game have Goenitz and Geese Howard added to the roster, and those characters would make more sense to have in those spots.
So, the fights are more straightforward now, and the roster is generally better, but what about the little details that KOF gets right? Well, the stages still look good, you get some nice cameos here and there, but the soundtrack is on another level. In particular, the default tracks for stages give the game a relaxed and happy feeling.
As for minor changes, I will say that Robert Garcia was notably nerfed in this game. Not sure about anyone else on the roster, but Robert's kicking special was changed so that the opponent does not bouce off the wall anymore. Angel's voice actress was changed to Mayumi Shintani, the same woman who voiced notable characters like Haruko from FLCL, Nonon from Kill La Kill, among others. It's a wonderful voice for her. There are other little changes, but I don't really feel like typing them all here.
Overall, this game made changes that I welcomed - but what about next year's KOF? Surely there's another twist to add to the gameplay. After all, going back to basics could only take you so far before the approach gets stale...