Wednesday, September 13, 2023

Mortal Kombat (Arcade/SNES/Genesis, 1993)


It's MORTAL MONDAY, and you know what that means.

It's been 30 years since Mortal Kombat landed on home consoles in the memorable day known as Mortal Monday. When I was a kid, this was a huge day, and all anyone could talk about for the entire school week was MORTAL KOMBAT. We'd go out on the playground at recess and act out MK fights, yelling "Get over here!" while pantomiming spears and freezes.

This really was a moment in time, and if you weren't there...well, I'll tell you all about it. While further posts will focus on whatever version of the game I played, this one's gonna run down all the home releases of Mortal Monday and hopefully give a sense of the lightning in a bottle that this game captured in 1993.



The Arcade version has these sweet introductions for every character. The backstories of all of these characters are interesting and really convey that there's a whole world behind this game. Especially impressive when considering that most fighting games at the time were extremely campy and by and large the characters weren't particularly compelling.

Johnny Cage has the best introduction. Sudden Violence was so good that it won awards! No word on if they eventually made Dragon Fist III.

This is what I mean. The game felt real, like there was a ton of backstory to explore via comics and extended universe material...or just your imagination.

The fact that they kept the roster of characters small for this game probably helped in making each character interesting and compelling. They definitely went with quality over quantity and there isn't a weak point to be found with this roster.

Liu Kang is pretty much the unofficial "main character", so he's front and center.

Raiden (sometimes spelled Rayden) is a literal God of Thunder and probably the strongest of this lot when it comes down to it.

Scorpion and Sub-Zero are ninja assassins and incredibly memorable. Ask anyone on the street to name two characters from this series and you'll probably get these two.

Sonya is a special forces pro, and Kano's archenemy, with particularly good special moves.

Kano is a fearsome criminal with a Terminator skull in half of his head. He's a member of the Black Dragon Syndicate, which Sonya's special forces have been hunting for a while. In Mortal Kombat 4 we finally meet the leader of the Black Dragon Syndicate, but we're getting ahead of ourselves.

Johnny Cage is the closest thing to a "weak link" this roster has, and he isn't a weak link at all. Guy is swimming in confidence and can back it up. Probably the most "charismatic" of the bunch. He's only a weak link because he wears a mere red belt and I'm pretty sure the rest of them are black belts.

OR SO I THOUGHT in 1993. Turns out that in quite a few martial arts, red belts are equivalent to black belts, or are even higher-up and awarded to black belts who reach higher levels of dan.

Each character has at least one "melee" special move and one projectile special move. Sub-Zero's freeze is probably the most infamous (and annoying to have to fight).

What are the odds Raiden was heavily based on the lightning dude from Big Trouble in Little China?

Between fights sometimes you get to "test your might" which means hammering buttons. I'm really bad at this, but occasionally fluke into a win. The best part of this is seeing a close-up of your character in well-animated motion-capture visuals.

I almost forgot. Perhaps the game's biggest claim to fame... the fatalities. Here's Sub-Zero ripping his opponent's head off WITH spine, Predator 2 style. These finishing moves were so brutal that they caused numerous moral busybodies to fly off the handle and try to impose some sort of censorship on the video game industry. All it really resulted in was the creation of MSRP ratings, because they had to make sure kids wouldn't emulate this game and rip out other kids' spines.

Johnny Cage's Shadow Kick is one of the coolest moves in this game, and in the Arcade version it looks especially crisp. They did such a good job with the motion-capturing, using real actors.

Johnny's deadliest move, however, is the Van Damme inspired Split Punch. He does the splits and, well, punches his opponent right in the nads. And make no mistake, this hurts just as much for Sonya.

Liu Kang's fireball always felt superior to Johnny Cage's fireball to me. I used to have debates about who had the better fireball. Green is technically a "hotter" color than orange as far as energy goes, but Liu Kang's fireball is bigger and he throws it with both hands while Johnny flings his with one.

Probably the deadliest move in the game, at least against the CPU, is Scorpion's spear. You can absolutely spam this plus uppercuts and the CPU barely knows how to handle it. Far and away the easiest way to beat the game.

Johnny Cage just decapitated himself! ...why are there two heads rolling around?

Of course, a fighting game needs to have a big, memorable boss. And here, that's the four-armed menace known as Goro. This big hoss likes to grab his foes and pummel them, and of course he's got his own fireball attack.

He's weak to jump kicks, though. Like really weak to them to the point that they almost trivialize him. Especially stationary jump kicks. With how similar his moveset is to the other characters, and the dragon emblem in the middle of the character select, I was SURE that there was a way to play as this guy back in the day. Unfortunately, nope. Playable Goro wouldn't be a thing until...Mortal Kombat 4 (again it comes up). Probably the biggest claim to fame for that game, bringing back this big dude.

But wait! That wasn't Goro at all, it was Shang Tsung in disguise. The ancient, shape-shifting sorcerer functions as the Big Bad of the MK Tournament, using it to try and take over Earth by defeating all of its best warriors or something. If he can win the tournament, it'll "unbalance the furies" (whatever that means) and then his army from Outworld will invade Earth. So yes, there's an entire second world that we don't see in this game. And Shang Tsung also has a higher power, Emperor Shao Kahn. So when it comes down to it, in a way this game mostly now functions as setup for Mortal Kombat II. Which is probably still the best game in the series, but we'll get to that.

There's also a secret boss. Reptile is super-compelling. He's green, and he has the special moves of both Sub-Zero AND Scorpion. Far and away the most OP fighter in this game. He isn't a literal reptile and I suspect that was sort of retconned in with the second game.

Also worth noting is that Reptile's name in the health bar reads "Scorpion" because of how the game was coded. Basically they just reskinned Scorpion to create this guy, and every few seconds his moveset switches to Sub-Zero's, then back to Scorpion's. It's sort of like how Shang Tsung operates.

The actual Scorpion seems to be dead on the background spikes. Maybe that has something to do with the existence of Reptile in this particular room? Who knows! Again, this game was all about using your imagination.

Each character has their own ending, as is fighting game tradition, and Raiden's particularly makes him look like a total douche. While characters like Liu Kang are fighting for the lives of everyone on Earth, for Raiden this is just Tuesday.

"HEH HEH HEH. ...sorry."

Next we've got the Super NES version, AKA the version I personally grew up with. As is new tradition, here's Nintendo Power's coverage of it. This (October 1993) was the first issue I ever got after subscribing, which was tremendous timing... except I missed the Mario All-Stars issue by one month, and that's the one I really wanted. Well, I got it in like 2012...

I remember wondering who that guy is being pummeled by Goro. A secret character, perhaps? Someone we haven't been introduced to yet? I figured it was just some guy. But nope, that guy in the picture is actually Great Kung Lao, the guy Goro defeated to become champion in the first place. I think this comic is the only time we ever actually see him in the canon.

This coverage makes the game look SO COOL. Which it is.

The only downside was that, being the October issue, it missed Mortal Monday by more than half a month. So the game was already out for a few weeks by the time people got ahold of this issue. That is, if I'm remembering right that NP was particularly punctual and consistent with the release dates of magazines.

They have these snippets of comics that are particularly tantalizing. All of them look like they're excerpts from some larger body of work...and I want to see the rest of it. They did the same thing with the Super Metroid player's guide. Lots of comic excerpts from the actual comics we got, then other excerpts showing much later parts of the game that the actual comics didn't cover...making me wonder if there was a fuller, "complete" version of the comics out there. Far as I know there wasn't. Same case here, though MK would sure get plenty of supplementary material (both good and very, very bad).

The comics do a great job setting the stage, as we see Kano in action with the Black Dragon Syndicate. 

Raiden (...Rayden?) also puts Shang Tsung in his place. Guy is a Literal Lightning God, lest we forget.

They made Kano's knife throw look like the baddest move in the game. And they give away the secret to defeating Goro here: Jump kicks. Repeated straight-up jump kicks. This works for every character. I always defeated Goro this way every time I played, and never had a real fight with him... until today.

The special move inputs are the most important things on these pages, but it goes so far beyond that with all of the world-building and scene-setting. Nintendo Power gradually got worse at this over time, and by the time MK3 came along the coverage was pretty much just codes (sorry, "kodes") without much flavor. I'll get into that later. And the MK4 coverage in NP is so forgettable that I doubt I'll even get into it.

They make Sub-Zero look so awesome here. It's nice that they've got "Vs. Goro" sections for everyone, though again, jump kicks. What they really needed was a "Vs. Endurance Matches" section because those fights are roooough.

Our last two characters round out the coverage. We know Scorpion will stop at nothing to destroy Sub-Zero (and is justified in this pursuit). We know Sonya is trying to bring Kano and his syndicate to justice. The stage is set for... MORTAL KOMBAAAAAAT.

Oh yeah, and Scorpion's spear is called the "Van Dam Spear" in this game for some reason. I think in further games it was simply the spear. Another reference to Van Damme, no doubt. The creators of this game tapped a wealth of movies and 80's camp when they put it together, with great results.

SNES version starts with Goro backhanding the Acclaim logo, which is kind of legendary at this point. This is it, the home version.

MORTAL.

F*******ING.

MONDAY.

Character select for comparison. The level of detail is a lot higher in the arcade version. Just wait, the SNES in 1993 isn't at full power yet. Mortal Kombat II and onward would look much closer-together between the different console versions.

Always liked the lighting on Goro here, looks menacing. Endurance 3 is probably the real Big Bad of this game though. Cool of them to show you what awaits when you start the game.

I'm not working by the hour, so I blast through with Sub-Zero. With the memory limitations of the time, his freeze just pallet-swaps his foe to a "frozen color". Later games would add icicles and a real deep freeze look to the attack.

I manage to freeze Raiden mid-move! His fearsome "AY-OH-BA-BO-LAYYYY!" was treacherous on the playground when my friends and I would launch it at each other.

CONGRESS WAS RIGHT

While the detail is lower, you can still get a good sense of the motion-capture techniques at work here. However, there's one big thing that makes the SNES version feel nerfed: No blood. That's right, they took all the blood out of this version. Instead, attacks just cause sweat to fly off of your opponents. Lots of sweat. It's almost as comical as the blood. Nintendo had more intense Standards & Practices than Sega and made the mistake of thinking this would fly with the playerbase. Sega on the other hand was brash, hip, and "mature" so they had all the blood. More on that later.

The very first time I ever saw Mortal Kombat was in an arcade, and it was this very battle right here. Scorpion and Liu Kang battling it out, played by two grown men (while a line of kids waited to maybe get a shot at the cabinet). I was immediately intrigued by the game and wanted to know more about it. Assumed Liu Kang was the hero of the game and wasn't too impressed with Scorpion.

It's the BATTLE OF ICONS as the ninjas duke it out. This first game may not have the scope of the second, but it does what it does very well. The only possible improvement I can think of for it character-wise is if Reptile were playable. Maybe Goro too!

Well, I'm in luck because romhacks now exist that make Reptile playable. Since the CPU switches between his two movesets every few seconds, playable Reptile changes movesets every time you press Block. Scorpion moveset = Arm up, as seen here. Sub-Zero moveset = Arm at chest.

The mirror-match is a fun time, as the Bruce Lee inspired Liu Kang must face himself.

For a fun game, try to figure out what movie or pop culture reference inspired everything in Mortal Kombat.

This part of the game is particularly bad and takes me many many tries. I end up going with Scorpion just to get it done, gimping my way through with spears and uppercuts.

Goro appears immediately after Endurance 3, with no trip to the battle ladder screen. Your character is still posing from their victory when Goro shows up and does the same, maybe to mock him.

I was always a Kintaro Guy, and think he's a bigger and better version of Goro in pretty much every regard, but I've gained more appreciation of Goro as time has gone on.

I have my first-ever "real fight" with Goro (meaning no straight-up jump kicks) and it's much tougher than I thought. No wonder Nintendo Power devoted so much space to it. Turns out Liu Kang's Flying Kick is very effective, like they said.

Raiden may or may not be based on the lightning guy from Big Trouble in Little China, but Shang Tsung is 100% based on the old version of Lo Pan from the same movie. He even has a younger form just like that guy.

Shang Tsung has a projectile attack like everyone else, and his is a fearsome FLAMING SKULL. It's bigger and more potent than anyone else's fireballs, and he'll carry this over to the second game with an improved version.

He spends most of his time impersonating other characters though, and puts up a decent fight. With that, I've beaten the game without gimping anything.

Liu Kang is basically the "canon" winner of this first tournament, and gives it back to its original owners: The Shaolin Monx. You see, 2000 years ago Goro defeated their champion, Kung Lao, and it's belonged to him ever since. And presumably Shang Tsung. Not sure why it took 2000 years to get around to attempting to "unbalance the furies" (still unsure what that means).

Also, Goro is mad old. So is Tsung. At this point I'd be amazed if the Shaolin even remembered this was their tournament to begin with.

Note: Kung Lao 2000 years ago is not the same guy as modern Kung Lao, who shows up in the second game.

The Genesis version starts with this giant block of text that seems to be a roundabout way to tell you that this game might contain... A CODE?

No WAY!

The Genesis version was widely regarded as the "superior" version back in the day and was one of the few major W's that Sega got over the SNES. Is it all that, though? I'm gonna find out.

In some ways, the Genesis version actually does look better. The shading and the motion capture seems closer to the arcade version. The UI is significantly worse than the SNES though.

The music is also remixed quite a bit and now contains a lot of "Genesis Twang", which I think usually results in better-sounding tunes with more percussion.

All of that said, the real reason kids preferred the Genesis version... was that it kept the blood from the arcade version intact. This was a huge thing at the time, that Sega wasn't censored like Nintendo.

Problem is...the blood isn't there by default, you have to enter a "blood code" just to activate it. So it's kinda hidden in the game, and if you don't know the code, then you'll be pummeling sweat off of your foes the same as the SNES version.

...yeah, that giant text block when I turned the game on was about the "blood code". Honestly they probably should have just had the blood on by default.

Either way, personally I'm not that into the fountains of blood that can be found in the rest of the series so I'll accept one MK game without it.

What I'm more into: Look at Sonya's firm haunches!

I keep failing at Test Your Mights. One of these times...

Alright, I think I finally figured it out. You hammer multiple buttons at once with multiple fingers, sorta like you're playing a piano, then hit Start the second it tops out (because it drops FAST).

I DID IT, I FINALLY DID IT

While I think it's better than the SNES version (blood or no blood), one big deal-breaker in the Genesis version is that it has limited continues. This makes the Endurance Matches less of a big speed bump and more of a full-on roadblock until you Git Gud. The game is still imminently beatable, but going back to the beginning after losing a few times isn't ideal.

That concludes this look at the first game in the series and what an important part of so many childhoods this game was.

BUT WAIT! There was one other home TV console version that dropped on Mortal Monday.

A version that is largely forgotten.

A version nobody seems to remember because nobody really bought it.


It's Mortal Kombat... on SEGA MASTER SYSTEM.

My God! Could they pull the game off on an 8-bit system? Surprised they didn't try to do an NES version while they were at it.

Kano is missing for some reason. They didn't have room for one more character?

Yep, this is definitely 8-bit.

The battle ladder looks like a bit of a mess.

So, DID they pull off 8-bit Mortal Kombat?

Well...ah...not really. The framerate is TERRIBLE on here and it seems to be programmed very similarly to the Game Boy and Game Gear versions (more on those later). Just incredibly choppy.

The characters also stand really far apart at the start of battles for some reason. This version actually gives you a lot more room to maneuver onscreen, probably because they had to downsize the characters.

I use the term "maneuver" loosely though, because the 2 FPS framerate makes it tough to put together any kind of organized offense. I mostly just mash buttons, though I pulled off the freeze a few times.

All in all, I'd like to say this is a respectable 8-bit port of the game but it's really hard to give it that kind of credit. Let's just say it's forgotten for a very good reason, but now I'd kinda like to see what an NES version would look like.

That's it for the first Mortal Kombat and the various kombatants that leaped onto home consoles on Mortal Monday. Tune in next time when I replay the best game in the series, Mortal Kombat II. Super NES only this time, as Nintendo closed the gap with other versions of the game.

In the meantime:

Here's a run-through of the SNES version. A dose of "playing games with your wife" and a fun time. Big props to her for being a good sport about watching me play games. Though to be fair, who doesn't love Mortal Kombat?





10 comments:

  1. There's full versions of the promotional comic around on the internet if you know where to look (As well as the ones for MK 2 and MK 4, cause they made one-shots for them too), and it was included in Deadly Alliance as a Krypt bonus, although I don't remember the quality being that good there.

    The Van Damme references are likely intentional, leftover nods from the fact that the game was supposed to be based on Bloodsport at some point.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Nice, I'll track those down. Johnny Cage kinda looks like he's based on Bloodsport outfit-wise as well.

      Delete