Why Mortal Kombat X is held back by its respect for some decades-old mistakes - Games Weekly

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Sunday, May 3, 2015

Why Mortal Kombat X is held back by its respect for some decades-old mistakes

Few genres can match fighting games for staying power. It’s hardly the only type of game template to span three decades, but which others have held so true to their original vision and form? In fighting games, advances in processing power have led simply to greater audiovisual fidelity, and 25 years of lessons learned have not resulted in dramatic changes of tack, but increasingly complex systems. Button layouts, command lists and presentation are all unchanged and that, surely, is central to their enduring appeal. You might come to Mortal Kombat X having not played a game in the series for years, but your old techniques will still work. Scorpion’s spear, Sub-Zero’s ice ball, everyone’s uppercut: all are performed as before.

Noble as this genre-wide adherence to a vision that’s a quarter of a century old may be, what it does mean is that every new game is bound by design decisions made decades ago and etched deeper into the template with every passing release. Any new systems or features have to be woven around what might be outdated thinking. One person’s relic is another’s treasure, of course, but  Mortal Kombat has long been defined by one key decision taken at Midway Chicago in the early 1990s: to pin everything on being violently different to the pack.

Indeed, while Mortal Kombat is one of the great videogame names memorable, catchy and descriptive a more honest name for the 1992 original might have been Not Street Fighter. The majority of the 2D fighting titles that sprang up in the wake of Street Fighter II’s surge to prominence were made on the assumption that the best way to emulate its success was to emulate the game. They cribbed its movement and movesets, riffed off its character designs. Mortal Kombat, though, seemed to have been designed to oppose it.

It was made in the US, and it showed. Its digitised sprites were an early sign of western developers’ desire for realism. Its hyperviolent tone was the sort of brash shock tactic that typified US marketing techniques of the time. Even its controls were designed with the west in mind. Street Fighter’s quarter-circle rolls were replaced with taps at the four compass points, a better fit for the stiff, springy joysticks that were the standard in US arcade cabinets. While big damage and flashy spectacle in Street Fighter II required timing and technique, Mortal Kombat’s most powerful single move was the uppercut, performed by simply moving the stick down and pressing heavy punch. Fatalities were about as complex as input strings got, but they were only ever a memory test sat under no pressure in front of a stunned opponent.

Many of these ideas are assets today, just as they were then. What worked on a bat-top joystick in 1992 is equally well suited to modern console controller D-pads. Fatalities, for so long  Mortal Kombat ’s USP, are now lengthy, lovingly animated cinematics worthy of a slasher flick. In such areas, 1992’s enduring influence is a benefit. Elsewhere, it frustrates.
'' Its hyperviolent tone was the sort of brash shock tactic that typified US marketing techniques of the time ''
The biggest offender is the use of a block button. While it is commonly employed in 3D fighting games such as  Virtua Fighter  and  Dead Or Alive ,  Mortal Kombat remains the only 2D fighter to make its players guard against incoming attacks with a button press rather than a joystick direction. To that end, it remains the only 2D fighter with a compromised combat system. Fighting games are built, fundamentally, on a rock-paper-scissors design: throws beat blocks, blocks beat attacks, and attacks beat throws. At high levels of play, winning is a matter of working around that system by tricking an opponent into making the wrong decision.

Yet even at less competitive levels, exploiting a game’s blocking system is of vital importance. In most other 2D fighting games, there are three ways of doing that: hitting a player blocking while standing with a low attack, hitting crouch-blocking foes with an overhead, or jumping over them and hitting them from the other side. In these games, you hold back on the stick to block, so jump over an opponent and the definition of ‘back’ will change. They call it the cross-up, and it’s one of the most vital offensive tools in fighting games.

Mortal Kombat’s block button kills the cross-up stone dead. But its effect runs deeper than that. It means that the offensive player’s only way to disrupt the rock-paper-scissors system is a high/low mix-up, and so Mortal Kombat’s combo strings play out through bespoke canned animations that incorporate both high and low attacks. The only reasonable way for a player on the defensive to counter this is to learn to recognise every possible combo an arduous enough task in any fighting game, let alone one with three moveset variations for each character. Rather than an elegant, flowing string of attacks, Mortal Kombat X’s most powerful combos are stilted, an awkward stitching together of individual moves and canned animations.

Meanwhile, in open play, special moves have been designed to test reflexes, not the grey matter. Projectiles pass through each other and are lightning fast. Teleport attacks come from all angles at high speed: Scorpion’s moves him behind you and hits you low, something that proved ruinous when he appeared as a DLC character in Netherrealm’s DC tie-in Injustice: Gods Among Us, which didn’t use a block button. Twenty-three years and ten games later, it’s clearly too late for  Mortal Kombat to change. Rather than making it stand out, those early decisions have condemned it to a life of simply never being as good as its biggest rivals.

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