Tag Archives: arcade

FGC #461 Space Harrier

GET READYLet’s give credit where credit is due: credits suck.

Space Harrier is a fun game. At its absolute most “please define this game”, it is a shoot ‘em up of the general fantasy/space variety. However, when you actually grip that special flight stick and start jetpacking around and obliterating dragons, you realize this is something unlike anything else in the arcade. The perspective is “3-D”, a stark change from the other shooters of 1985 and beyond, and there’s just some indescribable something about the sheer rush of adrenaline one experiences when whistling through rapidly scaling rocks and mammoths. Maybe it’s the unusual choice of nixing the typical spaceship or jet and featuring a flying beach bum. Maybe it’s battling absurd and alien monsters that are vaguely enigmatic but wholly murderous. Or maybe, as ever, it’s the moai heads. Whatever the reason, Space Harrier is an incredible experience, even now, as the game approaches its 35th anniversary.

And speaking of things in their thirties, I had the pleasure of playing Space Harrier in my local arcade a number of times as a child. It wasn’t my favorite game (by the time I had a disposable income [my grandfather’s wallet], some certain turtles had already drawn my attention), but Space Harrier held my interest for a number of play sessions. I wasn’t actually any good at Space Harrier, but something told me I should return to that cabinet every once in a while when Magneto or Shredder was defeated. I never saw the final level (let’s be honest, despite the unwavering belief of the adults in my life, I was not actually all that good at videogames as a child), but I did find my way to at least one bonus stage that seemed to reprise the best parts of The Never Ending Story. That was enough for me! Time to go play some Pac-Man before I retire for my afternoon nap.

WeeeeeeBut just because I didn’t beat it didn’t mean I didn’t want to beat it. My grandfather’s quarters may have seemed unlimited, but hours at the arcade were at a premium. I only had time for the best of the best, and, let’s face it, how was a game that was already nearly a decade old going to compete with Konami’s The Simpsons? What would have been ideal for a Wee Goggle Bob was a perfect port of that sweet, Space Harrier goodness. Okay, maybe “perfect” was asking for a bit too much. But Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2: The Arcade Game was pretty great! It may have had compromised graphics, but it was still something I could play at home with Jimmy on a Saturday afternoon. And it had two extra levels! Yes! A port of Space Harrier might have had to ditch the delightful graphics and controller of the arcade release, but it would be worth it to finally see the Fantasy Zone conquered if a home port could bring home the action.

Actually, strike that. There was a Master System port of Space Harrier, and it was barely recognizable. It tried to hoist a plot onto this nonsense! You can’t do that, Sega! I want to obliterate skeletal dragons divorced from any sort of stakes! … Oh, also the graphics were terrible.

And, like Nintendo of America, we’re not even going to acknowledge the NES version.

But! Space Harrier did get a “real” port in 1994. By that time, Sega home hardware had progressed to the incredible graphics of the 32X, and we were granted the most accurate port of Space Harrier yet available. And there was much rejoicing! This was distinctly Space Harrier, complete with huge sprites, detailed backgrounds, and that unmistakable feeling of adrenaline as your lil’ dude zooms over the horizon. Maybe dig out an appropriate controller, and this is truly an arcade experience that, after nearly a decade, finally makes it way home.

Except you won’t see anything past the third stage.

Rock 'n RollThere are eighteen levels in Space Harrier. There are a couple of bonus stages in there, but, aside from that occasional Flammy ride, every thing in every stage is trying to kill you every second. Bosses are bullet sponges, mundane mooks are menacing many minutes, and even inanimate objects are instantaneously fatal at the slimmest contact (though, granted, ol’ Spacey is moving pretty fast). There are no distinct power ups in Space Harrier, so the best you can hope for is temporary invincibility after a lethal collision. A new life grants you a few seconds of sanctuary, but after that grace period is terminated, you could die in every Space Harrier stage literally every five seconds. And suffice to say, if that’s your playstyle, you’re going to need a lot of quarters to see the boss parade finale.

The 32X “arcade perfect” version of Space Harrier offers… five. Five credits. Max.

Not to be constrained by the limits imposed by Sega executives of 1994, your humble author decided to try the real arcade version with unlimited quarters. The results? Even as a seasoned future gamer from the far-flung future of 2019, even as someone who has been playing shoot ‘em ups from birth, even as someone that is a registered cyborg (okay, maybe not really, but I strongly believe that the number of hours I’ve spent with a controller welded to my hands should count for at least partial credit) I still averaged about one or two deaths per level. To be clear, I very much mean “averaged” here, as some of the earlier stages saw me zooming unmolested through the skies as Koschei the Deathless, and other fantasy zones ended with a cavalcade of credit-based corpses scattered across the land. The final stage, a grueling boss gauntlet, was obviously a quarter killer, but, aside from that bit of digital malice, Space Harrier seems like a very doable game with approximately 35 credits. That would be nearly ten bucks worth of quarters in 1985 credits. That, arguably, seems fair.

TOO FASTSpace Harrier 32X allows for five credits. That is about thirty less than I would need. If my mother were playing this wonderful game, that would be about three hundred less than she would need. And that’s ignoring the final boss gauntlet, which, even for a seasoned veteran, would likely require a fiver all on its own. In short: your average player isn’t seeing the end of Space Harrier on five credits. Your average player might not even see the second level.

And that’s terrible! Because Space Harrier is good! And, while it is a bit repetitive in general gameplay, it’s still a game that literally never stops throwing new challenges and monsters at the player until the finale. Up to that point, every stage is different from the last, and the difficulty progressively ramps up to compensate for a more confident player. It’s not like Space Harrier ever turns into Battletoads, but greater challenges do wait on later levels.

But the average player would never see those levels. Limited credits meant that a game had to be grinded into a fine paste until a player had the skill to perfectly fly across level after level. And, even if that were achieved, you still only had a handful of lives to conquer the final challenges. That bone-dragon come out of nowhere and wreck your perfect playthrough? Well, welcome back to level one, loser, get ready. You’re doing great (wasting your life)!

AH!Credits, luckily, have gone the way of the dodo in recent decades. As arcade games (and arcades!) fell out of favor, less and less games seemed to exist to gobble up quarters. Credits were forgotten for loot boxes, DLC, and loot box DLC. Companies found new and exciting ways to fleece customers, usually with items that contain the adjective “rare” (“legendary” is also acceptable). And, ultimately, we’re better for it. A Space Harrier released today might include suspend state saves or infinite credits detracting from the inherent challenge or tension of the experience, but it would allow your ailing granny to actually see Planet Nark and Wi Wi Jumbo. And that’s a privilege everyone should have, regardless of skill, reflexes, or whether or not you own an entire camel full of quarters. Credits are a scourge on allowing someone to enjoy an entire game.

And before anyone wants to tell me that I’m wasting my time, and I may as well be railing against polio or wooly mammoths, let me remind you that Neo Geo emulation with credits is still a thing. A horrible, horrible thing.

Limited credits need to stay firmly in the dustbin of history.

FGC #461 Space Harrier

  • System: Arcade and 32X for this review, but it has also appeared on… Didn’t I cover this as part of the article? I am not going to repeat myself! But do pick up the 3DS version! Switch also available!
  • Number of players: Space is a great big place that can only fit one Harrier at a time.
  • Ready? Many more battle scenes will soon be available !
  • Stop Complaining: Yes, the 32X version does have an “arcade mode” code that offers infinite credits. But it requires a second player controller and an immediate stop over at Gamefaqs (or Sega Visions). I’m going to claim that doesn’t count, because I couldn’t be bothered to check for cheats online before playing (now or in the 90’s).
  • This guyWhat’s in a name: Uriah is the fuzzy, white dragon that helps during bonus stages. That is a weirdly biblical name for a magical reptile (or mammal?). David married your wife, dragon!
  • We’re all friends: The title screen seems to imply that, like Altered Beast, all the characters are friends when the game isn’t in session. All the game’s a stage, and the players merely… players.
  • Favorite Boss: For inexplicable reasons, the double skeleton dragon (Salpedon) appears before the single-skulled skeleton dragon (Valda). I don’t know what makes Valda so special, thinking he can show up with a mere one head when his better has already appeared in an earlier level, but that takes guts, and I respect that.
  • Did you know? Considering Space Harrier was one of the first 16-bit titles in the arcade, and it used a vaguely analogue-esque “stick” for controls, it would be very appropriate to say Space Harrier was ahead of its time. Considering Space Harrier was released the same year as Commando (not Bionic) and Gauntlet, you can see why Space Harrier’s gorgeous purple skies caught players’ eyes.
  • Would I play again: On the 32X? Never. The arcade version (with infinite credits)? That sounds about right.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… SoulCalibur 6! And the soul appears to still be burning. Maybe someone should put that out? Please look forward to it!

I hate these bugs

FGC #453 Killer Instinct

KILLER INSTINCTMaybe Mortal Kombat was successful simply because it had a little support…

Nintendo has a weird history with the arcades. Donkey Kong is amazing. Donkey Kong is a game that is still, to this day, played in arcade cabinets across our nation’s seven remaining arcades. But past Donkey Kong? The likes of Clu Clu Land, Balloon Fight, or friggen Ice Climber never made a remotely similar smash. Even Donkey Kong’s sequels, DK Jr. and Stanley’s Big Adventure, received lukewarm receptions compared to many of their contemporaries. Pac-Man wound up with some warmly received sequels, but there was never a Ms. Donkey Kong to put Nintendo at the top of the arcade again.

But it could easily be argued that Nintendo didn’t ever need to rule the arcade. Sure, it would be nice to have more money and a market 100% held in Mario’s fireball-tossing hands, but Nintendo so totally dominated the console market that it seemed almost quaint that companies bothered with that other hardware. And when your Street Fighters or Mortal Kombats finally had to make their way to people’s basements and bedrooms, it was Nintendo holding the keys to the door. Nintendo would get a piece of that arcade dough one way or another, it just might need to send out an issue of Nintendo Power to remind its loyal base it was time to get hyped about that game they played at the mall a year ago. And don’t forget to promote Mario Paint if there are a few pages left!

COMBO REGULAR!But it seems like the cradle of the baby N64 Empire decided to include an arcade pacifier. Back in 1994, Nintendo struck up a deal with WMS Industries, the parent company of Midway, and started development of arcade cabinets based on Nintendo 64 architecture. Excuse me, at the time, it was known as ULTRA 64. Cruis’n USA was born of this union, and, just to prove that Nintendo was a “mature” and “serious” company, we also saw Rare create Killer Instinct, a fighting game more than a little inspired by Mortal Kombat.

Killer Instinct had it all. You want stylish fights that employ the cerebral combo system of Street Fighter? We got that! And you can even dial-a-combo if linking a special move to a sweep kick is a little too complicated. Oh! And great special moves! Totally unique for every character! Unique punches, kicks, and even combo breakers, too! But there’s blood! So much blood! These fighters are blood balloons, just like in Mortal Kombat, and you can even do fatalities. They’re called “No Mercies”, but every character has two, and a cool CGI movie plays afterwards. It’s rad! We’ve got stylish finishers with Ultimate and Ultra Combos! And funny finishers with our Humiliations! And the final boss? If you thought Goro was a menace, you’re going to love Eyedol! And you can even play as him if you know the code! Killer Instinct is jam-packed with every fighting game convention you could ever want.

In fact, it almost seems like Killer Instinct was designed by committee to be the “ultimate” fighting game. Not only did it adopt practically every beloved trope from the genre at the time, but it also seemed to lean heavily into disguising its own flaws. The sleek, “metallic” graphics of the Ultra 64 might look futuristic… but they can’t render a human being that looks human. But does that matter when you only have four humans on the roster? Do you want to play as “the ninja” or “the girl”, or do you want to try out the dinosaur, skeleton, werewolf, fire elemental, ice alien, or robot? B. Orchid looks vaguely monstrous, Hot stuffwhich is probably why you’re more likely to pick one of the roster’s literal monsters. Nobody wanted to see this engine’s M. Bison, they went straight for a hulking ogre with a club. In a way, it seems obvious how Killer Instinct was calculated to be the king of the arcade.

And, honestly, that was a break from about 90% of fighting games released in the 90’s. So many games were chasing the tails of Street Fighter and then Mortal Kombat that it seemed like a great many shot out of development studios before even the tiniest bit of polish. In fact, that was likely seen as a feature, not a bug, as if Fighter’s Generic Championship actually wound up being a hit, then they’d make it an actually good game for the Super Fighter’s Generic Championship Turbo upgrade. Much like many gaming fads, a number of games superficially copied what was popular in the genre, but did very little to capture what truly made those games great in the first place (see also later fad examples: GTA, Skyrim). Killer Instinct had all the refinement of a real fighting game release, and the arcade rats of the time responded in kind. To this day, there are those that claim Killer Instinct is one of the best fighting games ever made.

Unfortunately, the Ultra 64 was not one of the greatest systems ever made.

Killer Instinct featured an attract mode that advertised it would soon be coming to your living room through the new, amazing Ultra 64 home console, available shortly. It… was not to be. The Ultra 64 was delayed at least a year past its original mark, and Killer Instinct gradually became old news (oh, hello Mortal Kombat 3). In an effort to not lose on this investment, Nintendo decided to port Killer Instinct to the Super Nintendo for the 1995 Christmas season. It was a blisteringly compromised port, and, give or take a rad black cartridge, it was arguably a complete waste. This isn't the SNES versionOkay, maybe it wasn’t utterly terrible, but a healthy chunk of what made Killer Instinct into an arcade juggernaut was left on the cutting room floor. Maybe it was yet another secret advertisement for the Ultra 64, though, as apparently the SNES wasn’t going to be able to capture the “arcade experience” for much longer…

But if Killer Instinct was ported to the SNES, what would the Ultra 64 have to offer? Killer Instinct 2 was rushed into arcades the following year, and three new human characters were added to the roster, because someone finally figured out how to render a face that didn’t look like it had recently encountered a shovel. And it was a success! It was not nearly as revolutionary as its predecessor (and, in a world where Nintendo didn’t need to promote its latest system, it likely would have “only” been a “super turbo edition”), but it did offer new and interesting twists on the genre, like an insane combo system and branching endings. Thus, there was a new Killer Instinct all ready for the release of the newly-dubbed N64.

And then we got Killer Instinct Gold with (roughly) the launch of the N64.

And then the N64 was a distant second behind the success of the Playstation. And the Playstation’s FMV magic made JRPGs the hottest new genre. And the fighting game fad faded into nothing. And Killer Instinct was never seen again.

It’s pretty obvious what happened: Killer Instinct was supposed to prove the worth of the N64 and Nintendo’s own dominance in the fighting genre… but, despite Killer Instinct doing everything right, the winds of popularity changed directions, and KI was left out in the cold. While KI’s contemporaries went on to see sequels even during the fighting game-lean Playstation 2 years, Killer Instinct sat inert for decades, only returning in 2013 when Microsoft needed a new way to showcase dinosaurs fighting skeletons on its latest gaming hardware. This version of Killer Instinct saw support for a solid five years, and given the overall success of the project, a Killer Instinct “4” would not be the most unusual announcement.

And it just goes to show that all Killer Instinct needed was a little support from its corporate masters, whether they be Nintendo or Microsoft or whoever is next (maybe… Google?). People like Killer Instinct. It is a good franchise. And, in another world, it received the same consistent support as Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat. In that world, Killer Instinct 9 is just gearing up for another reboot, and we’re all anxiously anticipating what crazy bionic implant Sabrewulf is going to get next.

But, in this world, Killer Instinct was doomed by its rulers. In this world, we’re just left to wonder what other games suffered the same fate…

FGC #453 Killer Instinct

  • NO MERCYSystem: Arcade for the big boy version, and then Super Nintendo for the itty bitty version. There was also an even more widdle itty bitty version on the Gameboy, too. Oh, and I suppose we should count the Xbone promotional port of the arcade version. That’s probably your best bet.
  • Number of players: One plus punch equals two.
  • Favorite Fighter: This is a tough one! Glacius is my boy, as a teleporting uppercut is satisfying and useful. But I also might side with Riptor, the first lady of fighting dinosaurs. It’s Dinosaurs vs. Aliens here at Killer Instinct.
  • Imitation is Flattery? Cinder the fire dude is very similar to the eventual Mortal Kombat boss/hidden kharacter Blaze. Spinal the super battling skeleton may as well be Meat of Mortal Kombat 4. And don’t get me started on the similarity between later versions of Reptile and Riptor. Good thing MK never had a werewolf!
  • What’s in a name? The big, scary company that is responsible for the Killer Instinct tournament is known as Ultra Tech. While they are responsible for amazing innovations like reanimating the dead and firing up killer robots, they do seem to be unequivocally evil in the overall plot. This is kind of odd given the whole thing was supposed to promote the Ultra 64.
  • Race Relations: T.J. Combo is very subtly treated extremely terribly by the Killer Instinct narrative. He was a successful boxer, but became disgraced, and was forced to “return to the ghetto” (per in-game bio) for Killer Instinct 1. Then, he was injured during KI, but was caught in the time travel shenanigans of Killer Instinct 2 because he was at the Ultra Tech building “looting”. BOXING!The reboot makes T.J. Combo more “good” and less “greedy”, but still predominantly maintains the same “disgraced boxer” status. This is in sharp contrast to characters like Cinder, who got upgraded from “criminal” to “decorated special forces operative”. I wonder what is different about T.J. Combo from the other fighters that seems to keep him narratively down?
  • Did you know? Eyedol’s ending is a parody of Blanka’s Street Fighter 2 ending, wherein a mother discovers her long lost son has become a fighting monster. Blanka’s real name is revealed to be Jimmy, but Eyedol winds up with “Billy”. Why? Well, say “Billy Eyedol” out loud.
  • Would I play again: I should think so. As a novelty, yes, but the game is pretty good for a 90’s fighter. Now I just need to get that Eyedol code working again…

What’s next? Humiliations are funny and all, but have you ever seen someone fighting with clay? Please look forward to it!

SKELETON!

FGC #452 Time Killers

THE KILLERSThe fact that I can hold this game in my hands is a testament to the amazing degree to which Mortal Kombat was popular… and how absolutely no one understood that popularity.

According to records from the distant past of 1992, Time Killers was unleashed upon arcades a few months after the venerable Mortal Kombat. I’m going to assume that it takes longer than a week to roll out a few hundred arcade cabinets, and conclude that Time Killers just happened to be a massively violent game that incidentally was released in proximity to, but not because of, Mortal Kombat. In all likelihood, Time Killers was, like Mortal Kombat itself, just another game that was trying to cash in on the success of Street Fighter 2. On the other hand, it is entirely likely that Time Killers was intended as a Mortal Kombat clone (klone?), as it is pretty obvious the visuals of Time Killers could be reproduced by a five year old with half a box of crayons. Colored pencils are too classy for Time Killers.

Time Killers is an ugly, ugly game. The graphics are just terrible, the animation is sub-2000 Newgrounds, and the character variety is nonexistent. This is another time-travel based fighter, and its stock “caveman” “knight” and “Viking” all probably required a solid sixty seconds of design. The final boss is Death with a capital D, and this interpretation of the Grim Reaper looks more like something you’d find scribbled on a local heavy metal band’s demo tape. It’s not, like, the actual album art, man, it’s just, like, something the bassist’s little brother did, and we thought it looked cool. And, in a way, that’s the ultimate goal of Time Killers: it’s a bunch of stuff that is supposed to look cool… but doesn’t quite get there. A warrior woman from the future wielding a lightsaber laser sword should be a show-stopper, but here we have less future gladiator, more American Gladiator. NES American Gladiator…

OUCHBut, arguably, none of that should matter. There is one thing people notice about Time Killers, and that’s the almost unheard of level of blood and gore being tossed around any given battle. Every fighter is equipped with at least one martial weapon (or martial appendage, in the case of that one bug lady), and when a dude with a mohawk is swinging around a chainsaw, the inevitable happens pretty quickly. Legs can be damaged, arms can be severed, and, assuming you can pull off a special move that involves smashing all the buttons at once, a dizzied character can be utterly decapitated mid-match. Suffice to say, even if the freshly headless participant had a mostly full life bar, the severer still gets a win point over the severee. But even if no one loses their head during a battle, there are almost always still severed, flopping limbs littering the battlefield. Heck, even before the fight begins, there’s often a bloodied corpse or guillotined head hanging in the background. Time Killers is all about the blood, and is arguably the game concerned parents believed Mortal Kombat to be. This is the title that is going to turn Little Timmy into Timothy “The Meat Mangler” Littles.

But, good news for a million moms everywhere, gamers weren’t having it.

Time Killers is certainly a game you could find in an arcade or two, but it was never nearly as popular as Street Fighter 2 or Mortal Kombat. This was likely a result of the combination of its horrible ugliness and the fact that the gameplay absolutely sucks. It’s five buttons, but there’s an entire button that barely does anything! Special attacks are incredibly boring (which is really disappointing when you’re controlling a futuristic cyborg). And the previously mentioned “fatalities” that can occur at any time during a match can lead to some incredibly one-sided fights. Heavier characters are a lot more likely to dizzy their opponents, and when a dizzy condition can lead to an instant-win… well, why play as anyone other than the strong men?

Chop chop, guysSo, suffice to say, people weren’t exactly clamoring for a home release of Time Killers. In 1992, we had plenty of fighting game options, and it seemed like there was a new version or sequel every other month. Fighter’s History already showed us the apex of the genre (by allowing us to fight Karnov), so it seemed like the public at large was okay with Time Killers sticking to a few seedy arcades. Videogame preservation is nice, but I’m sure resources could be allocated to other projects. Time Killers will just have to wait for emulation and…

Oh. Time Killers was ported to the Sega Genesis. In 1996.

To put this in perspective, Time Killers’ home port was released the same year as other Sega Genesis games Sonic 3D Blast, Vectorman 2, and NBA Hangtime. Donkey Kong Country 3, Kirby Super Star, and Super Mario RPG were over on the Super Nintendo. The Nintendo 64 was released in the Fall of 1996. And here was Time Killers, for your Sega Genesis, and it looked like this:

OH GOD

Yes, Time Killers’ port took a bit of a hit from the arcade graphics. It featured no new characters, no extra gameplay modes, and tied it all up with the limited buttons of a Sega Genesis controller. Time Killers was already a turd floating in the toilet bowl of gaming, so why would anyone ever decide that the Sega Genesis needed this floater to bubble up to the surface?

Well, Mortal Kombat 2 sold at least 1.78 million copies for the Genesis in the United States, and MK3 came in at 1.02 million. That’s more copies sold than the most popular NFL games of the time. That also makes MK the highest selling franchise on the system that wasn’t rated for all general audiences. Hell, Mortal Kombat for Genesis practically invented the ratings system for videogames! Of course you want a piece of that action with your bloody brawler!

Had to do itDid Time Killers make the same splash on Genesis as Mortal Kombat? Of course not! But it was rescued from the dustbin of history because someone thought it might. And why did they imagine such lofty goals? Because there’s a significant portion of the population that thinks Mortal Kombat was successful only because of its gruesomeness. And Time Killers had gore to spare, so, logically, those silly gamers would go for it. Mortal Kombat has blood = success, Time Killers has more blood = more success. It’s basic math!

And, in the end, all this means is that Mortal Kombat was a massive, if completely misunderstood, success. Time Killers is not any good, but it received a home port in an effort to chase the prosperous Mortal Kombat. Did it help Time Killers one iota? Not at all. But it did preserve Time Killers for future generations of people trying to kill some time.

Mortal Kombat achieved a flawless victory. Time Killers just lost its head.

FGC #452 Time Killers

  • System: Sega Genesis and Arcade. Arcade gameplay is used for the majority of this article, as actually playing the Genesis version hurts my eyes.
  • Number of players: Same as Mortal Kombat.
  • Bugs love their lawnsFavorite Character: Time Killers was actually at my local arcade back in the day, and Wee Goggle Bob was convinced Mantazz was the best character, because she had a “head” button that actually did something. As an adult, I know that is fairly useless, but I still like Mantazz, as I appreciate how she was clearly auditioning for her iconic role in Secret of Mana.
  • What’s in a name? Wulf is a chivalrous knight that wields the holy sword Excalibur (we know this because he shouts that about every other second). Why didn’t Time Killers go with the significantly more obvious (and public domain) “Arthur”? They didn’t have any problem with naming their Viking “Leif”.
  • Science!: Orion’s stage is on a space ship floating somewhere in the universe. When an opponent loses on that stage, they start to float away, because gravity only impacts things that are alive. This is why we bury our dead, lest they drift off into the atmosphere.
  • An end: The character-specific endings are straightforward “fighter gets whatever they want” affairs, which is pretty typical for fledgling fighting games not setting up sequels. However, Thugg the Caveman gets a particularly interesting ending, as it involves ol’ Thugg excitedly and accidentally discovering fire. Does this mean that Thugg is the canon victor of the tournament?
  • Did you know? There was a UK comic book called “Time Killers”. It was based on a series from the same folks behind Judge Dredd, and it theoretically had nothing to do with the game (or any kind of consistent plot at all). However, issue #3’s cover features a woman that looks a lot like the game’s Matrix character. On the other hand, maybe there are only so many ways to depict a “future” woman…
  • Would I play again: No. This game is in no way fun, and I don’t want to deal with it ever again. If I’m ever tempted, I’ll just do a google image search for car accident photos and be done with it.

What’s next? That was awful, and I need something that is going to get this Mortal Kombat week back on track. I need something that is going to help me reclaim my Killer Instinct… Please look forward to it!

Look away

FGC #450 Mortal Kombat

MORTAL KOMBATMortal Kombat was one of (if not the) defining games of the 90’s, a time when gaming was just starting to stand on its own two feet. And, for better or worse, it changed gaming forever (M for Mature… or just “Mortal Kombat”? Makes ya think!). Mortal Kombat, with its spine-rips and death kisses, left an undeniable mark on the face of gaming, and whether it’s a rad scar or festering wound is up to the beholder.

But… why was Mortal Kombat popular?

It’s all about Originality

Street Fighter 2 is easy to understand. Street Fighter 2 is a damn fine fighting game with unique characters that can appeal to any (well, probably male) player. Don’t like generic karate guy? Here’s a green beast man, and he plays totally differently. There’s the lithe and nimble woman versus the gigantic, hairy grappler man. There are bosses that are carefully calibrated to drain your credits, but there is also a two player mode that is a significant draw. Take out your favorite sumo for a date with a yoga master, and battle all night long. Learn those special moves! Master one character, and move on to the next! Maybe one day you’ll beat Red Hitler and his stupid scissor kicks!

YOU GOT KANGEDMortal Kombat features four offensive buttons: High Punch, Low Punch, High Kick, and Low Kick. This is two less buttons than Street Fighter 2’s six button layout. If you’ve ever paid attention to Street Fighter 2’s jabs, you’ll note that every single Street Fighter has a different “light punch”. Same for medium. Same for every damn offensive option available. This is absolutely not the case in Mortal Kombat. “High Punch” is exactly the same for Liu Kang as Johnny Cage. Sonya’s got a jump kick, but it may as well belong to Kano. And you better believe Sub-Zero and Scorpion have the exact same animations, because, ya know, they’re the same person.

Ultimately, the only difference between characters in Mortal Kombat is the special moves, and, bad news, they’re all almost exactly the same, too. Liu Kang has a fireball that flies straight and true. Johnny Cage does, too. And Kano. And Sonya. And Raiden. Oh! Sub-Zero’s fireball freezes the opponent in place. And Scorpion’s fireball freezes the opponent and requires less walking. No wonder he’s the most popular character! Now give everybody a special that helps ‘em get across the screen, and… are we done here? There may be a few outliers, but, by and large, all of these unique characters play about as “uniquely” as White Bomberman and Black Bomberman.

Though maybe I’m barking up the wrong tree there. Maybe people are more interested not in what the characters do, but who the characters are. Maybe…

It’s all about the Characters

RAIDEN!Mortal Kombat has produced some very iconic videogame characters. There’s vain but heroic Johnny Cage, inordinately heroic Liu Kang, generally heroic Sonya, and… wait a tick, all those characters are just the same obvious traits plus one tiny quirk. Maybe they’re physically dissimilar? No, Sonya, Liu Kang, and Johnny Cage all just look like regular dudes that showed up in their gym clothes. Johnny and Looey didn’t even remember to pack a shirt. And it’s pretty clear that Sub-Zero and Scorpion totally botched their twin day fashions.

Am I just looking at the superficial? Well, when Mortal Kombat was lighting the arcades and home consoles ablaze, there wasn’t much more than that, anyway. Like with most fighting games, you got a character profile, and an ending, and that was it. There was the accompanying Mortal Kombat comic book, but its razor thin characterization didn’t exactly fill in the blanks on why Kano was a cyborg (eventual answer: why not?) or how Johnny Cage came to participate in this deadly fighting tournament (answer: he got a letter). Sub-Zero hates Scorpion, Sonya hates Kano, and I guess Goro killed Liu Kang’s ancestor. These razor-thin motivations don’t support characters, they simply support reasons for punching.

So, okay, punching is kind of the point, though. So does that mean…

It’s All About the Gameplay

mortal kombatMortal Kombat is a fighting game, so characters don’t matter past how much fun the game is to play. And is Mortal Kombat fun? Of course it is! I just said it was a fighting game! Pay attention! Fighting games are always fun, because punching some other dude in a digital arena is top shelf entertainment. Even the worst fighting games are fun for a little while.

But does the fun of Mortal Kombat last? At all? Well… uh… We already covered how every character is practically the same, so 2-player battles are going to get pretty predictable pretty fast. Maybe one player mode is more interesting? That has some fights against CPU opponents, the always popular mirror match, and then endurance matches. Endurance matches are kind of cool, right? Like, the same fight, but double? Who could say no to double the fighting? Aside from everyone that just finds it grueling and unfair, of course. And while we’re on the topic of unfair, we have Goro, the penultimate boss that in no way plays by the rules, so he absorbs your punches like they’re being thrown by some pasty nerd standing over an arcade cabinet. And the final challenge is just all the other fighters mixed together with a fireball barrage that can bleed off about 75% health.

The gameplay is pretty damn limited. It’s not necessarily bad, but it’s not the kind of gameplay that should make Mortal Kombat a perennial favorite that dominated the arcades and home consoles.

But maybe it was never about actually playing the game at all, maybe…

It’s All About the Blood and Gore

BLOOD!My dear, dead granny knew of Mortal Kombat, and she knew its name for one simple reason: blood. As was reported by a million moms clutching a million pearls, Mortal Kombat was unerringly violent, and a gross, disgusting mess of blood soaked through every interaction in this so-called vidya game. Mortal Kombat was such a blood orgy that the United States Senate had hearings showcasing the uncivilized ferocity on display for a mere half a buck in every arcade across the country! Could this epidemic of violence ever be stopped after Mortal Kombat opened the floodgates?!

Except… Mortal Kombat isn’t all that bloody.

Yes, there is blood (how else would we be able to tell the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo ports apart), but is Mortal Kombat inherently violent? Well… yes… but not anymore than any other videogame! Contra saw Bill tearing through a thousand poor dudes with backpacks, but Congress never so much as uttered the word “Contra” in its hallowed halls. And Mario! Think of how many poor goombas he led to the slaughter! Is that game inherently less violent simply because it featured a tubby guy picking on chestnuts? Well, yes, but still! Mortal Kombat might have included a coupon for a few globs of blood with every roundhouse, but was it really the bloody mess described by so many Liebermans? Absolutely not.

THE PITBut what of the infamous fatalities? Yes, the scandalous spine-rip is bloody (awesome), but arguably the most famous fatality in the franchise is Scorpion’s “Toasty” finisher, and there isn’t a speck of blood in that ghastly inferno. Sonya’s heated kiss is on the same level, and Kano’s heart rip is about as bloody as a certain Spielberg movie. And the decapitations of Johnny Cage and Raiden are more “yes, that’s right, you do need a head to live” than anything approaching what you’d see in a horror movie of the time.

We may be looking at Mortal Kombat 1 through the lens of jaded 21st Century gamers (“I just watched Samus Aran drink the blood of her enemies six times this morning”), but the violence of Mortal Kombat was often less “bloody gore” and more a literal joke.

Actually, maybe that was the point of Mortal Kombat, maybe…

It’s All About the Humor

Back in the 90’s, it was hard to claim that Mortal Kombat was “funny”. But let’s be real here: the humor was there all along. Right the start (or maybe a particular revision), there was a certain green hidden character that had unlock conditions that seemed designed to be little more than a playground rumor. If “you have to earn a double flawless victory and perform a fatality and never block all while E.T. flies across the moon” isn’t a joke, then I’m turning in my comedian license (issued and signed by Yakov Smirnoff himself!). Speaking of which, what appears to be Peter Pan, an alien, a witch, and Santa Claus will fly over the moon at certain points. That sounds a bit humorous! And there’s certainly a reason skele-face Scorpion faces the screen with his hollow eyes after every fatality. He’s mugging for a laugh!

This became much more evident in later games, when Mortal Kombat introduced such silliness as babalities, friendships, animalities, and fatalities that were clearly just some random dude on the staff playing with Claymation (see Kabal for more details). But even back at the beginning, the humor was there, even before we saw Toasty Dan pop up to announce it was time to fight Smoke.

But it’s pretty clear that this wasn’t a selling point for the original Mortal Kombat. The humor was there, but nobody was feeding those cabinets quarters just because they wanted a laugh.

So what was the secret to Mortal Kombat’s success? It seems like we’ve ruled everything out, except…

Yeah!

Oh man, we have an answer.

Mortal Kombat was successful because it’s all about the sweet uppercuts.

Yeah!

Yeah, that’s the stuff.

FGC #450 Mortal Kombat

  • System: Arcade first and foremost, but then Mortal Monday came, and we had it on Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis, Sega Game Gear, and Nintendo Gameboy. Oh boy! Mortal Kombat on a portable!
  • Number of players: 2 kombatants.
  • Preferred System: Genesis might have the blood, but Super Nintendo has graphics that don’t look like the butt end of a butt. And I’m a Nintendo kid, so here we are.
  • Favorite Character: It’s obviously Sub-Zero, as he can freeze his opponent and slide. Amusingly enough, my first “main” for Mortal Kombat was Sonya Blade, but I drifted away from her when I realized she reminded me way too much of Jane Fonda.
  • FIGHT!Did you know? An NES port of Mortal Kombat was planned, but was cancelled fairly quickly (before they even entered the programming phase). For any young’uns out there, this was back when two generations of videogame hardware could be supported by Nintendo simultaneously, and not like today, when the WiiU was publically executed the moment the Switch made the scene.
  • Would I play again: Probably not. Mortal Kombat, in the grand scheme of things, isn’t all that fun nowadays as anything more than a novelty, and is 100% supplicated by its sequels. If you’re getting Mortal Kombat today, it likely comes with Mortal Kombat 2 anyway…

What’s next? It’s Mortal Week! Mortal Kombat sure hit the big time with its release, and it had a number of imitators. We’re going to look at a different wannabe fighting game Monday, Wednesday, and Friday of the next two weeks, and examine how some games did their best to copy the Mortal Kombat formula (and generally still failed). First up on the list: Eternal Champions. Please look forward to it!

MIGHT!