I’m gonna dish up some hard truths about Mortal Kombat. (That song is awesome. That is not one of the hard truths.)
Western fighting games have long toiled in the shadow of Japanese fighting games. Whatever the reason, be it sheer volume, the head start they got in creating the genre, or some other factor, the field has always been led by Japan. Street Fighter, Virtua Fighter, Guilty Gear, even my eternal nemesis Tekken is Japanese. By comparison, it’s only a recent thing that people even tried to take Western fighting games seriously. Killer Instinct pro play has proven not quite deep enough to sustain serious interest, Skullgirls has the depth but not the community, and then there are the works of Netherrealm.
Mortal Kombat has historically been a joke. An intentional joke- the absurdity of punching heads off, babalities, “Toasty,” and Johnny Cage’s everything. I was never a fan of the older Mortal Kombats, but I appreciate what they were- they had a sense of humor about a genre that was often took itself far too seriously. The series sank into an abyss of poor quality games in subsequent hardware generations, and by the time of Mortal Kombat: Armageddon I really couldn’t possibly care less. Then in 2011, they released a game simply titled Mortal Kombat, often referred to as MK9. It was a great step forward for the series- retelling the story in a coherent way, modernizing the characters, and rethinking a lot of the kombat system. And, in series tradition, it was a very funny game.
The best joke that was ever told about MK9, however? The idea that there was any part of it worth taking seriously in a competitive setting.
Now, look, I’ve got no beef with Netherrealm. I think they know exactly what MK9 is, and was, and with MKX they’re making yet more steps towards a truly competitive game. They still have work to do before it’s a serious contender, but they’re learning and evolving. I have to respect that- it’s my very nature to appreciate self-betterment. But the Mortal Kombat community is nothing short of delusional. This is a fandom that can’t agree that a one-frame full screen meterless attack is broken (Ermac is a good design, guys). This is a fandom that tried to take Mortal Kombat 4 seriously, and if we can’t all agree that that game was garbage a conversation will be difficult.
Mortal Kombat 9 was a fun game. It was an inspired, brave game, and it charted a new course for a series that had lost its way. But every bit of praise heaped on the game rings completely hollow. The story mode is treated with an astonishing amount of reverence given that it’s a crap story with C-movie writing linking together unfun AI fights. The character design is wildly inconsistent as well: Scorpion and Sub-Zero are gaming legends for a reason, and Johnny Cage’s MK9 incarnation is fantastic, but major heroine Sonya Blade is… well, let me just show you.
It’s fine if Mortal Kombat doesn’t want to take itself seriously- hell, it’s advisable, given the subject matter. But this design is unimaginative and gross: the most crass form of female character design. It’s not exactly one of a kind, either- check out Princess Kitana.
This obviously isn’t just about clothes- the clothes are representative of the game’s attitude toward the characters. And again, to Netherrealm’s credit, they’re getting better. Sonya in MKX is a better dressed, smarter, more engaging character whom the game leads you to both respect and appreciate. And that’s the arc of the games as a whole- more and more, they are something you can both respect and appreciate unironically. The basic fighting mechanics, thoroughly flawed and messy in MK9, have started coming into their own in MKX as well. They are really figuring things out.
This isn’t about shaming the devs, or even the fans, for past mistakes. This is about grabbing some people who wax nostalgic about MK, shaking them by the shoulders, and exclaiming, “No, it was bad, you guys.” Because it was. It was bad. It’s getting better all the time. It has a ways to go yet. Let’s not deceive ourselves about where we started.
I’ll be the first to acknowledge that Mortal Kombat 9’s sexist attitude towards Sonya, Mileena and just about every other woman was messed up. Its method of DLC distribution was also astoundingly short-sighted (expecting everyone to download compatibility packs meant most people didn’t get to play online with Freddie or Rain), the net code was lousy, and yes, facing almost-unstoppable Ermac players frustrated me to no end. But underneath that nonsense, a fighting game unlike any I’d ever seen before shone bright enough to make these faults seem like piddling concerns.
As a kid, most of the fighting games I approached seemed to expect that I would already know how to throw fireballs, counter attacks, and somehow make it to the end of a match in one piece. They were the “cool kids” on the block: if you weren’t in the know, they didn’t want anything to do with you. Then MK9 came around, pulled up a chair and taught me how the pros snapped spines. Even in 2015, it remains one of the best introductions to the genre.
Once I had learned there were other ways to play besides mashing every button like my life depended on it, I got a taste for the thrills of proper Kombat. Aside from the aforementioned comedic level of gore on display, the whole package is oozing with style. Rather than fading to black and resetting the fighters after a round ends, the collapsed brawler brushes herself off and asks for more. The campaign, correctly assuming players would rather watch an utterly camp story instead of stagnant loading screens, smoothly weaves cutscenes in between fights. Even the simple uppercut is greeted with fanfare, prompting a sickening bone crunch, a massive chunk of damage and one of the series creators (occasionally) appearing from the corner of the screen.
Yes, MK9’s story is something of a mess. The given excuses for many of the fights are tenuous at best, and Johnny Cage’s very first scene makes it abundantly clear why he sounds incredibly different in MKX. However, this flimsy excuse for a plot takes a page from the 1995 film and plays its ludicrous cards confidently. Much like that critically mauled blockbuster, MK9 is essentially a group of earnest kids shooting a movie around their collection of grotesque action figures. You can point out the hundreds of reasons why they’re both garbage, and I’ll probably agree with you, but I’ll still be invested as movie stars battle brainwashed, cybernetic ninjas.
I do agree that where they’re at now is much better than where they used to be. However, I simply cannot discard the quality of MK9 itself or the way it influenced the fighting scene. MK9 was one of the first games to get tutorials right, and even though its quality is debatable, the love put into the story makes it a thoroughly enjoyable romp through a condensed retelling of Mortal Kombat 1 and 2. If the women were given a less-abhorrent design, I would feel comfortable recommending it to just about anyone with a stomach for cartoonish violence and equally grotesque one-liners.