Saturday, September 19, 2009

Mortal Kombat

The juggernaut of fighting games was just starting to rear its head with Capcom's recent offerings of the early 1990s when Midway Entertainment decided there was a significant flaw in the Street Fighter series of games. Not enough gore. They decided to hire in some actors to be filmed and video captured for their own game, added in more gore than the world had really seen until that point, and invented their own unique control scheme. The result was Mortal Kombat, which was eventually ported to the SNES and Sega Genesis from the arcades.

Divine election.The game featured seven selectable fighters, though they all control identically in terms of basic moves. The primary difference among them, therefore, was their respective repertoires of special attacks. Whereas Street Fighter characters had moves that revolve around shooting damaging projectiles or simply performing more powerful direct physical attacks, the moves in Mortal Kombat were based more directly on the personality of each character, which could provide pretty outrageous results.

There were the two rival ninjas, Scorpion and Sub-Zero. The former was an undead spectre from the Mortal Kombat (MK) equivalent of hell; the latter was the ice master who murdered him. The former shoots harpoons out of his hand to impale you and pull you in for a followup attack. The latter can freeze your body solid. There is Liu Kang, the Buddhist monk who has trained so hard he can shoot balls of fire and seemingly defy gravity whilst kicking you repeatedly and making whooping noises. There is Kano, the cyborg thief who throws knives, and Sonya, the military lieutenant trying to arrest him. And of course, there is Raiden, Earth's God of Thunder, who can electrically burn off all the flesh on your body by touching you. What's he even doing here?

Balls of steel.And who could forget the movie star, Johnny Cage? His signature move? He does the splits and punches you in the nuts. No lie. It seems he was modeled after Jean-Claude Van Damme, who did a similar move in one of his films, but it's this sort of stylistic difference that really elevates this game above the label of "Street Fighter wannabe."

That's not to discount the control style. Mortal Kombat only has four attack buttons to Street Fighter's six, but it utilizes them differently. Each button attacks differently at range than in proximity, and moves like roundhouse kicks are performed by combining button presses with directional inputs. But the most startling departure is the addition of a block button. Now characters don't block by holding the back direction or retreating, which makes the learning curve pretty steep for Street Fighter veterans. The good news about this system is that it allows for easier buffering of special moves without unwanted movement, and gives greater opportunity for counterattacks. The bad news is that you have to freaking press a special button to block and it's a freaking pain in the butt.

Not Donny.MK also introduces the world to the concept of the secret character in a fighting game. Somewhere hidden in the game is a third ninja, conveniently identical in appearance to the others in every way except color. Why hire another actor and record more moves when you can just run the thing through a filter and call it a day, right? His moves are even identical. For Reptile, they simply gave this new ninja the special moves of both selectable ones, patted themselves on the back, and hid him somewhere in the code. He'll even come out between two-player matches from time to time just to tantalize you with little hints of how to find him.

With all that buildup, you figure there's got to be some sort of payoff, right? Well, on a home console it doesn't mean much, but in the arcade where scores are king, defeating Reptile was basically an automatic high score. You see, a normal bonus for winning a round might be somewhere around 35,000 points total, and successfully finishing an opponent off yields 100,000 points. Reptile, if killed, gives the player 10,000,000 points. Ten million. Win.

Broken hand.The game also featured a bonus stage called Test Your Might, which was in general not new to the genre, but was easily better executed than ever before. Players must mash certain buttons to build up their power meter before attempting to chop through whatever object is placed before them. As you can see here, this got ridiculous in a hurry, eventually asking players to karate chop through about 1.5 feet of solid diamond. Give me a break, ya know?

And I'd be remiss if I didn't bring up the most controversial inclusion in the game - the fatalities. In earlier fighting games, defeating an opponent would result in a knockout or some other such pansy finish. In Mortal Kombat, fighters are commanded by a mighty voice to brutally slay their opponents. Hearts were ripped out of chests all Temple of Doom style, spines were removed from their skeletons, bodies were incinerated alive...all in glorious 16 bit rendering. Of course, the good folks at Nintendo were a little put off by all that blood and guts, and so the fatalities were toned down a bit in the SNES version. You know, to be slightly...less...fatal..... Even the blood was altered to be sweat. Lame.

Clean sweep.The game itself is pretty difficult after the first few matches. The enemy skill and AI on the default difficulty setting is daunting to say the least. But eventually you're bound to find the one move that proves machines are a long way from taking dominion over mankind: the leg sweep.

It's probably one of the least fair things I've ever seen in a fighting game. You just sweep the legs and the guy falls down, and it does a reasonable amount of damage. Doesn't sound bad, right? And indeed, against a fellow human, attempting to do it twice in succession will result in you getting blocked and counter-attacked. But the game's AI evidently never figured out how to stop the onslaught. If you get into sweep range and connect on the first one, you can simply keep doing leg sweeps until you win. Really. The computer player will just keep getting up and falling back down until it is dead. It's like a completely legal invincibility cheat. And suddenly the game gets a LOT easier.

Goro's new squeeze.And you figure the game's programmers had to realize this, because when they made this monstrosity of a boss at left known as Goro, they made him immune to leg sweeps, presumably because any character you can select isn't strong enough to destabilize him. He also shoots fireballs, stomps on your face, and beats the living daylights out of you with all four of his arms. And he's not even the final boss of the game!

That distinction belongs to Shang Tsung, an ancient sorcerer who can transform at will into any other fighter in the game, including Goro, with full access to all their special moves and strengths. And when he beats you, he steals your soul. Lovely. It also makes the justification pretty clear for all the fighting - if you don't kill this dude, he's so going to eat your soul and conquer Earth. Better get on that.

As an added bonus, Mortal Kombat added in the ability to juggle. An opponent knocked airborne could be hit again, even multiple times, before hitting the ground. This resulted in added depth of play and potential for some pretty powerful move combinations. It's no shock that virtually every fighting game of any merit created after this would adopt some form of the system.

Now, I know what you're thinking. You're disappointed about the Super Nintendo version. Even the Sega Genesis port had the Abacabb code to restore the gore. Restore the gore, that's your little cyber battle cry. Here's my quick defense - the Super Nintendo version features better control than the Genesis port, and also higher technical quality than any other console version of the game. So if you're after the game for the gore factor, check out one of the other versions. But the best fighting experience in Mortal Kombat outside of the arcade is to be found on the Super Nintendo, and it's a pretty decent one. Just don't forget how to block when you boot it up.

Bottom Line: 14/20

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