Test Your Might! Mortal Kombat II: When the Fighter Reigned Supreme
For this retrospective instalment we are going to look at Mortal Kombat II (II because the Roman numerals that the games use look better than ‘2!’).
It was after reading Jordan’s piece on Shaolin Monks and the secret that never was concerning MK2 (see link to article) that I remembered my first encounter with the ever-controversial fighting game.
It’s funny to look at some articles from the past and see how greatly opposed this series was, especially in America. There were actually groups who protested about the amount of violence and bloodshed in the game and said it was giving the children of tomorrow terribly bad influences…clearly they didn’t look at the big book of popular nursery rhymes and children’s stories where the vast majority of those included in the tales meet grizzly ends. I loved these games and I’ve never felt like going out to maim anyone, I used to want to shoot ice out of my hands like Sub Zero but didn’t we all? I grew up in a fairly strict household but my family were never bothered about me playing MK. In fact they laughed at ‘Finish Him!’ and the ensuing ‘Fatality.’ Poor Midway had a fight on their hands getting these games out and if anything makes me feel violent, it’s reading the narrow-minded criticisms from their releases that are still being made today. It’s just a game!
I got this game back in the days when I was probably too young to go to town on my own so my parents would take me to the game shop and the guy would recommend something based on what I said I’d liked before (ah classic independent video game stores, all so unique and full of wonder!). I’d missed out on MKI but I had a SNES and MKII was immensely popular at the time. I cannot begin to tell you how cool this game seemed to me back then.
These days just 12 characters would spark an internet outrage but back then, it was the perfect variety and a vast improvement on the already popular original 7 characters. Yes I know there was Reptile as well but he wasn’t instantly selectable. Reptile was however in MKII as well as 5 other new characters and 6 returning characters adding more variety and fleshing out the then-new MK universe (Remember back before every franchise was described as having a ‘universe?’). The only character I missed from the original game was Kano, he had a laser eye and threw knives, surely he could’ve been included too? He’s seen in chains at Shao Khan’s arena along with Sonya Blade but no matter how many times childhood minds mused that surely they must be unlockable, they weren’t.
This instalment of the now legendary series saw Shao Khan replace Shang Tsung as the main villain, tough Shang Tsung is in the game with a new uniform and looking considerably younger (souls are good for you they say!). Goro has also been replaced by a new four-armed beast called Kintaro and the game had a freshness to it that brought it right up to date. To me, the characters looked far better thought out costume-wise and the graphics had improved immensely, the atmosphere was a lot darker and the game had so much more to it.
Maybe it was different in America but in the UK, the arcades had very much started doing away with gaming machines and instead found a new love in the form of slot/fruit machines. Why waste space on games that made 20p every few minutes when you could have something that made 10p every few seconds, sad but true. I had an arcade near me that, if you made your way past all the slots, you found yourself in a back room with the remaining battalion of arcade hits which included X Men vs Street Fighter, Alien Storm and MKII. There was something about playing the classic MK games in an arcade that was so magical. It was fun at home, but get in an arcade, get a good run going and people would flock to witness such greatness. If you’ve played these in the arcade which I’m sure many of you have, then you’ll know what I mean. This was a series designed to get you to spend all your pocket money, to excite and enliven the arcades.
Back before MK needed a story mode to entice gamers to purchase it, there was one sole goal in this game, defeat Shao Khan. These days that sounds so simple and unimaginative but believe me, the difficulty was such that it was by no means an easy task. If you were in the arcade you could at least keep shovelling coins into the machine but back home you had a set number of continues and if you couldn’t complete it within them, you were finished and had to start from the very beginning again. This was especially frustrating when you lose to a few basic moves as the A.I. would soon learn your tactics by the time you got halfway up the tower.
Another problem was cheap moves, spamming wasn’t necessarily easy. You may notice that in a few of the retrospective articles on Voletic we reference the internet. It’s hard to imagine now but there was a time before the internet when you actually had to figure things out for yourself. Nothing was spoon-fed and games were very difficult, if you couldn’t hack the pressure you either gave in and exchanged the game or you kept coming back stronger and more determined…and also more frustrated every time you failed yet again (a hefty fist to the top of the console often helped alleviate the tension)! MK was no exception to this. See all those special moves that are actually visible in the pause menu nowadays? Well you actually had to discover them yourself. If I remember correctly, the instruction booklets gave about one move per character away and if you were smart you would see a bit of a pattern. Not all of us got games brand new though so if, like me, you got one with neither a manual nor a box then you just had to tough it out and learn it yourself.
At some stages of button mashing your character may execute a special move and you would not have a clue how you did it but would find yourself trying to repeat the same frenetic hand movements in order to retain the knowledge of what you’d just achieved. Okay so Sub Zero’s ice wasn’t difficult (down, forward, low punch), Raiden’s teleport was equally simple (up,down) but imagine trying to decipher Reptile’s invisibility (hold block-up, up, down, release block, high punch) completely from scratch, it’s about as easy as guessing a 6 digit pin code with no hints. There were cheat books around that revealed all, maybe you could go to a friends’ house and ask nicely if they’d share the knowledge of a special move that they know with you, but other than that you were on your own. To me, that’s one of the main qualities that made these old games special and so different to today, the sense of achievement when you actually managed something. To look at now, they seem very simple and just tend to frustrate younger gamers. In fact, playing this game again has even left me a little frustrated this past week, but in a good way because I keep finding myself sneaking back onto it in the hope of completing it once again! Back then, you got no generous achievement trophies for your actions, no kindly-placed checkpoints to help ensure game completion, defeating Shao Khan, getting the end story and then the credits was blissfully sweet. Though you had to be sure to read the end story for your character quickly as it didn’t stay on the screen too long, how evil!
The fighting was fun, you needed to be quick and tactful with your moves and the further up you went, the more the AI would get to know you and punish those comfortable little series of moves you’d been relying on. Get high enough and you faced Kintaro, a new 4-armed bad guy was needed because Goro had been killed. If you could get past him then Shao Khan was your final opponent and he was by no means easy. A computerised opponent who can spam you? Yes indeed and oh how he likes to spam his shadow charge! What was really cool about Khan was that he was the only character in the game with continued dialogue. He would taunt you, laugh when you lost a round and happily deem you ‘pathetic!’ so even when you got beat it was a bit of a laugh. For me, getting to Kintaro and Shao Khan was such an achievement that it was easy to fall into the trap of sitting in awe of these guys and letting your mind slip so you get pummelled in the process.
The fatalities had been vastly improved and diversified from the original game and included devouring, mutilation and decapitation. There was also more stage fatalities introduced where the old favourite ‘Pit’ fatality of impalement could be inflicted as well as treating somebody to an acid bath in the ‘Dead Pool.’ Also adding variety and a little comic relief was the introduction of ‘babalities’ and ‘friendships.’ The stages were cool too and brought to life a lot more than those featured in the original: ‘The Bridge,’ ‘The Tower,’ ‘The Portal’ and ‘The Living Forest’ were my favourites, the latter I recall as being very creepy!
Overall it was an excellent game in an era where the fighter genre reigned supreme and competition was rife. A most enjoyable instalment in a now-long-running series that some argue is getting a little tired and washed out (That’s another argument for another article though). It was an excellent addition to the series and a pleasure to revisit.