Sunday, February 5, 2012

Top 10 of '11 - #6: Mortal Kombat

Several weeks ago, I saw a post on Lamebook about a young woman who was utterly perplexed as to why a telephone from the 1990s was plugged into itself, unaware that the cord attached the unit to the receiver. Everybody has a laugh and thinks, “Oh boy, aren’t we old when kids these days don’t even recognize what a telephone from 20 years ago looked like!” It then dawned on me: kids these days might not know what the arcades were.

Notice the tense used right there: were. About five years ago I visited my favorite arcade, about 25 miles from my old stomping grounds. It was a plush basement within a mall, complete with an underground mini-golf course and rows upon rows of arcade machines during the fighting genre’s boom period. I can still remember how loud the Mortal Kombat II machines roared in my face, the screaming of combatants being torn limb from limb prior to a bass-driven declaration of victory from an unseen narrator. These are fond memories from a time that will never come back into the mainstream, as our machines at home are more powerful, more rewarding, and offer a wealth of competition from around the globe in the comfort of our living rooms. Kids these days will never really understand why we spent hundreds of dollars on a game we could never even take home with us against lackluster local competition comprised of burnouts (at least in the Midwest). There was something about putting your money where your mouth is, the camaraderie between frequent mallrats who played the same machines, and the social atmosphere. It’s sad to face, but facts are facts: we will never see that again. It is a relic in time that is to be lost on future generations.

Growing old sucks, and this dawning realization that arcades are next on the list of things kids simply won’t understand (and logically so – while I never regret the money poured into the arcades as an adolescent, it was never very practical) is just another extension of getting older. Partially because I hadn’t played a captivating fighting game in a while and partially out of nostalgia, I took a keen liking to the development cycle of Mortal Kombat, the ninth installment of the fighting game staple that brought the genre to the mainstream. Thankfully, it did not disappoint.

Blending the careful juggling made popular in the heyday of the Mortal Kombat franchise from Mortal Kombat II through Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 with the dashing abilities that 3D fighters have implemented liberally, NetherRealm Studios has crafted Mortal Kombat from scratch with a brand new engine that successfully spiritually captures what made the original games so captivating: fast combat, loads of gore, and a flawless sense of humor.

One thing that Mortal Kombat infinitely improves on is satisfying combos. Long gone are the days of being able to dial-in your combos with an unblockable series of button combinations that automatically launch a string of attacks with the only way to break through them existing in the form of the player who's executing the attacks screwing their wide timing window up. With the new set-up, you can successfully dial-into a small combo of three hits worth 7% or so damage, but in order to deal the hefty fines, you will have to refine your ability to launch your opponent into the air and set them up with a perfectly-timed combination of attacks to keep them there. It’s not Street Fighter-difficult to master, but still tough enough to weed out the boys from the men.

Speaking as a relatively “good” gamer, I can state without a doubt that the fighting game genre is the most inclusive of all game types; it feeds on competition and the level of devotion it takes to become remotely good is often off-putting for many gamers. Unlike popular shooters where you can have fun with your friends while attempting to get better at the game, fighting games leave the spotlight shining solely on you; there is no one to attack while they are distracted with one of your buddies. Likewise, there is no way to play with your friends, only against them. This can cause tension in your inner-circle if you or your friend happens to be pretty decent at the game, making it a tough game to socialize in. Mortal Kombat tries its best to get over these humps by introducing a King of the Hill mode where the winner continues playing until he or she is defeated, all while spectators look at the action from the lobby and toss tomatoes at the screen, amidst other fun expressions.

The talk of the town with Mortal Kombat was inarguably the robust Story Mode that complemented the fun arcade-style action, putting you in the boots of random world warriors as they tackled their own paths through Earth Realm and beyond. Raiden sends a message to himself in the past in an effort to prevent Shao Kahn’s stranglehold over humanity, allowing the development team to properly write their love letter to previous Mortal Kombat installments with new takes on classic fatalities, characters, and especially stages – even if Kombat Tomb was overlooked. I’ll never stop wondering how that pterodactyl made his way to Outworld. The backgrounds are one of the better portions of the game, as 90% of them have been properly updated to feel as familiar as ever with a dabbling of artistic fortitude. The Krypt is also back to keep devoted fans chugging along in order to unlock all of the characters, fatalities, artwork and other goodies well after the Story Mode has played out. Simply put, there is a lot of value to be had here.

Ultimately, the reason I stopped playing Mortal Kombat was due to the lackluster online stability at the title’s launch. More so than any other genre, lag can utterly destroy an online community before it even begins in the fighting genre, as often the difference between victory and defeat can rest in milliseconds of timing. To face an insurmountable hill to ascend in the form of a half-second of lag is game-breaking, as it’s impossible to adequately time combos when the timing of the game you that enter is unpredictable, varying from lobby to lobby. Consistency is a necessity in these types of games, period. Still, my time with Mortal Kombat was fond enough to provide new memories with the franchise, a feeling that has not been heard of since 1995.

Strategy has never been a selling point to the orgy of violence that is Mortal Kombat, but that changes with the arrival of this ninth entry into the long-running fighting series. It's not all about blood and guts these days; if you dig down deep, you might find a little bit of brain matter and cartilage, too.

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