Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Days of Yore, I Mean Gore

The game that almost singlehandedly started video games down the road of intense-scrutiny-for-content and provoked the creation of an industry rating system, is back and bloodier than ever.

Released in the heyday of arcades, MK was the major American contribution to the fighting game scene. Not as technical as Street Fighter (Japanese) and not as cutting edge as Killer Instinct (UK), Mortal Kombat relied on players wanting to return to it time and again to see all the wild stages, catch up on the cheesy story line, and indulge in all the characters’ ‘fatality’ possibilities.

If any fan is completely honest the fatalities (and their offshoot ‘babality’ and ‘friendship’ finishing moves) are the main draw. For everyone. Don’t pretend the story or depth of mechanics was the reason you were there. The graphics, digitized photos of actors mostly, were something of an eyesore even back then. Nope. You came for the gore. And since MK was an equal opportunity offender it was one of the few places where you’d see buxom female characters eviscerated or decapitated with the same aplomb accorded the macho males. Boobs and blood. An American exploitation tradition!

For those that bothered to pay attention, Mortal Kombat did have a back story that was more than ‘buncha people fighting to be the best’. See original MK movie. It was a corny tale of interdimensional overlords and ancient deities. Martial Arts temples, assassins and prophecies. As the series went on, the designers tried to flesh out the story line further to give nerds a high road to hang on to when they attempted to justify playing in all the boobs and blood. But up to now with eight episodes under its belt (and some non-fighting game offshoots) the plot has gotten so convoluted and repetitious that only the most diehard adherents have still kept track of who is who and who does what.

I gave up after Mortal Kombat 3. I was never a REAL Mortal Kombat player. I already had Street Fighter and Samurai Shodown. I checked in with Mortal Kombat to see what the controversy was about and dork around with the fatalities. I kinda knew the story from watching serious players play. Then when the next two sequels came out, I dallied enough to see new characters and note where the ideas were going. I might’ve bought MK2 and/or MK3 for my Genesis. All this stuff was ‘okay’ to me. I think I exclaimed ‘oh shit’ just like everyone else the first time I saw a head get popped off in a welter of gore. But after that, the ugly characters and unorthodox input methods (kudos for not copying Street Fighter but still weird) just turned me off. Along with the story line getting too dense for its own good, I guess the edginess kinda bled out of the games too. The DC versus MK game from not too long ago is supposedly pretty flaccid.

I haven’t bothered with it in years other than to note ‘oh, they’re still doing Mortal Kombat’ whenever the series was milked again on another console. But in 2010, folks seemed to be getting pretty excited about the new installment titled simply Mortal Kombat, but tagged MK9 in gaming circles to distinguish it from the 1992 original. The promo materials and statements made by the developers showed a return to what made the first three games, uh, ‘great’. Blood, boobs, and the original storyline—revisited through a timeline alteration plot hook analogous to the one in JJ Abrams recent Star Trek reboot.

Oddly, I found all this news to be kind of boner-inducing to me too. The things that made me NOT stick with MK back in dinosaur days were still in place. Same characters, same control scheme. But the speed and power of today’s consoles has given the character (and by that I mean the atmosphere and bloodshed) a new lease on life. Additional ways of dealing gory mayhem have been added along with a lot of nods to the first three games. I was really surprised by how much I recognized considering my limited time with Mortal Kombat in the first place. And wisely (just as Street Fighter IV has done) they kept the 3D characters fighting in a 2D plane.

So now having bought the game (released yesterday), it is pretty much everything I’d hoped for. The new polygonal character models, while still kind of stiff and unattractive, are way easier to look at than the old sprites… and that’s saying something considering how much I love the sprite art in old games. With the new Street Fighter releases, the characters look fine, but they aren’t literally better than a lot of the earlier generations. SF3 and SFAlpha’s fighters are well-drawn cel-animation-style 2D sprites. Their 3D polygon versions on current machines are also high-quality and recognizable… but kind of like comparing apples and oranges if you try to decide which is better. With Mortal Kombat there’s no real debate… at least not if you look back at the old games that this new iteration is referencing. The original sprites were photos of actors in not-good costumes, incredibly crude and not having aged well at all. The new characters, stages, menu screens, everything is very detailed and just drips with menace and hellish atmosphere. It’s like what the designers of the originals were trying to convey, but the tools were so crude players had to dig down pretty deep in the imagination to fill it out. The stages are awesome looking, with a lot of disturbing background imagery and updates to old stage themes. The in-game character art (like on the matchup screens) is decidedly amateurish though… looking quite a bit worse than many of the fighters’ polygonal models. Okay, the Raiden polygon model IS uglier than the matchup screen drawing. Sorry, Raiden actor!

The input method is still really hard to get used to. For someone to whom the Street Fighter method of blocking and inputting specials is second nature, this game is a pretty drastic change. But the fatalities, new x-ray attacks, and general weirdness compel me to stick with it. At least to get through story mode, see all the bloodshed, and tackle most of the challenges. With all the bizarre moves (lots of projectiles, teleports, distant grapples) and overpowered x-ray attacks I’ll probably never really jam on this online the way I’m currently doing with Street Fighter. It just doesn’t seem serious enough… an odd thing to say considering the mature nature of the game, but it definitely revels in its over-the-top B-movie props with considerable macabre humor. But I mean ‘serious’ in mechanics and balance. I guess time will tell whether the tournament players get a functioning, competitive fighting game out of it.

Perversely, this may be the game that sells the fighting genre to my son. I’ve had some serious reservations about allowing him access to this game—this iteration doing absolutely nothing to dispel MK’s rep for excess. But, I’ve been gradually allowing him to watch more mature movies (with relevant content discussions) like the Terminator, Matrix and Aliens series. Stuff with more cultural ‘weight’ than just any old film with a lot of head shots and sex scenes. So while this game is rife with even more violence than any ten movies put together, it is also decidedly more unrealistic or immersive.

That’s probably the key. Mortal Kombat is kinda cool now… but not very immersive. My kid has never really gotten into fighting games because for one, as far as his friends are concerned, it is a dead genre. And two, he had a lot of trouble with the command inputs. Fighters are traditionally joystick-friendly with their quarter-circle and dragon punch inputs. They are not so easy on a standard controller. And my kid is a controller (or wiimote) kid. With MK’s tap-tap input method, he has found a scheme that will work for him.

And he’s loving it. He loves the fact that he CAN do the moves, apart from the most complicated—the fatalities, but he’ll get ‘em. He’s just intimidated. And of course there’s the not-so-secret glee of all the bones cracking and ogling all the scantily-clad polygonal breasts.

He MAY just go to a joystick for this game eventually, and then I’ll have him! Brainwashed! Maybe he’ll migrate to my fighting games before too long and then I can kick my kid around the room in a way the law won’t frown upon!

By the way, hope you get to play this before too long, Australia!

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