Mortal Kombat kind of sneaked into my life out of nowhere. I know that’s hard to believe, now that it’s a juggernaut in the arcades, on home consoles, and (if rumors are right) soon to be a Hollywood hit. But it’s true. There was a time when "Mortal Kombat" was just a misspelled phrase to me. Street Fighter II has been my arcade beat-em up of choice since I laid hands on it in my neighborhood Pizza Hut, so it’s been hard for another brawler to take up residence in my memory banks. Getting the hang of a Dragon Punch is hard enough. Learning a whole new set of fighters and moves is too much! MK was such a non-event that it took my Uncle to snap me to the realization that there was a new game on the block that was worthy of my quarters and mindshare.
“Have you heard about this Mortal Kombat game?” he asked one afternoon as we were sanding and painting the corner house. “I walked by your cousin’s room and I heard some guy yell ‘Get out of here!’ so I walked in to see what he was watching.”
“It’s ‘Get Over Here’, by the way! And the "guy" is a hell ninja out for vengeance”, my cousin piped up from the room next door, where he was sulkily cleaning the bathroom grout. The teen years were giving him an extra case of the moodies when it came to my Uncle.
I thought a flaming yellow skull ninja was a funny thing to argue over, but it was pretty much the first time Mortal Kombat became A Big Thing to me. During sleepovers with my cousin, it became one of the staple games we turned to (after Contra, of course). I could always count on him for a MK match. And while I can not say I was ever any good at it, the story behind the game was just as intriguing as those Hong Kong chop-socky flicks we would watch in the 11 pm limbo of late night television.
And one day, our of nowhere, I saw Mortal Kombat II sitting in a corner of a 7-11 one sunny afternoon!
Like everyone else, I had seen the magazine previews for what might have been early footage of MK2. I remember my cousin coming over one evening, fresh copy of EGM in hand, just so we could go over the high-resolution photos that someone had grabbed from a test version of the game. I saw the new Friendship finisher, and there had been talk of other Fatality modes where characters became dragons and monsters. According to my cousin, naked fatalities (Nudealities) had shown up in secret early game tests for elite MK players, but were hidden behind secret codes or unlocks for the big release. I wondered if this was to keep politicians and dumb moms from trying to ban the game, or maybe to make some controversy to keep MK in the news. Whatever.
I mean, how’s a Nudeality going to work for Scorpion, anyway?
Standing there in the 7-11 with a Slurpee balanced on the cabinet, I ended up picking Reptile, the green ninja that comes from the dimension the game takes place in. He had a decent range of moves, some which felt like they were ripped from the other two ninjas (a slide, a projectile). One of his attacks caused him to rip his mask off and spit acid. I’m not sure the game needed any more colorful ninjas since the game adds two girl twinjas – too many and it will start to feel like Power Rangers – but the lizard face thing was pretty cool. I definitely noticed some speedup when compared to MK, and the characters all felt a bit bigger somehow. The lighting on them was much improved, so the fighters didn’t look a sickly grey anymore.
Before I left, I noticed two teens playing. One of them was Liu Kang, but the other was Baraka, a monster with knives coming out of his hands and a vampire-like face. I kind of wished that the programmers had more characters like Baraka in, instead of more ninjas. The game programmers could do a lot of cool things with costumes and character designs, so Ninjas Ninjas Ninjas is kind of disappointing against a guy with knife-arms.
Of course, the change between MK1 and MK2 is amazing. While the graphics in MK1 are kind of Sega CDish, MK2 is much less stiff, the backgrounds are full of little treats and details, and the levels themselves (in true MK fashion) are stuffed with hidden secrets. The game itself feels like a better fighter – MK1 always felt like players were smashing action figures up against each other – one where you might even be able to combo things.
Arcade releases are still a tricky thing for me to get my mind around. According to informed sources (EGM, my cousin), popular arcades get preview models of games that the programmers use to bug test. But this happens way, way before the game is actually out. And even when it does come out, the boards are so expensive for a popular game that it might be weeks until it gets to any decently big arcade or mall.
Seeing that cabinet in a 7-11 meant that the game was out long enough to filter out to the grocery stores and video rental chains that had an arcade section. Sure enough, some weeks after I saw the machine, EGM, Gamepro, Game Players and all the rest had “exclusive” stories about the next chapter in Mortal Kombat. Hah! By then I had already played the game, seen someone beat the final boss, and found the infamous TOASTY!
I’m still a Street Fighter fan at heart, though. Not to knock MK, but SF has a feel that’s much more competitive. Just watching two players take each other on in SF is interesting. There’s a lot to learn about how people block each other and cut off attacks. MK is much more about getting a look into this weird and sometimes frightening world that the programmers have. MK is about figuring out back stories and hidden secrets, and less about person on person fighting.
I think the biggest play difference between the two is that most MK attacks don’t really have your character move around. It’s changing a bit for MK2, but for the most part, an attack leaves a character rooted to the ground or in place. This is probably because of the trouble in filming and digitizing the characters. But SF characters move around. A lot! You can hurricane kick, dragon punch, or flash kick your way across a match. When you stop to think about it, pretty much every character has a move that gives them a good reach across a vertical or horizontal. The philosophy for MK is usually to move an opponent towards you, like with Scorpion’s spear or Sub-Zero’s new ground freeze attack, or to incapacitate them for a moment and allow your character time to walk over. But the characters move pretty leisurely as it is. Maybe if they could run, or if their move speed was tweaked up, it would make matches more kinetic.
There’s also a difference in tone. MK felt like it was going for a Bruce Lee or Honk Kong flick vibe, with a tournament led by an ancient (and deadly) martial artist. The characters, more or less, looked like they came from karate movies. And more or less, the motivations were to win the tournament and gain fame. It’s with Raiden and Liu Kang that an interesting, kind of sci-fi subplot comes in, with having to win Mortal Kombat tournaments to keep something bad from happening. MK2 takes that plot and develops it more, moving everyone into a dark Outworld dimension that’s home to a lot of bad things. The game takes place on the villain’s home turf and this frees up the programmers to make things creepy and wrong. Even the trees look like they’re out to get you. The change is definitely successful, and I think it should become the look that the series continues with. It’s just so imaginative that it becomes a nice look at a different reality.
Ironic, since SF is a cartoon and MK is real people. But that’s the way it is!
So, I still think that the arcade brawler crown goes to Street Fighter II, especially with the Super Street Fighter II upgrade that I’ve seen in some places. But when it comes to making a world that will grab your eyes, it’s Mortal Kombat all the way. I’m sure a lot of MK2 cartridges will be found in December gifts this year, letting their owners experience the world of MK2 in a way that doesn’t ask them for quarters after every loss.
As for me, I’ll be skipping the console release. It’s not quite as fun without someone to play with, after all.
Now let’s see if the rumors about Street Fighter vs. Mortal Kombat have any truth to them.