Monday, September 7, 2015

Shades of Resonance: Disappointment and Regret - Memory Log #42

Mortal Kombat

One of the best parts about being an arcade-goer was that you could never predict when the next big game would be quietly lying there in wait for you right around the corner. Consider, for instance, my discovery of Mortal Kombat, whose unexpected debut left me speechless. I remember casually strolling through one of our local arcades on a rather quiet autumn day, when business seemed unusually slow, and suddenly stumbling upon a machine I hadn't seen before. It hadn't yet managed to garner the attention of the establishment's few scattered patrons, from what I could tell, but it certainly floored its current audience of one.

I was amazed by what I was seeing on Mortal Kombat's monitor; battling it out on that attract-mode screen were the most realistic-looking video-game characters I'd ever seen (I must have blocked out Pit-Fighter)! "What kind of wizardry is powering this?!" I wondered in my moment of awe as my mind sought to grasp the enormity of the game's mind-blowing visual achievement. It was impossible not to begin making the requisite comparison to Street Fighter II, whose "cartoony graphics" were no match (this was the start of my realistic-equals-superior phase, which was thankfully short-lived). Outside of Street Fighter II, I'd never cared for one-on-one combat games and had no interest in even sampling them, but this new "Mortal Kombat" game looked too good to pass up.

In that first session, I messed around with a few of its characters--Johnny Cage, Liu Kang, and the cool-looking "ninja" Scorpion--and instinctively defaulted to Street Fighter II controls, which didn't yield favorable results. The two games' control schemes were fairly similar--both featuring high and low punches of varying power--but Mortal Kombat's didn't seem to accommodate quarter- and half-circle motions; it was more through button-mashing and random controller-stick-waggling that I learned the combinations for the characters' special moves and particularly their always-abusable projectile attacks (Scorpion's corralling spear, tossed to the accompaniment of his gravelly, ill-intentioned cry of "Get over here!", was an instant favorite).

Though, for however fascinated I was with Mortal Kombat from a technical standpoint, I couldn't help but feel that its actual fighting engine wasn't as impressive. It had in particular one very serious overarching issue: All of its characters shared the same physical attributes, which left no room for diverse fighting styles; the action felt homogenized, the fighters entirely interchangeable. Sure--each character could execute two or three unique special moves, but there were otherwise no means of differentiation; they shared everything from standard move-set to range of dexterity to even physical dimensions. It made me miss Street Fighter II's selection of mixed martial artists, wrestling-themed brutes, wall-jumping acrobats, and whatever the hell Dhalsim was supposed to be ("But yoga doesn't give you stretchy-arms!").

The game didn't seem all that tactical, either, and I found that I could win simply by abusing rapid-fire high-punch combos, sweeping kicks, and uppercuts (when I could actually get the move to work, since I hadn't yet grasped the scheme's reliance on directional influence). I could reliably make it all the way to the first boss character, Goro, on the back of these three moves, which didn't seem right (the game was probably created more with multiplayer as the focus, I figured). Also, I didn't like that you had to hold a button to block, which was too complicated a solution (having to press too many buttons at a single time always caused me trouble); Street Fighter II's system of holding the control stick backwards felt much more natural.

It was difficult not to continue making these comparisons to Street Fighter II as I played. I didn't perceive Mortal Kombat to be a straight ripoff of Capcom's masterpiece, since it featured amazingly distinctive aesthetic qualities (realistic-looking graphics and thoroughly ominous-sounding music) and a control scheme based more around quickly tapping directions, but it was obvious from where it drew its inspiration. The problem was that it didn't follow the blueprint closely enough and fell well short of providing an exciting alternative. Oh, I was still hopelessly enamored with the game's realistic graphical style, but I just didn't enjoy playing it. And if all I cared about was how it looked, then I could be happy simply watching other people play it, since there was little about its gameplay that was convincing enough to compel me to drop any more quarters into its coin slot.

(I wasn't even aware of the game's top selling point--"Fatalities," whose existence might have been reason enough for me to continue experimenting with the game; there was no mention of them on the cabinet, and none of my CPU opponents ever used one on me, so I had no idea that they were in there. You'd think they'd program it so that CPU characters prioritized such moves, as to draw intrigue players who might see it and wonder, "What was that awesome finishing move, and how can I replicate it?")

I mostly steered clear of Mortal Kombat during future arcade visits, but I couldn't ignore that it had become a pretty big draw--the crowds surrounding it sometimes matching or exceeding the size of those I was used to seeing over by the Street Fighter II machines. There were times when I'd at least try to get into the spirit: I'd mix in with the pack, get on line, and await an opportunity to throw down with a human competitor, but I'd quickly lose interest as the fights would devolve into a contest to see who could more effectively spam sweeps and uppercuts. It didn't help that one credit cost 50 cents, which was too high a price for a game that offered such limited value. (Also, I took it as a laughable suggestion that its action was somehow twice as satisfying as Street Fighter II's).

Mortal Kombat just wasn't my kind of game.

Still, as it was with Street Fighter II, it was definitely a huge deal to me when Nintendo Power announced that the game would be coming to the SNES. Before then, I never would have imagined that the console was capable enough to render the game's "realistic graphics" (I had yet to realize that the "digitized sprites" and "motion-capture techniques" spoken of in the magazine weren't the result of some advanced form of alchemy); that the accompanying screenshots depicted a product that looked remarkably similar to the arcade game was incredible to me. It was hard not to get caught up in the hype, and I found myself an active participant in conversations about about why the game's shift to consoles was such a monumental event; I'd discuss with friend and classmate alike what this meant for the SNES and how the game's appearance there would impact the Street Fighter II-Mortal Kombat war.

I was in the camp that argued that Street Fighter II was the superior game, though we seemed to be a growing minority as Mortal Kombat's brand of ultra-violence (and particularly the gory nature of its Fatalities) was becoming more and more popular with kids my age. As far as they were concerned, extreme violence trumped quality by a wide margin.

I was tempted to go out and buy Mortal Kombat when it arrived in stores, because once again the industry's marketing worked well to convince me that I would be left behind if I didn't own the hot new product, but my better judgment won out. Instead, I would up renting it from Blockbuster a bunch of times, initially for the sake of curiosity--to see if the SNES was truly powerful enough to reproduce the arcade game's visuals--and then more learn about the game's intriguing storyline elements (like Street Fighter II's, each of its characters had a personal agenda; Johnny Cage wanted to prove that action stars weren't "fake," for instance, while the undead Scorpion sought vengeance against the Lin Kuei clan, which was responsible for his death) and its Fatality animations, the majority of which I'd never seen.

Really, I just wanted to witness the many ways in which the game's characters would go about tearing each other apart and dismembering one another. The decapitations and heart-rippings didn't traumatize me in any way, since they were so over-the-top and didn't make much sense from a physics standpoint (I would just roll my eyes at them), but I remember being somewhat disturbed by any Fatality that resulted in the fighter being reduced to a skeleton--more so when the victim would continue to scream after being defleshed. I guess I had an emotional hangup about the idea of a person's entire existence--his or her life and all of the experiences it entailed--being ended by someone who wants to callously rob them of all form; the thought of seeing someone's skeletal frame being exposed in such a way was too conceivable, especially considering what I'd been read about history's tyrants and their torture methods.

As I watched these Fatalities play out, I concluded that the game's creators were probably a bunch of sickos who met for lunch with the Shadowgate people once a week for content-planning sessions. (Strangely, I didn't notice that the SNES version was bereft of blood or that NOA had tampered with it in any way. That blood was forbidden but brutally slicing a guy in half was a-OK served as further proof that the company's censorship policies were ridiculously warped).

In the home version, my choice of character skewed toward Scorpion, Sub-Zero and Sonya, who had the easiest-to-use, most-abusable special moves (spears, teleport punches, leg grabs, and immobilizing ice balls, mainly) and the only Fatalities I could successfully execute. Though, my affinity for the Lin Kuei boys might have had more to do with what I discussed back in my Rolling Thunder piece: When it came to my toys and games, I had a weird fetish for uniformed characters that were made available in the multiple color-shades that denoted their rank--the hooded minions of Geldra, for example, or the many units of G.I. Joe's Cobra organization.

The best thing about becoming intimately familiar with the game from my home environment was that I could take my knowledge to the arcade and impress fellow arcade-goers by pulling off Fatalities, which was apparently an elusive skill. "Woah--how'd you do that?" they'd ask me.

I still wasn't a big fan of how Mortal Kombat played, but I found some joy in teaching other people about the game's intricacies.

And that was about the limit of Mortal Kombat's value to me. Once I'd seen all of the endings--how the characters' individual stories concluded--and witnessed all of the Fatalities, the game had exhausted all of its worth. That's how I'll remember Mortal Kombat--the game whose audacious shock-value tactics demanded your attention as the means for distracting you from the fact that it was nowhere in the league of Street Fighter II, its superior rival. If the two games had any common attributes, they were purely coincedental; they were both fighting games, they both started life in arcades, and then they both made an impact on the console scene. That's it. 

To put it bluntly: The quality comparison between them is less "Marvel vs. DC" and more "Star Wars vs. Homeboys in Outer Space."

I did wind up playing a fair bit of Mortal Kombats 2 and 3, which I found to hold equally limited appeal. That is, I saw all of the Fatality, Animality, Babality, and Friendship animations, and then I moved on. If anything, I liked experimenting with the new Lin Kuei characters--Reptile, Rain, Smoke and Noob Saibot. I prioritized Noob, of course, because I was simultaneously in that darkness-is-cool phase; though, I wasn't entirely sure if he was officially a member of their clan or if Midway's designers were now randomly creating palette-swapped characters just to see if they could get away with it. I also took to the now-playable Shang Tsung, who had that alluring transformation ability; it largely went to waste, sadly, since I'd mostly transform into Scorpion or Sonya because I preferred their special moves (and, again, their Fatalities were the easiest to execute).

"Then why didn't you just pick them at the start?" you ask.

I don't know. Leave me alone.

The only series game I've ever owned is Mortal Kombat Trilogy, which I bought out of desperation during one of the N64's drought periods. I immediately regretted the purchase, because (a) N64 games were pricey and (b) I didn't have anyone to play it with, as I'd since lost contact with all of my friends. I extracted what value I could by creating a personalized guide wherein I charted out all of the characters' attacks and provided descriptions of their finishing moves, though I had little use for the information by the time I was finished collecting it. That was indicative of my short history with the Mortal Kombat series: I'd have fun with one of its games for a day or two and then forever toss it aside. Trilogy was my last stop. I haven't followed the series since.

Now, I won't deny that Mortal Kombat has had a massive impact on my favorite medium. Much like the demigods who rule its universe, Mortal Kombat has created tide-shifting conflict wherever it's gone. It represented a considerably strong contender to the fighting-throne, forcing Capcom to furiously compete for market share on whichever platforms hosted a version of Street Fighter II. It irrevocably shaped the 16-bit war, serving as fodder for Nintendo and Sega, who used the mainstream perception of its violent subject-matter as the means for negatively framing the other's character. And it pissed off enough industry-hating mothers, politicians and religious types to instigate crucial court battles and congressional intervention, all of which necessitated the creation of the bureaucratic Entertainment Software Rating Board, otherwise known as the League of Distinguished Killjoys.

Mortal Kombat was an instrument of both destruction and change. On one hand, it was a major player in the industry's shift toward mature-rated content, which many saw as positive; but on the other, its specter left a permanent stain on the industry and single-handedly destroyed the reputation of Nintendo, which still hasn't recovered from the deep wounds resulting from Sega disparaging labeling efforts. I should despise Mortal Kombat for fostering such an environment, but I don't. Nintendo was going to have to atone for its shortsighted policies sooner or later, even if it had the moral high ground in this particular instance. Mortal Kombat simply accelerated the process, much like it accelerated the market's demand for ultra-violent games.

I don't lament the fact that things headed in that direction, but I can't stand the attitudes it created--many of which are persistent today. If there was a lesson to be learned from Street Fighter vs. Mortal Kombat, it was that the market had plenty of room for wildly different interpretations of the same idea--an abundance of opportunity for the exploration and proliferation of many divergent themes and art styles.

It's just too bad that so many of fellow enthusiasts missed the point.

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