Let’s Talk About Mortal Kombat

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Mortal Kombat X was released this week on PS4, XBox One, and PC. If you’re wondering how it is and if you should play it, I’ll cut right to it: it’s great, and you should play it! Now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about Mortal Kombat’s history (mainly from a lore perspective) and what makes the tenth main installment an instant klassic. Fair warning, a lot of the information in this post is how I recall it. Corrections are welcome in the comments!

The Games

For the sake of being able to easily reference all of the titles, let’s first define the number associated with each of them.

Mortal Kombat, 1992 – MK1
Mortal Kombat II, 1993 – MK2
Mortal Kombat 3, 1995 – MK3
Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3, 1995 – UMK3 (Mortal Kombat Trilogy can be lumped in with this one)
Mortal Kombat 4, 1997 – MK4
Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance, 2002 – MK5
Mortal Kombat: Deception, 2004 – MK6
Mortal Kombat Armageddon – MK7
Mortal Kombat vs DC Universe – MK8 (I’ll largely be ignoring this one, but the general internet consensus recognizes this as the eighth proper installment in the series)
Mortal Kombat, 2011 – MK9
Mortal Kombat X, 2015 – MK10

Mortal Kombat Mysteriously Arrives in Arcades

1992 was a special time in arcade gaming. Gone were the days of trying to get your initials recorded in a version of Donkey Kong in your local arcade. Street Fighter II had arrived, and with it, the fighting game genre revolution of the 90’s. Kids, teens, and (mostly) young adults now crowded around Street Fighter II, placing their quarter or token on one side of the screen bezel, effectively getting in line to challenge the current “king of the hill”. “Winner stays, loser pays” was now the generally accepted arcade etiquette, and gaming was now a legitimate spectator event.

I remember as a young teen going to arcades with a couple dollars in quarters, trying to learn how to play as Ryu or Ken, which seemed to always be the champion’s characters of choice, but depending on my competition, I usually resorted to Blanka or Guile because of their easier moves.

One day, I went to the local arcade, and the Street Fighter II game was empty. I heard cheering from the back, and a huge crowd of fifteen to twenty people surrounding a new game. I waited to get a closer look, and read the words Mortal Kombat on the marquee. This game was different. It had real people for graphics, it had a lot of blood, and it had a very distinct 70’s-80’s kung-fu movie feel to it (later on I realized it was pretty much a direct mashup of Big Trouble in Little China, and Enter the Dragon).

When I could rarely get an occasional glimpse of the idle screens, I was able to read the backstory for the game which was shrouded in enough mysterious lore, that I was hooked.

Goro Lives

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A 2,000 year old half human dragon Goro remains undefeated for the past 500 years. He won the title of grand champion by defeating Kung Lao, a shaolin fighting monk. It was during this period that the tournament fell into Shang Tsung’s hands and was corrupted. – Story text from the original Mortal Kombat

So now we have some 2,000 year old guy with four arms, who has been the grand champion for 500 years. We know about some monk named Kung Lao, and some dude named Shang Tsung. We got a little insight into franchise staples from their bio screens like Liu Kang- former Shaolin monk, and all around good-guy, Johnny Cage- Hollywood actor and comic relief, Sonya Blade- U.S. special forces who inadvertently lands in the island after pursuing a criminal named Kano, and then we get the real interesting ones: Raiden- an alleged thunder god, Scorpion- a mysterious spear throwing ninja, and Sub-zero- another mysterious ninja with the ability to freeze his opponents.

Before we can move on to what happens in MK2, I’ve got to address all of the mystique surrounding this game. Occasionally, (as I recall) a green ninja would appear with a cryptic message before a match. It turns out this was a hidden, non-playable character named Reptile. Eventually people discovered if shadows were passing in front of the moon on the Pit stage, and someone won without blocking and performed a fatality, they would get to fight Reptile. This started all sorts of rumors, including a gaming magazine publishing an alleged photo of a red ninja named Ermac. As it turned out, “ERMAC” was some code Midway used in some of their games that was short for something like machine error, and the red ninja was probably a doctored, or oddly exposed photo of Scorpion or Sub-Zero. In the very early days of the internet, it proved difficult to debunk these rumors, and now we had a new, brutal fighting game with a backstory and swirling cloud of rumors. Midway had a hit, and they new it. And the quickly followed it up with MK2.

Mortal Kombat II

In todays game industry, we usually see teaser videos, screenshots, press releases on TV, the internet, everywhere we look. We know when new games are being discussed, before they’re even in production. In 1997 however, the first I knew about MK2 was when one day I went to our local bowling alley arcade to play Mortal Kombat, and it had been replaced by a new, shinier and much louder Mortal Kombat II. The graphics were crisp, gameplay slightly faster (though still sluggish compared with Street Fighter II), but the music, lore, and mystery was cranked up higher than ever. The environments were not very earthly, and in fact, the game takes place in a new realm we learned about called Outworld. Liu Kang is revealed to have won the previous Mortal Kombat tournament, and we now learn about Shang Tsung’s boss and emperor of Outworld, Shao Kahn. Shang Tsung avoids execution by assembling another Mortal Kombat tournament promising to lure the fighters from “Earthrealm” to face extinction by Shao Kahn himself.

mk2MK2’s art style eluded to a much richer story, set in a fantastical world that blended sci-fi and fantasy with mystical kung-fu movies, all while remaining an arcade game first, with inferior home console ports second. The violence was pushed to new levels, showing characters sliced in half, burned by acid, exploding, being burned, and was notable for contributing to the ESRB’s formation.  MK2 also began pushing things in an unexpected comical direction as well as players discovered alternative finishing moves called “babalities” and “friendships”, where the character would either turn the loser into a baby, or do a ridiculous act like jumping rope, making a rainbow, or selling a doll of themselves. Performing a babality or friendship was also seen as the ultimate taunt by a real player, because in order to use them you had to win a mach without using two of the five buttons.

In the time after MK2’s release, we saw a lot more fighting games, including new versions of Street Fighter II, Neo-Geo games, Virtua Fighter, and RARE/Nintendo’s first entry into the fighting genre, Killer Instinct. Without turning this post into an entire overview of fighting game history, let’s just say that by the time Mortal Kombat 3 came out, combos were the new thing in fighters.

Mortal Kombat 3

MK3 arrives, and is much faster paced, adding a new dedicated run button and chained combos. Along with the over-the-top fatalities, babalities and friendships return, as well as the introduction of the long-rumored animalities. The story in attract mode is now longer than ever, explaining that Shao Kahn grew frustrated with the rules of Mortal Kombat as established by the elder gods, and through a flimsy explanation, has his queen (Sindel) resurrected in Earthrealm, allowing him to passthrough and begin to merge it with Outworld.

mk3A lot of subplots develop during MK3 (remember, this is still in the arcade era!)  one of which discusses Sub-zero’s clan, the Lin Kuei converting their members into cyborgs, thus devoiding them of souls, which he refuses to take part in, and makes him a marked man by his clan as well as the opposition to Earthrealm.

We also see the introduction of many new characters such as Nightwolf, Sektor and Cyrax, Kurtis Stryker, Shiva, Motaro, and the first unlockable character of the series, a cyborg named Smoke, who appeared in human form as a secret opponent in MK2. Curiously missing was fan-favorite, Scorpion (along with Reptile, Mileena, and Kitana), which quickly prompted the release of Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3. UMK3’s story remained the same, but changed some game-mechanics slightly, and brought back Scorpion, Reptile, Kitana and Jade (playable for the first time), and 3 more unlockable characters: Classic Sub-Zero (who later we find out is the original Sub-zero from MK1), Mileena, and the long-rumored debut of Ermac.

I should note here, it’s a little known fact that I submitted the winning trick of the month to EGM2 with the “Ultimate Kombat Kode” to unlock Ermac. They never did send me the game controller they promised their winners.

MK3 and UMK3 started to suffer from Street Fighter II-itis, eventually leading to a PC and console exclusive version called Mortal Kombat Trilogy which added Brutalities into the mix, which were a really long combo you performed with the player at low health that led to them exploding in the end. Various incarnations of it also included the ability to play as  Noob Saibot (another previously hidden but non-playable ninja), and Rain (who was previously included in the games attract mode only). Some versions even allowed Goro, Shao Kahn, a new sprite version of Johnny Cage, Kintaro and Motaro to all be playable. Furthermore, certain console exclusives even added Khameleon and Chameleon, a male or female ninja that would randomly shift their abilities to all of the same-gendered ninjas. The story for MKT remained largely unchanged, but included all of the events from the first 3 games.

Mortal Kombat 4(gotten)

In 1997, Mortal Kombat 4 emerged in the arcades, ditching the 2D digitized live action graphics in favor of 3D models. The gameplay largely remained the same from MK3, with the ability to step to the side of the z-axis. It was still fast-paced, still had chainable combos, and juggle combos, and of course, gruesome fatalities, but it just fell flat. It was too early for the series to make the jump to 3D, it felt stiff, uninspired, and despite decent critical reception, just simply didn’t capture the same magic of it’s fans. Mortal Kombat felt like it was done… but I still wanted to find out what was happening in the storyline.

Raiden explains in the games intro screens about a fallen elder god named Shinnok, who was banished to a realm known as the Netherrealm who, after Shao Kahns defeat in MK3, manages to escape, and thus, the Mortal Kombat tournament must be fought again (of course).

mk4This is by far the most forgettable game in the series, but it did introduce two of my favorite characters: Shinnok, and Quan-Chi. It also introduced the Netherrealm, and the general idea that the Mortal Kombat universe is much larger than Earthrealm and Outworld. Mortal Kombat Mythologies: Sub-zero was released as a console exclusive spin-off around this time, and isn’t worth talking about other than additional lore is explained (which is re-explained later on anyway). All I will say about the Jax game that was also released is that it was released, and it was real real bad.

Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance

After many years of no new Mortal Kombat games, in 2002, MK5 was released (as Deadly Alliance), and there was no arcade version. MK5 was released directly to PS2 and Xbox, and threw out the mechanics of the first four games in favor of a slower-paced but more intricate system that had more in common with Tekken than any other fighter. Foot sweeps and uppercuts were also gone, and while the game-play was jarringly different, it was intricate, and of course, had brutal fatalities. MK5 continued the storyline even further, bringing back Shang Tsung to co-star with Quan-Chi who were revealed to be enemies who by working together could kill Shao Kahn (who apparently was just defeated and not dead?), and the Earthrealm champion, Liu Kang. With those two out of the way, this would enable the duo to resurrect the ancient army of one of the previous rulers of Outworld, the Dragon King.

MK5 also introduced the Krypt, which has been an explorable area to unlock game content ever since. We also saw the introduction of several new characters, most notably Kenshi, a blind samurai warrior from Earthrealm who was tricked by Shang Tsung into releasing the souls of deceased warriors from his heritage, which is what left him blinded. Bo’ Rai Cho, was added as a jolly overweight fighter from Earthrealm who was revealed as having trained many of Earthrealm’s greatest fighters, and used a drunken boxing style of kung-fu.  Li Mei was introduced as having come from another new realm known as Edenia, which is the realm most similar to Earthrealm, and joins the tournament to free her people enslaved by Kano’s Black Dragon band of criminals (or something like that).

From what I remember about the game at the time it was released, it largely slipped under the radar, but was a promising step forward from MK4.

Mortal Kombat: Deception

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In 2004, Mortal Kombat: Deception was released, once again straight to PS2 and Xbox, and built off of MK5 both in gameplay and story. The memorable opening cinematic tells the tale of Shang Tsung and Quan Chi defeating Raiden in the events of MK5, who then inevitably turn on each other for their lust for power and control of Outworld. Quan Chi defeats Shang Tsung, and is promptly interrupted by Onaga, the Dragon King, and former emperor of Outworld, who is coming back to reclaim his throne with his newly resurrected army, thanks to Quan Chi. Raiden, Shang Tsung, and Quan Chi join forces to face this new, greater threat which lead Raiden to sacrifice himself (along with Shang Tsung and Quan Chi) to attempt to halt the returning king. The efforts were in vain, Onaga now has the magical amulet, and the narrator during this entire movie reveals that only he is the one who can stop Onaga, because he was responsible for Onaga’s return, deceptively.

I remember getting this game on the day it was released, popping the disc in my PS2, with a few friends also anticipating what this new Mortal Kombat might be like, and after the opening movie we all had a “holy shit” moment. Then the title screen appears with a bolt of lightning and loud thunder crash. From that moment we all knew, Mortal Kombat is back.

MK6 is one of the very best in the series for a number of reasons. The gameplay was an evolution of the system from MK5, but brought back classic elements like uppercuts, juggle combos, and alternative finishing moves to Fatalities known as Hara-Kiris, which allows the loser to perform a finishing move on themselves, not giving the victor the satisfaction of doing so. The graphics were much improved over MK5, which looked good in it’s own right. But the real hero of MK6 was it’s vast foray into expanding the Mortal Kombat lore.

The main protagonist of the game is a new character known as Shujinko. The konquest mode was actually a full blown RPG, with a freely explorable 3D world. Battles are done with the fighting engine naturally, and the story unfolds by taking Shujinko on a journey as a young boy who is deceived by Onaga who is posing as an elder god, guiding him to collect artifacts which make up something called the Kamidogu, which would ultimately grant Onaga the power to destroy all the realms.

In Konquest mode, as Shujinko, the player now gets to explore various locations fans of the series have heard about for many years, and discover new wrinkles in the Mortal Kombat lore sure as the Order Realm, and Chaos Realms.

While MK6 introduced many new characters, they are possibly the least memorable parts of this game. The game also introduced Puzzle Kombat, a puzzle fighter mini-game, Chess Kombat, a battle chess mini-game, and perhaps most notably, full online support with voice chat. The magic of the arcade experience returned, along with all sorts of rumors by talking to random people online.

Just as I had felt I had exhausted all of the gameplay I could get out of MK6, a new Mortal Kombat game was announced…

Mortal Kombat: Argmageddon

Mortal_Kombat_charactersMK7 was released with a somewhat flimsy storyline follow up to MK6, which essentially was summarized as that there were now too many warriors, too much carnage, and the elder gods thought this would destroy all of the realms, so they decided to make a pyramid appear with a blaze on top of it (which literally turned out to be a character named Blaze, who was in the background of MK2) and destroy all of the warriors to prevent armageddon from occurring.

While the plot was a little lackluster, it certainly provided enough of an excuse to include every Mortal Kombat character ever into one epic game. It even had a create a fighter mode, and fatality combos. It was certainly a fun game to play online or with friends, but it lacked the depth of MK6.

Oh right, the storyline. At the end, everyone dies except Raiden and Shao Kahn (I thought he was already dead… like twice), and Shao Kahn wins. Whelp, with only Shao Kahn remaining, I guess Mortal Kombat has reached it’s epic conclusion. It was a fun ride. So it’s only natural to follow up MK7 with… Mortal Kombat vs DC Universe right? MK vs DC  (regrettably also known as MK8), was released for PS3 and Xbox 360, and was a solid fighter in it’s own right, but the story was such a poor excuse for a crossover, they should have omitted it entirely in my opinion. It’s storyline was never officially incorporated into the MK Legacy so let’s just move on to…

Mortal Kombat

In 2011, a new Mortal Kombat was released with the same name as the original title. MK9 was the first proper installment of the game on PS3/Xbox 360, and is kind of recognized as being a reboot for the series.

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In the aftermath of MK7 (remember 8 is the DC crossover, ugh) Raiden manages to send a message to himself in the past that says “He must win.”

MK9 begins with the events of MK1, only with Raiden’s amulet showing visions of the future. Whenever events repeat themselves, his amulet deteriorates, causing him to question what to do. The events of MK2 and 3 largely play out similarly, but of course with much more detail and backstory than the originals, and it’s not until the MK3 events when the story really begins to change. Raiden tampers with the timeline, substituting Kung Lao for Liu Kang, leading to Kung Lao’s death. Raiden continues to believe the “he must win” message was referring to Liu Kang, but at some point he has a revelation that if he allows Shao Kahn to invade Earthrealm without obtaining the right to it via Mortal Kombat, the elder gods will destroy Kahn… or something like that.

Many of the Earthrealm’s finest are killed, and enslaved by Quan Chi as revenants, and the gods empower Raiden to destroy Kahn for violating the Mortal Kombat code, and for once, good prevails over evil in the Mortal Kombat universe (despite a lot of casualties).

MK9’s gameplay saw a return to the 2D style with 3D graphics, mainly classic characters from the first three games (and a handful of DLC addons, like Freddy Krueger). The only real post-MK3 era characters were Quan Chi, Kenshi, and Skarlet who was a long rumored red-pallette swap from the arcade era. Babalities returned, online play was solid, and the story mode was mainly cut-scenes broken up by fights.

Mortal Kombat X

That roughly catches us up to speed now. Quick recap:

Liu Kang wins Mortal Kombat, saves the day. Does it again. Earthrealm wins a third time. Shinnok is resurrected and destroyed. Quan Chi and Shang Tsung break the streak and win. Onaga is inadvertently resurrected by some dude named Shujinko, all hell breaks lose, the elder gods get pissed, and try to destroy everyone. Shao Kahn is the last man standing. Then we go back to the past, Raiden tries to prevent the future from happening, and sort of succeeds, killing a lot of his allies in the process. That pretty much takes us up to MK10, which is a proper sequel, taking place 25 years after MK9.

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What happened between now and MK9? Well some people got together, fell in love, and had kids. Introducing Kung Jin (Kung Lao’s younger cousin), Cassie Cage (Sonya and Johnny’s daughter), Jacqueline Briggs (Jax’s daughter), and Takeda (Kenshi’s son). Oh yeah, but before that, 2 years after the events of MK9, Shinnok is resurrected by Quan Chi along with the revenant Earthrealm warriors Scorpion, Sub-zero and Jax. Johnny Cage, Sonya and Raiden trap Shinnok once again, and restore those three back to life (the first time we’ve actually seen a human Scorpion I might add). Quan Chi escapes, but everything else is relatively peaceful for the next 20 or so years.

Meanwhile in Outworld…we learn that in Kahn’s absence, Mileena briefly took claim to the throne (even though she’s a genetic experiment gone wrong and not blood related to Shao Kahn), which causes a civil war to break out and Kotal Kahn (no relation to the last ruler) assuming rule in outworld. His right hand bug-woman is named D’vorrah, and hired guns (no pun intended) include a lost cowboy named Erron Black from Earthrealm, and an unusual team known as Ferra/Torr.

Since inter-realm travel is apparently normal now, the new generation is sent to Outworld to help resolve the conflict between Mileena and Kotal Kahn. Then we see that darn amulet come back into play with Quan Chi trying to bring back our buddy Shinnok. I’ll refrain from revealing spoilery stuff here about the plot since the game is still very new.

11157491_10155472657880444_7459416822892210318_oGameplay-wise, this is as easy to pickup as MK3, but as intricate to master as MK6. Each character has three subtle variations with unique special moves and combos, which keep things pretty fresh. Story mode works like MK9, with interactive elements, requiring you to pay attention during cut-scenes and push various buttons to attack, dodge, or do… some other spoilery thing.

The graphics are remarkable, with the choreographed fight scenes and cinematography feeling almost as if they’re right out of Kevin Tancharoen’s Mortal Kombat Legacy web-series. You have all the major blockbuster movie elements like a roving camera, crane shots, stylized lighting, etc with seamless transitions into the actual fights as they play out.

The Krypt makes it’s epic return with occasional things like wolves and spiders jumping out at you, giving you an opportunity to slash them and earn yourself some koins, which are used as the games in-game currency to unlock more krypt items.

Brutalities also return this time, but instead of being a silly combo, they are executed by meeting certain fight conditions, and result in an instant finishing move at the end of round 2 or 3. New to the series are Faction Kill finishing moves. When starting the game you’re asked to join a faction (like the Lin Kuei, White Lotus Society, etc), and collect faction points by doing various things in the game’s different modes. As you collectively unlock points with other players online, you get access to Faction finishers, and other content.

Online play offers a returning King of the Hill mode, and team-based kombat, where you collectively fight one on one matches to earn points.

There are a lot of different variations like the tower modes that are sure to keep the gameplay exciting for a while, especially with the promise of Jason, Preditor, Tremor, and Tanya as playable DLC characters.

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Mortal Kombat has certainly taken a very long and winding road over the years, but Mortal Kombat X really delivers as both an “Outstanding” fighting game, and tells “Excellent” story. I can’t really find anything I don’t like about the game, and for that, I give Netherrealm a “Flawless Victory”.