Games Meet Metal: Mortal Kombat: It's Good To Be Back

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Friday, July 15, 2011

Mortal Kombat: It's Good To Be Back

Having recently played the rather fantastic Mortal Kombat reboot on PS3 last month, I can safely say that my hitherto dormant MK fanboy has been revived at long last. It featured the most fluid and intuitive gameplay in an MK game to date. It also provided well needed and long overdue jolt of MK nostalgia that hit like an overdose of caffeine. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I immediately went online and ordered used copies of the first 3 games and Shaolin Monks from Amazon. I haven't been this enthusiastic about the franchise in what feels like an eternity, and it feels great.

If you were a kid in the early/mid 90's, you were probably a fan of Mortal Kombat. Or at the very least, you knew what it was and were even familiar with such iconic characters as Sub-Zero, Scorpion, Goro, and Johnny Cage. Don't even try to deny it. When I was in elementary, even my teachers and the girls in my class (who weren't exactly fond of video games in the first place) were either familiar with it or just as intoxicated by the series as the rest of us were. In its prime, Mortal Kombat was as controversial (culminating in the introduction of the ESRB ratings board) as it was rabidly adored by a great deal of Western gamers. It was the closest we Americans ever came to having our own Dragon Quest in terms of widespread popularity and mainstream appeal. It's influence on gaming can still be felt in modern game design and philosophy.

However, nothing lasts forever. The MK series eventually became a victim of its own success, and over-exposure (compounded with some truly dreadful spinoffs and movie adaptations) caused its popularity to dwindle significantly over time. By the end of the 90's, MK was all but irrelevant. Decent home console exclusive updates like Deadly Alliance helped bring some of the spark back, but it was too little, too late in the eyes of many of us who had already weaned themselves off the franchise. Fast and fluid Japanese fighters like Soul Calibur and Tekken had already eclipsed any latent fondness people still had for it.

I remember playing the first MK on the Sega Genesis, and not thinking much of it at first. Yet it gradually embedded itself in my mind and heart as one of the most memorable and unique experiences I had experienced in my 7 or so years on Earth. It wasn't even the gore factor that enticed me, but rather the outlandish and extremely grim twist on the typical Bruce Lee: Enter the Dragon kung-fu tropes. At the time and even today, there was literally nothing else out there like it.

Mortal Kombat 2 expanded and refined what the original had brought to the table. More characters, more finishing moves, and a tinge of black humor to compliment the dark and morbid overtones. The first time I played it was at an arcade when me and my family were vacationing in Cape Cod. Of course, I completely sucked at it, struggling to get past the fourth match. I would probably ascribe my lackluster gameplay skills to the sense of awe and wonder I felt when playing it in the arcades if I wasn't just as terrible at playing the game today. With every subsequent encounter I had with the machine, it was flooded with high school and college aged kids who were significantly older than I was. I wouldn't have another chance with it until my parents bought me the Sega Genesis version.

A couple years later, MK3 made its way to arcades and home consoles across America. It was a jarring, albeit enjoyable experience which I'll go into in a second. The first time I got my hands on this one was at my local Sports n Stuff arcade. I found it peculiar that nobody else was there playing on the machine, relative to the mobs of people crowding the MK 2 units a few years back. Although it was hard for me to blame them at the time, because it certainly wasn't the MK I was familiar with. For whatever reason, they decided to eschew the oriental motifs and replace them with some weird steampunk/X-Men ripoff. You couldn't even recognize half of the characters in the game. I remember asking myself why there were robots and cookie cutter riot squad cops in a game that was usually about ninjas and sorcerers and four armed monstrosities duking it out in forests of sentient trees and pools of acid. It was a good game and a lot of fun, but it felt somewhat "off" so to speak.

In 1998, MK4 hit arcades and was a rather lukewarm experience. It was the franchises first foray into 3D, and made some concessions to earlier titles by giving it more of an Asian aesthetic while retaining the modern feel of MK3. I was enamored with it for about a year or so, and then quickly got bored. Of course, it didn't help that the abysmal MK: Annihilation hit theaters around the same time and helped to eviscerate any interest I had left in MK. And with that, it was all over.

Of course, my inner MK fan was eventually revived. It sure is good to be back.

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