It is worrying that Mortal Kombat 1 has forgotten one simple fact: Mortal Kombat is and always has been about hype.
The latest Mortal Kombat game calls itself Mortal Kombat 1? Fine! You want to draw a comparison? Let’s go back to the beginning. Here, ladies and gentlemen, is the best part of Mortal Kombat parenthesis one.
Videogame historians have intermittently observed that the innovation of the Mortal Kombat franchise from the start was the emphasis on “stun” situations. The explanation goes that this key moment in any match is what separated MK from the army of contemporary fighting games that wanted a piece of the Street Fighter 2 pie. However, this is only half the story. Stun is an integral part of the Mortal Kombat formula, but not because this was something that impacted the mechanics of a fighting game. No, stun was integral because it generated hype. Stunning an opponent with Scorpion’s spear, Sub-Zero’s ice blast, or even Cage’s ball breaker offered an advantage to the attacker, but it also generated anticipation in the player, opponent, and audience. Liu Kang is helpless! That skeleton ninja could do anything to him! And, even if it was a pause that lasted less than a second, a stun generated hype that was unprecedented in fighting games. The continual push and pull of fighters being stunned created an incessant atmosphere of “anything can happen”. And that was before you got to the reason even your mom heard about Mortal Kombat…
This is the ultimate hype machine. A fighter is defeated! They stand there futilely, dizzied and helpless. What is the victor going to do? Will they spare their opponent? Will they simply punch air until their rival falls over? Roundhouse kick them across the screen? Or will they perform the supreme finisher: the fatality? It takes skill and knowledge to perform a fatality. A player must know the “secret code” that initiates the fatality, the proper distance between themselves and the opponent (which is never easy to negotiate in the limited fatality time window), and the appropriate sequence must be performed quickly and accurately. In situations where the victor fails to accurately enter the command, or accidentally punches the opponent mid input, the “winner” looks like a loser. But when they pull it off? It is the flawless finish to an ended encounter. The failure is missing key body parts! There is no coming back from that!
Later games within the initial Mortal Kombat Trilogy would offer alternatives to the basic fatality. Friendships and Babalities were widely derided as Mortal Kombat getting “too cartoon-y”, but they served the purpose of finishing an opponent in a unique way. They were not violent, but they were a way of embarrassing a defeated foe all the same. They even had particular use conditions that proved the player was superior, as a “silly” Babality could only be performed if the winner was expert enough to eke out a victory only using the kick buttons. That is extremely difficult when your color-coded ninja only uses punch-based special moves! Mortal Kombat imitator Killer Instinct ignored all pretense and called its similarly embarrassing finishing moves “Humiliations”, because subtly was not allowed in a game where a werewolf could fight a dinosaur. But that was the point: Fatalities, Friendships, Babalities, Animalities, and even the combo-based Brutalities were never just about gore or humor, they were all about one thing: humiliating the loser. One last stab of superiority before some other poor fool has to insert fifty cents.
And if you, an educated reader experiencing this article in the year of our Argus 2023, recognize this all as bullshit? Well… yeah. It is all bullshit. In Mortal Kombat, after Scorpion harpoons an opponent, there is a best move to use, because MK has extremely limited offensive options. An experienced Scorpion player is going to stun their opponent, and then use an uppercut every time, because that does the most damage. Similarly, once Scorpion wins, he is going to back up to sweep distance, hold block, and press up-up. Scorpion has one (1) fatality, and it is the only reasonable choice for finishing a match. Later games expand the repertoire, but even five different finishing options are going to be spent before a player clears the smallest of battle towers (left alone an arcade full of challengers). It’s fake! The idea that there is a choice, that there even could be hype involved here? It’s all fake!
And, yeah, buddy, but so is Pro Wrestling.
If Street Fighter is the Olympic sport of fighting games. Mortal Kombat is Pro Wrestling. Not to imply that anyone playing MK11 or MK1 in a tournament is somehow “faking” their victories, but Mortal Kombat as a franchise has never been about exact technical execution. It takes skill to be a victor in Mortal Kombat! It takes a measured understanding of the game! But it also takes skill and understanding to properly piledrive an opponent in such a manner that no one is permanently hurt. Pro Wrestling is an amazing showing of physical prowess for everyone involved. It is a big, sweaty ballet (not to imply that ballet dancers do not sweat, it is simply less emphasized). But, in the same way that no one starts throwing cans on stage when the ending of Swan Lake is revealed (I think the swans win?), Pro Wrestling is not actually about “who is going to win”. Victories are “fake” insomuch as they are predetermined, but that does not mean that everyone involved is just a robot (except Business Robot, the robot businessman that can only communicate through bodyslams). It is a practiced art from toe to tip.
And Pro Wrestling lives and dies by hype. You cheer when the face wins, because you are excited about their possible victory. You boo the heel, because he did… uh… something? Pushed a grandma down some stairs? Conquered Earthrealm? Whatever. The point is that these stories, rivalries, and arcs are created whole cloth for the purpose of promoting matches. Fights are the only way to settle scores and win arguments, and you can buy a front row seat to it all. You are excited, because here are your favorites duking it out. That sassy thief with the robot eye is going to get a face full of sledgehammer because he’s been a bad little boy, and you are going to revel in his comeuppance.
Unless you are playing Mortal Kombat 1, where you are just going to watch the heel inexplicably run around like an idiot.
Traditional caveat/mantra: Mortal Kombat 1 is not a bad game. It is a fun fighting game, and its story mode is still presented better than 95% of fighting games out there. There is significant single player content, and the online battles feel generally “right”. The usual NetherRealm Mortal Kombat checklist is properly completed: the cast is a good mix of important players and random mooks, and they all feel distinctive enough to warrant a slot on the roster. You are not going to get the exact same experience from Nitara the vampire as Havik the chaos priest. Mortal Kombat 1 is a good fighting game if you are looking for something to keep your thumbs twitching through the season (pass).
And part of the reason I am “emergency” slotting this into the review schedule is because I want to get these words to pixels while I still remember the hype leading up to Mortal Kombat 1. There were continual trailers showcasing the new-old characters. The old Mortal Kombat universe is dead! A new one stands in its place! And it’s coocoo crazygonuts! Scorpion and Sub-Zero are brothers! “Blind” Kenshi has perfectly working eyes. Baraka and Mileena are not a separate race/genetic freak (respectively), but afflicted with a strange new disease. The curators of Mortal Kombat knew damn well that this information would be exciting for the fanbase, and everyone was anxious to get hyped for the latest Mortal Kombat adventure.
And then Mortal Kombat 1 was released, and… Well, somebody forgot to tell the people in charge of the actual game that hype was important.
The new Mortal Kombat Universe is hype. No questions there: it is exciting to see vaguely familiar characters filling new and exciting roles (or at least seeing Kuai-Liang wearing yellow). That said, Mortal Kombat already did this whole thing once or twice with other games (Mortal Kombat Shaolin Monks and Mortal Kombat 9), and you know damn well that an unmarred Havik is going to have his face half-melted off somewhere amid this plot (I mean, if you remember Havik at all). It is how storytelling works! Similarly, without delving into entirely unwarranted spoilers, the main plot of Story Mode eventually reaches a point where it kind of gets bored with the “new” Mortal Kombat Universe, and drifts back to including more than a few luminaries from the “old” Mortal Kombat Universe. And, while that could be hype as heck (“That’s right, kombat fans, your Kitana is back, and she’s stronger than ever!”), it is more or less an excuse to have a Super Friends/Avengers-style “all the good guys and all the bad guys run into each other” melee. Exciting for three seconds… and then confusing and chaotic. And, special bonus, it entirely drops any of the plot threads for the new Mortal Kombateers so the old guard can steal the spotlight back. Kind of a weird choice after spending six hours with the new class! Your heroes for 80% of the game have about as much impact on the finale as ants. And nobody ever gets hyped about ants.
But whatever, right? That’s the story mode. You play it once, you internalize your feelings for Kung Lao (he’s so dreamy), and then you move on to the real reason you play a fighting game. Time to fight all those people! Like in some kind of game!
Unfortunately, things are quickly undercut by practically every aspect of the presentation. Pre-match taunts are limited, and we are left with generic chest puffing and alike. Fighters that have legitimate, centuries-long beefs (Edenians are really old!) vaguely gesture toward something about winning, and otherwise act like they do not recognize their opponent. Matches are zippy and fun, but when it comes time to perform a fatality, everyone involved seems… bored. And, heck, there is the option of your fighter stepping back and letting someone else exact vengeance. In fact, those Kameos are a huge problem for hype…
The Kameo system of Mortal Kombat 1 sounds brilliant. The franchise has a deep bench of memorable kharacters, and it would be nigh impossible to do another “Mortal Kombat Trilogy” where everyone got to participate. But the Kameo system not only allows a greater range of MK luminaries, it also comes with the justification that any given Kameo fighter can be from any given Mortal Kombat timeline/universe. MK1 has playable Scorpion and Kameo Scorpion, and they are two totally different people with totally different backstories (one of the Scorpions is dead! But otherwise okay!). This opens the floodgates for all sorts of peculiar shenanigans, as fighters like Smoke have approximately seven different versions immediately available (for the record: ninja, robot ninja, nanomachine demon robot ninja, “recovering” robot ninja, demon ninja, undead demon ninja, new universe ninja). The Kameo system could be the greatest thing that ever happened to the thirty-year-old franchise.
In practice, though, it is so underwhelming, it sucks the air out of the room (and, unfortunately, Smoke is not directly involved). While some of the kameo kharacters do perform in the story mode in a deliberate (or at least present) capacity, it appears that they do not have voice actors that are providing anything but grunts. Given some of these Kameos are some of the most iconic members of the Mortal Kombat kast (Kano! Sonya! Goro lives!), their hushed existences are noticeable. And then when they actually participate in matches, they are… gofers. Major Jackson “Jax” Briggs was an accomplished soldier before Mortal Kombat ever started, and then he experienced one of the most varied histories across two different timelines. He is a warrior, cyborg, father, and champion of Earthrealm. In Mortal Kombat 1, his kameo is… running around and smacking the ground randomly. He does not say anything. His fatality is his klassic “big boot” move from Mortal Kombat 3, which is performed without comment or explanation. Jax, one of the most pivotal kharacters in the whole of Mortal Kombat (he even had his own [terrible] spinoff!) is… just kind of there. It is hard to get excited about Jax’s appearance, because he is little more than a skin and five extra moves.
This is the biggest problem with Mortal Kombat 1. Mortal Kombat is a franchise about hype, and Mortal Kombat 1 is best described as a game where “it is hard to get excited”. All the pieces are there. All the potential is there. However, it falls short on that je ne sais quoi responsible for the most memorable moments of the last three decades of kombat. It is Pro Wrestling without the drama. It is steak without the sizzle. It is Mortal Kombat without some random dude shouting “Mortal Kombat!”
And if anyone does find the hype for Mortal Kombat 1, tell it to get over here.
SBC #08 Incineroar & Mortal Kombat 1
Incineroar in Super Smash Bros Ultimate
I couldn’t decide between these two shots, so you get both
- They any Good? Super strong! Super grappling! Super hype! … Absolutely terrible recovery and agility. As someone that enjoys the heavies, I would like Incineroar a lot more if I wasn’t convinced I’d be dead the absolute minute I made the wrong move. And, for what it is worth, this is the Pokémon in the playable cast that feels the most like a human. Reskin him as Randy Savage, and you wouldn’t even notice (Macho Man could independently generate fire, right?).
- That final smash work? Max Malicious Moonsault is the most Pro Wrestling ability in Smash, but is otherwise unimpressive in a game frequently involving space lasers. It is obvious that more moves should end with an atomic explosion, but this one feels like an afterthought.
- The background work? We are going to assign Incineroar to Prism Tower, as a proper Pokémon Hawaii never surfaced. This is the proto New Donk City, though slightly more survivable if you wind up on the wrong platform at the wrong time. It is pretty straightforward for a switching terrain stage. And, hey, you get legendary birds randomly appearing… even if Yveltal is a bird edge case.
- Classic Mode: Burning Pro Wrestling Spirit! means fighting heavy characters in the squared circle. Donkey Kong is a king of the ring, which is probably a Punch-Out reference for the Punch-Out stage. It is nice that Incineroar gets a simple flat stage to survive with that hideous agility, but it doesn’t prepare you for the final battle against the hands…
- Smash Trivia: Incineroar has the slowest movement speed in the game. This is why, when you attempt the obstacle course as part of Classic Mode, it feels like the poor feline is chugging through molasses.
- Amiibo Corner: You can feel the heat of that flaming belt, and it looks like they are grabbing someone. Can this kitty easily palm Kirby? Probably!
- Does Smash Bros Remember Today’s Game? Look, I know I am exploiting the flimsiest of excuses to relate the hype-based cat to the hype-based fighting game franchise. But! Incineroar’s Classic Mode ends in a Mirror Match. That’s a Mortal Kombat staple! So these games are totally related!
Incineroar (in spirit) in Mortal Kombat 1
- System: Currently available for Windows, Playstation 5, Xbox X/S, and the delightfully compromised Nintendo Switch. Everyone and everything in this game is ugly, but you do have the choice of picking a version where it is ugly and goofy.
- Number of players: Until they make Kameos playable in the background like in Marvel vs. Capcom (1), we are going to stick to two simultaneous players.
- What’s in a name? We have the original, 1992 Mortal Kombat. We have the 2011 Mortal Kombat that was the first official reboot of the franchise, and is often referred to as Mortal Kombat 9. And now we have Mortal Kombat 1, which 100% requires the backstory of knowing what the heck happened in Mortal Kombat 11. I’m not certain who NetherRealm is trying to fool here, but something like New Mortal Kombat or Mortal Kombat: ReMurdered might work better.
- Favorite Fighter: Reptile has long been beloved (hey, my favorite color is green), and his current potential to randomly morph into a full or partial lizard is distinctive. He pairs well with Kameo Sareena, who similarly morphs into her demonic form. Those two crazy kids should get together.
- Favorite Fatality: I prefer goofy to outright violent, so my current pick is Frost’s “freeze a dude’s abdomen, and then shatter that while leaving the rest of the body (marginally) intact”. That fatality probably has a better name… Regardless! It is a suitable mix of comical and violent that I prefer to a skull getting bisected.
- Unlockable: Your reward for clearing Story Mode is obtaining a playable Havik. This is an odd choice, as Havik is D-Tier in the grand scheme of Mortal Kombat kharacters, and having to work for him is anomalous. He was originally designed as a possible skin for Noob Saibot! And is mostly just an angry zombie! Whatever! Shujinko being one of the hardest to obtain kameos feels slightly more earned. At least that guy damned the world once!
- Plot Holes: So Liu Kang created his own universe with a generally more optimistic slant. Sindel is an independent, benevolent ruler. Mortal Kombat tournaments do not lead to dead participants. The villains of the world are generally less powerful. But good ol’ Liu also created a universe where an entire race has been demoted from “culture” to “fatal disease”. This feels… less than noble.
- Did you know? Somehow, the weird relationship between Ermac and Kenshi continues. Straight from Kenshi’s introduction in Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance, Kenshi and Ermac have always been telekinetic buddies despite having literally nothing else in common. Maybe they both just like the color green? Whatever. They are working together again in this new universe, though, so their bromance continues.
- Would I play again: I find Mortal Kombat 1 disappointing, but I am not going to pretend that I will do anything but play it again for a week every time DLC drops. And the single player board game kontent has seasons and stories! I am all about that!
What’s next? Okay, so now we are going to get back to Pichu and his pals! Normal service resumes, so please look forward to it!
GIFs you can hear…