Twenty years ago, arcades all around the U.S. saw an unprecedented surge, the event spear-headed by two extraordinary titles on opposite sides of the spectrum. Prior to that, the genre was practically unheard of but their success would ignite a wave of copy-cats and mock-ups. Yet those two games - for years - would remain on top, relentlessly contending for ultimate supremacy. Technical players flocked to Street Fighter II for its flawless mechanics and incredible design, casual players poured quarters into Mortal Kombat for its simple structure and shock value. Regardless of which side you chose, there's no arguing that these two titles shoved the fighting genre into the spotlight for many years to come.
Then, they simply faded away into obscurity...
Both marred by sequels and spin-offs that strayed too far from the original magic, a lack of effort and a drought of new ideas. When hope seemed all but lost, Capcom reemerged almost two decades later with the straight-forward, redesigned Street Fighter IV. And as it had in the 90's, the franchise blazed a trail, bringing fighting games brand new life and giving players something to be excited about. It was almost inevitable that Mortal Kombat would soon follow. Yet many - I included - had lost faith in the long-running series. Years of watching it drift aimlessly away from its starting point will do that and I worried that this so-called reboot would fade even further, that Netherrealm would drive the series even further into the abyss by going bigger and bolder in order to contend.
Not surprisingly, they did. It was, though, something I never saw coming and an idea that works flawlessly in nearly every aspect: simplicity.
Perhaps following the example set by Street Fighter IV, Mortal Kombat chisels away the past fifteen years, focusing solely on the original aspects that made the first title so phenomenal and bringing it back to what it used to be. The roster is cut in half, only long-time favorites like Sub-Zero, Scorpion, Kitana, Sonya and Johnny Cage are present. And though some may scoff, believing that more fighters equal a better game, that isn't the case here. By eliminating useless supporting characters, a story is told that intertwines each individual and their purpose in the original Mortal Kombat tournament, one that shines a new light on the long-running series. We see the transition from the first Sub-Zero to the second, we see how Kabal came to be disfigured, how Jax lost his arms, what made Kitana turn and the detrimental mistake made by the kombatants that led to the all-out destruction of every realm. It is a tale fans all know, and some parts may have even seen, but it feels like Netherrealm is finally making the effort to solidify their legend and tread down one path without straying. It was the first of many indications that this Mortal Kombat was made strictly for the loyal fans.
The sick, depraved, blood-lusting, gore-craving fans. Fatalities are no longer watered-down, almost peaceful antics in an effort to appeal to the masses; rather, I believe they were designed to make said masses puke. Each was more gruesome than the next. I thought I had seen the worst of them when Kratos shoved his Blades Of Chaos into his opponent's stomach and yanked them out so hard, it spun them around and forced them down to their knees, he then plunged the Blade of Olympus through their back, out their stomach and yanked up, splitting his victim in half from stomach to head. That of course was before Kung Lao. He slammed Scorpion onto his back, hurled his hat into the ground and sent it spinning like a razor-sharp table saw, then proceeded to grab Scorpion by the ankles and drag him crotch first into the rotating blade. When it was all over, Scorpion was ripped in half like a sheet of paper, his two sides tossed carelessly away.
It was the most violent thing I'd ever seen in a video game and it was only the beginning. Netherrealm has made Mortal Kombat utterly relentless when it comes to shock. Prior sequels had only fleeting moments of gore to be found at the end of matches. By introducing the X-Ray attacks, each battle is saturated with sickening CGI. Baraka's blades are shoved into throats and eyeballs, Sub-Zero's frozen grip used to ice over and crush a stomach, Jade's staff slamming into spines. All of this, mind you, is entirely visible, skin becomes transparent so that you can see skulls turn to powder, rib cages crumble and muscles seize up and strain. They are the same combination of buttons for each warrior and can be done any time during the matchso long as your meter is full.
It adds an interesting game-changing element to a new, focused combat system. Gone are the 3-D planes and side-stepping, parrying and confusing combos. Most are simply three buttons that require little manipulation of the D-Pad. And while that sounds like a step back most of these are pop-ups and a large variety of special moves are quick motions. This opens seemingly unending options for the player. For example, Shang Tsung. One combo is three quick snake-like strikes that hurl the opponent into the air. Inputting a second command will initiate Tsung's ground fireballs that will spiral out of the earth and towards the air one by one. Timed right the first will hit the enemy, push them further across the screen where they're nailed by the second and finally the third. From there you can let them fall to the ground. If you're fast enough you can send one more horizontal fireball their way, or use the soul steal before they can even defend. It's a system that rewards intuitiveness and skill, not memorization and repetition. The power finally is put into the hands of the gamer, letting them choose the outcome of the combos. While it's frustrating learning an entirely new system, it's one that became unyieldingly addictive. This time around, it's actually a fight. Not mindlessly shifting planes to avoid attacks then robotically entering a series of pre-determined commands. It forces you to focus, to adapt in order to be successful. It allows leniency and freedom, something that's been missing for a while.
There's really only one major glitch: inconsistency due to faulty collision detection. Normal hits register without pause, but special moves - especially those from the ground up - often miss with no apparent cause. And first I believed it only a matter of timing, but after seeing the same combos initiated where some connected, some not even when the player was in the same place. It made me realize this system is incredible, it's also far from flawless.
It is, however, a tremendous start. For those - and I know there are many - who have not considered this title in fear it's just another half-hearted attempt and useless sequel, nothing could be further from the truth. It's a brilliant and vibrant re-imagining of the first game, one that focuses solely on all the qualities known and loved. It's not fancy, not technical. It's not an incredible demonstration on the visual power of games, or the brilliancy of writers. It's an intestine-shredding, head-dicing, torso-rupturing venture into violence.
One that I have waited a very, very long time for.
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