Mortal Kombat Masterclass
What the venerable franchise teaches us about fighting game design
Mortal Kombat 11 has been NetherRealm Studios’ most successful game launch ever. It also represents something of a franchise restoration. Through its long and storied history, Mortal Kombat has seen incredible highs and disappointing lows. Through it all, NetherRealm have continually experimented with the franchise and have often defined what we should expect from fighting games as a genre. Now that Mortal Kombat 11 has been available for a while and players have had the chance to fully-digest it, we thought we’d take a step back and consider its role in both the Mortal Kombat franchise itself, as well as the broader genre it exists within.
Round 1: The Beginning
The first three Mortal Kombat games (plus MK Trilogy) are widely considered to be the best of the franchise, and they all arrived prior to the arcade sector’s decline. Designed as a competitor to Capcom’s Street Fighter — and built with the intention of tackling the then-bureoning fighting game market — Mortal Kombat was well ahead of its time in terms of leveraging motion capture technology to represent digitized actors on screen for the bulk of its roster.
Of course, despite this impressive tech, Mortal Kombat stood out like a clown at a funeral for one obvious reason: the fatalities. Most folks know the turbulent media coverage that surrounded this gruesome feature — Mortal Kombat infamously ended up being Exhibit A in a series of Congressional hearings on video game violence. Of course, it has been argued that all of this “bad press” was actually a net positive for the game — the mass pearl-clutching no doubt encouraged even more teens to flock to arcades so they could play the game for themselves.
Taking a step back, though, it’s not quite fair to define the early games purely by their bloodlust. It’s arguably true that no matter how gory the games were, they likely wouldn’t have been so successful if they didn’t have other positive qualities to keep people playing. For one thing, Mortal Kombat was highly unique by virtue of its diverse cast of characters who each had their own backstories — I still don’t know anything more about Ryu and Ken from Street Fighter other than they like to scream “hadoken!” — but I know the story behind the cyber Lin-Kuei and the relationship between Scorpion and Sub-Zero.
Sadly, Mortal Kombat couldn’t quite keep up with the fast pace of technological development. Many longstanding game franchises have ultimately made a transition from 2D to 3D at some stage; Mortal Kombat attempted this, but the results were mixed at best.
Round 2: The Dark Times
Mortal Kombat 4 was the franchise’s 3D debut. Digitized characters gave way to 3D polygonal models, which had the immediate effect of making Mortal Kombat 4 look significantly less visually distinct when compared with other fighters on the market.
This transition to 3D also marked the point where the developers began to experiment more aggressively with the combat engine. Starting with Mortal Kombat 5, the team tried to adopt real-world martial arts styles for each of the characters. Special moves were largely removed in favor of a more combo-heavy fighting style seen in games like Virtua Fighter and Soul Calibur (later entries did see a return of these special moves).
To their credit, the developers still focused on delivering a robust single player experience, while also establishing early online multiplayer modes (bearing in mind that in the early says of online Mortal Kombat, consoles didn’t yet feature well-established online services). Each game featured an elaborate story, rewards in the form of the Crypt system, and in one case, even a character creator mode (seen in Mortal Kombat: Armageddon).
The industry was also changing under the developers’ feet. The fighting game genre itself came under intense pressure when the arcade sector saw a heavy decline in the early ’00s. There were less reasons for players to visit arcades, thanks to enormously powerful home consoles that could regularly produce high-fidelity experiences which arcades had historically monopolized. As a genre, though, fighting games were inherently at home in the arcades — they just weren’t quite as thrilling in the more sedate living room environment as they had been in arcades full of cheering onlookers.
This community aspect — which really surfaced as arcade multiplayer — was vital for fighting games. But in the early ’00s, it wasn’t easy for many folks to go online with their consoles — so, if you didn’t have a bunch of people to compete with in person at home, you had to rely more heavily on fighting against the CPU.
As the industry shifted, the Mortal Kombat developers tried their best to duck-and-weave in response. One way of doing this was to expand the franchise beyond its fighting game roots. The idea made a whole lot of sense, considering the uniquely deep lore behind Mortal Kombat. And it wasn’t an entirely unsuccessful move, either; Mortal Kombat: Shaolin Monks was a successful cooperative action game that is still viewed fondly by many players today. But in some respects, it exists within the looming shadow of Mortal Kombat Mythologies, a spin-off series that borrowed elements from the older digitized 2D games and shoe-horned them into an awkward sidescrolling mash-up of fighter and platformer. The original plan was to produce several games in the series, chronicling the exploits of each major character, but in the end, there was only a single release featuring Sub-Zero (Jax saw some action in a slightly different action-adventure spin-off titled Mortal Kombat: Special Forces — this game was not quite as notorious as Mythologies, but it was perhaps more forgettable than anything else).
Despite some setbacks, the experimentation continued. 2008 saw the release of Mortal Kombat vs DC Universe. In it, the Mortal Kombat cast were pitted against major characters in the DC Universe, such as Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, and so on. All of the MK characters and DC villains had fatalities, but the DC superheroes could only perform “brutalities”. Interestingly, the game’s violence was reduced in order to give it a T (Teen — ESRB)) rating as opposed to M (Mature). Although this was a major entry in the franchise, it bore no direct relationship with the story or outcome of Mortal Kombat 8.
Fans had to wait until 2011 to see a direct sequel to Mortal Kombat 8. And thankfully, NetherRealm delivered in a big way.
Round 3: A New Trilogy
Mortal Kombat 9 (titled simply Mortal Kombat) was a complete franchise reboot. It also represented a redesign of the game’s combat and secondary systems. By starting from scratch, NetherRealm were able to effectively scrap the previous 20 years of lore — including the content introduced in the awkward spin-off titles. In effect, Mortal Kombat 9 was a retelling of the first three games but on a new timeline, with different events taking place.
NetherRealm started with the work they’d done on Mortal Kombat vs DC Universe and expanded on it. Mortal Kombat 9 used the same story structure, but it also featured an entire arcade mode complete with non-canon endings. The main story mode enabled players to move through chapters, each centered on a different character (there was only one “story” here, but the player could witness it from multiple perspectives, through the eyes of various characters). This helped to build a more coherent story while also enabling players to get a feel for different characters in combat.
Importantly, Mortal Kombat 9’s combat system returned to 2D — though it did see several changes. Special moves were streamlined so that they would be easier to pull off — usually just requiring two directional presses and another button. The game featured a new special meter, which wasn’t dissimilar from what we saw in other fighting games at the time. Players could expand the meter to perform enhanced special moves, including defensive manouvers. But if they waited until the meter was full, they could perform a “super” in the form of an X-Ray Attack. These supers played an important role in, once again, differentiating Mortal Kombat from its fighting game contemporaries.
The Krypt continued to supply players with a bevy of additional rewards to unlock, and the game was gorier than ever before.
Mortal Kombat 9 was not only a reset for the famous franchise, but it also felt like the beginning of something bigger — a way for NetherRealm to actually redefine the entire fighting game genre.
Mortal Kombat X further built upon the achievements of the previous game. NetherRealm leaned more heavily into the story elements here, and continued to push a more robust multiplayer experience. More costumes/skins were introduced, and the DLC included both new and returning characters. But the developers made one huge change to the design here — they introduced the concept of having different “styles” for each character. Rather than supplying every character with a large pool of special moves, characters had to draw from smaller pools of attacks that were each associated with a different style. This enabled a streamlined learning curve for players (less moves to learn within one style), but it also enabled greater depth when it came to choosing and mastering a character. More importantly still, these styles became a facet of the competitive experience as well.
Even though the Japanese fighting game market has remained solid, the Mortal Kombat franchise has continued to emphasize and strengthen the core elements that have made it so uniquely successful. These strengths largely revolve around the franchise’s growing reputation for delivering substantial value to players. The recently-released Mortal Kombat 11 feels like the point where these strengths dovetail into a single, powerful experience.
For example, the story mode continues to tell and almost soap opera-esque tale that — while it may not be winning BAFTAs for its plot — is a highly entertaining, well-produced affair. Importantly, it gives single player fans something to experience and digest that’s now head-and-shoulders above any similar modes seen in other fighting games. Most story modes in most fighters simply lack the spectacle and production value seen in NetherRealm’s work (in fact, Street Fighter V was criticized for making fans wait for the story mode, which had to be patched in after the game’s release).
NetherRealm has improved many other aspects of the game — for example, the cosmetic system that was originally seen in Injustice 2 has been included in Mortal Kombat 11. There’s a significant degree of personalization here, going far beyond mere palette swaps: you can add different accessories, change up the starting/ending animations, and much more. This all serves one important purpose: to provide value to non-competitive gamers. Competitive players are unlikely to be interested in these elements (at least, far less so than the features which directly impact gameplay), but NetherRealm have obviously thought carefully about building a community well beyond the competitive scene.
There are other pieces here that also help to attract non-competitive players. The tutorial, for example, helps to demystify high-level play for newcomers. It also addresses a longstanding issue with the genre, where fighting games have typically not been great at teaching new players how to play. Even really simple things — like having the option to turn down the gore — help to entice folks who may have been put off by other similar titles in the past.
Given everything I’m outlining here, I’d argue that paying $60 for Mortal Kombat 11 represents a whole lot more value than consumers might see in other, similarly-priced fighting games. But it’s worth pausing to remember that Mortal Kombat 11 isn’t an entirely blemish-free experience.
I couldn’t discuss Mortal Kombat 11 honestly without pointing out some of its problems — these issues range from in-game stuff, to genuine real-world problems that impact human beings in their daily lives.
For one thing, NetherRealm has been accused of overworking their employees and of fostering a toxic work culture (and creating highly-graphic violent content has contributed to a unique human cost in the industry). Sadly, there have been numerous reports of high employee turnover, and poor treatment of interns at the studio as well.
Mortal Kombat 11 also leans heavily into microtransactions, causing some players to accuse the developers of deliberately making the game tougher and “grindier” in order to encourage players to purchase their way through the game’s Towers of Time.
PC players have had to wait longer to get patches that fix platform-specific issues (this is notably similar to what we saw with Mortal Kombat X and Injustice 1 and 2 on the same platform).
The Mortal Kombat franchise has a long and winding history. Regardless of the controversies — including the very recent ones mentioned above — this is a franchise that has demonstrated a unique kind of staying power in the video game industry. This is thanks, in no small part, to NetherRealm’s willingness to continually innovate and experiment with even the most sacred aspects of the series.
Mortal Kombat 11, then, demonstrates clearly that NetherRealm have developed a strong understanding of what makes their franchise work — and, most crucially, why players enjoy it so much. Sitting here in 2019, it’s clear that NetherRealm are the only Western developer building fighting games that can compete with the Japanese heavyweights. As the team continue to announce new characters — and their attendance at EVO 2019 — it’s clear that Mortal Kombat is likely to remain a powerful force in the industry for the foreseeable future.