NetherRealm Studios recently announced Mortal Kombat 1 would release this year alongside other fighting game titans Tekken 8 and Street Fighter VI. While being in the upper echelon of prestige when it comes to fighting game franchises, Mortal Kombat has always been the scrappy younger brother of the two top dogs of the FGC, as it has a long and storied history of attempting out-of-the-box ideas to keep its legacy in the same conversation as the two previously mentioned mainstays.
These out-there ideas range from a complete switch-up to the core identity of MK‘s combat, the inclusion of various single-player campaigns that range from 3D brawlers to puzzle games, and party modes like chess. While some of these attempts fall more into the novelty camp, the act of seeing which player leaves the lobby with limbs intact has always been the central focus of the mainline MK releases. With a malleable identity, MK has shifted from 2D to 3D both visually and mechanically, experimented with gameplay quirks like fighting styles and weapons, and even upped its ambition and writing for single-player stories, helping make the series the king of reinvention in the fighting game sphere.
Switching Up Mortal Kombat’s Style
One thing the Mortal Kombat series manages to bring to the table with every nearly subsequent release is a different feel for the identity of the fights. The original MK was a spectacle that played heavy and clunky, with the gore and violence ultimately being its main selling point. That was still a part of the MK identity by the time Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 hit arcades, but the combat system advanced, allowing players to apply more corner pressure with combos that weren’t just infinite loops. This helped diversify the MK series without sacrificing the violent spectacle and over-the-top silliness that made the series unique.
While Mortal Kombat 4‘s only major advancement in the series was the move from 2D graphics to full 3D, 2003’s Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance saw the next major shift in the series. Deadly Alliance shifted to 3D fighting mechanics, straying away from the Street Fighter comparisons and instead opting to be more like Tekken or Dead or Alive. It also introduced individual fighting styles for every character. Up to this point, each character played the exact same except for their special moves and fatalities. Deadly Alliance addressed this issue by introducing multiple unique fighting styles that players could cycle through during fights, offering more variety and strategy in the core combat.
Mortal Kombat: Deception went on to sharpen the 3D style before several lackluster releases and the shutdown of developer Midway Games put the series on hiatus. The series then returned to its 2D roots in 2011’s Mortal Kombat, ushering in the current era of MK games where skill and competition drive the focus of the gameplay. With a more fluid combo system, different fighting styles and an emphasis on heavy/brutal combat, the series has become an amalgamation of the better ideas of past games. While each subsequent release from this point on has maintained a certain degree of consistency, the finer details continue to be tuned to more modern sensibilities, helping the MK franchise establish itself as a competitively viable alternative to more traditional 2D fighter games.
Including Interesting Single-Player Options for Mortal Kombat
One way the Mortal Kombat series has managed to differentiate itself is through its emphasis on single-player content. While the original three games stuck to the time-tested tradition of climbing the single-player ladder, Midway began deviating from this approach with 2002’s Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance. While the initial attempt at a dedicated single-player campaign was initially half-baked, as Deadly Alliance used it more for individual character tutorials to familiarize players with the new fighting styles, the game also introduced the first iteration of The Krypt. This is a feature where players can traverse a graveyard and use in-game Koins to purchase concept art, characters and costumes.
While 2004’s Mortal Kombat: Deception kept the same general approach to The Krypt, Midway revamped the single-player campaign by introducing various over-world-based levels and some minor 3-D brawler mechanics. Deception’s campaign allowed players to explore Earth Realm and Outworld while interacting with and fighting various characters from the Mortal Kombat universe. This campaign was also a precursor to 2005’s Mortal Kombat: Shaolin Monks — a single-player experience that expanded on the 3D brawler elements, fleshing them out into a full game.
2011’s Mortal Kombat took a step back from the more ambitious single-player experiments, opting to focus on the writing and execution of the story. The game was a soft reboot that saw longstanding series protagonist Raiden reset the timeline, allowing the newly formed NetherRealm studios to reintroduce Mortal Kombat to the world while also forming the foundation of its identity for the newest iteration of the series. This continued as Mortal Kombat 10 and 11 kept on exploring the characters, their relationships with one another and their motivations. This helped endear players to newer characters while also giving concrete personalities to many series favorites outside several slides of story traditionally seen at the end of a single-player ladder.
Regardless of the result, Mortal Kombat has never been a series afraid to take risks. In fact, risks are baked into the heart of the series’ DNA, starting with the extreme violence that led to the creation of the ESRB to the overhaul of the fighting formula introduced in the original games, and even creating memorable single-player content that ranges from the absurdly silly to being outright engaging. For better or for worse, the Mortal Kombat series was built on the back of big swings, which has kept the series interesting for over two decades.
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