Posted by: seanmalstrom | October 23, 2012

Email: Mortal Kombat makes me feel like a “technologist”

I remember one of your articles which described the nature of the “Working class” and the “Technologist” in regards to the Wii and Pong. I can’t remember the exact name of the article, but you’ve hit a nail so hard, it literally felt like something was hammered into my mind.

I recently got back into playing fighting games starting with Bloody Roar and Guilty Gear. Both happen to be 2 of my favorite games in regards to both 2D and 3D fighters. One of the reasons is because both games feel so free form. Like you have no limitations in what you can do. You can be as aggressive as can be without too much punishment. It’s like one of those games where I can really blame myself for when I lose a match. I feel like I have more control over what I can do in both games. A lot of other fighting games do not offer this feeling of freedom in regards to actual fighting. They’re usually slower, more defensive based, and for better or worse… “broken”. One of the things I’ve noticed in other fighting games aside from the aforementioned titles is that you do not see any variation between tactics. It’s usually a match of who can spam the same attack over and over again, or at least it seems that way.

Bloody Roar and Guilty Gear are (seemingly) games designed for the working class type people. They’re simpler, less technical, and just as violent as a majority of fighting games. If I were to describe myself in regards to my fondness of these games, I’d say I was a working class type of gamer (I don’t know if that made any sense.)

But one franchise in particular makes me feel like a technologist, and that is Mortal Kombat. I, for the life of me, cannot see why people love this franchise after the 90s. I could see the appeal of Tekken, Street Fighter, and maybe Soul Calibur (to this day, I still believe it is popular because of Link’s addition to the gamecube version of SC2), but Mortal Kombat? I can’t see it.

I mean yeah, back in the 90s, it was probably one of the most influential fighting games ever. It caused so much controversy and even established the ESRB. I was literally forbidden to play fighting games by my own mother back then because of Mortal Kombat (and being pissed off because all of the kids at school were always talking about the fatalities, and passing notes on how to do them in class). Now I’m in my 20’s and I just don’t see the appeal anymore to see why people get so angry when someone criticizes the franchise. People literally have an embolism over saying the games aren’t even good.

But moving on, one of the issues I had with MK games were

1. The movesets. Back then, I get that a lot of game companies made overly complex commands for special attacks (Geese’s Deadly Storm Super from the Fatal Fury games for example), but in MK some command inputs aren’t practical or even silly. For example, in Street Fighter, you have basic punches and kicks which have varying strengths of special moves mapped for the buttons. You could do a Fireball, Shin Fireball, and a Dragon Punch all on the same button if you wanted. In MK? You have special moves mapped separately for every button. You could have Scorpion’s spear mapped to a High punch, but a teleport mapped to a Medium Punch, or a kick. There were no varying strengths for special attack, so each button was used for individual special attacks. What made them worse were how most of the move inputs felt strange and unnatural. Needing to do a Down, Forward motion for 1 move and then a weird motion like Down, Back, Forward for another move on a separate button became tiresome and difficult to remember. Infact, because of the weird inputs, none of the character’s moves were easy to remember. For example, Sub-Zero’s slide requires you to press 4 buttons at once. A simple slide. You’d think pressing 4 buttons simultaneously would do something really cool (like a fatality) but it’s for a simple slide move. It felt illogical. While in more recent games, this kind of complexity was lowered, the moves still had weird motions and were mapped on separate buttons. There’s nothing worse in a fighting game with over 63 characters than having to pause the game and constantly refer to a moves list because they’re so hard to remember. As well having strange button inputs, performing the inputs also feel off. In practically every other fighting game, if you wanted to do a fireball, you would usually roll your thumb from Down to Forward in one smooth motion. In MK, you literally just tap Down and then Forward. You have to take your thumb off of the D-Pad after tapping down once. It doesn’t feel like your performing a special move. It feels like your entering a cheat code during the match.

2. Rigid, awkward, and stiff movement/animation. Since I’ve been spoiled by Bloody Roar and Guilty Gear, Mortal Kombat just feels like you’re playing through syrup. The characters move so incredibly slow and haphazardly, it’s like you’re playing a beta of Tekken. There’s something wrong with a series if you needed to include a run button when other fighters at the time were using double taps on the D-Pad to run or dash about the arena. This isn’t present in the recent games, of course, but it came off as silly. Even in the 3D games, the characters feel less mobile than ever. Infact, the recovery times for every… single… attack are insanely long. You have to make sure your moves connect or are not blocked or else you are completely vulnerable to attack. I’ve noticed that the characters, when they finished the animation for their attack (doesn’t matter what attack it is), they do a completely new animation that returns them back to their original fighting stance. Why!? It can’t be for the sake of strategy unless the development team intended to punish players for not perfectly connecting every attack you do. And god help you if you challenge the CPU on hard mode. You will be eaten alive as the CPU can miss an attack and then immediately block without finishing their attack animations. This probably has something to do with the motion capture techniques that they abused. The animations come off as stiff and awkward looking. It doesn’t even look realistic, even compared to Tekken. It’s like Boon and gang looked at a couple of videos on Youtube, told the motion capture actors to mimic the moves seen in said videos, and then called it a day.

3. Lack of uniqueness with characters. And I don’t mean palette swaps of every single ninja prior to the 3D games. In the original games, all of the characters had the same (or similar) animations for their attacks. The rapid punches, the sweeps, the roundhouses, the uppercuts, everything. The fighting styles lacked variation, even with the 3D fighters that presented different “styles” for the characters, right down to reusing certain attacks for different styles. This probably has something to do with the fact that many characters have fighting styles that are derived from Shaolin kung fu (Reptile practices Pao Chui and has similar kicks to Kai who uses Moi Fah, both derived from Shaolin Kung fu), but that just seems like an excuse to be lazy with programming. How did Reptile come to learn Shaolin Martial Arts? Since when did Jax Briggs learn Muay Thai!? The only things that made them stand out were of course the special moves…. which were reused. Almost every character can teleport. I do not know what it is with Ed Boon and teleporting, but I can probably name at least 20 characters that can zip around the room with no trouble at all. It’s a little disheartening to hear so much about the new MK and see previews of characters once again teleporting around the stages. From Scorpion to Sektor or Quan-Chi to Noob Saibot. The “Shoto-clones” of Street Fighter pale in comparison to what MK does. Both Johnny Cage and Jade possess a Shadow Kick. Reptile, Kano, and Blaze can curl into a ball and strike their opponents easily. Jarek now has Scorpion’s trademark Spear. It’s laziness at best.

4. Certain mechanics seem to be “Birdmen fallacies” at work. In the newest MK, they decided to take a page out of Tekken and map all of the buttons to every character’s limb. Why? Simply put, Ed Boon likes Tekken. I can’t say how well that was done as I haven’t played the game, but having played the previous 3D games, I can assume that it’s haphazard and pointless to the overall fighting. Watching videos, you see people jabbing with the same limb almost 90% of the time. The weapons in the 3D titles were probably thrown in due to Soul Calibur and other weapon-based fighters, and they felt sluggish. In Armageddon, I never use the weapons due to their lack of practicality in a match. I keep asking myself why they were added to the series as they’ve done little to add to the gameplay. The rush down combos from MK3-4 were borrowed from other dial-a-combo systems at the time (probably Killer Instinct as it was released a year earlier than MK3), and were criticized by the fans themselves for adding more of a learning curve than already needed. The air-combos and combo breakers seem either pointless or even abusive. It seems like they add in just about anything that seems “cool” at the time, but they never try to understand how they work in the context of fighting games.

The series has so many flaws at this point, I can’t say I’m willing to give the ninth game in the series a chance. The fighting is stiff, rigid and slow, the mechanics don’t as they should, and the characters lack any real variety aside from being more or less powerful versions of other characters. I feel like the hardcore gaming crowd in saying “THIS GAEM R CASUEL TRASH!”. You play a lot of fighting games after a while, Mortal Kombat just feels tacky and shallow with no real passion put into the development process. A lot of corners are cut just to put out whatever sells best. And yet… it works in the end.

I’m frightened to admit that the series is just be more interesting than Bloody Roar. I mean, Bloody Roar has violence and blood (hell, the moves look extremely painful), but Mortal Kombat has several characters, a semi-interesting mythos, easter-eggs, movies, comics, everything. Bloody Roar just has turning into animals. Who would that appeal to this day in age? How would turning into animals compete with being able to cut a person in half with a razor hat? There’s a certain satisfaction from playing against an annoying opponent and being able to do something incredibly gruesome to them in the end. Part of the reason of Mortal Kombat’s fame was the desire to not have fatalities being performed on you. Your character was essentially your avatar, so having your avatar demolished in a bloody, horrible death became a motivating factor to not get your ass kicked. No other fighting game can capture this kind of intensity when it comes to finishing moves.

Still, you have to go through 2-3 rounds of shallow gameplay just to get to the good parts, but that’s just me. I only wished Bloody Roar would’ve caught on, but it doesn’t appeal to anybody.

That reminds me. What ever happened to Killer Instinct? It had some great music!

You talk much about the gameplay and mechanics, but what about the content? Was the reason why Mortal Kombat was popular was because of the gameplay? Perhaps in part, but that wasn’t the ‘special sauce’.

Watch this.

Originally, Mortal Kombat was going to be a game based on the movie Bloodsport with a digitized Van Damme. Let’s take a look…

With hit video games, I do not think gameplay is the centerpiece of why people play and what attracts people to play. Gameplay, like good actors or directors for a movie, are not noticed by the audience. It’s important, but there is something even more important. It is the content that is being consumed. While Street Fighter 2 was a Eastern style supernatural ninja tournament game, Mortal Kombat was the Western style. Mortal Kombat is intentionally not cute. In some ways, the game seems downright pagan especially with the fatalities.

When you watch these old movies and cartoons, something else leaps out. It is the feeling of empowerment. Why did kids love the Karate Kid? Aside from kids loving karate, they loved how the film made them feel empowered. Theater has long been used to create feelings of empowerment (One example is George Washington had the play ‘Cato’ performed for troops at Valley Forge for that purpose). How many of you like movies like 300 or Gladiator? It’s not so much the feeling of heroism as it is the audience feeling empowered. Why do women watch chick flicks? They feel empowered by it. The girl is able to trap and ensnare the stud. Man may conquer the world, but it is woman who conquers man.

Mortal Kombat was devoured, aside from its gameplay, due to its feelings of empowerment to young people and making them feel connected to some ancient, bloody, and pagan past (in the bizarre universe that is Mortal Kombat). The content was strong enough that aside from the endless chain of sequels Mortal Kombat has had, it did create the only successful video game movie.

Note how the trailer starts off with ‘there is a warrior inside all of us’ as it takes these ‘normal’ people from Earth into this new universe. The makers of the movie really nailed Mortal Kombat’s content appeal which would explain why the movie was successful.

If gameplay mattered so much, then why do licensed games sell so well? It is because people are more interested in the content. In looking at Mortal Kombat with it still selling games and making movies, one has to conclude Mortal Kombat has highly appealing content that is its ‘special sauce’.

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