I’m far from the eldest of the geeks on this site, but I do have fond memories of the waning years of the arcade era. As a child I was lucky enough to have a decent arcade nearby and grandparents who were willing to take me there week after week to blow through as many quarters as they would give me. My grandfather would watch over my shoulder as I played Street Fighter 2, Daytona USA, and Terminator 2: Judgment Day. But there was always one arcade cabinet that the older children crowded around, one that was eventually hidden by black shrouds and a wooden enclosure emblazoned with fierce looking actors in costume. The cabinet bore the name Mortal Kombat, which would become synonymous with innocence-destroying, mind-warping, over-the-top violence.
I loved it. Part of me wonders what ran through my grandfather’s head as he watched me play it, but I was enamored by the realistic graphics and the brutal finishing moves. And I wasn’t the only one. Ads for the home console version of Mortal Kombat II filled every comic book and industry rag I got my tiny hands on, and soon I had my own copy for the SEGA Genesis. All the blood and gore was intact; each stage and character held the potential for carnage unlike anything that I’d seen in a game before. Sure there was Splatterhouse and Death Race, but this was a new level of violence inflicted upon realistic, digitized actors rather than pixelated goblins. It was wholly unlike other fighting games as well, in that the violence was more entertaining than winning the fights. The gameplay was utterly inferior to Super Street Fighter 2 or even Killer Instinct, but that wasn’t the point. The reward was in learning the fatalities, in being able to uppercut opponents into pits of acid or ceilings lined with spikes. And it was all reinforced by the rush we felt upon seeing our enemy’s grizzly demise and hearing the iconic word: FATALITY.
The Mortal Kombat series became infamous, and the more people railed against it in the news, the more popular it became with us depraved gamers. And rage they did, from angry mothers on local news stations to Senator Joe Lieberman and his Congressional hearings on the series and violence in gaming. The argument linking video games to violent behavior in children had been made before, but with each entry in the Mortal Kombat series more and more critics aired their opinions over any outlet willing to listen. Midway used the publicity to build an empire from Mortal Kombat, including five arcade titles, two live-action movies, an animated cartoon series, a live-action television series, comic books, collectible cards, music albums, a stage show, and over sixty home console titles.
But with the death of the arcade and the advent of home console gaming, the Mortal Kombat series lost its identity. Starting with Mortal Kombat 4, the rotoscoped characters were abandoned for computer-rendered 3D models. Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance was released in 2002 and took the series from two dimensions to three, setting the fights in open arenas and giving each character three styles of martial arts which the player could change on the fly. Later entries also put more emphasis on the mythos, adding adventure modes which expanded upon the Mortal Kombat universe. The series became simultaneously enamored with and mired in the weight of its own back story. Fan favorite Liu Kang has been killed by sorcerers, reanimated by other sorcerers, turned into a mindless killing machine, and finally reinstated as a playable character. There are more pan dimensional warlords than you could shake a stick at, more enigmatic ninjas with elemental powers than should exist outside of an anime, and enough advanced cybernetic killing machines to make Michael Bay blush.
Mortal Kombat didn’t just lose its soul. It lost its relevance. With the new millennium came a new standard in violent games: Grand Theft Auto III. By the time that game hit the shelves, Mortal Kombat was all but a faint memory in the minds of crusaders against virtual smut. One after another, new trailblazers emerged to push the envelope of sex and violence in gaming: Manhunt, God of War, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, Mass Effect, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, Bulletstorm, and more. But these games aren’t enough. Sure, God of War may allow the player to visit all kinds of mayhem upon characters from Greek mythology and Bulletstorm may pepper a B-level action game with comical ultraviolence, but none of them managed to scratch the same itch as those original Mortal Kombat titles. I’m trying to divorce myself from nostalgia when I say this, but those titles had chutzpah that these more recent titles lack. They were simple, audacious, and highly rewarding. This is the feeling which the new Mortal Kombat needs to emulate.
I have no doubt that the latest reboot of Mortal Kombat can redeem the series in the hearts of gamers. The appeal those first games had – violence as entertainment unto itself – is just as valid today as it was in 1991. The series has one of the best reward systems in all of gaming: the gloriously shocking and creative fatalities reinforced by the message ” Fatality” scrawled in blood. Honestly, that’s all the motivation most gamers need to play the game and learn the moves. As long as the series returns to its roots – good fighting action with crazy characters and jaw dropping finishing moves – it can be successful again. Forget the adventure modes, forget the complicated canon which reads like a 90’s comic book plot, forget goofy crossovers with mythos-defying characters (looking at you, Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe), and just give us a bold and satisfying fighting experience with the classic lineup of fighters.
So far the signs are good. The developers of the new Mortal Kombat (now at Warner Bros. Interactive since Midway filed for bankruptcy) seem genuine in their desire to bring a fresh start to the series. Perhaps with a new development house will come a new age for Mortal Kombat. Perhaps it will once again stand defiant in the face of the censors and the critics. Hell, the game has already been outright banned in Australia for what that’s worth. The new Mortal Kombat may end up another in a sea of failed retro remakes, but as a gamer I sincerely hopes it succeeds in challenging our conceptions of gaming just as the original did twenty years ago.