[5 November 2004]
When Street Fighter 2 was all the rage in the fighting game community, I initially paid it no mind. At that time, there was another game that had captured my fancy. It was trite, with almost no strategy. But Wrestlefest featured The Ultimate Warrior, The Legion of Doom, Ted Dibiase, and other Vince McMahon creations from the world of the WWF. As a diehard wrestling fan at the time, that was enough for me. By the time I got bored of Wrestlefest, people had been honing their Street Fighter 2 chops for months. I was left behind with no way to catch up. But the quarters stacked on the screens led me to believe that this wasn’t an isolated frenzy. Surely another fighting game would come out and I could get in on the ground floor.
Some time later, a friend’s older brother came home from his job at the barber shop. This was a job he adored because it was right next to an arcade. That was when I found out about Mortal Kombat. Admittedly, there was far less strategy than in Street Fighter 2. But tactics were replaced by copious amounts of blood and a style that reflected a more digitized photographic effect than the cartoon-inspired Street Fighter 2.
When Mortal Kombat 2 came out, gamers were taken by surprise. The jump from the first one was astounding. With far more playable characters, untold secrets, increased speed, and even more bloody violence, Mortal Kombat 2 eclipsed it’s predecessor in every way, making a game that was much more enjoyable and had a certain amount of strategy.
The series went downhill from there. Although Mortal Kombat 3 and Ultimate Mortal Kombat were enjoyable, the strides made between the first and second installments in the series proved to set expectations too high. The third game added a run button that minimally affected matches, and Ultimate was simply a compilation of sorts with all the series combatants. By this time, too, three-dimensional fighters had started to capture that minds and quarters of arcade gamers as well. The Tekken and Virtua Fighter series’ were making two-dimensional fighters seem like old news.
Midway responded by trying to take Mortal Kombat into the third dimension with Mortal Kombat 4, a game I played exactly once. It barely registered a blip on the radar of most gamers. The franchise’s place in a societal context had also been altered over time. At first, the violence ruffled feathers. There was a lot of controversy when the first game hit home consoles with the revelation that while Sega would be keeping the violence intact, Nintendo would be removing the blood and gore. With time, the uproar over violence began to focus on other games, and with the release of two movies and an album, Mortal Kombat became increasingly campy and irrelevant.
Midway decided to take some time away from the series until last year’s Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance. This time, the game was 3D, but also a good deal of effort went into gameplay and it was largely well-received. I only played Deadly Alliance once, but I decided that I would pay attention to the next installment, Mortal Kombat: Deception, especially when I found out that it would be playable online—effectively resurrecting the arcade culture that had allowed the series to flourish in the first place. By and large, Deception is a mixed bag. It’s a game that tries to do a bit too much with a stale concept. Certainly it has stirred some feelings of nostalgia, but having played it, I would now much prefer to be at a Mortal Kombat 2 cabinet with a friend from that era. To be sure, the matches online can be amusing if you are matched against someone of a similar skill level, and the fighting portions of the game look great. But the whole experience is somewhat shallow. There is little room for improvisation. Play is determined almost entirely by the memorization of rote combos. Moves which break combos are arbitrarily limited to three per match.
Another problem is the unlockable content system, which is carried over from Deadly Alliance. You must buy unlockable characters among other miscellaneous items in the Krypt. In Deception, the currency to do so is gained by going through Konquest mode, a third-person action/adventure that has been derided by critics as a remarkably boring experience. Plus the degree of graphical polish in the fighting portions of the game was not carried over to the Konquest mode. I resent the fact that in order to play as certain characters, I have to perform fetch-quests for people I don’t care about in a graphically poor environment. A far better system would have been to emulate the arcade days of yore, and have new characters be released on a time basis, or per the number of matches that had been fought. The other two modes are a Super Puzzle Fighter clone and a chess mode. Both are amusing to a degree, but I doubt anyone would invest a good deal of time in them.
The real problem is that the entire series has always lacked depth. When the average gamer was 15, that was okay because we just wanted blood. But now there’s other games that can shock us more gratuitously because of the doors that Mortal Kombat opened as a franchise. Although decapitations and impalements are present in Deception, it will almost certainly be ignored by those opposed to video game violence. They have Grand Theft Auto to worry about. I’ve read that Midway would like to release a new addition to the franchise every year from now on. Although I think that such a goal can only serve to help make the series relevant again, I sincerely hope that they take lessons learned from better playing 3D fighters like Soul Calibur 2 to develop a game that doesn’t only remind me of the fun I used to have playing Mortal Kombat 2, but also brings depth to the series. Keep the frilly extras. Just give me a pure arcade fighting experience again.