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.
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.
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.
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.
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.