I used to love Mortal Kombat. And I mean, I used to LOVE it. Then, I just kind of didn’t anymore. Things went 3D, animations got weird, things got gross, and It no longer made me want to play it. But now that Mortal Kombat 11 is out, I’ve seen so much in it that I’m pretty sure I’d love. Movie references, classic costumes, callbacks to the original games, it’s all there. So why don’t I want to play it, and am I alone?
I feel like I say this about a lot of things, but it's true. At least for me. When the original Mortal Kombat came out, it was a revelation. Video game technology was still improving by leaps and bounds in very recognizable ways. Where it's a real rarity to see a new game today that truly looks like nothing ever seen before, back in the 90s these kinds of revolutions happened all the time, and every one of them was mind-blowing, especially to a small nerd like me. Back to MK, I’ll never forget the first time I saw it. I was on a vacation with my family, and the campground we were staying at had an arcade. One year, on my first day of vacation, I went to the arcade to see what was new, and I noticed a sizable crowd in the corner. Not being super tall, I decided to just move along and see what else was new. Then I heard the sounds. The loudest crashing noises I had ever heard, accompanied by some terrifying monster noises. Someone had gotten to Goro, and there was a crowd around the kid cheering him on, and watching him get utterly decimated. I managed to catch a glimpse just before he got a Game Over, and I couldn’t believe my eyes. I loved Street Fighter II, but this game had real people in it! And unlike Pit Fighter, this looked awesome!
I was immediately in love with the game's aesthetic. Scorpion and Sub-Zero’s design. Raiden’s teleportation. Johnny Cage punching dudes in the nuts. And the blood. The hilarious, over-the-top, not even remotely realistic blood. And of course, you can’t gloss over the fatalities. They were kind of gross, but like the blood, they were unabashedly unrealistic. Even the particularly gruesome spinal cord scene was just funny. It made absolutely no sense, and that kind of violence just tickled me.
The more time I spent with the game, the more I came to love its characters and lore. The story wasn’t Shakespeare, but it was exactly the kind of stuff teenage me couldn’t get enough of. The stages all looked like they had such history. The intro and ending sequences showed more detailed looks at the worlds these people all came from. The Pit never got old! But what good and truly sealed the deal was all the awesome rumors associated with it. When I first heard you could fight a green ninja at the bottom of the Pit, I thought it was a bunch of bologna. But then he showed up and I couldn’t believe my eyes! The weird stuff that flew by the moon was pretty cool too. I think the one that really set my head on fire was the whole Ermac thing. A fan letter in EGM essentially fabricated a story about a red ninja in the arcade game, and I don’t know, it just blew my mind. And then years later they actually made him a real character!
Seriously, I lived for stuff like this when I was a kid.
My love continued through Mortal Kombat II, which shouldn’t come as any sort of surprise. MKII was everything anyone could have hoped for from an MK sequel. The characters looked cooler, the basic combat was expanded, there were more fatalities, Friendships, secrets, hidden characters, the works. MKII is, to my mind, still the best the series ever got, and I still love playing it today. Even the home ports were great, especially the SNES one. No longer the sweaty censored version, MKII on SNES was about as close to bringing the arcade home as anyone could have expected back then. The Genesis version was no slouch either.
Mortal Kombat 3, though, left a pretty bad taste in my mouth. Stuff like the run button and the combo system were nice enough, I guess, but the game’s aesthetics were a huge step down. The stages themselves were pretty boring overall. There was some interesting stuff, like the ability to uppercut someone to a different stage, but the subway, the desert, some sort of chapel, it was all so normal and meh. But more than that was the new character designs.
Shang Tsung didn’t exactly look cool in Mortal Kombat II, but in MK3 he’s just plain silly. And not in a good way. Sindel is just a crappy design. The cyborgs are alright I guess, and Kabal is neat, but Stryker? Just some dude in a backwards hat? Nightwolf? Holy Native American stereotype, Batman. And what the heck did they do to Sub-Zero? He went from totally awesome ninja to some dude in weird suspenders. And where’s Scorpion?
Things got a little better when they introduced Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3, but by that point some of the damage was already done. Beside the pretty awful character designs, the whole thing became a little hokey. Don’t get me wrong, it was always kinda hokey to begin with, but this game felt cheap. The fighters felt more like cheap cosplay than actually fleshed out characters. Mortal Kombat Trilogy made further amends with its sheer ridiculous amount of content, but that initial luster had faded for me. It wasn’t beyond redemption, but Mortal Kombat 4 was going to have to be something really special.
Before I get there though, I have to address the movies. The first Mortal Kombat movie is such a stupid blast. Of course when I was a teenager I didn’t think it was stupid at all. I just thought it was awesome. But looking back on it now, it still holds up in a lot of respects. It’s not “good.” Heavens no. But for the kind of stupid fun it is, it’s really great. I loved the song, I watched my VHS copy relentlessly, it was magical. Mortal Kombat Armageddon, on the other hand, hhhhhhuuuugggggghhhhhhhhh….
Same goes for that awful cartoon. No thank you.
Anyway, back to the games. With games going 3D, I had wondered how MK was going to handle that transition. My hope was that they’d take a "back to their roots" approach and stick with 2D actor sprites except with higher resolution and better animation. Sadly, what Mortal Kombat 4 turned out to be was worse than I had imagined. I’m not saying MK4 is a bad game, but it isn’t great either. I had exactly one really good afternoon with it, but once I got bored of it, I never saw a reason to go back to it.
The real nail in the proverbial coffin was Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance. For most people, this was the game that properly brought MK into the 3rd dimension, and I was legitimately excited to give it a try. I will always miss the look of Mortal Kombat I and II, but this new art direction was spectacular. I could tell that the folks behind making this game were really onto something, and it was just an overall better-made product than Mortal Kombat 4. As it turned out, I was right. MKDA was great, just not for me. I spent a solid evening messing around with the game at my friend’s dorm, and on paper it did nearly everything right. But I had two major issues I couldn’t get past. First, I hated the way the game moved. This has been an issue with everything Nether Realm has made since, by the way. I don’t carte for Injustice for pretty much the same reason. It’s the animation. Every character in the game over-animates to the point of distraction. Everyone is always wiggling or stretching or something ridiculous, and it looks absurd. Their moves look super unnatural to me. No, I couldn’t do better, but wonky animation has always put me off with a quickness, and Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance was rife with it. The second issue was that the game just didn’t feel like Mortal Kombat. MK always felt very deliberate in its movements. Even in MK4. But MKDA spent too much time animating and not enough time actually attacking. It didn’t feel sharp. It looked great, and the story stuff was cool, but the series I fell in love with had intrinsically changed, and as much as I wanted to be, I couldn’t be there for it.
At some point, I think around Mortal Kombat X, I’m told the game got back to its roots and started playing a lot more like the older games, just with fancy modern graphics. This was extremely exciting to me, but unfortunately this modern take on the classic formula carried with it a different kind of issue that turned my stomach. Now, I’m not talking about some gameplay element or visual design choice that “turned my stomach” like some sort of exaggerated joke. I mean parts of new Mortal Kombat games literally make me sick to my stomach.
I’m not a realistic horror guy. I’m not much of a horror guy in general, but comedy horror like the original MK games or Army of Darkness clicks with me very well. I adored Doom and Doom II: Hell on Earth. Doom 3, though, was all realistic horror, which I did not care for. The new Doom though, spot the heck on. And from what I’ve come to understand, that’s just what Mortal Kombat 11 is for the MK series. It’s a fresh coat of paint, tight classic fun gameplay, a fun over the top story, and, well, everything I used to love about the series. But the violence, while still hilariously over the top, added some unbelievably gross touches of realism to it. It no longer looked like a cartoon or some goofy alternate reality. MK3 flirted with that kind of stuff like, say, when Sindel screamed someone's skin off, but it was still that kind of goofy pixelated grossness I was cool with. But with graphics technology being what it is today, that stuff doesn't fly anymore. Detail is there, whether I like it or not, and stuff like those X-ray moves literally make me sick to my stomach. I’m a pretty squeamish guy, so when you’re playing the game and it x-rays in to see a character’s bones shattering... nope. And there’s just a ton of that kind of violence. Again, I know the fatalities have always been kinda gross, (The high point of MK4 would have to be Quan Chi ripping his opponent’s leg off and beating them to death with it) but the stuff I see now crosses the line for me. I can't stress enough, this isn't some kind of morality thing. I'm not all up in arms about there being too much violence, nor do I think they should change what they're doing. It clearly works for them. But it doesn't work for me personally, and that's a bummer.
It really breaks my heart. MK11 got a ton of positive press. It’s chock full of references to the totally awesome original movie. Christopher Lambert even did a French TV ad for the game. I want to love it so much, but I can’t do it. It grosses me out. It’s gone down a path I can not follow. (Yes, apparently I’m Padme in this scenario).
So yeah, I wish I still loved Mortal Kombat. The first two installments of the franchise, the original movie, and to a lesser extent MK Trilogy, all meant a lot to me during my formative years. Not being able to stomach playing the new entries sucks. So I guess the point is, am I alone? Are there games out there that folks wish they could play but they can’t because they gross them out? Because I gotta tell you, I’d love to play the Dead Space games or Resident Evil VII, but I don’t think that’s a good idea because my most hated of all things in the world is jump scares.
So the next time you boot up Mortal Kombat 11, enjoy a round or two for me. Because, you know, I can't.