Monday, August 24, 2015

Fighting Game Camps: Mortal Kombat: Part 3 (For real this time.)


My brief single sentence describing the music in the April Fools version of this post wasn’t entirely off the mark.  Mortal Kombat’s music is extremely downplayed to the point that you may not even notice there’s music at all.  Where other fighting games have their music bombastic or energizing, Mortal Kombat goes for ambience.  In fact, in Mortal Kombat 9, there’s an ambience meter in the sound options menu.

It’s more akin to tribal drumming than the fanfare of other games.  There’s a lot of fast, looping drum beats, techno synth and long notes without any particular melodies.

Only some of the character select themes use what you might call melodies.

Most of the more recognized music comes from remixes and alternate adaptations, like the movie, which I’ll get to.
It’d be easy enough to call Mortal Kombat’s music “lame”, but like the violence, it works with the themes and fits in very well with the…


The evolution of the second part of Mortal Kombat’s title can be divided into 3 parts of its history: Mortal Kombat 1-4, Deadly Alliance through Armageddon (as well as the Mortal Kombat vs. DC spin-off) and Mortal Kombat 9.

Even with these differences through the ages, all the Mortal Kombat games have consistent mechanics that differentiate it from its fighting game brethren.  For defense, there is a block button instead of holding back the control stick.  For offense, attacks have more windup and weight to them, emphasizing the blood that results and making it feel more like an actual struggle of pain and tears rather than a series of lightning-fast 30-hit combos, punches across the stage and ultra powerful moves that shatter the earth and leave spectators with epileptic seizures.  Think less Kenichi: The Mightiest Disciple and more Bloodsport with the emphasis on blood.

For the first 4 Mortal Kombat games there are two buttons for kicking, two for punching and one for the guard (MK3 also added a run button).  Like other games, the punch and kick buttons are for strong and weak punches and kicks.  Depending on the position of the control stick, the punch and kick buttons act as moves such as leg sweeps, flurries of weak punches and uppercuts, which are more useful than you might expect.  A good straight-up smack to the jaw does a decent amount of damage in Mortal Kombat, almost like KOF’s knockdown attacks.

Special moves are done similarly to other fighting games too, just with fewer circular motions and more commands like “down-down-punch” and “back-back-back-kick.”  This makes many moves feel less like one swift motion and more like quickly typing in the special attack, which carries over to the combos.

Like other fighting games, performing attacks in quick succession and canceling into each other sets up combos, but starting with Mortal Kombat 3 there are a number of pre-set combos that could be inputted in a way not unlike the 3D fighting game juggernaut Tekken, except in this case the fighter needs to be close in order to use them, which is why the run button helps.

Gamers often call this style of fighting “dial-a-combo”, because inputting the string of button presses doesn’t require timing and are thus input the same way you would dial a phone number or type a word, meaning that you’ll likely finish typing the combo before the character is done executing it.  It can be difficult to get used to, but once the timing of canceling these pre-set combos into other moves is mastered, it can lead to even longer hit strings.

From Deadly Alliance to Armageddon, the basic controls are largely the same, but with a grab button and new elements added to drastically change the playstyle.  All of the fights take place on 3D battlegrounds that allow for sidestepping and ring-outs, and characters are given new fighting styles to switch to on the fly, often involving weapons like Kabal’s hookswords, Scorpion’s katana and quadruple-wielding Goro’s Shokan blades.  There are weapons players can pick up in MK4, but here they're a core part of how characters play.

The dial-a-combos return, but this time they aren't as fast and, thanks to more leaning attacks, don't require the attacker to be at point blank range in order to execute them.  The combos can get very long and one-sided in these games compared to previous installments (particularly when switching weapons mid-combo), so Deception added a combo-breaking counterattack that can be used three times per match.

MK vs. DC requires the use of its rage meter.
Mortal Kombat 9 takes a mix of both the previous play styles, but mostly replicates the original four in it basic play.  It goes back to the 2D plane, takes out the stance-switching and reduces the dial-a-combos to short strings of 3 attack buttons that need to be used in tandem for a longer one.  Like the 3D installments, there's more variety in the ways characters execute their normal punches and kicks.

The biggest game change in 9, outside of an overall excellent presentation and sense of finesse, is its three-section meter that fills as you fight.  At the cost of one section you can use a stronger “ex” version of a special move, much like KOF and Street Fighter have done in their latest installments.  At the cost of two, you can use a combo-breaking counterattack like in Deception and with a full meter you can unleash a character’s devastating, bone-shattering X-ray attack.

True to its name, X-ray attacks zoom in with X-ray vision to show off how devastating they are.  X-ray attacks are a brilliant answer to the super combos in other games; it’s both powerful-looking and fitting in with Mortal Kombat’s infamous violence.  It’s a little ridiculous how the fighters should be blind or crippled after a lot of them, but given Mortal Kombat’s self-awareness, that might have been the intent.

Whoah ouchie.
The X-ray attacks are visceral and impactful, but they pale in comparison to the single most famous aspect of the entire Mortal Kombat franchise, it’s defining characteristic, the word in which it practically changed the meaning: fatalities.

In every single Mortal Kombat game, after winning a match, the game tells you in blood red letters to “finish him/her!”

These words are two of the most famous in all of gaming.  As your opponent helplessly stands dazed before the winner, the winning player has a few seconds to input a command to kill his opponent with a glorified, spectacularly violent-as-all-hell finishing move.  They play no part in the victory, since the winner has already won by that point, but they’re a joy to watch, adding an extra feeling of humiliation and utter defeat on the part of the loser.  They’re like victory dances that come in many varieties.

To give losers the option to save themselves from that humiliation, Deception added Hara Kiris, suicide attacks in which the loser kills themselves instead of be subjected to a fatality.  Deception is the only game with them, however, presumably because they got in the way of the fatalities, the real stars of the show.

Anything less than the most badass fatalities are never well-received by Kamp Kombat.  In Armageddon, rather than have each character use a colorful fatality unique to them, there is instead a “kreate-a-fatality” system, in which you must input a command for every move of a progressive fatality, consisting of neck snapping and body part pulling with canned animations, making it feel more like a procedural surgery than a brutal coup de grace.  This was not well-received by anyone, especially when the most likely reason it was conceived was because the developers were too lazy to animate new fatalities for the characters newly included into the 3D games.

Doesn’t even use his ice powers.

Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe was similarly lambasted, this time for having its fatalities be extremely tame and not at all spectacular.  As ScrewAttack’s Nick Chester said: “The game’s box says it all.  Right there: Mortal Kombat game… Rated T.  T!  Mortal Kombat shouldn’t be rated T!”  How fitting that the entire game was chosen as having the worst fatalities in Mortal Kombat history.

In short, it’s not a Mortal Kombat game without fatalities.

As previously mentioned though, some games offer sillier finishers like babalities, the non-lethal friendships and animalities, which aren’t always gory.

But they usually are.
Mortal Kombat’s finishing moves are so ubiquitous you can add “ality” to any word to indicate spectacularly finishing someone off in a way related to it.  Smash a guy’s head with a book: Bookality.  Kill someone in an elaborate way on accident: Failtality.  Even finishing someone by talking about their feelings: Therapality!  You will never run out of ways to “finish him!”

But my Kombatant does it best.

Fighter of Choice: Baraka

Baraka is a Tarkatan, a race of mutant Outworld nomads under the command of Shao Kahn.  They are known for their toothy faces, warped flesh, bloodthirstiness and sharp, retractable blades that jut from their arms.  Among these battle-crazed warriors, Baraka is the best, and loyal to anyone who will lead him to a good battle and conquest.  Such thinking isn’t entirely unlike someone like me, who likes to play Mortal Kombat for the thrill of the battle.  When he clangs his blades before a fight in Mortal Kombat 9, I can feel myself doing the same thing.

The way he plays is, admittedly, not a major deciding factor in what makes Baraka my favorite character.  As a fighter he’s a jack-of-all-stats with powerful close and long-ranged moves.  He’s easy enough to play as once you get the timing of his special attacks down and I can put up a good fight with him.

What has always enamored me about Baraka, and probably to a lot of members of Kamp Kombat too, is his visual design.  I used to play Mortal Kombat 2 with my best friend on his Sega Genesis, and Baraka stood out with his distinctly inhuman face and killer dental work.  Being one who always appreciates uniqueness, I stuck with him.

Later, when Baraka reappeared in Mortal Kombat Deception and Armageddon after it, the memories came flooding back and I stuck with him out of loyalty, so you could say I have something of a history with Baraka.

His Tarkatan blades are easily my favorite weapons in the series.  They’re built-in, quick to use (don’t need to put them in a holder), have many potential uses and allow for my favorite fatalities in the franchise.

They slice, they dice, they make julienne fries and they’re a big part of what make Baraka my fighter of choice.

Best of the Bunch

Mortal Kombat 9.  If you ask anyone, even fans, which Mortal Kombat is the best one to get they are most likely going to tell you to buy Mortal Kombat 9.  As fun as they can be with friends, every Mortal Kombat game before 9 has serious flaws that make them very difficult to play by today’s standards.

The original Trilogy has some of the worst cheating, game-breaking AI I’ve seen since KOF 94.
MK4’s primitive graphics and debatably small character selection can be hard to overlook.
Mortal Kombat Deadly Alliance to Armageddon have major improvements, but lack the finesse of other fighters of the time.  Too often it feels like fights are a series of trading overly-long strings of combos rather than a badass supernatural martial arts battle involving timing and range, and that’s not helped by the really awkward-looking fighting itself.

Lacks weight.
To be blunt, the combat moves in Deadly Alliance to Armageddon look goofy and awkward, as though none of the characters ever actually trained in martial arts.  As the fighting game website The Fighters Generation stated regarding Scorpion:
“Scorpion wouldn't know Hapkido if it punched him in the junk. I actually teach Hapkido in real life... (been doing it for almost 20 years) and I can confidently say Scorpion does not perform one single Hapkido technique. It's okay Scorpion, you're still cool... someone just lied to you and taught you some fake Hapkido.”

Mortal Kombat 9 changes everything.  The story is told in a well-presented story mode, the bloody and gory presentation is the very best it has ever been, combat is deeper and has actual finesse, the character selection is impressive and increased further in the Komplete Edition that includes all the DLC characters, one of whom is Freddy Krueger!  Yes, that one!

Further cementing MK9’s high status is a challenge tower of 300 custom-made challenges, a big krypt of unlockables and several different modes of play online and offline.  Simply put, Mortal Kombat 9 is the best Mortal Kombat game ever made!

But for those who want an idea of the Mortal Kombat timeline before 9 changed it all, Mortal Kombat Deception is the best bet thanks to its own trove of bonuses, decent character selection and single player adventure mode.  Of the different versions the best one is probably either the Gamecube Version, which includes Shao Kahn and Goro, or the PSP version titled “Mortal Kombat Unchained”, which includes them plus some of the omitted characters from Deadly Alliance, all in a portable package.

Kombat 9 has a portable package too.  You can get it not only on the PS3, Xbox 360 and PC, but also on the Playstation Vita.  Like Mortal Kombat Unchained, the Vita version's graphics take a hit, but all the content from the Komplete Edition is kept, with a handful of alternate outfits added for good measure.  This version takes advantage of the Vita’s features to add a few more bonuses, like balance challenges and a new stage that uses the Vita’s camera to project the background.  It’s a nice deal overall, but you’ll definitely want to stick to the other versions for the graphical splendor.

Blood!  Guts!  The God of War!  Flowers!

Other Media

Like the rest of them, Mortal Kombat has had adaptations of varying quality.  The most well-known is the live action Mortal Kombat movie.  The copy of Mortal Kombat 9 I got came with a download code to get the entire thing off of Xbox Live.  That shows confidence, and rightfully so because it’s one of the better game to movie adaptations ever made.

It retells the events of the first game, staying true to the source material for the most part while taking liberties with the plot.  In fact, the games themselves took a few ideas from the movie, such as Kano’s Australian accent and Outworld having to win 10 Mortal Kombat tournaments in a row.  Lest we forget the movie is also the origin of the infamous Mortal Kombat theme song everyone online uses whenever an elaborate martial arts fight breaks out.

Characters and their stories (except Scorpion and Sub Zero) are just as they are in the game with good acting all around, most notably Christopher Lambert of Highlander fame as Raiden (though I still prefer Richard Epcar's thunderous voice).

Unfortunately there’s no gore, which you’d think would make it unrecognizable as a Mortal Kombat movie, but the fighting is still high flying kung fu action (with good choreography, I might add) and because the story and characters are consistent to the games, it shows that there’s more to Mortal Kombat’s identity than the violence.  It does help to have it, of course.
Couple all of that with some cheesy special effects and an awesome Jim Henson Goro animatronic and you have a fun fight-centric movie.

And they got The Big Man voicing Goro!

The movie’s sequel, Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, is held in much lower regard.

Mortal Kombat: Annihilation attempts to retell the events of Mortal Kombat 3, skipping the Outworld tournament and moving on to Shao Kahn merging the realms.  Not one to skip over potential though, it uses characters from both Mortal Kombat 2 and 3.  Too many, in fact.

So many characters are crammed into the movie almost none get enough screen time for character establishment or backstory.  Cyrax, Jade, Mileena, Baraka, Smoke and more all come and go with only a few lines, if any.  Like the first, it takes some interesting liberties with the source material, like Kahn and Raiden being brothers and animalities being an inner spirit beast-type concept, but it’s hard to take anything as seriously in Annihilation when it’s overshadowed by how amazingly cheesy it is.

On top of the hammy acting (due in part to a massive cast change), the fights have lots of flipping around and dated special effects much worse than the first movie.

You can tell they were trying to make a faithful adaptation of the games, it just wasn’t handled well.  Fans of the games and/or so-bad-it’s-good movies will probably get a kick out of it, if nothing else.  At least they didn’t just slap the character names on a completely unrelated movie like in that one we must never speak of again.

Both Mortal Kombat movies have animated supplementary material to go along with them.  The first is Mortal Kombat: The Journey Begins, an animated short retelling the events of the Earthrealm fighters’ arrival on Shang Tsung’s island in the first movie.  The second is a 13-episode animated series called Mortal Kombat: Defenders of the Realm.

The best you can say about them is that you can feel the pain and suffering in the franchise pretty well when watching them.

Alas, it didn’t end there.  There was one more TV excursion after Defenders of the Realm, this time in a live action show, Mortal Kombat: Conquest.  Conquest is a side-story series that details the lives of The Great Kung Lao, back when he was the champion of Mortal Kombat.   He and his allies Siro and Taja fight Shao Kahn’s evil forces throughout the series.

One word can best describe Conquest: Cheap.  Cheap props, cheap sets, cheap effects, cheap actors and cheap fight scenes.  The whole thing is mostly a monster-of-the-week-style show with not nearly as much action as you would expect.  Even when there is action the fight scenes are boring and brief, with no impressive stunt work or cinematography like in the movies.  Again, there’s also no gore.
The writing doesn’t help it.  Characters are badly written, inconsistent and/or dull.  There’s simply nothing of substance.  You can tell there wasn’t a whole lot of effort put into Conquest.  It’s completely forgettable aside from maybe its ending, which is one of the only things those of Kamp Kombat make note of.

Many years later, in 2011, a new, much more competent Mortal Kombat series took off, this time on the internet.  Following an impressive short film based on the franchise called Mortal Kombat: Rebirth, small-time director Kevin Tancharoen was brought on to make the live action series Mortal Kombat: Legacy.
Rather than get involved in the main plotlines, Legacy is an anthology series telling individual stories of different characters, which it does admirably, for a series of shorts.  It even has actual blood for once.
It doesn’t have the budget of the movies, which shows in some of its lackluster digital effects, but the fighting, acting and Kill Bill-style animated segments show a lot effort.  I recommend at least watching a few episodes.  They’re available on Youtube and Steam, including a second season titled as a sequel.

The motion capture here is pretty damn impressive.

Like everyone else except Skullgirls, Mortal Kombat has had its own comics too, each from different publishers.
Several different comics have been made by Midway themselves to promote the release of certain games.  Similarly to the Batman: Arkham City comic, they’re made as prequel stories detailing events that take place before their respective game.  Sadly, I can’t comment on them as they’re extremely hard to find, even online.

I can’t attest to the quality of the Midway comics, but I wager they’re significantly better than the Mortal Kombat comics by Malibu.  You may remember Malibu from way back in camp Street Fighter, where their godawful adaptation of the franchise is flogged and laughed at.

The Mortal Kombat Malibu comics do not fare much better.  Admittedly, the Rob Leifeld-esque artwork is a little less jarring than with Street Fighter, since Mortal Kombat is full of grit and muscular guys anyway, but it’s still laughable.

Outside of the character designs and names, the writing is way off from the games, but that can be forgiven since they didn’t have all that much to work with at the time.  Even so, what they came up with is bland and forgettable at best.  The only thing from it anyone remembers is the Lin Kuei water fighter Hydro (shown as a Cyborg in the clip from Legacy a few paragraphs back).

As you can tell, Mortal Kombat was extremely popular in the 90s in particular.  So popular it also got its own stage show, much like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles did.  Performers dressed as the different Mortal Kombat characters would fight each other on stage to a lazer light show.

Sadly, this one was never released on video or DVD and you can’t even find footage of the actual performances online so once again I can’t speak for its quality.  Supposedly it was about as embarrassing as TMNT’s Coming Out of Our Shells tour, full of family-friendly violence and dubbed voice overs.  I wish I could have seen it myself.

What you can see online is probably worse anyway.  In 2000, a web activity of sorts called Mortal Kombat: Federation of the Martial Arts brought the audience in on the action.  The way it worked was that participants were given fake currency to bet on staged fights that were released in videos every week, and those who had the most money were given prizes.

It’s a fun concept that should have been a success given that costumes from the movie were used for the fights.  Unfortunately, they’re absolutely terrible.

While some of the movie's and Conquest’s actors did come back for FOTMA, at times they had to use stock footage of the actors, and that never comes out well.
The fight scenes themselves seem to have been recorded without any sound, meaning crappy voice acting and sound effects were added in later, as were the chroma-keyed backgrounds.  The digital effects look like they came from early 90s FMV games, even moreso because every video is horribly compressed and runs at a choppy framerate akin to 3D games on the Atari Jaguar.  Out of all the stupid Mortal Kombat spin-off material, this one is probably the worst.  How fitting that the director went on to make the often-mocked CGI movie Food Fight.

Mortal Kombat has had quite a history.  With so many changes and extra material, it has resulted in one of the longest Fighting Game Camp articles to date, falling just behind Blazblue’s insane plot.  Its western player focus has given it a long-lasting identity that has yet to be successfully replicated, and for players that have played the hell out of the Japanese fighters, it can be a fun break.

Now that its history has been reset on a new generation of game systems, Mortal Kombat is only going to get bigger once again.  It’s a game about fatalities, but it itself is never going to die.

Just like the characters.