Indeed. In 1992, Mortal Kombat was released in arcades much to the dismay of angry mothers and overly sensitive types all over America. In the budding genre of fighting games, one had to do something somewhat unique and-slash-or original to stand out -- or stand up, I should say -- against the competition. Street Fighter had paved the way for a genre that came almost out of nowhere and sucker punched kids like me into dropping a whole lot of coins into the arcade cabinets to beat the crap out of my friends' digital avatar representations of themselves. Or the fantastical representations of themselves to be more accurate, 'cause no one I know dresses like fighting game characters. I'd probably laugh at them in a very mocking sort of way if they did. NetheRealm Studios (then a part of Midway, but now a part of complete awesomeness) did just that and came out full steam ahead with punches swinging and kicks flinging, and Johnny Cage punching dudes in the balls. Mortal Kombat just let it out there in a fiction that mashed the basic ideas of Big Trouble in Little China and Enter the Dragon and did so with copious amounts of digital blood and the trademark fatalities that cemented Mortal Kombat not only in video/fighting game history, but in pop culture as well.
After a series of somewhat disappointing ventures -- from the admirable attempts in the 3D realm of fighting games such as Deadly Alliance and Deception, to the complete and utter fail of Armageddon and Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe -- the guys and gals at NetheRealm Studios have brought Mortal Kombat back to the forefront of the fighting game genre and blasted their way through the competition to get them noticed again. The competition over the years has fallen off a great deal. Where once it seemed that almost every game developer was trying to make some sort of fighting game to capitalize on the success of the Street Fighters and Mortal Kombats, the tournament brackets has dwindled down to just a handful. Namco held the top spot for several years with the constant entries in the Tekken and Soul Calibur franchises -- although, Soul Calibur has constantly been going downhill in my opinion since Soul Calibur II -- while being closely followed by Tecmo's Dead or Alive (only because they were still making them at the time, not because that game is a quality fighting game at all) and Sega's Virtua Fighter franchise, which has most certainly seen better days since Sega hasn't released a console version of the latest iteration and probably won't. Just a few years ago, however, Capcom came back almost quoting the N.W.A. song, "Hello," saying, "I started this motherfuckin' fighting shit, and this is the motherfucking thanks I get?" and released Street Fighter IV, one of the most solid fighting games I've ever played. They subsequently updated it and released a second version of the game, Super Street Fighter IV, and it continued to rock the house. Not to be outdone, Namco released the equally as solid Tekken 6 as a multiplatform release for the first time in the series' history. Then Capcom answered the call to the fans and delivered Marvel vs. Capcom 3: The Fate of Two Worlds. It was just time. With the top fighting game development teams creating some of the best fighters to date, it was time for NetheRealm to do another Mortal Kombat game.
The lingering question was, however, would it be a good one? Ever since NetheRealm turned to the 3D playing field with Mortal Kombat 4, the series has slowly been reduced to a mere shadow of the bloody arcade powerhouse it once was. Deadly Alliance was a step in the right direction, Deception furthered that step. But Armageddon was a giant step backwards, even though it boasted the playability of every character to have appeared in any Mortal Kombat game. The Kreate-A-Fighter and Kreate-A-Fatality modes just seemed to weaken the series, and the game play that was born from Deadly Alliance just didn't have a lasting appeal to it. I, myself, would still rather pop in a copy of some form or another of Mortal Kombat II or Mortal Kombat 3 and click the buttons away at combos that had been burned into that specific part of my brain that I had dedicated to the remembering of fighting game move lists and the like. I can still remember several fatalities from both those games (and a few from the original Mortal Kombat). Then along came the biggest let down in the franchise's lengthy history: Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe. It just wasn't Mortal Kombat. The blood and gore had been seriously toned down, and there were no fatalities worth mentioning. And that's not even the most important part of a fighting game, that's just the perks of playing a Mortal Kombat fighting game. The game's engine was a play on the Deadly Alliance engine and it had too many gimmicks going on at one time.
Would Mortal Kombat be any good? The questioned lingered quite heavily in the cloudy part of my brain that hides the memory of chunking down over sixty bucks at the arcade when Mortal Kombat 3 first came out. Yes, in one night.
Not only is the answer, "yes," but it's a very hard hitting, brutal assault on the senses sort of yes that you'd expect from a forceful drunk after you asked him to step outside. The kind of yes that punches you in the nose and you don't remember what happens after that moment 'cause your face stings, you taste blood, your ears ring, and you can't see shit thanks to the girly tears watering your orbitals.
NetheRealm Studios went back to what made Mortal Kombat... well, Mortal Kombat, and capitalized on that more so than when they capitalized on the birth of the fighting game genre. We're treated to a three-dimensional world that focuses on a two-dimensional playing field that takes the game back to its hard hitting roots. The game flows like a brilliant mixture between Mortal Kombat II and Mortal Kombat 3. But more on that later. The game runs smoothly and frantically, yet has brief moments that are sure to jar those folks that aren't that comfortable with the human anatomy. You know, the bits and pieces that lay underneath the skin. Those are called X-Ray moves, and while I always thought the UFC games would be the first to employ such a tactic (the first time I'd ever seen anything like what's being done in the new MK game was on a UFC related program), NetheRealm beat them to the punch in a very hard way. You see bones break, livers frozen and smashed, skulls and spines crushed, all sorts of horrible things that are bound to illicit the same responses that the arcade versions once did when someone performed a fatality. The characters are rendered wonderfully with a few exceptions (Smoke's hair, the lack of pretty faces in the women at certain points, but hey, let's not be TOO vain), and the game never loses that spit polish shine that fighting games NEED to have. The only time the visuals take a turn towards the downward spiral is during the game's cinematic sequences during Story Mode. Instead of doing them all in-game, utilizing the same engine, they opted for semi-pre-rendered sequences that lose the clarity of the game's engine, and you can see those tale tell signs of compression at a few points. But let us not be too picky. The sound has some minor issues, but mostly not during game play. I've seen a few during game play -- the sound being slightly delayed during X-Ray moves, and the character specific dialog going out completely -- but mostly it's been during autosave junctions and mismatched dialog during those junctions.
The stages are more than a welcome sight. With the current trend in Capcom's fighters to be the minimal approach in regards to the fighting locations (both Street Fighter IV and Marvel vs. Capcom 3 have just a handful of stages), Mortal Kombat goes all out, offering a plethora of familiar locations, several new ones, and some night/dawn/day variations of others, we're offered plenty of variety of places to beat our opponents to a bloody pulp in. A lot of the stages are revisions of stages from the first three Mortal Kombat games, updated, polished, and prettier than ever. There's the Pit, Shang Tsung's Throne Room, Goro's Lair, Shao Kahn's arena, and so on and so forth. There's also some really lovely new stages like Shang Tsung's Flesh Pits which appear to be one part Dr. Frankenstein's laboratory and one part Hellraiser Cenobitial lounge room. Y'know, the place they'd go to relax after they've torn your soul apart. In fact, now that I think of it, without getting too Cenobitial, there seems to be a lot of influence from Clive Barker's fiction going on in the new Mortal Kombat, but that could be just me. The game is visually quite beautiful in a very dark and twisted sort of way, and I couldn't be anymore the happier about that.
But as with any fighting game, the main importance is always on game play. How it controls, it precise or wishy washy; is it a quality fighting game? I think so. I've played a lot of fighting games, and while I'm no expert tournament level player, I like to believe I can judge the quality of a fighting game just by playing it. This is one of the most hectic fighting games I've played that wasn't Marvel vs. Capcom related, and that's not a bad thing. Unlike the Vs. Series from Capcom, a lot of what's going on in the new Mortal Kombat is intended. Although, I've discovered, this new Mortal Kombat is very button masher friendly. Which isn't a bad thing at all. That allows new players to not feel overwhelmed and get beaten all the time, which is never a good thing when you're just getting into a fighting game. The game is really well polished and balanced as far as single player fighting and regular versus fighting goes. I'm not sure about online play since the PlayStation Network has been down since the game's release. Even Kratos, the character a lot of people were worried about not being balanced at all, is quite balanced and open for the massive beat down against skilled players. The moves are elegantly timed and worth learning (I've not encountered a useless move, yet) and there's a lot to learn in terms of competitive fighting in this game. The only downfall I've found in the gameplay is that a lot of the characters don't quite play the way they used to. Some of them have been given minor changes to the way they used to play, while others (Liu Kang and Raiden) have been overhauled completely in comparison to Mortal Kombat II and Mortal Kombat 3. The three tiered super-bar is quite helpful as well. The enhanced moves give you a little bit of edge with some moves and delivering more damage with others. Some moves, like Sektor's teleport punch and Kabal's Dash, gain a frame or two of invulnerability, while others, like Sub-Zero's ice blast, actually do damage instead of just freezing the opponent. The dial-a-combo's from Mortal Kombat 3 are there as well, but as just a collection of preprogrammed default combos and not the begin all/end all of the game's fighting engine. While I've not discovered any massive string combos yet, I know that they're there, and I'm eager to learn one or two. The one thing that isn't present that has been present in the 2D Mortal Kombat games since the original is the effectiveness of the pop-up when you jump in and kick someone. The traditional Scorpion combo of jumping in with a low-hitting jump kick and then hitting them with his trademark spear just doesn't work anymore. And, since I've been playing those first three MK games for a very long time, I keep trying to do those kinds of combos to leave myself open for a whole lot of humiliation.
THERE WILL BE BLOOD
And copious amounts of it, too. I'm a self-proclaimed gore-hound and have been since I was a wee lad watching Friday the 13th with the same glee that most kids my age reserved for birthdays and Christmas presents. It was one of the attractive draws for me towards Mortal Kombat to begin with, and I'm more than happy to say that this game does, indeed, return to the roots of what Mortal Kombat is in terms of gore, and I'd dare say they pushed it a whole lot farther. The bloodshed in the game is always present and it is abundant. The blood stays on the ground when it splatters there, the characters take a whole array of horrible wounds from destroyed orbital sockets, to flayed flesh, to busted noses and even exposed brainmeat. The game does not let up. It's a relentless assault on decency through a digital format that leaves the real folks safe and unharmed, except for maybe a little ego bruising. And it gets worse with the fatalities. With only one or two being absolute stinkers, the fatalities of the game are just what the developers promised: memorable dispatches in the unrealistic variety that'll either make you laugh at the almost absurdity of them, or you'll cringe at the brutal nature of them. A lot of the fatalities are mixtures of several fatalities characters had in the first three games, or updated versions of them, and a lot of them are brand new expeditions into the realm of near-medieval torture. Even the innards of the characters have been beautifully rendered in a completely horrific sort of way.
Select Your Fighter
The roster of characters for this Mortal Kombat should be familiar to anyone that's familiar themselves with Mortal Kombat at all. All the characters appearing in this game, with the exception of one (two for the PlayStation 3 version) are from the first three Mortal Kombat games. Scorpion and Sub-Zero are there, Liu Kang and Kung Lao are there, Goro, Shao Kahn, Kintaro and Shang Tsung are there; Mileena, Kitana and Jade; Johnny Cage; you get the idea. Only Quan Chi is from one of the later games in the series, and seeing how Quan Chi is one of the best characters introduced post MK3, he's quite accepted. The other character, the one exclusive to the PlayStation 3, is Kratos, from God of War, and he fits right at home with the rest of the characters. He fits so at home with the cast of Mortal Kombat, that it literally feels like NetheRealm just ripped him right out of God of War III and didn't have to do anything to him to make him fit. Each character has been slightly updated in comparison to their looks from the older games and it works really well. The design efforts that went into redesigning the classic characters from those games has really payed off in the end product. NetheRealm has come along way since doing simple palette swaps of characters to beef up the roster. But worry not, those palette swaps are still in there after a fashion. If you pre-ordered the game from GameStop, Best Buy or Amazon, you got a special retro look for one of the three original ninja in the game: Sub-Zero, Scorpion, or Reptile, which is a mix between their costumes in Mortal Kombat and Mortal Kombat II. It also gave you their original fatalities, which were beautifully rendered, and I finally get to do my all-time favorite fatality ever in an MK game: Sub-Zero's Spine Rip. The game sports twenty-eight playable fighters (two of which have two different sets of animations, Sektor and Cyrax), two costumes for each fighter, and three non-playable boss characters. That's quite a decent cast of characters for a fighting game and there's more on the way. The Lady in Red (or Skarlet) and Kenshi (from the later MK games) are slated to be DLC releases some time this year. Large rosters have become almost necessary in the current fighting game scene, and Mortal Kombat doesn't disappoint.
Back to the Beginning
The game doesn't just return to its roots in terms of gameplay and gore and all that, but also in setting and story telling in the game's Story Mode. I'm one of the rare, oddball sorts that actually pays attention to fighting game storylines, which is why MK has remained in my library despite some of the rather disappointing efforts. Mortal Kombat has always had a rather interesting story going on in it, and it's a lot more cohesive than what Street Fighter and Tekken have to offer. Which isn't a knock on Tekken or Street Fighter, just that some of the stuff that's going on in those game's stories is either really out there or really goofy.
The game picks up where Armageddon left off and everyone is dead except Raiden and Shao Kahn. Now, I dunno about you guys and this is a total tangent rant, but I've always loathed how Raiden has been pronounced in the Mortal Kombat games. It's supposed to be pronounced RAI, like eye, den. Not RAYden. He's slightly based off of the character Lightning from Big Trouble in Little China, but also based on the deity of Raijin (rye-jean). So, there's that. But anyway, Shao Kahn's beating Raiden to shit and just before delivering the final blow, Raiden brainmails himself in the past and lets him in on what ultimately happens. I don't know how this works, but I don't question the capabilities of deities in fiction. Now Raiden in the past knows the ultimate outcome of the Mortal Kombat tournament (I still prefer the Shaolin Tournament for Martial Arts as it was called in the original game, as the Mortal Kombat tournament sounds a bit flakey) but is only provided a few glimpses into how that outcome comes about. And by in the past I mean just as the first tournament in the very first Mortal Kombat game is beginning. The story unravels there with a total of seventeen chapters -- if I remember correctly -- where you play as a different character for each chapter, and it covers the story that spreads across the first three original Mortal Kombat games. And it's quite satisfying, very challenging, and pleasantly surprising, as things don't turn out the way they did in the original trilogy. You'll find yourself often pitted against multiple opponents or placed in other unfair situations. My ONLY complaint about the Story Mode is that it doesn't seem that anyone who writes a martial arts tournament into any kind of work of fiction knows how martial arts tournaments work. You don't go around challenging folks. There are brackets and whatnot, kind of like the NBA playoffs, and everything builds towards an ultimate climax.
In conclusion, I'd have to say that yes, Mortal Kombat is back. Almost like it had never left (or fell into a cycle of mediocre releases). The franchise has been resurrected and has taken its rightful place in the fighting game landscape, butting heads with the other top tier franchises in Tekken and Street Fighter. If you were ever a fan of the Mortal Kombat games or that first movie (I've yet to meet a fan of the second one), then check the game out. You owe it to yourself.