Mortal Kombat's Biggest Mistakes: How a Classic Fighting Game Lost Its Way


Posted April 13, 2011 - By Guest Writer

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By Jared Newman

Mortal Kombat's Biggest Mistakes: How a Classic Fighting Game Lost Its Way   

Once a proud fighting game that packed arcades and enraged politicians, Mortal Kombat eventually became bloated and irrelevant under the weight of new gimmicks and dozens of superfluous characters. So it's no surprise that on April 19, the series goes back to basics, stripping away the transgressions that turned Mortal Kombat into an also-ran.

Ahead of this well-deserved reboot, appropriately brought back and just entitled Mortal Kombat, let's count the ways in which Mortal Kombat faltered as a series through the years, and hope that the ninth game in the series makes things right.


No Easy Pit Fatalities

In the first Mortal Kombat, even the lowliest noob had access to one fatality, a simple uppercut that in one level would knock the opponent into a pit of spikes. In every Mortal Kombat that followed, environmental fatalities became another combination of buttons to memorize, and they were different for each level. I'm all for rewarding difficult combos with mesmerizing displays of gore, but every newbie deserves a deadly finishing move now and then. 



The Run Button

Mortal Kombat 3 would have been fine with new characters, levels and fatalities. But instead of refining an already successful formula, the developers thought they could breathe new life into the series by letting players sprint across the arena. Seasoned players quickly embraced the new feature, while everyone else ignored it completely. The result was a widening gap between casual and hardcore players -- in a sense, the beginning of the series' alienation from mainstream gamers. Even if you were an expert runner, you've got to admit that doing so looked pretty silly.


Mortal Kombat used to be pure and simple. In the first two games, anyone could create their own combos out of strategy, timing and an occasional special move. But from Mortal Kombat 3 onwards, dial-a-combos corrupted the series, putting an emphasis on memorization instead of creativity. You practically needed a stack of flash cards to excel at a handful of characters. Fortunately, the new game returns to a more organic form of juggling, with dial-a-combos de-emphasized.


Campy dialog and bad acting made the original Mortal Kombat good in a bad way (and I never tire of laughing at the way Sub-Zero walks down stairs). But Mortal Kombat: Annihilation failed to capture the magic of its predecessor and goes down as another awful game-to-movie adaptation. For that matter, any live action Mortal Kombat adaptation is doomed to silliness. For proof, just watch this reel of Mortal Kombat Mythologies: Sub-Zero cutscenes.



Mortal Kombat Special Forces

A third-person beat-em-up released in 2000, Mortal Kombat Special Forces is generally regarded as the worst game in the series. Even series co-creator Ed Boon said the game "didn't turn out very good at all," and you only need to watch a few minutes of dull, clunky gameplay to figure out why, Rule of thumb: If you're going to shoehorn fighting game characters into another genre, make it a bonus feature in the main game (see: Puzzle Kombat in Mortal Kombat: Deception and Force mode in Tekken 3 and Tekken 4). That way, when it's a huge letdown, no one will feel ripped off.


You can't really fault Mortal Kombat for switching from 2D to 3D, starting in 1997 with Mortal Kombat 4. Sony's PlayStation and Sega's Saturn ushered in games like Tekken and Virtua Fighter, and the very idea of three-dimensional gaming was so fresh that no classic franchise was safe from conversion. In hindsight, Mortal Kombat's switch was a bad idea that turned off fans of the original trilogy while failing to match its new 3D rivals. No wonder the new Mortal Kombat returns to the series' 2D roots.

The Deadly Art of Death in Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance »

Weapons and Stances

If you like nerding out over the differences between Reptile's Ridge Hand Swipe and Chameleon Palm, more power to you. For everyone else, Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance's addition of multiple fighting stances, plus the weapons that debuted in the previous game, was an unnecessary complication.

Yes, there's a pattern emerging here: The best fighting games are simple to learn but difficult to master. That's a broader point that Mortal Kombat's developers failed to grasp as they tacked on feature after feature, each time making the game less accessible to newcomers.

Unlockable Liu Kang

I understand that not every classic Mortal Kombat character needs to be playable out of the box, but Liu Kang is an exception. He won the first tournament. He's a tribute to Bruce Lee. His voice is awesome. But instead of treating him like a hero, Mortal Kombat: Deception required you to beat Konquest mode, a tedious time suck made up of bite-sized challenges and a lot of running around. After that, you had to revisit Konquest mode in a specific part of the map on a specific day within the game. Unlocking Liu Kang was like beating Jenkins in Make Love, Not WarCraft. After doing all the work, who wants to actually play the game? 

Kreate a Fatality

The ability to improvise fatalities in Mortal Kombat: Armageddon might have worked in addition to scripted finishing moves, but on their own, the generic decapitations and torn limbs failed to showcase each character's unique abilities. They also added an element of stress to what should be a reward for the player. Instead of getting to sit back and watch, players had to continually pump out more button sequences to keep the fatalities alive.

Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe Finishers Montage »

T for Teen Fatalities

With all due respect to Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe, the game's T rating and gore-free fatalities were a let-down. What right did a bunch of comic book characters have waltzing into Mortal Kombat's world and watering it down? I understand that the lower ESRB rating was better for sales, but it was a moot point once Midway filed for bankruptcy. If the game couldn't save the publisher, at least it could've preserved Mortal Kombat's dignity.

So what do you think? Is the Mortal Kombat franchise back on track? What have been your favorite highlights and lowlights over the years?

Mortal Kombat's Biggest Mistakes: How a Classic Fighting Game Lost Its Way


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