Saturday, June 18, 2016

Mortal Kombat II

By early 1993, the popularity of fighting games was becoming feverish. Begun just a couple years earlier by Street Fighter II, and continuing through its rehashes, developers realized there was a strong market for this kind of game. Imitators began popping up everywhere, but only one - 1992's Mortal Kombat - was seen as a true rival to the Street Fighter crown. The home versions of Mortal Kombat released in the fall of '92, but the folks over at Midway were already deep into a sequel. And so it was in the spring of '93 that Mortal Kombat II burst into the arcades, with a flyer claiming "Mortal Kombat has finally met its match." Folks, they weren't wrong.

Kharacter SelektWhen you load up Mortal Kombat II, the first thing you notice is this screen. There are twelve selectable fighters in the game, five more than its predecessor. That's a big jump! And of those, seven are new, if you include Reptile who has been promoted from "hidden Scorp-Zero clone" to a full character in his own right. That's a lot of fresh blood in the tournament, and it helps make MK2 a deeper game than the first right off the bat. Other new characters include Liu Kang's fellow Shaolin monk Kung Lao; Kitana, the assassin princess; Mileena, the...assassin....princess...; Baraka, one of the monsters from I Am Legend; Shang Tsung, newly youthful shapeshifter; and Jax, a U.S. military officer and friend of Sonya Blade.

Hey, speaking of Sonya, where is she? Kano's gone too, but nobody cares about that. It's like they had so many ideas for new characters that the developers decided they couldn't return everyone from the previous game, and just arbitrarily chose a couple to ax. But you can see how clever they were here - in place of Sonya Blade, Mortal Kombat's only female presence, they put Kitana and Mileena. The two new women are, of course, just palette swapped copies of one another so it saved them a good amount of room in the game's memory while still letting them accurately claim that Mortal Kombat II had a greater number and ratio of playable female characters than Mortal Kombat 1 - even than Street Fighter II, which at that point still only had Chun-Li. That all said, if you're a big fan of Sonya and/or Kano, and you're really bummed to be missing them here, I have good news! Both fighters still make an appearance in the game. In fact, they're chained up in the background of a stage, wiggling around, waiting for someone to come save them. So there you go - not enough to just gut them from the new title, but now they've been made retroactively incompetent. Excellent.

Deadly sistersWhile on the subject of the fates of characters from MK1, let's talk plot for a moment. In the first game, a tournament (called, of course, Mortal Kombat) was held on a hidden island on Earth somewhere, hosted by the ancient sorcerer Shang Tsung. When he was defeated by Liu Kang, it meant that Shang Tsung could not take over the Earth, somehow. So Tsung went to the dimension known as Outworld, where his boss, Emperor Shao Kahn, awaited. He relayed his failure but assured Shao Kahn that if a second tournament were to be held right away, and if it were to be hosted in Outworld, Earth's fighters couldn't refuse to show up, because "rules." And then, if Shao Kahn should win, he could invade and conquer Earth, because "rules" again. Shao Kahn liked this plan because it favored him immensely while making very little real plot sense, and rewarded Shang Tsung by somehow restoring his youth and letting him fight in the tournament. And there you have it. Mortal Kombat II, in Outworld, for the fate of Earth, starring everyone except Kano and Sonya. Cool? Cool.

The tournament itself is more straightforward than the stuff Shang Tsung was running back on Earth. He had designated mirror matches and "endurance" matches where you had to fight two guys in a row. Not the case this time; the additional fighters added to the roster padded things out to make the single player mode a direct climb to the top of a mountain. Along the way you'll fight every character in the roster, yourself included, ending with Shang Tsung in his new role as quasi-boss. With his youth he learned to transform into all the new fighters in the game, but sadly forgot how to morph into Goro. Shame!

Also changed from MK1 (but not really) is Sub-Zero. In the canon storyline from the end of the first game, Scorpion (who was killed in life by Sub-Zero) gets his revenge and kills Sub-Zero in the tournament. And then, in Mortal Kombat II, Sub-Zero is back. Bwah? Scorpion had the same reaction, which is why he's returning as well: "Hey didn't I kill you?" Turns out that this is the younger brother of the original Sub-Zero, and he naturally is also named Sub-Zero, and he looks exactly the same, and has all the same moves. Glad we settled that!

Sweep the leg, SubbyLooks like brother trained him well, too, because here we see Sub-Zero enjoying his favorite pastime: the invincible leg sweep. That's right, that ultimate of fighting moves has returned for the sequel, and folks will be tripping all the way to the bottom of The Pit. Or will they? While in the first game the computer's AI had a nervous breakdown when the leg sweep came out, in this one it puts countermeasures into action. The first one or two leg sweeps might work, and they'll still never bother blocking any, but now the CPU can walk up and throw you out of the sweep. Like, it'll just cancel your attack even as your leg strikes the ankles and you'll suddenly be in someone's clutches, getting hurled away. "Well that's not so bad," you might think. "If throws counter leg sweeps, I'll just add that little tidbit to my play as well, and now I'll beat leg sweeps too!" No, you won't. This is a one-way street. I have never thrown the CPU in Mortal Kombat II. Not once. You can't do it, and certainly not against a leg sweep. It's a cheaty get-out-of-jail-free card for the computer, and nothing more.

And you know what? I'd be sort of cool with that, since it means you can't rely on one supermove to win the game for you, except it doesn't stop there. This is the most nefarious AI in any fighting game I've played. Not only is there the whole throw thing (and it's not just a sweep counter; you'll get thrown from excessive range all the freaking time), but the computer is built to counter everything you ever do. Moves like Sub-Zero's freeze blast or Scorpion's signature spear throw are completely worthless against the computer; without fail the AI will avoid the attack. It reads your inputs and reacts to them with the optimal counter move. And this isn't just on hard difficulty or anything - this is across the board. Of course, this might make some sense in the arcade, where the goal is to get the player to pump more quarters into the machine, but the AI made it to the home versions of the game intact. Whatever you try to do, you'll get beaten and beaten hard. It's infuriating. So how does anyone ever beat this game?

Jax BabalityEnter Jax, Destroyer of CPUs. Jax is one of the most versatile characters in the game, with a moveset that includes a good projectile (he launches an energy wave from his elbow), a ground punch that damages anyone not in the air, and a grabbing attack. Most importantly to our dilemma, however, is his backbreaker. Jax can catch an airborne opponent and bring them down on his shoulder, causing heavy damage. This becomes immensely useful when you discover the one weakness of the insidious Mortal Kombat II AI: jumping backward. When the CPU opponent nears you, if you jump back, it will pause a moment and then jump forward in pursuit. However, this means you land while the CPU is in the air, and you can now attack them before they land. In Jax's case this usually means jumping forward and kicking them, then catching them in a backbreaker before they land for a devastating two-hit combo. Three of these will end a match. The best part is that you can just wait for the computer to stand up and immediately repeat the process. Flawless Victories for days!

And against characters without good projectile counters like teleportation, Jax's energy wave attack melts AI minds. Johnny Cage, Baraka, Scorpion, Reptile, even Shang Tsung: they'll all just backflip at the far end of the screen hoping desperately to avoid your endless barrage of fuschia energy. It's a lost cause. They'll all drop from the onslaught and you'll get that oh-so-satisfying "FINISH HIM" (or Her). And that's where Mortal Kombat II really steps it up from its predecessor. The first game saw each fighter have one fatality - a cinematic and gory way to kill the opponent (except pacifist Liu Kang who just did a cartwheel). Now every fighter has two distinct ones, for double the gory fun. Plus, three of the game's stages have stage-specific fatalities that any fighter can perform, including the aforementioned return of The Pit (aptly named The Pit II), a spiked ceiling that unfortunate souls can be uppercut into, and a pool of acid that does decidedly acid-like things to a body. As you can see above, you can also turn people into babies for no good reason. This is great stuff.

Kintaro punchesBut all those fun finisher options don't mean a thing when you're up against Kintaro. You'll be riding high from Jaxinating everything in your path and then you hit "Goro with armor." All previous strategy is gone. I'd explain how it feels to flail hopelessly against the Kintaro wall, but Jim Mora already did it better. Whereas Goro was the reigning Mortal Kombat champion, Kintaro is just Shao Kahn's bodyguard. I mean, think about it. The story goes that Liu Kang won Mortal Kombat 1. He's the champion. By beating Shang Tsung in the preceding match, he's already retained his title (pretending for a moment that it's not actually Jax obliterating spines here). Kintaro's only even present for a fight because you are, apparently, trying to kill the emperor for daring to host a sequel. That may be justified, but I don't think it's tournament legal. So while Goro fought for pride and fame, Kintaro just hates you and wants to feel your skull crack under his massive feet. If you're going to get through the fight, you'll need to find a new way to cheat the cheaters, and that way is to run screaming to the corner and let Kintaro jump on your face like a maniac. When you get up he'll be so smug and self-satisfied that he'll start taunting you, never realizing that now he's the one cornered, and you can just mash the light punch button until the round ends. Seriously, he's too slow to do anything but taste tiny fist until he keels over. Joke's on you, big guy!

Shao Kahn, by comparison, is terrible at fighting. When you beat Kintaro, Kahn jumps off his throne in the background and challenges you. It also turns out that he was the fella announcing everything the whole game, which means nothing you do in this fight will get you the approving "Superb!" or any other such callout. Anyway, his first act of the unsanctioned fight is to tell you that he's going to kill you. And then he reminds you of that like every five seconds during the fight, just stopping and pointing at you while telling you you're going to die. During these angry outbursts, you naturally kick him in the face. In fact, kicking him in the face is the entire battle. When he's not mouthing off, he'll just walk toward you, and you kick him, and he staggers back, and then you do it all over again. And then when you finally beat him, he teleports to all the different stages one by one before exploding into chunks of stone. Worst emperor ever.

Finally, I want to give a quick mention to the secret characters in the game. While MK1 just had Reptile lurking under a bridge like a troll, MK2 peppered three secret fighters in the game, accessible by various means. These are, of course, all palette swaps of people wearing masks. They are Smoke, a gray version of Scorpion with smoke puffs coming off and super speed; Jade, a green version of Kitana who can't be injured by projectiles; and Noob Saibot, a silhouette ninja who, of course, also has Scorpion's spear. They should have just given that move to every character in the game. I don't know why they didn't. Spear Kombat could've been a thing.

Mortal Kombat II is not a particularly fun single-player game, specifically because it was programmed to be outrageously unfair; no amount of practice or skill with the game will allow you to get the upper hand. The only way to beat the exploitative computer is to find and use exploits of your own, and that's no fun for anyone. That said, the game is an improvement over Mortal Kombat 1 in every other way conceivable. Assuming you have two people present, you will never have a reason to play the first Mortal Kombat again with this game in your library, and that's a huge deal. It's all the little touches stacked atop all the big improvements that make this one a standout. Just don't play it alone. Find yourself a friend and have a murder party, and see what makes this game special.

Disco Kang

Bottom Line: 16/20