Thursday, August 5, 2010

A Quarter for the Queue

In the heat of the St. Louis summer, your choices of running from the sticky humidity have always been slim; this is a city that always has and always will thrive on baseball, one of the most grueling experiences a person can partake in when the heat index tips 122 degrees Fahrenheit. But these days, the option of escaping to an illuminated cavern of entertainment throughout most of the Midwest is limited to the movie theater. Oh, how you kids missed a truly great spectacle of entertainment.

Brace yourself, kiddos: Grandpa’s about to tell a story.

When I was your age, we got our kicks in the arcade. We also paid for music and danced to the Macarena, but that’s not the point. We’d flock to the mall, another dying concept in today’s economy, and we’d have a ten-spot in-tow, which we would have slammed down on the counter at Babbage’s or Software, Etc. to pre-order whatever the latest iteration of Street Fighter II they were passing time with instead of making a full-fledged sequel—if pre-ordering existed back then. Don’t worry, we didn’t ride horses to the mall… but if you had power windows in your car, you were bourgeoisie.

No, no, instead we used that ten bucks to head over to the nearest arcade—in my instance, the Tilt—and feed it into a wondrous money-devouring machine, which spit out magical golden tokens that could be fed to an voodoo box powered by electricity!

But seriously, we’d blow all of our allowance on a game that we couldn’t even own—and play in short bursts, no less, sometimes going through a dollar in a matter of three minutes if we were unlucky enough to go up against the dreaded older teenager: a God amongst novices with his hand-scribbled list of moves in numerous players’ handwriting, a testament of his previous losses at the hands of those more knowledgeable, visible like the scars of a prized fighter; with every loss came the techniques, combos and, of course, finishing moves of the victor. Sometimes, losing is worth the spoils.

Looking back, I plunked hundreds of dollars into arcade cabinets throughout my life, mostly on the fighting game frenzy of the early- to mid-‘90s, with seemingly nothing to show for my hundred dollar exploits. Killer Instinct saw me at my best, winning a competition and doing well enough in other tournaments. Street Fighter II and all of its still-beating-heart incarnations found me dumping a lot of dollars and quickly leaving with my head down in defeat at every cabinet in the region. But Mortal Kombat was my middle-ground, and somehow my favorite series to feed money to, and the memories I gained were enough to justify breaking all those bills I could really use right now.

I can tell you the exact location of every noteworthy moment I’ve experienced with the Granddaddy of Gore. The Pizza Hut near my house, where Sub-Zero ripped the spine out of Liu Kang in the original Mortal Kombat. Finding a row of what seemed like tens of Mortal Kombat II cabinets in the underground arcade up in North County. Beating the crap out of a guy so bad at Mortal Kombat 3 with Nightwolf that he physically smacked my hands while I was playing to prevent me from doing as well—and I still won. Watching as Ermac was unlocked in Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 in utter disbelief of the legend being included in the game.

Mortal Kombat evolved as it went along, if ever so slightly. The original was as standard as they come, in terms of the gameplay itself: clunky movements and stiff animations provided a slow experience with a big pay-off, if you managed to pull off a Fatality to cap off the Flawless Victory. The second installment increased the speed of the series, as well as complemented the pace with fluid animations. Mortal Kombat II had bright, colorful backgrounds, an intertwining storyline still yet-to-be toppled in the genre and, of course, brutal Fatalities.

My favorite entry into the series, however, was Mortal Kombat 3 and its “Super” upgrade, Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3. U/MK3 added another level of speed to the combat, making everything seem more over-the-top and hectic. A Run button was adding, allowing the Kombatant to sprint in, screaming his or her head off like a lunatic as they assaulted their opponent with a series of dial-in combos pulled off without mercy via a succession of button combinations.

I mastered the art of Cyber Smoke, mixing the best abilities of Sektor, with his teleportation uppercut to juggle the enemy, and Scorpion with a pull-in spear to grab them before they hit the ground. This, to me, was Mortal Kombat perfected: fast, improvised combos mixed with the dial-in material and some of the bloodiest, most ridiculous finishing moves ever seen—even to this date.

The Mortal Kombat series lost a lot of its luster with its fourth entry into the series at the height of the 3D-plane craze within the fighting game industry. Still a fine game, 3D gaming never really took hold with me, especially with Mortal Kombat. The first reboot of the series did a fair enough job, quite the improvement over Mortal Kombat 4, but the series once again fell a bit with each successive release after Deadly Alliance. Projectiles became simple inconveniences for the opponent with the ability to sidestep them; key components to a fighter’s arsenal could now be easily bypassed as the years progressed. Scorpion’s spear? Press up to avoid it altogether and charge in from the side of the skeletal fiend, all while the ninja is still in the animation of his once-deadly special move. This sums up how the series slowed down: an iconic figure’s signature maneuver reduced to a mere nuisance instead of the set-up to a barrage of incoming chaos.

Unintentionally aligned with the release of the independent movie trailer for the reimagining of the series on film, Ed Boon and the folks at NetherRealm Studios in Chicago unleashed a pre-E3 trailer bringing back everything I loved about the series: colorful, robust design, small dial-in combos that can lead into gravity-defying aerial assaults, unmatched speed to keep the Kombat as frantic as ever, and of course, the most brutal Fatalities known to man.

Finally, Mortal Kombat is returning to what made it a household name in the first place. One of the reasons that the series, while still a critical and commercial success, became less like Mortal Kombat was the great chase to follow the next great evolution in the fighting genre. After all these years of trying to cross over into the Z-axis plane of fighting, Ed Boon has realized that the simpler the fundamentals of the basic Kombat, the easier it is to get to the meat of the game itself—the delicious, blood-soaked meat, still hanging off the bone.

After all, Mortal Kombat was a trendsetter for the fighting game genre in many ways; once it began following the trends of the wavering public is when the series became less like itself and more like the Soul Calibur-types surrounding it. By going back to their earlier years in a way similar to that of the story’s canon of time-travel, they’re erasing the injustice of not following up Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 with a sequel using a similar, tweaked engine. Now we can reap the rewards of a development team comprised of die-hard fans of the first 3.5 games in the series, dedicated to releasing a product that they themselves are excited about.

The biggest question is, can the arcade atmosphere transcend through wireless Internet? In the heydays of Mortal Kombat, the Internet wasn’t even available to print lists of special moves, let alone gaming without the presence of another human being nearby. The atmosphere at the arcade was mostly friendly (though I’d like to see how badly I would’ve wounded ol’ smack-hands without him being there to throw off my combos with his real-life fists of fury), offering an insightful experience where you make friends at the throw of a Johnny Cage, for if you acted inappropriately toward another player, his Dad might kick your ass. Can that experience really exist in the highly-competitive non-community of online gaming?

At a packed arcade with one cabinet and two joysticks, we built a culture from the ground-up where prospective players lined their quarters along the bottom of the monitor, signifying your entry into Mortal Kombat. Fourth quarter in line of change? That was your place in line. The anxiety that built with every passing round, watching the guy playing as Jax dominating every opponent who crossed his path, figuring out his every move and weakness, studying him like a hawk… only to have the newcomer sweep him out from under you without notice. You’re up next, and your strategies for the now-defunct enemy are out the window while the newcomer awaits. Gulp, indeed.

This, I feel, is an experience unlike any other in gaming, as do the folks at NetherRealm Studios—that’s why they’re tacking on a Winner Stays online mode, where spectators line up with their figurative quarters lined up as they wait for their turn to tackle the beast of a competitor with the ongoing winning streak—a welcomed addition to the console fighting genre for old school arcaders such as myself, but in the day and age of hopping into a Halo Deathmatch in a matter of seconds, will this feature hold the attention span of our ADD-culture? In a land where instant gratification runs rampant, with instant-streaming Netflix and quick matches being the norm, will this novelty build a significant enough community to actually enjoy the slow tension that builds when you’ve been waiting 10 minutes for what seems like a gladiator bout? Oh, how I hope so.

Since retiring from my arcade days (or should I say they retired on me?), the fighting genre has largely escaped me. Fighting games these days are more about defensive tactics and counter-attacks than being on the offensive, something that has largely put me off to the concept. Super meters that lead to unstoppable, game-ending devastation have left me on the wrong end of a Hadouken on more than one occasion. With the smallest of timing windows opening up the biggest of opportunities, I feel like a hamster trying to comprehend quantum physics. By the time I feel confident enough to go online and spam the basic moves the game has taught me in a tutorial, I attempt them only to find them blocked and countered with something I didn’t even think was possible to do.

Fighting game enthusiasts insist that this genre is much easier to master than Call of Duty or Gears of War, and that is likely true. I also feel just as lost when playing most games with massive communities, largely to the fact that some games require months of gaming in order to feel comfortable with the weight of each weapon and the like. What do these games and the fighting genre have in common? They both teach you the bare essentials to understand what you’re doing, but lack the depth to explain why you’re doing it, or teach you the smaller things in return, like situations in which to take a defensive stance.

While playing Street Fighter IV, I would go through the ins and outs of each training segment, learning how to do each move but lacking the instructions on exactly why I should be doing them. Seeing these moves in the way they’re presented feels more like reading an instruction manual than being taught about the game. The conundrum with this type of learning system is the lack of direction given after the lesson, as you still have to learn how to play the game beyond the Hadoukens and Sonic Booms. The main problem is the online opponents already know what they’re doing, thus the learning curve is about as steep as they come; I compare it to rookie Little Leaguers trying to win a game of baseball against the New York Yankees.

NetherRealm Studios is claiming to make this a priority, in providing the player with more than just a list of moves, but a series of situations to run through to gain the knowledge of not simply how to randomly go on the offensive, but how to take a defensive stand against those with more experience under their belts. How well they pull this off will mean more than just how much staying power this title will have, as it could alter the course of the fighting genre altogether—I’m keeping my fingers crossed that they raise the bar and bring in many newcomers along the way, opening up an opportunity for fighters like BlazBlue to follow suit.

So go make another historic change for the fighting genre, NetherRealm, and allow people like me to learn all of the new situations that will be presented along the way with the inclusion of the super meter, complete with advanced tutorials on the feel and weight of each character so we can better understand the timing for every Kombatant. You know, that way I don’t look like an idiot when I finally get the bravery to step online.

I’ll wind down this incredibly longwinded entry with my personal favorite Mortal Kombat story…

My favorite memory at the arcades, and one I’ve taken out of chronology to emphasize its impact on me as a person and as a gamer took place at the movie theater at the premiere mall, the Galleria, where I first saw Mortal Kombat II with a two hour demonstration by an incredibly kind, obviously-a-drug-dealer twentysomething Hispanic guy whose beeper would go off with every uppercut, who took the time out to not only show me Fatalities with seven different characters (including Liu Kang’s dragon bite) and their endings, but even let me play on five dollars of his money. I couldn’t pull off the air-lift Fatality with Baraka that he taught me ever-so patiently, but he praised me, nonetheless.

In a day and age where racist cretins run rampant on Xbox Live and PSN, I’m not certain we will see such a display of utter kindness and compassion for a random little kid—I was still in the single-digits, I’m certain—ever again. Every time I’m in a game with a little kid on Xbox Live, either someone is reciting homophobic slurs in his direction or he’s the one dishing out the language reserved for use by ignorant folks in the South. But when the new Mortal Kombat launches next year, I’ll surely try to pass down some lessons of my own… let’s just hope that tutorial is good enough to teach me the tricks of the trade in the first place.



  1. I didn't play much Mortal Kombat. As a child I absolutely hated it. It was too confusing, and the few times I did play it, I was against someone who knew all the combos, kept them secret, and was a total not-cool person about winning.

  2. The later iterations of the series at the arcades like Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 definitely were not user-friendly, especially compared to the ultra simplistic stylings of MK and MK II. A lot of players paid $.50 to feel like they were watching an animated sequence of theft, where your game time lasted about 30 seconds and all you could do was watch your fate instead of prevent it.

  3. Aah, memories. I remember only getting to play MK at my friend's house, where his negligent father let us stay up till 3am. We spent the whole time trying to perform all the fatalities, reading from a player's guide my Dad bought me from a newsagent.

    I remember the first time I saw MKII: it was in an arcade on Clarence Pier in Southsea (South coast of England). I had no money to play, so I watched older boys duelling. One young man, playing as Jax (of course), did the arm ripping fatality. Then he did the pit fatality. I remember not being able to sleep that night.

    The arcade version was so much more terrifying, with the realistic and extensive screaming and high-quality sound. It inspired fear.

    Good read!

  4. Haha, it's so true, Sam. That aforementioned row of MKII machines... So deafening. Seriously, they made those speakers work on every single cabinet.

  5. Good read Zoop, happy to see a new post from you.
    How do you feel about those "Super" and "Ultimate" type of games? Waste of time that should be spent on a sequal? It seems like everyone's doing it now, even Blazblue got one of those types of games this year.

  6. Back in the arcade days, it was tolerable due to the fact that the games were always being tinkered with in terms of revisions; nowadays, I see DLC slowly encompassing that field. You'll see Mortal Kombat supported with downloadable characters the way that Ultimate MK3 added seven new ones via the revision. I understand why Capcom did it with SFIV, but in this day and age, the "double dip" feels a bit hokey and nickel and dime-y, albeit sincerely committed.

  7. Great post! I played MK2 pretty heavily and remember the confusion on finding the moves and fatalities. I still remember the first time I saw a friendship done in the arcade, went to tell my friend and he said I was crazy. Then we both watched this guy pull off another one and were amazed.

    I searched newgroups and bought every magazine I could that featured MK2, just to get all of the combos down. Even played often two players so I could practice alone.

    Great times and I'm really excited for MK9.