Retro Review: ‘Mortal Kombat’ Breathes New Life Into the Bloody Franchise

By April 19, 2015
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In preparation for our review of Mortal Kombat X, GeekNation presents new reviews of the two previous games developed by NetherRealm Studios. First up, 2011’s Mortal Kombat.

When talking about the first games that pushed the envelope of what the video game medium can show and do, it’d be pretty difficult to start your conversation without the first installment of Mortal Kombat. In addition to the unparalleled realism of the game for its time, people were outraged, enthralled, stunned, and thrilled by the sheer violence that was being shown first on tube of the arcade, then later within your homes on consoles like the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis.

It’s hard to believe that the first version of MK hit the world of gaming over twenty years ago. Between 1992 and 2008, there had been eight sequels in the more traditional vein of the series, in addition to a couple of other less notable spin-offs. Although  2008’s Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe proved a successful outing — and oddly prophetic for what would come from NetherRealm in 2013 — many fans of the series craved the intense and visceral battles of the previous games. They wanted the violence, the mayhem, and the creative fatalities that the series innovated to bring to hardcore gamers and to longtime fans of the series in a fresh installment of the core series.

Well, in 2011, the folks at the then-newly incorporated NetherRealm Studios heard those wishes. Subsequently, like the sorcerer Quan-Chi ready to trade take your desires in exchange for new life in fighting by his side, they have granted that wish. No Deadly Alliance. No Armageddon. No subtitle at all, actually. The game gives you exactly what the title promises: and that is simply, unadulterated Mortal Kombat.

Since the story retells the narrative events of the first three games with a new twist, some events -- like Scorpion's killing of Sub-Zero -- are touched upon in the mode.

Since the story retells the narrative events of the first three games with a new twist, some events — like Scorpion’s killing of Sub-Zero — are touched upon in the mode.

Design and Story

Much like the 2009 film reboot of Star Trek, the story mode for the new game moves back from the “present” last seen in MK: Armageddon and charts a new timeline going back to the very first episode in the series. You’re back at the beginning, with the tenth Mortal Kombat tournament about to take place, which will decide whether the forces of Shao Khan’s Outworld can claim their last victory needed in order to absorb Earthrealm. Raiden gathers the forces of Liu Kang, Sonya Blade, and Johnny Cage to win the tournament hosted by Shang Tsung, in a chapter reliving the established narrative of the 1992 progenitor of the series. From there, the story also moves into some familiar territory by exploring events from both Mortal Kombat II and Mortal Kombat 3.

The story mode, while not winning any Oscars for screenwriting, is campy but also clever in its use of previously established MK continuity. Like Star Trek, it takes liberties with what happened before, but still keeps all of the elements at play in familiar territory to make for a true MK story. The main function of the mode seems to be to give players a better grounding of how each fighter functions in the game, and gives an idea of not just how to play each character, but also how to battle them when the time comes. It’s not out of the realm of possibility to take this knowledge learned and to use it in online battles, either.

In the story mode, there are several boss battles, most with characters that are non-playable and all with a lot more hit points than a regular opponent. The first boss battle, predictably lining up with the timeline of the first game, is the multi-armed prince of Outworld, Goro. Since he’s a non-playable character, you’ll have to rely on your previous knowledge of having faced him in the past. If you don’t have any, then it may take a few tries before you’re finally able to best him. Perseverance though, is possible, as is the case with subsequent bosses like Shang Tsung, and eventually, Shao Kahn himself.

Though the graphics are beautifully (and gruesomely) realized in 3D, Mortal Kombat returns the gameplay to a 2D plane with tremendous results.

Though the graphics are beautifully (and gruesomely) realized in 3D, Mortal Kombat returns the gameplay to a 2D plane with tremendous results.

Gameplay

The actual fighting system in this game has received a few notable tweaks since MK vs. DCU, the biggest and most obvious of which is a return to a 2D-plane of gameplay. In that last game, the D-pad controlled traditional 2D fighting while the thumbstick allowed you to move across the map in 3D. This led to a disorienting experience for some players, who sometimes had to abruptly switch from the D-pad to the joystick in order to avoid certain attacks. This game moves into the popular 2.5D direction, where models and environments are rendered in 3D but gameplay is restricted to a 2D plane. This works very well by bringing back the more traditional element of Mortal Kombat gameplay, and it’s far less confusing for new players by not forcing them to switch between two different methods of control depending on the situation.

The tempo of each match in this game also seems pretty frenetic compared to the last game. Where you might be able to find a couple of seconds to catch your breath in a fight during the last game, those are gone in this one. You have to think on your feet as all the attacks, animations, and responses are all amped up pretty noticeably. As with other MK games, it can get a little frustrating when you’re “rag-dolled” up in the air by one string of attacks for 4 or 5 seconds, but the new attacks with the charge bar now at the bottom of the screen make it possible for you to return your frustration in kind to your opponent.

The new charge bar consists of three basic levels. The first tier earns you a “breaker,” which as its name might suggest, allows you to break attacks and/or combos and resume your fight. The second tier earns you an “enhanced” attack. What this does is amp up any of your character’s special moves. When you’ve reached the second tier, hitting the command on your control with the addition of the right hand trigger will make the attack slightly more devastating.
The final tier is the biggest addition and most unique, and is in fact the most powerful attack you can unleash in the game: the x-ray.

The game's sometimes literally jaw-dropping x-ray attacks join the fatalities to create some truly brutal moments of "kombat" between players.

The game’s sometimes literally jaw-dropping x-ray attacks join the fatalities to create some truly brutal moments of “kombat” between players.

When successfully connected, the x-ray attack causes a series of devastating blows that are so great that they show you exactly how many bones you’re breaking as you hit the attack by having your target’s skin go transparent. You break ribs, legs, spines, and even skulls. Not every character has a human anatomy either, so it’s pretty interesting seeing the different types of skeletons and bodily makeups of all the characters involved. It’s definitely a “wow” moment when you hit an x-ray attack.

Online play can tend to skew a little laggy at times, and adjusting to the difference may make your first few online rounds a tough couple of losses to adjust to. Don’t worry! Just look closely at the integrity of your prospective opponent’s internet connection, and choose the greater connections to do battle with.

Overall

Mortal Kombat is a massively successful revitalization of the fighting franchise, and seems to get the series back on course with a lot of its founding ideas. It’s immensely brutal, with a level of violence easily rivaling the bloodiest entries in the series. Unlike the other games, it also seems to take more time in developing a story that wants to be enthralling, and it certainly succeeds in making the lore surrounding the entire franchise a lot more accessible by helping new players get in on the ground floor.

On top of that, you also have an entirely new experience with a “getting back to basics” approach that brings back the 2D perspective of the original games, while also embracing a whole new breadth of play mechanics and special attacks. Don’t make any mistake: Mortal Kombat is one of the most hardcore and intricate fighting game series around, and this ninth entry in the series renews its legitimacy as one of the premiere fighters in the world, and arguably the best that an American developer has ever produced.

All in all, with minor frustrations hampering an overall finely tuned and incredibly fun and competitive experience, Mortal Kombat returns to the roots of the franchise and brings a strong sense of danger, speed, and traditional MK hardcore violence. If you’re a fan of the series and have been slightly disappointed in the last few outings, the new game should provide the flawless victory you’re looking for.

mortalkombat2011review_score

Check out our review of NetherRealm’s final game before Mortal Kombat X: the DC Comics-based fighter Injustice: Gods Among Us! You can also read our full review of the latest game in the series, Mortal Kombat X!

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Chris Clow
As a former comics retailer at a store in the Pacific Northwest, Chris Clow is an enormous sci-fi, comics, and film geek. He is a freelance contributor, reviewer, podcaster, and overall geek to GeekNation, Batman-On-Film.com, The Huffington Post, and Movies.com. He also hosts the monthly Comics on Consoles broadcast and podcast. Check out his blog, and follow him on Twitter @ChrisClow.
  • EmileeNherWeed

    that graphic art is just so bad ass

  • parental advisory

    Mortal Combat will always be near and dear to my heart

  • Jameson

    I remember playing this game like crazy with my friends

  • steeeeeeeve

    proud member of the Mortal Kombat master race

  • Mary

    new life into the bloody franchise ahahahaha!!

  • Willie

    Great Review!

    • Chris Clow

      Thank you!

  • HalBDodgen

    definitely going to consider this purchase within the next few days.

  • Jameson

    imo its the best one yet (: