Mortal Kombat runs out of ideas
The Washington Post September 22, 2023
It’s fitting in many ways that Jean-Claude Van Damme appears in Mortal Kombat 1, a reboot of the 31-year-old fighting franchise.
In 1992, John Tobias and Ed Boon hoped to make a martial arts fighting game that placed the “Bloodsport” star as one of its central characters. They were already working on a game version of Van Damme sci-fi vehicle “Universal Soldier,” but they couldn’t make the star align for what eventually became Mortal Kombat.
Now in Mortal Kombat 1, released Sept. 14, a three-decade-old wish is fulfilled. Van Damme plays an alternate version of Johnny Cage, the fictional Hollywood star created to lampoon and satirize him. Like Elon Musk and his long obsession with calling a company “X,” the Mortal Kombat franchise feels like it never outgrew its youthful desires.
That goes for the story of Mortal Kombat 1. It’s the second attempt by developer NetherRealm Studios to reboot the franchise, yet beyond a few superficial changes, it reuses the same characters with basically the same characteristics under the same circumstances. When the credits rolled, I did not gain a great understanding of series protagonist Liu Kang, who was promoted in Mortal Kombat 11 from zombie to the actual god of all creation. (And no, I don’t have the time to explain how that happened or why he was a zombie in the first place.)
The Mortal Kombat series are basically R-rated Marvel movies, and it shares much in common with the blockbuster films. The more devout consumers are rewarded for their knowledge of and dedication to the back catalogue. The story will end with people yelling and shooting different-colored laser beams at each other or at a thing.
On the flip side of that comparison, this single game franchise has a character roster that’s as diverse and fun as the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe. The writers are without parallel when it comes to filling out last-century action movie archetypes, giving them quirky character traits and placing them in simple yet relatable soap opera drama. Shang Tsung, a Fu Manchu-stroking kung fu villain who glowers and says ridiculous things like “Your soul is mine,” remains an iconic antagonist.
These distinct, memorable personalities have helped make Mortal Kombat king of the fighting game genre when it comes to sales. For the first two hours of Mortal Kombat 1, it plays with audience expectations while coloring new lives and stories for these old characters. After Liu Kang reset the universe, Shang Tsung is no longer a powerful sorcerer, instead recast as a literal snake oil salesman down on his luck. Thunder god Raiden is now a mortal and pleasant farmer boy with “aw shucks” charm.
Even the titular Mortal Kombat tournament plays out differently than it has in the past, and there’s something tantalizing in watching and waiting for the inevitable turmoil as these volatile people can’t help but find themselves in conflict. When that bubble finally bursts, that’s when the disappointment sets in. The second half of the plot relies on already-used story beats from past games, including the 2011 reboot attempt, which was also frustratingly named just Mortal Kombat. NetherRealm seems incapable of creating a new type of story with these characters. In theme and presentation, this is a series in arrested development.
Ironic, considering that the original game is often credited for the “maturation” of the video games industry. Its depiction of gore and violence led to a nationwide moral panic that ended in 1993 with the U.S. Senate threatening government regulation of video games, and that in turn created a national standard for age and content ratings for video games.
There is still great entertainment value here anyway. Mortal Kombat 1 is never shy about using one liners and making winking references to past games and adventures, even outright just saying the name of the game. This entire story is a constant stream of “they said the thing” moments. The cast is acted and animated with excellence, particularly Mara Junot as Sindel, reformed as a gentle sovereign, and Alan Lee, sneering as series villain Shang Tsung. NetherRealm also proves itself to be among the industry’s best in cinematography, with close-up shots that accentuate emotion.
Most critiques of fighting games don’t account much for stories, because it’s almost always besides the point. But the Mortal Kombat series is different. The 2011 reboot was an industry pioneer in how the genre presents a story mode, complete with great acting and a plot with dramatic twists. It was so successful it saved the studio from doom after years of failed sequels, and NetherRealm found its winning formula and has repeated it since.
Part of that winning formula is packing each title with so much content, it’s almost impossible to run out of things to do. The new Invasion mode is a board game that unlocks so many cosmetic assets simply by playing your favorite characters. If the story failed in reimagination, it’s not because of the set and scene design. These are some of the most dynamic and lively backgrounds in fighting game history. A fight at a teahouse sees waitresses scrambling away as onlookers cheer. There’s a great, tangible sense of place.
The fighting itself sees more improvement. The Mortal Kombat series has been criticized for sticking to its peculiar and stiff animations, but this game gives more flexibility than ever for attack combination expression. It allows for more fluid movement. True to the original intentions of the first game’s digitized real actors, the fights in Mortal Kombat 1 have never looked more real and grounded.
Mortal Kombat 1 as a fighting game product remains as stellar as ever. It’s too bad that the game feels like a refreshing reboot until it can’t help itself and reiterates its past habits. Mortal Kombat doesn’t need to and probably shouldn’t “grow up.” Eternal adolescence is the point. But to stay young, it just needs to shed the old.