I’m Next

How Mortal Kombat 11 rekindled my love for the franchise

I am slowly becoming obsessed with Mortal Kombat 11. This may not be remotely surprising to you if you’ve played the game yourself, or if you’ve read one of the many glowing reviews. But it’s definitely something of a surprise to me, given my history with one of the longest-running (and most prolific) fighting game franchises in history. Allow me to explain.

The original Mortal Kombat was released in 1992. I was 9 years old at the time — way too young to play violent video games ( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°) — but I will never forget the enormous impact of this series. I won’t retrace the entire history here (most gamers will be familiar with Mortal Kombat’s broader social impact, including its role as a catalyst for U.S. Senate hearings and the establishment of the ESRB in the United States). From the perspective of a gamer — especially a child eagerly nudging puberty — Mortal Kombat was, to be blunt, video game pornography. The combination of over-the-top ultra-violence and realistic, digitised human characters represented a seismic shift. One thing I distinctly remember at the time was that Mortal Kombat seemed like the first video game I’d ever seen that was genuinely “adults only” (I’m sure there had been others — Leisure Suit Larry comes to mind — but I remember being acutely aware of Mortal Kombat’s illicit aura). The kids at school who had managed to see the fabled cabinet at arcades — let alone actually play it for themselves — were like local heroes who had come back from a mysterious battle in a distant land. They’d tell remarkable stories of what they’d seen to those of us who were too lame to have witnessed Mortal Kombat’s greatness with our own eyes. I remember hearing wild playground stories about something called a Fatality, which seemed like some kind of bizarre and tantalising secret (perhaps the video game equivalent of a sealed centrefold?)

Despite being an “adults-only” game, Midway clearly marketed Mortal Kombat to eager, bloodthirsty kids like myself.

I’m not actually sure which version of Mortal Kombat I played first. Well, I know that I definitely played the arcade version first, but I don’t remember which incarnation I originally owned on a home console. I have a feeling that the first title I called my own was Mortal Kombat II on the SNES.

Though I’ve never really been a huge fighting game fan in general, I do remember adoring both Mortal Kombat and its main contemporary, Street Fighter. I genuinely loved both. But there was something about Mortal Kombat that tugged at my heartstrings. And it wasn’t just the allure of gore, realistic-looking characters, and the elusive Fatalities (though these things certainly helped). Looking back, what I enjoyed most was the mythology surrounding the characters and the world. The concept of a grand tournament that would determine the fate of Earthrealm fascinated me. That such a tournament would naturally attract the greatest of Earth’s fighters to compete against the most frightening and powerful foes from the mystical Outworld — all in order to determine the very fate of Earthrealm itself — felt like the best of both worlds. It combined the visceral thrill of a Hong Kong martial arts film with a highbrow game of celestial chess, played on the grandest scale possible. The actual gameplay was truly wonderful, but the ability to uncover each character’s fascinating backstory — and to see how your fighting skills could tip the scales towards Earthrealm’s ultimate victory — gave the series a wholly unique depth and personality.

The Mortal Kombat 3 character select screen.

As much as I fell in love with the first two games, my all-time favourite was Mortal Kombat 3. This is the game I spent the most time with. It was easily one of my most-played SNES titles as a kid. One reason for its popularity with me is probably due to the fact that it came out in 1995, when I was 12 and in my first year of high school. I was just a little older, and I was able to play Mortal Kombat 3 with a reasonable degree of proficiency (from memory, I joined a student-organised, school-wide MK3 tournament when I was 14 and came second — so close!) I could pull off some of the most advanced (and lengthy) combos in the game, and I knew many of the characters’ special moves by heart. How I loved Mortal Kombat 3.

Mortal Kombat 3 graced us with its presence at a time when the franchise was arguably at peak popularity. It had become a multimillion dollar juggernaut in its own right. Right at this apex, Mortal Kombat fans were treated to an event that pushed many of us into an outright frenzy: the cheesy-but-ultra-cool-at-the-time Mortal Kombat movie landed.

I mean, look. Holy fuck. I’d just entered high school. I was a walking testosterone factory. Somehow I stumbled upon the trailer for the film during the opening promo on some other, lesser movie’s VHS tape. Words couldn’t describe my anticipation for the movie — I saw it at the cinema twice, once on my own. It was the coolest thing that had ever been invented.

But as the late ’90s rolled around, something completely changed. I know for a fact that my love for Mortal Kombat didn’t remotely dissipate (I played MK3 well into the late ’90s and I hungrily snapped up both Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 and Mortal Kombat Trilogy). My appetite for this franchise certainly wasn’t sated.

Sadly though, I think the end really came with the debut of Mortal Kombat 4. From memory, I had gone and purchased it pretty close to day one on the original PlayStation. Next-gen Mortal Kombat! What’s not to like?!

Well, apparently a lot. I disliked Mortal Kombat 4 so much that I returned it for a refund the very next day. It’s the only time I have ever done that with a video game. So, I guess I must have been pretty disgusted. Looking back, I don’t clearly remember what rubbed me the wrong way so badly that I couldn’t even stomach giving the game a true chance to find its way into my heart. Maybe it was the new polygon-based graphics, which thoroughly lacked the coolness of the digitised (and far more realistic) 2D sprites. Maybe it was the addition of weapons? Honestly, I don’t know. I just remember that it felt horribly clunky and slow, and it looked terrible compared to my beloved Mortal Kombat 3. Sigh.

I never looked back, really. To this day, I’ve never played Mortal Kombat 4 again. It broke my adolescent heart.

Since then, of course, numerous Mortal Kombat games have been released. I played Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance on the GameCube (in fact, I think I actually received that one for review). I remember thinking it was okay, but it wasn’t Mortal Kombat to me. I didn’t remotely like the various fighting styles for each character — it somehow felt messy to me. Convoluted, perhaps. And I really disliked the art style. Remember, I had always favoured the slender, realistically-proportioned digitised characters (setting aside the obvious non-humanoid characters like Goro, Motaro, etc…) Deadly Alliance’s characters looked bizarrely cartoony to my eye. They were unnecessarily elaborate, with busy designs and silly proportions (some characters had arms the size of small garbage trucks — yuck).

At this point I should pause to acknowledge the following: I’m totally aware that both Mortal Kombat 4 and Deadly Alliance have their proponents. And I wouldn’t say for a moment that either are “bad” games. It’s just that I personally saw them as massive departures from the series I loved. I didn’t want them; they felt like imposters. After Deadly Alliance I pretty much ignored everything Mortal Kombat. None of the new entries felt like Mortal Kombat to me — this was especially true when DC characters were unceremoniously smashed into the Mortal Kombat universe. Again, I’m sure this combination was popular and made sense to a lot of people. But to me, it felt like drinking orange juice after brushing your teeth.

It might feel like I’m just circling the drain at this point, but I promise, there’s light at the end of the tunnel!

Mortal Kombat X felt a little like an oasis in the desert, though I never actually owned the game. And there were still some elements that bothered me (Sub-Zero’s appearance above, despite having reasonable proportions, still strikes me as lacking artistic restraint — as if they artist had a million design flourishes in mind and decided to include all of them in the finished product). However, I happened to play the game at a friend’s house one night. And…it felt refreshing. It looked utterly gorgeous, sounded fantastic, and emphasised the things I appreciated about the classic series — brutality, speed, and that slightly indescribable atmosphere that effectively blended sleek combat with dark mystery.

So, my appetite was suitable whet. I was at least open to the considering a new Mortal Kombat. The latest game in the series was formally revealed at a major event in January, and was just released a few days ago.

And uh…

Ed Boon/NetherRealm Studios, I love you! All is forgiven!

Ahem.

So, Mortal Kombat 11 has dragged me back into one of my favourite franchises; it’s something I really didn’t think was possible. I feel a bit like I’ve stepped into a wormhole and teleported straight from Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 to Mortal Kombat 11. After initially spending some time in the game’s fantastic tutorial mode, a smile began to creep across my face — now it’s an ear-to-ear grin that isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. At the time of writing this, I’m definitely not ready to review Mortal Kombat 11. There’s still so much of I haven’t touched. Its breadth and depth feels simultaneously intimidating and exciting — I’m enjoying this game so much that I am very pleased there’s so much of it to play.

You might be wondering why a fan of the original trilogy — and not the more recent games — is so enamoured with Mortal Kombat 11.

There are many reasons, but let’s start with the most obvious: the combat itself. After all, the bells and whistles surrounding the core combat mechanics are meaningless unless the moment-to-moment gameplay works. What I love about the combat here is that there is a high degree of configurability, but this doesn’t come at the expense of seamlessness and clarity. Rather than give each character multiple styles (each with their own move set) that have to be remembered, NetherRealm have instead crafted each character with a “core” set of moves (including combos and special attacks), and then given players the ability to graft additional special attacks on top of the default set. You can save multiple “configurations” of each character if you like, but you won’t be overwhelmed by options, because you can only ever add three special attacks on top of the base set for each character configuration. This doesn’t feel like a compromise between complexity and simplicity — it just feels like smart, elegant design. The fact that character configuration also includes numerous unlockable clothing and accessory options is a suitably-modern addition that adds a sense of personalisation without adding numerous convoluted systems on top of the core combat model that all require memorisation.

There’s a lot to say about combat — including the new defensive and offensive meters, and the nuances of parrying or adding additional, in-context moves to string together more powerful attack patterns — but what’s cool is that you can learn and leverage this extra depth but you also don’t have to worry about it at all. You’ll have a distinct advantage against other players if you learn the nuances of Mortal Kombat 11’s combat mechanics, but you can play the game — and play it well — without digging into all the nuts and bolts.

The addition of Fatal Blows is another simple-but-clever element that works beautifully. When your health is below 30%, you’ll be able to trigger a Fatal Blow. It’s easy to do this — anyone can, as you only need to hold two shoulders buttons down. The challenge around Fatal Blows isn’t around how to trigger them, it’s around when to trigger them. You can only use a Fatal Blow once per match. Because these moves can quickly turn the tide of battle — giving you a fighting chance if you’re drowning — they are incredibly powerful. But your enemy can perform a Fatal Blow just as easily as you can. Is it wise, then, to use up your Fatal Blow in the very first round? Or are you better to battle through to a second round and leverage the Final Blow when your back is really against the wall? This risk/reward dilemma is an example of great game design that makes all battles that much more exciting. You’re on the edge of your seat during most Mortal Kombat 11 battles — that’s precisely where you should be, too.

I haven’t even mentioned Fatalities. They’re here, of course, and they’re the best — the funniest and most horrific — the series has ever served up.

There are many modes to play through, including a rather elaborate and robust Krypt (which is really just an unlockable rewards screen converted into an elaborate, explorable island — Shang Tsung’s island, to be precise; oh, did I mention that Shang Tsung is voiced by Carey-Hiroyuki Tagawa, who played the legendary villain in the 1995 film? Bloody hell!) I have a lot to say about these modes, but I might leave that for another article — in part because I’m still exploring what’s on offer.

One thing I do want to touch on specifically, though, is the story mode.

This is the part I’m genuinely surprised by. Given that I didn’t play Mortal Kombat (9), and I didn’t play much of Mortal Kombat X, perhaps my surprise is unwarranted. I know that the ninth game effectively rebooted the entire franchise from scratch. And I know that Mortal Kombat 11’s story is built upon that foundation. The story was directed by Dominic Cianciolo (he was also the voiceover director), and I’d say he has done a pretty exceptional job here. There are numerous elements of the story that are a bit lost on me because of my general disengagement with the series until now, but I found myself drawn in by surprisingly solid writing, generally excellent acting, and seriously compelling characters. Mortal Kombat fans will know that several of the major characters from the original trilogy have children — the exploration of this generational divide is a core component of Mortal Kombat 11’s story, and at times, I felt like it mirrored my own experience of returning to the franchise after so many years of estrangement.

The production value — particularly of the story mode — is remarkable, and demonstrates a careful and thorough attention to detail. I was actually shocked at the length of the cutscenes in the story mode (it’s probably more accurate to say that you’re quite literally watching a new Mortal Kombat film, which is punctuated by interactive fight sequences). The way the fights seamlessly integrate with the surrounding film is actually breathtaking at times. These sequences manage to be awe-inspiring — and even emotional at times — even in the midst of a very self-aware, tongue-in-cheek vale of humour that pervades everything.

There’s so much more to say about Mortal Kombat 11. The delightfully flashy, bombastic superstructure balances deftly atop an expertly-crafted foundation, itself finessed over nearly three decades. It is altogether new and wonderfully, delightfully retro. It is the most bold, confident iteration of a legendary franchise. It is Mortal Kombat to the very core, and I’m overjoyed to welcome it back into my heart.