Remembering the Classics: Mortal Kombat

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The fighting genre has changed significantly since the early arcade days. Back before home consoles were everyone’s goto source of gaming, arcades were a hot bed for virtual fighting aficionados. It’s extremely easy to see why too. Very few genres at the time were as heavily focused on one-on-one play. Playing a fighting game on your own is fun, sure, but there’s just something satisfying in playing against an evenly skilled friend and besting them. It’s for this reason why arcade tournaments were so prevalent around games like Street Fighter II, one of the most influential games in history. As the industry grew and expanded, more and more fighting games came out, hoping to profit off hungry gamers with pockets full of quarters and dreams of being “the best.”

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Nowadays, this doesn’t usually happen anymore. Home consoles have taken over and that’s where most fighting games happen now. There are major tournaments every year, but most people focus on playing with their close friends in personally set up skirmishes or online. The genre that was once one of the most popular has now been relegated to a certain few franchises while first-person shooters or online role-playing games run rampant. Yet even as other genres have since taken the spotlight, fighting games have maintained a core devout fanbase, one that is admittedly growing once again. That fanbase especially began salivating this week when a new Mortal Kombat installment was officially announced.

Mortal Kombat’s runaway success took the industry by surprise. When Street Fighter II came out in 1991, it changed everything. The previously limited roster in Street Fighter was expanded, a distinct combo system was first introduced, intricate special moves were a massive hit, and the game was graphically smooth. A lot of companies tried to be the next Street Fighter II but all fell by the wayside. It seemed as if this Capcom developed powerhouse would never be beaten. Then the Chicago-based Midway Games released Mortal Kombat in 1992 and subsequently put the genre on its head. The product of four guys attempting to make an adaptation of Universal Soldier, featuring Jean-Claude Van Damme himself, Mortal Kombat was intended to be something completely different. To do this, Mortal Kombat featured sprites based on actors as opposed to computer generated characters, a ton of secrets, and excessive bloody violence boldly exclaiming “FATALITY.”

It’s really for these reasons alone that Mortal Kombat was able to stay so popular while everyone else failed. Even though the series has an expansive story about warring realms and Elder Gods putting everyones lives on the line in tournaments, its aggressively violent style made it an icon. Before Mortal Kombat hit the shelves, all fighting games were notably tame. Despite all of the punching, kicking, and sometimes fireball throwing, no one actually died after a battle. Everyone was simply knocked out. Midway decided they wanted none of this with Mortal Kombat. Eventually players weren’t just knocking their opponents out. They were literally killing them in a variety of graphic manners, including the ever popular spine rip right after the famous “Finish him/her!” Clearly parents were none too comfortable this, and the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) was formed a mere two years later. Midway’s response? They added Babalities and Friendships to Mortal Kombat II. Who can get mad when opposing fighters are turned into babies or become close friends through dancing?

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The first several games were especially notable for their simplistic styles. Even though they were excessively graphic and featured colorful special moves, the games were visually simple. Animated sprites of actual people looked cheesy when compared to the colorful characters produced by Capcom. Yet instead of detracting from the experience, the sprites actually made Mortal Kombat even more popular. It’s obvious that violence and mysticism was what the developers were going for. Why waste time creating characters when a winning formula was right there? This also lead to many in-jokes that have since become so famous to the series, one of which is the palette swap. What this meant was the exact same sprite was used again for multiple different characters with different colors and names. For example, Sub-Zero and Scorpion were the only ninjas in the original. Eventually the likes of Smoke, Ermac, Reptile, and Noob Saibot all came to be with simple palette swapping. Before long, the Mortal Kombat series had one of the most expansive rosters on the market, essentially filled with the same characters.

Interestingly enough, Mortal Kombat is especially known in present day gaming with its connection to Warner Bros. After Midway Games filed for bankruptcy in 2009, WB picked up the intellectual property and used it to make a new company called NetherRealm Studios. Their very first game was the 2011 reboot Mortal Kombat and it received immense acclaim. Suddenly Mortal Kombat was the hottest item on the market again. This relatively new partnership has also allowed the Mortal Kombat brand to expand even further thanks to WB’s ownership of DC comics. Their first official crossover, 2008’s Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe, was actually the last Mortal Kombat game developed by Midway. It was a hit, simultaneously showing people that WB could actually handle the brand and that it was really cool to watch characters like Batman brutally murder Superman. This lead to Injustice: Gods Among Us, a wholly DC focused game that was so close to Mortal Kombat in style, it even had Scorpion as a playable fighter.

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Even though the original Mortal Kombat on Game Boy was one of the very first fighting games I’ve ever played, quite possibly even the first ever, the series never became a main part of my library. To date that’s the only Mortal Kombat game my family owned. The memories I have of it were that the it looked goofy and was incredibly difficult. I’d always play as Raiden but never ended up beating the tournament. I didn’t know how to do any special moves, nor did I fully understand the necessary techniques to win. Playing Mortal Kombat without being good at both combat or performing fatalities is clearly not a recipe for success. As my fighting tastes improved, I gravitated more away from Mortal Kombat and to Super Smash Bros. or Marvel vs. Capcom. Chances are I won’t be buying Mortal Kombat X when it comes next year, but I know I’d definitely play it elsewhere with friends.

Mortal Kombat X is to be the first eighth generation game of the series (Injustice technically doesn’t count) and the premiere trailer looks outstanding. Really, is there a better way to get people excited for a new game than to showcase the two big stars, Sub-Zero and Scorpion? Absolutely not. It also looks as gory and bloody as ever, complete with x-ray imaging so you yourself can see bones being broken (a feature introduced in the 2011 reboot). Honestly, NetherRealm Studios really doesn’t need to do much with this new game to make it a hit with fans. The series already made a name for itself by being violent to the point of absurdity. It’s a model that no one else can possibly top. Plus, the more great games released, the easier we can all forget those horrid movies. Everyone wins!

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Luke Kalamar is Pop-Break.com’s television and every Saturday afternoon you can read his retro video game column, Remembering the Classics. He covers Game of Thrones, Saturday Night Live and The Walking Dead (amongst others) every week. As for as his career and literary standing goes — take the best parts of Spider-man, Captain America and Luke Skywalker and you will fully understand his origin story.

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