Inevitably, nostalgia has become as big a force in gaming as it is in music or the movies. Just as there’s a market for the bands of the 80s and early-90s, or for big screen reworkings of The A-Team, Arthur, Clash of the Titans, Tron and Robocop, so there’s a definite audience that wants to see the games of our youth - Street Fighter, Splatterhouse, even Tomb Raider - restored to their past glories in a new-fangled, HD, 3D form. And while Mortal Kombat has fallen on the skids through the last decade or so, there are plenty of us with fond memories of its Mortal Kombat 1 and 2 heyday. We remember the controversial violence (on the Megadrive version, anyway), the so-called photorealistic graphics, the fatalties, the “finish him”, “get over here” samples and smile. And now that Street Fighter is back on top of the beat-em-up parade, isn’t it high time that Mortal Kombat had another chance?
But the really surprising thing isn’t that the new Mortal Kombat reboot makes good on our nostalgia - it actually exceeds it. While it follows Street Fighter IV in taking the series back to its basics, so you’re effectively playing a 2D fighter with new-fangled 3D graphics, it also redefines the gameplay to the extent that this is the best-playing Mortal Kombat ever made. And then, on top of that, it throws in what’s probably the most generous package of single-player modes, multiplayer modes and additional features that we’ve seen in any recent fighting game.
Of course, it’s shockingly, gob-smackingly adolescent stuff. It’s a game made with the mentality that, if watching someone get stabbed repeatedly with a gush of blood or take a spine-cracking blow to the body is cool, then watching the action happen in slow-motion with an X-ray vision effect is even cooler. It’s a game where the entire female cast has the surgically remodelled figure of a Nuts or Zoo cover girl, and where the costumes look like an accident in an Ann Summers shop. It’s dumb, obnoxious and spectacularly sexist, but - well, let’s admit it - a lot of fun. There’s something about Mortal Kombat that speaks to the 15-year-old boy in everyone, or at least everyone with an XY chromosome and a history of playing the more brutish video games.
It’s the style of fighting that has seen the most improvement. Even at its best, Mortal Kombat always felt a little less polished than its rivals. All that blood and gore helped distract from a system of slightly jerky kicks, blocks and punches, or special moves so choreographed that you never really felt in control. New Mortal Kombat is now much, much slicker. The controls are more precise and more responsive, and while it’s still a challenge to unleash the more potent attacks and combos - there’s a lot of sequences and simultaneous button pressing for you to get your head around - it’s not impossible, even if you’re not a beat-em-up master. Grabbing moves have been moved to a shoulder button to make them more accessible, and you can build your basic game skills fairly quickly. The action has its own rhythm, and while Mortal Kombat doesn’t have the flow of Street Fighter IV or the elegance of Virtua Fighter 5, it has a rapid, staccato feel, all quick flurries, blocks and split-second counters, that’s very satisfying.
There are a few modern features, too. For one, there’s a new three-part gauge system, which allows you to trigger more impressive special attacks, culminating in an X-ray super combo which zooms in to show you the damage with the aid of the aforementioned vein-puncturing, bone-shattering, eyeball gouging, slow-mo X-ray treatment. For another, Mortal Kombat brings in the option of tag-team fighting, and through the system is very basic compared to Marvel vs Capcom 3’s multi-layered efforts, it’s still good fun to switch between characters and combine attacks in a 2-on-2 brawl.
Graphically, this is also the most polished Mortal Kombat we’ve seen for some time. Mortal Kombat uses the Unreal 3.0 engine for its visuals, and while faces don’t always look that great close-up, the level of detail in the characters and the backgrounds, and the lavish lighting and surface effects, make for one of the best-looking beat-em-ups of the current generation. It's also worth mentioning that Mortal Kombat isn't exactly short of arenas, and that nearly all are beautifully styled and rendered, with plenty of lovely rippling water or atmospheric smoke effects to cast your eye over while the guy who is concentrating on the fighting tugs your brain-stem out through your nostrils. Sure, Street Fighter IV and Marvel vs Capcom 3 win out on spectacle and style, but it’s great to see a Mortal Kombat looking this good.
Likewise, it warms the cockles of an old fan’s heart to see so many Mortal Kombat favourites, from Johnny Cage to Scorpion, Sub-Zero, Jax, Sonya Blade, Katana, Kano and Raiden back in form. Sure, Mortal Kombat doesn’t give you the range or massive variation in fighting styles that you’ll find in Streetfighter IV or Tekken 6, but you can’t argue with such a massive roster - and Johnny Cage’s split-punch to the goolies is worth the price alone. Plus, PS3 owners get the chance to play as God of War’s Kratos, who is truly in his element with so much claret being thrown around.
However, the real beauty of Mortal Kombat is that it offers so much to the average player. Recent fighters have - understandably - focused more on multiplayer and online gaming, to the extent that the classic single-player Story mode has either diminished in importance, or been dispensed with altogether. Mortal Kombat brings it back with a fantastic Story mode that runs through a whole series of characters and bouts as it attempts to tell the full story of a Mortal Kombat tournament, with all the rivalry, blood-lust and nonsense mythology that that entails. Sure, the basic plot reminds you a bit of a certain genre of movie in that it exists to ensure that (a) everyone gets some action with everyone else and (b) there are disproportionate amounts of scenes involving several women at one time, but who cares? It drags you through the game at a decent lick, and once it starts it’s worryingly hard to stop playing.
And that’s just the start. Beneath that you’ll find arcade ladder modes, training modes, some very silly mini-games and even an epic challenge mode that will take you hour after hour to complete - provided you have the patience to keep trying to achieve so many combos in so many seconds with all the odds stacked against you. Meanwhile, on top of basic two-player games and online modes, we get a cool, competitive King of the Kill mode, where the winner stays on while other players spectate, and tag-team games to boot. We’ve noticed some lag during online matches, but we’ll charitably put this down to the fact that, at the moment, most of the competition is based far overseas. The important things are that, whether you’re playing on your own, online, or with a mate on the same sofa, Mortal Kombat is a blast, and that - for once - the solo player isn’t getting short shrift.
While this isn’t as triumphant a return as the mighty Street Fighter IV, the new Mortal Kombat is a fine reboot, and a real treat for those of us who have fond memories of pulling off heads with the spinal chord swinging or ripping arms away from blood-spurting torsos. And while it’s not the smartest or most subtle modern fighting game - in fact, it’s not even close - it’s so packed with modes and options that only the most po-faced beat-em-up purist could mark it down. Mortal Kombat is back, and it’s the Koolest Mortal Kombat ever made.