As many gamers are aware of, the reboot of Mortal Kombat hits this week. The new title finally addresses and clears up the mess of the storyline by time-traveling back to the events of the first three (and best) of the game series, presenting a new take on the original material. And I am eagerly anticipating it.

I’ve played Mortal Kombat from the beginning, with events coming to a head in 1995 when I got a job at Midway (then Williams Entertainment). I got my foot in the industry with Mortal Kombat 3, and have contributed to pretty much every game in the series since (with the exception of the Part 6 and 7, and Vs. DC). The series may be “just a game” for some, but it was a fairly big chapter of my personal life. I may be inclined to share some of those stories and pictures at some point (and with a little prodding), but I thought since we, the gamer, are being taken back, I thought I’d do a quick run-through of the series.

The 2D Era.

Mortal Kombat – The original game, though a little dated today, offered unique characters and a surprisingly solid backstory for a fighter, which at the time usually didn’t consist of much more than “I don’t like or have just met you! Therefore, we must fight!” The references/comparisons to Big Trouble In Little China are hard to miss, and it was one of the first games to have a “holiday” (Mortal Monday) for a launch. The SNES version had no blood at all and neutered Finishing Moves.. The Genesis version had the gore… if you put in the code for it. I chose the Sega CD version. Awful load times, but no codes, and a video for the unofficial “Theme Song” of the game via the Immortals.

Mortal Kombat II – It refined the series with a dark sense of humor, more kills and other bizarre finishers, an even deeper story, some more great, new characters that fleshed out the mythos, and some great graphics. It feels a little clunky by today’s standards, but Nintendo learned its lesson, and put out a superior version (via Acclaim) that looked and played as close to the arcade as you needed. But I still remember that new machine at Super K-Mart, and the late night treks that my friends and I did to play.

Mortal Kombat 3 – Midway realized they could make more money if they published their own games, so their console division was born via Williams, and that’s where I came into this story. The character choices started getting a little iffy (Stryker and Nightwolf, anyone?), but it did have a few new interesting characters, a “Run” button, a betting set of combos to string together, those sought after (but largely superfluous) “Vs.” codes. “Mortal Mania” was at its peak with a Live Show, the first really fun movie, and a couple updates to Part 3 a la Street Fighter. FUN FACT: When the console game released, the flood of calls to the hint line was so intense that it shut down the phone system in my hometown.

The 3D Age (Or “The Dark Ages”)

Mortal Kombat 4 – 3D games of the mid 1990’s just didn’t age all that well, whether it was arcade, Nintendo 64, or Playstation. This game was no exception, and it I wasn’t even all that impressed back then with the “new” visual style, and the loss of the digitized actors. Basically a bare bones 3D remake of the first game, it featured “Weapon Kombat”, the odd, random rock you could throw at people in a stage, no sub-boss (the home versions did put in Goro to address that), and a lame final boss in the form of Shinnok. Between this, a few questionable side stories, and the second movie, interest in the series started to wane, and didn’t resurface again until 2002.

Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance – The arcade was dead, and this was the first game in the series exclusive to consoles. Despite involvement in this installment, I was losing personal interest in the series. There were a number of issues that plagues this and the following two games. An increasingly convoluted and confusing storyline. An increasing roster of characters that lacked the appeal of the first 20+ Kombatants. A combo system so technical I felt that I either needed a operator’s manual drafted by a scholar with me at all times, or a PhD in combo moves. Signature moves for characters were greatly revised or removed altogether, making old favorites shells of their former selves. The dark humor of the first games were removed entirely, neutering the personality of the series. And Finishing Moves were growing tired and uninspired. The game did offer some new things such as multiple fighting styles per character, and a crap ton of unlockables and side features, making that almost an entire game in itself. The story did take one bold step in killing Liu Kang in the intro cinematic, when he was the continual, unbeaten hero in every previous installment.

Mortal Kombat: Deception – The issues from the previous game plagued this one as well from combos, to characters, to neutering special moves and finishing moves, and focusing on those annoying as Hell combos. Again, the side content filled almost an entire game on its own, with an adventure mode, a chess mode, and a funny Puzzle Fighter style clone. while Gamecube didn’t get online, it did get a playable Shao Kahn and Goro. I’ll never understand why they made Sub-Zero look like “Super Shredder” from the second Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film.

Mortal Kombat: Armageddon – Basically Mortal Kombat Trilogy 2, it included everyone from everything, “Make Your Own Fatality”, gave up on the storyline with a “Magic power at the top of a mysteriously appearing pyramid! Go get it!” plot, the series gave up on itself as much as I did on it.

Mortal Kombat Vs. DC – I don’t know why so many gamers were dismissive at the mere concept of this title, yet Marvel Vs. Capcom was completely “Okay”. This game fixed a HUGE number of problems, reverting to a more 2D style and feel in gameplay, focused more on the events of the first three games (with characters from the first two). Special moves returned. A strong storyline was implemented that made sense (again, something any of the MvC games haven’t even bothered to attempt). Better graphics, no gimmicks, cool new fighting such as “Free Fall Kombat”, “Close Kombat”, and shoving people through multiple walls. Even the DC characters were well portrayed in their classic styles with good voice acting (Joker stole the show). It felt very much like the older games, and while the Fatalities were “weak”, the moves hadn’t been all that relevant in the last few games, so why stop now? There’s also that whole issue of Batman and Superman being morally unable to kill. Delivering massive ruination on evildoers, sure, but they draw the line at killing.

The Side Stories

Mortal Kombat Mythologies: Sub-Zero – Part of the triad of the “meh” fourth game, and the incredibly awful second movie, this game had a decent (if cheesy) storyline that focused on the first Sub-Zero and his initial run-ins with Raiden and Scorpion. I love platformers, but they tried to keep too much of the fighting engine in the game, making the game feel like you were controlling it underwater. Players fought the clunky controls while going through numerous repetitive backgrounds. The real killer of this game was the “Turn Button”, which forced players to hit a button in order to face right or left. In my defense, my team and I lobbied incredibly hard for the removal of this particular feature, but the powers that be overruled the request. The reviewers hated that feature just as much as we did, and we were left with an “I told you so”.

Mortal Kombat: Special ForcesFUN FACT: Early builds of the game included a playable Sonya blade, but John Tobias left in the middle of the development process, and a lot of features were cut down and out, resulting in…. Well, you had this.

Mortal Kombat: Shaolin Monks – Funny how this title, Vs. DC, and the new reboot all realized one major thing: Fans love the first three games. Set right after the events of the first game, this adventure fleshed out the story of the second game as a playable adventure. And it actually was very playable and fun. Sure they made some weird retcons in places, but the fighting was really solid, and built a whole realized world out of all those stages. The issue I had with this game was the dialogue. Someone in development had a serious affinity for the Dude, Where’s My Car? movie, and between that, and a couple of obvious in-jokes that no one bothered to share with the rest of us, it kept taking players out of the “seriousness” of the mythology, and wasn’t even on the relatable par with the silly stuff the series was known for. Some may argue that humor has no place in Mortal Kombat. I can counter argue that it’s a vital element of the series, when it’s presented as tongue in cheek and parody, not presented as that guy who keeps telling the same joke over and over again, certain that “the next time you hear it, it’s going to be really funny.” FUN FACT: This is the last game that I worked on and completed during my tenure at Midway.

So here we are in 2011. Midway the company is dead, yet the core team that worked on the previous titles have been given a substantial amount of time to actually, finally be making this installment “The best MK in years.” The starting from scratch and returning to basics were long overdue. MK Vs. DC was a good template to reboot the game’s fighting engine. The “time travel” aspect seems just as good as any fix to clean up the convoluted. messy storyline, and wash away those bland, later characters. And it actually looks good. And bloody. And full of (finally) unique, gory finishing moves. Even the humor seems better: Appropriately goofy, and without the eye-rolling dialogue.

Perhaps the biggest lesson learned here is that if you wanted to “fix” Mortal Kombat, just get it out of the hands of Midway.

Follow up on the game coming (er, “koming”) soon.

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