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Sometimes where something starts doesn’t resemble at all where it finishes. Mortal Kombat, the over-the-top, animated, fatality-rich fighting game and gore-fest that began in the arcades of the early 90s has spawned sequel and version after sequel and version for (gulp!) 27 years. It began as a failed attempt by Midway to create a Street Fighter-style clone, starring a digitized version of the Belgian B-movie star, Jean Claude Van Damme.
In the early 90s coin-op world, the “winner plays, loser pays” two-player fighting, deep-skill based game concept was owned and perfected by Capcom’s Street Fighter II. Midway games entered into a quickly aborted deal to make a fighting game based on a Jean Claude Van Damme movie property, using digitized, “roto-scoped” keyframes of real people, to differentiate it from Street Fighter II’s more illustrated cartoonish look.
The birth of the Fatality
The deal fell through but the idea didn’t die. Lead programmer Ed Boon and art director John Tobias ran with it, eventually creating a wacky pantheon of digitized costumed martial artists from friends, athletes, and actors filmed against a green screen and turned into 1992-graphics onscreen figures. To further make it stand out, they innovated a new feature that would become a mainstay of the genre: the finisher they dubbed “Fatality.”
After winning a match against another character in the otherworldly tournament of the game, a deep voice commanded the winner to “FINISH HIM!” and gave a few moments for the user to input a “secret” series of joystick moves and button presses.
Successfully doing this in time rewarded the player with a whimsical and gory cut-scene somewhere between a Road Runner cartoon and a VHS copy of Faces of Death. Pulling out a spinal cord, knocking off a head, freezing an opponent and smashing them to bits, all with an over-the-top (and controversial!) fountain of 16-bit animated blood.
A distinct Mortal Kombat feel emerges
While this gimmick shocked moralizing lawmakers and concerned parent groups, it thrilled arcade goers and quickly became a hit. However, while the over-the-top, shocking (and silly) finishers may have been what got people buzzing, what made them continue playing was a quick and quickly-learned gameplay style that was at once different than the Capcom Street Fighter system, but just as fun to master.
A very distinct Mortal Kombat
“feel” to the actual matches is what kept the game pulling in quarters, and eventually, spawning sequels. And more sequels. Which brings us here, 27 years later, to Mortal Kombat 11
Programming and continuity, nearly three decades later
The original Mortal Kombat was developed entirely by four people. Mortal Kombat 11, in 2019, had a development team of over two hundred people. But still at the helm of the venture is the original programmer of the very first version: Ed Boon. He leads a studio of programmers and artists who have grown up with the game, in all of its incarnations and evolutions through the years.
This combination of continuity and “auteurship” with the fresh ideas and innovations of the staff has kept Mortal Kombat oddly consistent and relevant through the years. Now, with the release and success of Mortal Kombat 11 (actually, it’s well past the 20th version of the game released), the franchise is more relevant than ever, and arguably, more fun and amazing than ever.
Today: There’s a lot to learn
Mortal Kombat 11 follows the wildly successful 2015 release Mortal Kombat X. And while it continues many of the gameplay elements and modes in that game, it very much reinvents and refines the gameplay and experience by overhauling and tweaking nearly every aspect.
It introduces a customizing engine that allows a player to earn and build unlockable variations, skins, and accessories for each character. It also expands the “Krypt” mode, where you can spend hours learning and unlocking secrets and lore about the universe in which the game takes place.
Thoughtful tutorial mode
You would not think that a game that sells itself on the reputation of having photorealistic, cinema-level CGI ultra-violence could be described as “thoughtful.” But there’s really not a better term for the deep, well-curated, artfully produced (and fun!) tutorial mode.
Oftentimes, the tutorial section of any given fighting game is a quickly slapped together affair, tacked on as a necessary but unloved feature. Not so with the tutorial mode in Mortal Kombat 11, which elegantly solves a pretty thorny problem: “How do you teach players 27 years of gameplay ideas that have added onto each other over each generation?”
It begins with the basics, but quickly gives the player guided, interactive tours of all the core concepts of gameplay, along with creative visualizations and breakdowns of techniques. The resource of the Mortal Kombat 11 tutorial mode can actually take a new player, or just a casual player, and transform them into a relatively deep, mid-level player who understands the fundamentals and can freestyle with them - and all in a way that feels fun and rewarding while doing it.
The story thus far (there’s a lot of it)
Mortal Kombat 11 presents a kind of informed nostalgia for its roots and origins with a fusion of its more recent editions and the complications and complexities they bring.
In fact, the storyline that unfolds through exploring the single player mode and by unlocking enough items in the other modes is as much of a draw as the actual frenetic, strategy-rich, high-impact fighting of the matches.
As it was originally put out in the early 90s with Mortal Kombat I and II, the idea was a rough, B movie-style sketch outline of a plot. The evil Shao Khan hosted a tournament in Earthrealm, where his champion Goro has remained undefeated for 500 years; one more victory would see him being able to dominate the Realm.
An undefeated champion
Since that time, things have become…complicated. All manner of different Realms and dimensions, time travel, secret societies, character rivalries, and soap-opera style twists have been introduced, all played out against the backdrop of a bunch of big, roster-sporting fighting games.
The good news is that Mortal Kombat 11 manages to make all this byzantine continuity accessible to newer players, while also keeping it rewarding and fulfilling for series loyalists who have played through all the different versions and followed the story for years.
From Earthrealm to Netherrealm: How the mighty have fallen
The long and short is that Raiden, the perennial series regular and god of lightning, has defeated Shinnok, the villain of Mortal Kombat X, and obtained his amulet of power. The bad news is the amulet has changed and corrupted him.
Always a defender of Earthrealm, and a force of balance between Light and Dark, he now is driven with bloodlust to zealously defend it by going on the offense and planning to destroy all threats to his realm. He leads a murderous and bloody attack on Netherrealm, now controlled by undead versions of the original heroes, and in the process opens up a new threat by tipping the balance too far in one direction.
All this with demon ninjas and ice powers and Shaolin monks and magic. There is a storytelling turn that hearkens back to the medieval saga of Beowulf, when the hero seemingly defeats the “big bad” in the form of Grendel only to reveal that the true villain of the piece is Grendel’s monstrous mother.
Raiden’s attack on Netherrealm shows the hand of the villainess Kronika, who emerges as the secret author of nearly every evil that’s ever plagued the realms, and all the previous versions of the game.
Accessible to newer players, rewarding for series loyalists
It’s quite the cosmic (and bloody) space opera. But somehow, Ed Boon and his massive team have made it all not just work, but also somehow provide poignant and effective character moments and real drama.
Engaging in battles, challenges, and defeating towers worth of characters plays out the story while players get better at the mechanics of the game. The story twists time and space and creates a backdrop for a pretty much never-ending series of super-bloody combats between 25 different playable characters. And each with three different style “loadouts,” further customizable by continued play and earned in-game rewards.
But what about the fighting? How’s that?
The original 1992 version drew attention to itself with flashy fatalities, but kept players coming back with compelling, fast-paced, and competitive gameplay. That’s always been the key to Mortal Kombat’s success, through the years. Mortal Kombat 11, thankfully, continues this tradition.
The fighting gameplay that emerges with the various super-meters and combo chains and special attacks (and, of course, ultra detailed, ultra gore-laden fatalities) is recognizably “Mortal Kombat feeling” gameplay - even though it’s full of new features and options.
Simply put, matches, whether against computer-based artificial intelligence (AI), or the 2nd player sitting next to you with another controller, or online against another opponent, are just a blast.
It’s a cliché of game design that the best games are “easy to learn, difficult to master.” But that’s really the common denominator of what keeps people playing anything. And Mortal Kombat 11 delivers.
What might prove a little frustrating to some is the long-lasting grind of the single-player mode, where much of the unlocking takes place. As you progress, and in an attempt to introduce variety, many matches are modified by different objectives and variables.
For instance, one match might offer the challenge of a super-charged boss version of a character to defeat, or an opponent whose every hit burns your character, so dodging and blocking are called for. Each new modified element can offer a bit of annoyance by introducing too many gimmicked matches with arbitrary variables.
The Krypt mode: Compelling content
In order to overcome this, Mortal Kombat 11 has introduced the element of “consumables,” which are gimmicked power ups, buffs, and special attacks. You earn them by continued play in other modes, and as loot in the “Krypt” mode.
Incidentally, much like the thoughtful and well-produced tutorial, Mortal Kombat 11’s Krypt is a fully realized, high production value sporting addition that offers hours of genuine compelling content. It is a third-person explorable series of puzzles and mazes where loot and lore abound.
A surfeit of options
All of this, while very well put together, can become a bit onerous to keep track of; there are three separate “kurrencies” you earn from various tasks and achievements, and they are used in what becomes a kind of complex scheme to keep track of.
This is symptomatic of what may be described as a problem of the game. There is just SO MUCH to do, and so many modes and options and achievement trees that one can become paralyzed by the choices, or simply overwhelmed by too much to do.
Happily, the core elements of the combat (kombat!) are rock solid. This can somehow make the additional layers and “meta” game of currency and achievements, meant to provide continued motivation for returning to the game, feel extraneous.
You don’t have to commit to all of the unlocking and item collecting; there are plenty of hours in just fighting online versus other players. But the fact that all that content is there makes a player feel like they’re missing out if they’re not keeping up with it. And it can be a bit exhausting.
You can’t review a Mortal Kombat game without exploring the way it approaches the signature element of the series: the Fatality.
The original Mortal Kombat made a splash onto the arcading world by making a controversial splash of digitized blood. In each iteration since, they’ve felt the need to up the ante and make the outrageous endings continue to be outrageous - and to out-outrageous the last version.
Seeing that we’re now at number 11, and with the super-powered graphics engines of modern computers, you can imagine that the violence and lunacy of the Fatalities is dialed up...to 11 (to quote Spinal Tap). And it is.
Friendships supplant Fatalities
The thing about Mortal Kombat, and its excesses, is that it was always winkingly self-aware of its own ridiculousness. In Mortal Kombat 2, the “BABALITY” was introduced: a finisher that transformed the stumbling and defeated opponent into a wacky, costumed baby version.
In Mortal Kombat 3, in addition to increasingly over-the-top killer finishers, the programmers broke the fourth wall a bit by parodying themselves with alternate finishers called “Friendships.”
These were expectation-defying “friendly” endings replaced the bloody letters of FATALITY with colorful balloon letters spelling out FRIENDSHIP, and instead of crushing heads or ripping out spines, a character might summon a happy rainbow or build a whimsical snowman.
Increasingly gory graphics
As the graphics and production values have increased, what was once silly and cartoony is now arguably in the uncanny valley of too-realistic and disturbing. It’s one thing to create a 400-frame, two-dimensional painted cartoon version of a disembowelment that’s more Tom and Jerry than it is Faces of Death.
But now, when a character splits another in half with a whirling set of blades, and anatomically correct organs that look like you’d imagine a set of real, ripped-up viscera would look like emerge, it becomes another thing. All of the violence of Mortal Kombat, at its best, is tongue in cheek and self-aware; so crazy that it stops being offensive and is just wacky and funny by way of the bold transgression of norms.
But Mortal Kombat 11’s fatalities are, well, pretty graphic in a way that isn’t always fun. There are reports of developers and artists who were tasked with one-upping each other actually getting PTSD from the research they were doing. It often involved having to watch real-life gore, slaughterhouse videos and animal dismemberments, or real-world murder victim photos for reference.
In a report
by Kotaku, developers revealed that the hours of research they had to put in for the few seconds of “Fatality” payoff left them with terrible dreams and disrupted sleep and caused real psychic trauma.
The realities of what goes into making an unreal bit of entertainment feel viscerally real (often by depicting realistic viscera!) can give one pause when playing. The animations are objectively amazing. But they’re also terribly effective at being disturbing and jarring. There’s a balance between the slapstick and the shocking that is a kind of tightrope to walk. It could be argued that in some instances, Mortal Kombat 11 slips a little bit on that tightrope.
In summation, is Mortal Kombat 11 worth purchasing? Yes. It is a really rare achievement of gameplay design, tweaked fighting elements and a fun and rewarding learning curve.
If it has deficiencies it is only that it tries so hard to offer so much in so many directions. It often succeeds, but the totality of it can be a lot to take in. Not exactly a “Flawless Victory,” but a victory nonetheless.
About the Author: Jolene Dobbin is a contributing writer for HP® Tech Takes. Jolene is an East Coast-based writer with experience creating strategic messaging, marketing, and sales content for companies in the high-tech industry.