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Mortal Kombat

A popular 1992 fighting game.

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Test Your Might

  • Apr 19, 2011
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Reviewing the first Mortal Kombat game is pretty challenging.  Especially in a day and age where it hasn't aged quite as well as people would've liked for it to, and where it's sequels more than outshine it.  But what makes it harder to review is that the game is so beloved... but for mostly the wrong reasons that we'll get to.  With a new one right around the corner (tomorrow, in fact as I write this review) I thought it would be apt to go back and play the game for myself.

In the age of the sixteen bit era the Fighter was a very popular genre.  Street Fighter II had basically shown us that it was here to stay.  And for the time being that was all that sufficed (Street Fighter II is still probably the biggest selling standalone fighter as it's sold well over 6 million worldwide... and that's just on the Super Nintendo alone).  When Mortal Kombat came around in 1991 it was in the Arcade and it was one of those games that, for the most part, people crowded around to watch.  At the time... it was unlike anything we'd ever seen before in video games.  Blood spewed everywhere and it caused one of the biggest controversies in gaming history that, in the end, gave us the ESRB rating system.  Before Mortal Kombat games were seen as almost strictly Children's Toys.  And despite Street Fighter II being a much better constructed game (it was just better overall, as a matter of fact) Mortal Kombat as a whole still went on to sell a gazillion copies and sap billions of quarters out of gamers.

So let's talk about Mortal Kombat.  On the outside Mortal Kombat didn't have much that really separated it from many fighters in its day.  The game had, for one thing, a painfully low fighting roster.  This is, overall, forgettable.  Most fighting games tend to give you a really low roster of characters to begin with.  It's the sequels that usually jump things up.  So it's fairly forgiveable that Mortal Kombat only gave us eight characters.  It began, after all, in the arcade where it thrived and where quick gameplay was the norm. 

As I said, however, Mortal Kombat didn't do much.  It's button combos were nice at first.  You had a button for a high kick and a low kick as well as a high punch and a low punch.  The Super Nintendo version, despite having no blood, was a lot easier to control as it had six buttons that most fighters pretty much needed at that time.  The Sega Genesis in comparison is slightly more cumbersome to control (but actually does have blood for those who want it).  It was, for the most part, fairly simple to play.  But also one in which you had to figure certain button combos in order to pull off certain moves (things like doing two quick taps forward and pressing high punch to perform a move and the like).  In this day and age that is archaic, but back then it was standard stuff.  Again, however, Mortal Kombat didn't have much of a draw beyond well... the blood.  The brutal nature of the game.  Were it not for that, Mortal Kombat would've never been much of a success much less a very memorable experience to begin with.  It is, more or less, the only thing that saves the game.  The ability to look and see each and every characters different fatalities.

Before someone goes off on a tangent about how I'm just mad because the game was violent, that's not really the case.  As a child, I will admit it was kind of cool to see blood for the first time in a video game (I was also, as you can imagine, not aloud to play it at the time of its original release) but Mortal Kombat doesn't have that secret ingredient to make it last through the ages.  What it had was a development team that new how to go beyond children with what really only amounted as a marketing gimmick.  Mortal Kombat was fun, sure, but it just didn't have as much richness to it beyond that.  I've rarely heard gamers speak of Mortal Kombat for anything other than it's blood.  And twenty years later it's kind of disheartening to know that this is what we remember about Mortal Kombat.  And while it's great that Mortal Kombat was willing to push the industry forward, it's a little disheartening to know it never wanted to reach beyond anything as a game.  The later installments certainly do justice, but even from a gameplay perspective Mortal Kombat had a few things that kept it from being as beloved.

Since the game was the port of an arcade fighter one of the things that we had to deal with was that increased difficulty level that, for the most part, home consoles had to have tweaked a little.  Arcade games are always much harder than the home console for the obvious reason: they want you to keep putting quarters in.  But even the home console of Mortal Kombat could be a bit much for some gamers.  If you mastered it that was one thing, but for the average gamer it was quite difficult (although going after the hidden Reptile battle is a little fun).  Mortal Kombat has simple button presses to get it going but the AI can be notoriously cheap.  To the point where those first starting out with the game will only realize that they've won some rounds in the tournament because of luck more so than their actual skill.  Add to effect that even the home console of Mortal Kombat lacked an option to actually pause the game.  In the Arcade this is fine and dandy but at home?

Graphically it really depends on the system.  The Sega Genesis runs the game slightly better in the sense that you don't get the sense it's loading.  In short, it processes things better.  They both look rather similar but there are times when some places have more details than others.  It really varies from stage to stage.  Some stages are just better presented on the Genesis while others are better animated on the SNES (the SNES certainly has more colors, though).  The Genesis version also includes the blood where as the SNES version was censored due to Nintendo of America's heavy censorship laws (it is apparently not censored in Japan but that could just be a rumor).  Instead it is sweat.  It's a toss up, however as the Super Nintendo version certainly has better controls... but the Genesis version gives you the full experience because of that blood.  The Super Nintendo also has the added bonus of being the closest to the original arcade version in terms of graphics and sound.  That doesn't mean the Genesis version was poor graphically.  It was not.  It was a little fuzzier in some places, but added a bit more detail in others (you could notice certain animations that were missing from the SNES version).  They're both good games from a production standpoint, but for those wanting the true Mortal Kombat experience the Genesis version was the better buy seeing as how you got the blood.  If you didn't care you could be content with your SNES version.

The problem with Mortal Kombat is that it is a game that only became popular based on shock value and we as gamers need to demand more than that.  I'm glad it brought gaming into more mature territory and I'm glad that because of Mortal Kombat we have the ESRB.  That will forever be Mortal Kombat's legacy.  But now that the shock value has worn off, how great is Mortal Kombat outside of the arcade really?  At the time, Street Fighter II was still more definitive in regards to gameplay.  And that's why Mortal Kombat isn't nearly as fantastic as it appears.  The good news is that the later installments would improve upon each and every one of those failings time and time again.  Unfortunately it still never went beyond it's shock value.  Part of the reason Grand Theft Auto is actually still a good game is that it hasn't relied JUST on its shock value to sell it.  It's actually fun and brings something to the table other than the ability to inflict a lot of pain on people (which, if you listen to those who keep complaining about its violence are always missing).

Let's not be too hard on Mortal Kombat in that regard, though.  It came out in 1991 where story wasn't exactly why you played a game, and for its limitations is actually quite well suited for it's time.  What I'm suggesting is that even in 1991 it had problems that I think it was good at hiding because people were too impressed with the blood.  The first Mortal Kombat isn't what I would suggest to new players hoping for an enriching experience.  If you want to jump into Mortal Kombat from a gameplay stance, the second is far better to jump into than the first.  Without it's blood Mortal Kombat just isn't much for a memorable gameplay experience.  In terms of establishing the ESRB, Mortal Kombat was quite revolutionary.  In terms of revolutionizing gameplay... Street Fighter II did a much better job--probably for the same reason Mortal Kombat II is better than the first: It expanded rather than tried to establish something new.

All this makes Mortal Kombat far harder to review 20 years later.  Especially when you were someone who didn't see the big deal when it had its original release in 1991.  And while Mortal Kombat II is also a relatively violent game... it's not good because of that violence.  It's actually good because it's just that much better put together than the first.  With much needed improvements and a bit of an expanded roster.  The conversion from the Arcade is so much better.  Likewise, Mortal Kombat II is perhaps where the series truly starts to rival Street Fighter.  Certainly Street Fighter II didn't have you able to rip out people spines... but it was certainly much more competently put together than the first Mortal Kombat.

I suppose that any aspiring gamer should play the first Mortal Kombat.  Younger gamers will probably scratch their heads wondering why the game caused such controversy.  It is certainly no where near as graphic as games such as Grand Theft Auto or No More Heroes, but it is a piece of history worth diving into for gamers who wish to learn more about the evolution of the industry.  Mortal Kombat is a good game, just not a great when compared to its competition at the time and it's sequels. 

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October 12, 2011
This is one of the games that I remember playing when I was younger and I bet, compared to games nowadays, it'll look a bit dated but, it is history! Great job, Sean!
June 23, 2011
Excellent review! Very thoughtful. I've found in my many years as a video game reviewer that opinions on the original Mortal Kombat tend to vary, but nearly everyone agrees that its value is strictly of the shock type.
April 19, 2011
aaahhh....I still have my SEGA Genesis. Golden Axe is also one of my faves on that system. :)
April 19, 2011
excellent review!! No Tekken 6 review?
April 19, 2011
"Get over here!"
April 19, 2011
April 20, 2011
I more or less stopped with Tekken.  The fighting genre hasn't been the most appealing to me recently.  I'll still play whatever I can get my hands on but in terms of fighters I haven't shelled out money for one in a while.  I've mostly just played a friend's copy or something.
April 19, 2011
I love the first two MK games. I think I probably would have rated them slightly higher at a 4, but you bring up some valid points about how the game might seem quaint to players today and how the sequels have improved on the game play. Awesome review, Rhodes!
April 19, 2011
who's your fave MK character?
April 19, 2011
April 20, 2011

I'm just going to guess Scorpion because it's everyone's favorite.

But in the end my point was that even in 1991 the first Mortal Kombat was just okay at best.  If we're talking Arcade I can go 3.5 or maybe 4 but the home console versions... not so much.  And given that I've never been much to be impressed with blood and gore there was just nothing that screamed: "You need to play this game."  The game just wasn't big enough--even for it's time.  And having to go up against Street Fighter II was not exactly the best way to break it out--home console wise, considering that Street Fighter II had, at the time, perfected everything Mortal Kombat had set out to do.  In short, at the time the only thing Mortal Kombat had to offer was... blood and gore and I wasn't about to start telling people it was worthwhile JUST because of that.
April 20, 2011
Nope, Liu Kang because he had the right combination of speed and strength. I also like SubZero and Scorpion though (mostly because their combo moves were awesome).
April 19, 2011
Wow, OLD SCHOOL! I was more a Street Fighter gal on SNES, but whenever I went to my cousin's house, we would play Mortal Kombat. Great breakdown of the game, Sean!
April 20, 2011
I was more of a Street Fighter guy too.  I couldn't figure out what the big deal with Mortal Kombat was at the time.  It just had issues until the second game.  Street Fighter II, though?  Easily one of the greatest games ever made. 
More Mortal Kombat reviews
review by . June 23, 2011
Any self-respecting gamer remembers the first time he laid eyes on Mortal Kombat. I know I do. I don't even think I was a teenager at the time. But I remember casually walking into a local gaming spot and seeing it. At first I thought it was odd that Combat was spelled with a K instead of a C, but the misspelling of the title was quickly forgotten as I gazed upon the photo-realistic characters. I thought it was incredible how real they looked. Then I watched a character get smacked around while …
About the reviewer
Sean A. Rhodes ()
Ranked #7
I'm a more analytical person. I believe that the purpose of the review is not for me to give you my opinion but for me to give you an analysis and help you decide if you want to get it. If you reading … more
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About this video game


Mortal Kombat is a fighting video game developed and published by Midway for arcades and by Acclaim Entertainment for home versions. The game was released in North America in 1992. It is the first title in the Mortal Kombat series. Upon release, Mortal Kombat became one of the most popular arcade games of all time. It was subsequently ported to home video game consoles and became a best-selling game. Mortal Kombat also became one of the most controversial video games, for its depiction of gore and violence using realistic, digitized graphics.

Mortal Kombat focuses on the journey of the monk Liu Kang to save Earth from the evil sorcerer Shang Tsung, ending with their confrontation on the tournament known as Mortal Kombat. The game spawned numerous sequels, and is considered one of the most popular American fighting games to date.

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Publisher: Midway, Acclaim
Developer: Midway
Console: Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES), Sega Genesis, Arcade
Genre: Fighting Action
Release Date: 1991
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"Test Your Might"
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