The young can’t wait until they’re older. The old envy the joys of youth. Fighting games can’t stand to be fighting games.
These are eternal truths.
If a fighting game franchise survives past a few years (sorry, Darkstalkers), it will venture into another, almost always inadvisable genre. Street Fighter arguably started this trend, mutating into Final Fight before Street Fighter 2 defined fighting games forever. Final Fight actually did make sense, you can almost feel the fighting game DNA with every piledriver, but that would come to be an outlier in the history of fighting game spin-offs. Maybe I should have forgone mentioning Final Fight in favor of Street Fighter 2010: The Final Fight, which is much closer to Mortal Kombat Mythologies: Sub-Zero, the best known, most unfortunate spin-off. Like 2-D fighting? Well, here’s a 2-D action platforming game with terrible FMV movies and enough instant kill traps in the first level to guarantee no one will ever bother. Oh, and it has a version on the N64, maybe the worst system ever for 2-D action of any kind. It was enough to make anyone avoid a fighting game spin-off for years… and maybe even a few Mortal Kombat games.
But the incessant gaiden games didn’t die with the N64. No, we’ve had, let’s see here, Guily Gear 2: Overture, which was kind of like Dynasty Warriors… kinda? It wasn’t terribly dissimilar from Soulcalibur Legends, which was kind of like a sharp stick in the eye. Virtua Quest might rank up there with Quest 64 for worst games to ever to use the word “quest” in the title. Dead or Alive went off to play some volleyball on a quest to devolve the series further into naked ogling. Blazblue somehow thought a series of visual novels exploring the backstory of its rich and nuanced world where the cat scientist fights the squirrel girl was a great idea. Tekken’s Death by Degrees may have been the apex, though, as that game still holds the distinction of being so annoying, it got me to quit, forever, during the opening tutorial. I want Skullgirls to be a huge, timeless hit for everyone involved, but I’m not completely sure I want to risk Filia’s Dance Studio or Painwheel Takes Manhattan.
Mortal Kombat is still the greatest source of this madness, though. Mortal Kombat Mythologies must have been a success for some God-forsaken reason, as Mortal Kombat: Special Forces was released a few years later. MK:SF was an amazing failure in every conceivable way, to the point that it made MK:M look remotely competent by comparison. As many people know (mostly thanks to Mortal Kombat 2 hidden characters) Boon and Tobias were the men behind Mortal Kombat’s inception, but by the time Special Forces was hitting shelves, Boon claimed he could write a book about how horrible the development had been (despite not actually working on it himself), and Tobias left Midway altogether, never to return, now bringing blight upon the world from the cursed halls of Zynga.
So, naturally, they went back to the well five years later and slapped together another Mortal Kombat spin-off.
Mortal Kombat: Shaolin Monks is not the worst game. It’s remarkably passable. Of all the games that have been named in this article, I’d gladly play this over many of them. It’s also a game that actually feels like it may have originated in the same universe as its parent series: protagonists Liu Kang and Kung Lao utilize their signature moves in much the same way as they’re used in Mortal Kombat proper, and flying across the screen with a super-powered jump kick is satisfying no matter the genre. The unlimited army of mooks even satisfies Mortal Kombat’s notorious blood-lust with an excuse to use fatalities over and over again without having to invent an entirely new roster for the next game to replace the dismembered deceased.
It’s just kind of a shame that it all feels so pointless.
Mortal Kombat: Shaolin Monks retreads the story of Mortal Kombat II, one of MK’s most successful chapters. For the unfamiliar, Mortal Kombat I was about a fighting tournament on Earth against Outworld, so Mortal Kombat II was a tournament about Earth fighting Outworld, but this time, it’s in Outworld. Of all of Mortal Kombat’s flimsy excuses for fights, MKII may have been the most likely to garner an “expanded” story, as, come on, Outworld is an entirely new dimension filled with Barakas and Goros, there’s got to be a lot to explore there! And it’s all capped off with a battle against Shao Kahn, arguably MK’s most memorable final boss, so you know the finale is going to be brutally special. MK:SM might be reusing a preexisting MK story, but it did choose wisely, so, unless you somehow think the story has been “spoiled” by already knowing the good guys will win and Earth will be saved, what’s the problem?
The problem is that the fighting game did it better.
Look, alright, I can hear you. Yes, Mortal Kombat II had basically zero in-game story. There was an intro explaining how MKI went down, every character got a biography and an ending, and that was about it. But you know what? That’s all it needed. Other than “Liu Kang won”, apparently what happens in Outworld, stays in Outworld, because we’ve never gotten much information on what went down during MKII. Is Kintaro dead? What the heck happened with Milenna? Did Shao Kahn explode, but then get put back together for MK3? So many unanswered questions!
But who cares?
This is, basically, the crux of why I despise fighting game spin-offs (aside from the fact that half these games are about as fun as licking a hedgehog). Fighting games are the absolute closest video game stories ever get to stories in any other genre. Think about it: in nearly every vg genre, there’s the protagonist, the protagonist’s inner-circle (let’s say a lover/potential lover, a spotter, and some comic relief dude, assuming the spotter doesn’t already fulfill that role), the villain, the villain’s number two, and maybe a rival that is antagonistic for 90% of the story, but offers some heroics right before the final boss. And then there’s an army of approximately ten thousand monsters and henchmen that will have to be meticulously mowed down over the course of ten to forty hours. Seems kind of pointless when the protag devotes so much time to dealing with irrelevant foot soldiers, right? This phenomena is probably at its zenith in a typical JRPG (the genre best known for its huge, sprawling stories) where shambling across any space larger than a parking lot requires so much bloodshed that it’s a wonder the heroes don’t have to be hosed down at every inn.
This, to be clear, is not a “failure” of video games, it’s simply a necessity of the medium. Play Final Fantasy 8 without random encounters, and, yes, it goes faster, but it also feels riotously empty. Entire dungeons become merely hallways, and are just about as exciting as finding a bathroom. If you were to take Final Fantasy 8 and boil it down to your party and the bosses that aren’t merely filler (Oilboyle, you did not make the cut), well, then you’d just have a fighting game. Again, I’m not saying that this makes the fighting genre somehow superior to JRPGs, just that that more “condensed” medium is closer to how stories work everywhere else, as we don’t see Harry Potter battling unnamed dementors for two hours before we can get back to the real plot, nor Neo becoming The One only after collecting a hundred Trinity Tokens hidden around the city. Fighting games are closest in pacing to cinema. My name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die via a best two out of three bout.
So here’s the story of Liu Kang beating Shao Kahn to save Earth. How long does that story take? In Mortal Kombat II, it’s about ten minutes. In Shaolin Monks, my clear save is clocked in at a little under five hours. Same story, same endpoint, same characters, same rivalries, same locations, just one game takes hours while the other merely minutes. Nothing new is added, familiar areas and characters from Mortal Kombat II are not expanded upon, simply revisited, there are just a million nameless evil monks and tarkatan hordes between you and your inevitable goal.
That’s the problem with every fighting game spin-off: the greatest strength of the genre is forsaken for absolutely zero benefit. Stories are bloated to E. Honda size for the sake of justifying a suddenly huge body count, and the simplicity (and fun) of forbearers are left to rot. There’s a reason we’re looking at months of hype for Street Fighter 5, while Final Fight barely escaped the SNES. People want to fight M. Bison, not an army of Simons and Dugs.
Hey, fighting games, guess what? You’re fine just the way you are. Put down that volleyball, and get back in the ring.
FGC #57 Mortal Kombat: Shaolin Monks
- System: Playstation 2, Xbox… no Gamecube, though. Guess we have definitive proof as to who won that console war.
- Number of Players: Two monks. The two player game is pretty great, actually, though it’s hampered by the fact that the second player can’t “jump in” (or out) of a game, so once you say you’re playing two players, you’re stuck with that choice for the entire campaign. Hope your buddy isn’t going anywhere for a while!
- But it is a fighting game: Assuming you find all the stupid little knickknacks across the game, you can unlock a more traditional two-player fighting game based on the engine of the game proper. It’s fairly boring (actually, it kind of has the same issues as that Digimon game), everything feels kind of weightless because death traps and such only cause minor damage, and there’s no possibility of a CPU opponent. The whole thing is pretty damn half-baked.
- Also unlockable: It’s a Mortal Kombat game, so there’s about a billion stupid things hidden all over the game. Tokens can be found wherever, and unlock things like art, movies, and characters in the aforementioned quasi-fighting mode. Additionally, you can unlock the entirety of arcade Mortal Kombat II, which just serves to remind us all that there was a time before the complete Midway arcade library was available for five bucks on every download platform under the sun.
- Favorite Mortal Kombat Plot Hole: Shang Tsung, noted shapeshifter, is one of the most prominent villains in the franchise, and right from the first game, which explained he’d been menacing Earth for generations and generations. So, hey, Raiden? Maybe when you’re training your latest crop of heroes, train them on, like, a password/safe word system that confirms you are who you say you are when carefully plotting your latest “Save Earth” campaign. Seems like that idea had to have been floated sometime in the last century.
- Did you know? There was to be a sequel to Shaolin Monks that would feature Scorpion and Sub-Zero, but apparently the studio responsible couldn’t figure out a way to produce it for less than a Benjamin, so the project was scrapped. Just as well, saved me from buying yet another game I’d be railing against a decade later.
- Would I play again? Nope. It’s not that the game is bad, just that it doesn’t do anything better than any other game in the world, and offers a story I already know by heart. I suppose I might try to see how a full 2-player campaign goes if I ever have a kidnapping victim handy, but other than that, I just don’t see it happening.
What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Mischief Makers for the N64. Ugh. Really, ROB? Like, less than a week ago we could have had the post actually go up on Mischief Night, and it could have looked like I actually have a method for this madness. Oh well. Guess we’re going to shake it anyway. Please look forward to it!