As it turned out, I did die. Seventeen times.
But as old Grandpappy Grant used to say, “the eighteenth time’s the charm.” And so, after enduring thirty-four rounds of bone-shattering, face-pulping defeat, I finally vanquished Shao Kahn’s evil once and for all. Miraculously, both my controller and my sanity were intact. But it was close for a while there, on both counts.
It’s not much of a spoiler to reveal that Shao Kahn—or, as my wife likes to call him, “Muscles Cowskull”—is the final boss in the Story mode of the new Mortal Kombat. Aside from Mortal Kombat 4, he’s had at least a cameo in every major MK release since Mortal Kombat II in 1993. As a character, he’s fairly central to whatever shreds of continuity and coherence remain in the series’ canon. As a final boss, he’s been a famously imposing figure since he first delivered the taunt “You will die, mortal!”, complete with condescending finger-point, in MKII. His intimidating status was cemented in MK3, where he was notoriously difficult to beat, armed with several overpowered special moves that felt like cheap exploits to inflate the difficulty level.
I regret to report the reboot hasn’t corrected that flaw. And this particular boss battle highlights exactly what’s wrong with most boss battles.
Before we go any further, let me issue two caveats. First, it is entirely possible that, as Shao Kahn occasionally taunts, I just suck. (I’m not making this up—he actually says “You suck.”) Although I’ve been a fan of the Mortal Kombat games since I was first able to blow my meager allowance at the arcade, I’ve never been particularly good at them. Put me in front of a more technical fighting game, a Super Street Fighter IV, and my head might explode.
The other important thing to mention is that, despite my frustration with the final boss, I really dig the new Mortal Kombat. It’s a welcome return to the gratuitously gory 2D formula that made those arcade titles so satisfying. Even the Story mode, whose plot is as convoluted and schlocky as any SyFy Channel movie of the week’s, is a hoot. Maybe that’s why its culminating battle was doubly disappointing.
As you progress through the Story mode, you get to play as different characters, learning their moves and testing out various kombat strategies. There’s even some light scaffolding happening, as the game gradually presents you with increasingly difficult challenges (e.g., single-handedly beat a tag team of sub-bosses, defeat three enemies in a row without a health bar recharge between rounds). By the time you get to the final battle with Shao Kahn, you should be ready to bring all your kombat skills and knowledge to bear. Instead, that learning is unceremoniously negated with some designer sleight-of-hand.
Shao Kahn has always been an overpowered character in a series famous for unbalanced fighters, but he’s even more so in the reboot. He’s got defensive counters for both air attacks (a flying elbow) and low attacks (a hammer sweep). He’s got a gap-closing shoulder charge and a ranged spear attack. True to form, he also has an unblockable, unduckable attack, a thrown hammer that stuns you for several seconds if you don’t evade it with a well-timed jump. By chaining a few of these special moves together, Shao Kahn can kill a third of your health in a matter of seconds without any way to counter him. And (Thunder) God forbid he connect with his x-ray move; that’ll deplete over half of your health in one shot. Still, he is the final boss. He should be overpowered, right? His array of special moves, cheap as they sometimes feel, make sense in that context.
What doesn’t make sense is Shao Kahn’s most powerful special move, which I’m not really sure is a “special move” at all. Upon scoring a hit on Shao Kahn, his body will sometimes flash yellow; if this happens, not only will your strike not do any damage, it won’t disrupt his movement or attack. It’s essentially allowing him to block without having to block. His in-progress attacks won’t be halted, meaning you’ll have no space or time to block or evade; he will immediately land whatever move he’s doing. You can imagine how frustrating it gets when that “move” turns out to be a string of unblockable special attacks.
And the worst part? As far as I can tell, Shao Kahn’s flashing forcefield is entirely random. There’s no reliable way to predict if your attack will be met with success. His invulnerability shield—which appears to a lesser extent and in a slightly different form in sub-bosses Goro and Kintaro—renders the sophisticated countering techniques you’ve spent hours learning useless. There are workable strategies for beating him, but these mostly involve spamming certain moves (e.g., teleports) and don’t deliver the same sense of satisfaction or mastery you might get by employing all the methods at your disposal.
Satisfying boss battles are a test of the player’s mastery of game mechanics. Consider games like Ikaruga or Radiant Silvergun, where all the bullet-dodging and -sponging you do throughout a level is clearly practice for the boss encounter at its end. They also tend to lean heavily on quick pattern recognition. The final bouts in Super Punch-Out!!, for example, require you to rapidly identify and respond to the Bruiser brothers’ tactics. The same principles hold true to some degree in Mortal Kombat, but once Shao Kahn’s invulnerability shield enters the mix, the rug is pulled out from under the player. If this were Ikaruga, it’d be like suddenly and inexplicably not allowing you to absorb bullets. It’s not a new challenge, but rather a jarring reversal of expectations. It feels, well, cheap.
Too many boss fights, in my experience, fall into this trap. The final encounter in Resident Evil 5, which boils down to a series of quick-time events and some silly “target the glowing thing” shooting, exemplifies this trend. So do the climactic battles in Mass Effect 2 and Mercenaries 2 and any number of other games. Suddenly the player is being tested on skills that were unimportant or only tangentially important during the majority of play. Instead of making him feel empowered to overcome a true challenge, it confuses and frustrates him.
The final battle with Shao Kahn is oddly symbolic of NetherRealm’s approach to the reboot of their franchise. Yes, they have returned to the series’ roots, delivering the old-school fighting game players wanted with some impressive updates. But along with the flashy additions to the Mortal Kombat formula, they’ve also preserved its flaws.