Mortal Kombat came out in 1992, the year before I graduated from high school. It’s 2013, which means that MK is old enough to drink. Last weekend, I met it at a bar and caught up with it for old time’s sake.
I first saw Mortal Kombat at the local bowling alley in my hometown. The graphics looked impressive, the photograph digitally sampled sprites and rotoscoped animation giving the game a lifelike feel that no other game had. Yet, somehow I felt turned off. I wasn’t really interested in playing it at first. It looked like it was trying to be too hardcore, and the blood and violence felt more like gimmicks to me. Plus, it cost $0.50 to play.
It wasn’t until I went away to college that I first played it. The student center building at my college had a bowling alley in the basement, and there were a few arcade games there, one of which was a Mortal Kombat. There weren’t that many options, and it seemed to get a lot of play from the other guys who hung out there, so I gave it a try. It wasn’t long before I grew very well acquainted with that machine, and I probably dropped over $100 into it by the time I graduated. It was the first videogame that I ever played that I felt was worth two quarters to play.
Mortal Kombat was mega popular in its day, and notorious for its blood and fatality moves. Frequently cited by social critics who tried to call for censorship of games, it was a game parental groups hated, and it rode the publicity to the top. But all that controversy masked that the gameplay was solid, and the game was a lot of fun to play, offering tight balance, considerable depth, and a learning curve that took weeks if not months to master.
I got pretty good at it, but always felt like a second-rate player compared to some of the other guys I played against. I could hold my own against anyone using Scropion, but I secretly felt ashamed, like he was an entry-level character, certainly the first one I tried with any success, with easy to learn moves that did a lot of damage and were easy to land a high percentage of the time, and I felt like my victories were cheaper when I used him, though I never would have admitted it.
I got to like the cheesy Bruce Lee ripoff character, Liu Kang, and, to an extent, Raiden, who seemed to have been ripped off from the cheesier (though great) Big Trouble in Little China —although, due to an unfortunate leg-sweep vulnerability, bug he was a broken character.
But there were two players at my local arcade who were definitely better than me all around — who knew the moves of all the characters, not just three of them. I watched them play, and tried to learn the moves and the timing, and with a lot of practice I developed skill, which was what caused me to respect the game. Mostly I tried to play the single player tournament mode, where I had a decent chance of lasting a few rounds, but when they were around, I’d inevitably have to face their challenge. I got my ass handed to me a lot, but eventually I got good enough with Scorpion that I was pretty evenly matched against anyone.
Still, I never managed to beat the single-player tournament. I got to where I could get up to Goro, occasionally on one credit. But beating Goro was a seriously difficult feat, which I might have managed a handful of times. And then Shang Tsung, seemingly a weaker boss than the underboss, was somehow deceptively able to beat you before you knew what was happening. I had a rule about playing, I would never let myself spend more than $10 at a time, so if I couldn’t do it for that much, I had to walk away.
Last weekend, I was at 16-Bit Bar in Columbus, where they have a lot of great classic arcade games on free play, and I got to give Mortal Kombat another run. It’s been a good 15-16 years since I put my last quarter into it, and at first I couldn’t remember Scorpion’s fatality move. Embarrassingly, I lost a round in the second fight. I continued a lot. But it was on free play mode, and it started coming back to me.
Somehow, this time I managed to beat the single-player tournament. I’m not sure how I managed to do it. Somehow, it didn’t feel as difficult as I remembered — despite having noticeably diminished skills, I just kept trying until I got to the next level. Oddly the game felt slower than I remembered it — probably, I think, because of how later fighting games have gotten progressively faster over the years. Also, I started to notice what worked and what didn’t, and figured out timing and spacing that would enable me to land the powerful attacks that normally get blocked. Instead of going in headstrong and aggressive like my old playing style, I took a more methodical approach and picked apart the AI’s defense. I don’t know how to explain it, but it felt to me like I was able to see the weak points in the AI, and exploit them with predictable certainty.
I actually wondered whether the old game I used to play was set to a higher difficulty level — it’s certainly plausible, although I hope not. The endurance matches took several rematches, and it took a bunch of rematches before I beat Goro. I worked my way up the ladder, and knocked Shang Tsung off the top. I felt elated and accomplished for hours afterward. Taking 20 years to beat a game that has taken your measure is pretty indescribable.
And yeah, when I did it, I screamed “Mortal Kombaaat!!” like in the movie soundtrack, and felt every eye in the bar directed at me for a few seconds before turning back to whatever it was they were doing. Let me tell you, it enhances the experience, even more than you’d think it would.