Mortal Kombat II

Why did we ever think mocap sprites were a good idea?

Every Game Ever is, at the root of it, an investigation of nostalgia.  It’s a reaching-back towards those things that we, as gamers, are nostalgic about – a particular subset of all the things that captivated us and drew us in and filled our lives, for better or for worse.  The SNES was chosen precisely for that reason; it is a monolith of gamer nostalgia.

Maybe investigation isn’t the best word.  This post (so far) is investigative, sure, but for the most part the reviews are exploratory – going back and immersing oneself, if only for a short time, in the sensation and experience of that game.  One could propose that this is an attempt to recapture the object of nostalgia, by which I mean that experience as it was in the past, to relive it and satisfy the nostalgic longing.  I would say that, if that’s the case, it is an impossible task, one that is doomed to failure.  We are not the same people, physically, emotionally, mentally.  Gaming isn’t the same.  Life isn’t the same.  Western culture is preoccupied by a nostalgia for childhood and certain signposts thereof – innocence, freedom, energy, and so on – and it’s impossible to retrieve, and it’s no different for games.

But read the reviews on this site, and you won’t see much of that always-already doomed nostalgia.  In fact, the overwhelming majority of the posts are humorous, contemptuous or even discouraged.  Instead of reaching for the object of nostalgia, we are exploring nostalgia, probing at the sore tooth with our tongue, and discovering that it’s empty and hollow.  The SNES had some really solid games, but a lot of the stuff we remember enjoying – in fact, the majority of the library – is garbage.  Hilariously so, in fact.

Sometimes, a game is worthy of genuine nostalgia, something I explored in my Chrono Trigger review.  But it turns out that this is a rare and precious thing, and most SNES games show you a different thing: that nostalgia is often an illusion, that you long for a past utopia that didn’t exist, that the very narrative of our lives is inspired by Biblical tales of Eden and the Fall – that when you were a kid, you were pretty dumb, and you liked stupid shit.

Mortal Kombat II is the very incarnation of this principle.  It’s a terrible game based on terrible principles, driven by marketing and sensationalism, and worst of all its success legitimized its awfulness.  I liked Mortal Kombat when I was a kid, and I couldn’t even tell you why.  Actually, I can: I watched TV, read magazines, and talked to my friends, and I absorbed the idea that MK was a series worth playing.

I would have more respect for a game that required you to insert a quarter into the machine for every shot you had to fire.

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Mortal Kombat 3

Mortal Kombat II Turbo: Hyper Fighting

The Mortal Kombat series, probably better known for its violent array of finishing moves, exaggerated display of blood, and curiously inconsistent misuse of the letter “K” than its actual gameplay contributions to the fighting genre, continues on in this third installment, aptly titled Mortal Kombat 3 (in contrast to, say, the Street Fighter series, which failed to demonstrate its ability to count past the number two until around the ninth installment or so, depending on whether the Street Fighter EX series counts).

So what’s different this time around?

  • More characters.
  • Multi-tiered levels.
  • Umm…a “dash” button.
  • Wait, you can turn into an animal, too, which is kinda neat I guess.
  • What the…who the hell is this Stryker guy? He looks like some ex-frat guy working as a bike messenger. Or someone’s dad.
  • Cyborgs.
Stryker - Determined to do that keg stand...and be the worst Mortal Kombat character ever.
Stryker will fuck you up for some Pringles.

Alright, so what’s the same?

  • A handful of old characters, most with the same moves as in the previous two games.
  • An oddly large amount of blood spewed forth every time you punch someone in the face.
  • UPPERCUTS.
  • Character sprites are still stretched vertically, which makes them look a bit taller and leaner when fighting, but unnervingly short when you knock them down.
  • Cheap AI.
  • ADDITIONAL UPPERCUTS.
  • My general lack of skill and disdain.
Defeated by myself, proving yet again that I am my own worst enemy.  Especially when wearing a mask and wielding iron hooks...no wonder no one wants a hug.
Defeated by myself, proving yet again that I am my own worst enemy. Especially when wearing a mask and wielding iron hooks...no wonder no one wants a hug.

If I recall correctly (unlikely, but possible), the game was still fairly successful, helping keep Midway more or less in the black for another few years. Of course, Midway banked too much on the arcade market for too long, as well as trying to continue to milk what they could from their old arcade franchises well past the point at which people stopped caring about them. There’s obviously more to their demise, but that’s a topic better covered elsewhere. I’m mainly just here to pick apart old, defenseless video games and yell at fictional characters, and my qualifications as to those are questionable at best. My parents must be so proud.

Mortal Kombat

mk01

As much as I think Mortal Kombat was/is a pretty shitty fighting game, it deserves our attention.  For those of us in the Capcom or SNK school of fighting games Mortal Kombat always seemed pretty stripped down.  Every character had identical regular moves and were only differentiated by their specials and fatalities.  Out of 7 total characters, two of them even looked identical.  I’ll get to the fatalities in a bit, but mostly Mortal Kombat made for a pretty shallow fighting game compared to its competition.  And, I guess, what’s even more striking about Mortal Kombat is that the franchise stayed this way for some time but maintained a level of popularity that is more or less completely incongruent with most other Acclaim/Midway titles.  I don’t know many gamers who would consider the Midway logo as much more than a seal of mediocrity.  Sort of like the Nintendo Seal of Quality today (burn).

mk02
So many choices! Decidedly less stereotypes, though! Progress?

The original Mortal Kombat for SNES was a big deal, though.  I remember crowding around the TV the first time a friend rented this game.  I would have been in grade 4 or 5.  There were so many rumors about the game floating around in our tiny, misinformed heads:

“I hear this game is SUPER GORY“.

“Yeah, but Nintendo are a bunch of pussies and made the blood look like sweat! Pussies!”

“I hear on Sega you can see Sonya’s boobies!”

“Oh yeah?  I heard that in the arcade version you can do sex with her!”

“Cool!!!” (awkward boners abound)

“I heard that there’s a code to make it even more bloody!”

“Chris’ brother heard from a magazine that if your parents split up they’ll each buy you this game to prove that they love you!”

“No way!”

I actually wrote a completely different review before thinking about the ways that Mortal Kombat has been influential.  Just think about your life with Video Games at the age of 10.  If you were a console kid like I was, you probably had your Ninja Turtles, Double Dragon, Mario, Ninja Gaiden, Tetris… I dunno.  Ducktails?  For many of us Mortal Kombat was the first Hyperviolent game we ever played.  Everything before this was cartoony.  Even though the greyish-brown bio-chunks that flew out of fighters in the Super Nintendo version didn’t look like blood, our imagination certainly filled in the gaps just fine. But here were people, digitally rendered and motion captured, being impaled by spikes, set on fire, having their spinal cords ripped out.  And it was happening in our living room.  Even if you were from a family with a computer, Wolfenstein came out the same year as Mortal Kombat.  Doom came out in 1993.  Sure, some PC games had covered serious subjects like rape and brutal violence before, but few games were as accessible to enterprising kids as this holy trinity of gore.

Certainly, by today’s standards, Mortal Kombat is pretty tame.  After playing games like Soldier of Fortune where each body part has a number of articulation points for having limbs sawn off, it almost seems as cartoony as those older games.  Fallout 3 had hilarious limbular explosions in HD slow-motion!  But Mortal Kombat was likely one of the first games that you or someone you know wasn’t allowed to play.  It was a precursor to the congressman-based fervor of Grand Theft Auto.  It played a leading role in the eventual development of the ESRB.  Sure, a lot of parents ignore ESRB ratings even today, but they cried out for a rating system in the first place largely thanks to kids bringing Mortal Kombat home.

It’s other “legacy” is the more dubious one of ridiculous announcers.  Fatality, Babality, Finish Him, Toasty… they all lead to the Headshot, Multikill, Double Kill, Running Riot, Killamanjaro, and Unstoppables of today.  I could actually do without these though, so thanks Mortal Kombat.

mk03
Gender roles, you guys.

So yeah, it’s a shitty fighting game, but it might very well have changed the landscape of gaming as we know it.  That’s pretty neat.  And with the demise of Midway and the sale of the Mortal Kombat IP to Warner Brothers, I’m not sure we’ll see a return of the shock-value tuned, mediocre experience that so defined the series.  Who knows, someone make even take the initiative to turn it into something worth playing again.

Killer Instinct

Yeah, I'm so hardcore.
Killer Instinct presents: a Festival of Shoryukens.

Killer Instinct was the quintessential “cool” game of my generation. It’s one of those games that made me hate my SNES-owning best friend; when ‘begrudgingly’ playing a rival console could no longer be feigned, and enjoyment of a Nintendo-exclusive could no longer be hidden. Rareware forced these situations upon me on a regular basis. Now my internal struggle has long since ended, and I’m free to say what my heart always felt: KI may try too hard, but it’s still pretty cool.

Right out the gate, metal MIDI riffs chug along relentlessly like a crazy train from hell; Quasimodo clobbers the bell with the satisfying ‘chink!’ of his mighty gavel every time you toggle a setting; a garbled, manly voiceover announces your every decision with a foreboding shout-that-is-a-whisper. Killer Instinct makes you feel like a real hardcore sonovabitch.

That’s the menu screen done, now let’s take a look at the actual game. Killer Instinct is the bastard child of Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter. Its Mortal Kombat genes are more readily identifiable: the game was co-published by Midway for starters; it uses pre-rendered ‘movie’ sprites for the characters; and ‘No Mercy’ moves take the place of fatalities. The recessive Street Fighter gene is evident in the controls – light, medium, hard punches and kicks – and the moveset. Every second fighter seems to have a Dragon Punch up their sleeve, and if they don’t, you can bet yer ass they’ve got an Hadouken (or both).

SHOOOOO-RYU-KEN!!
SHOOOOO-RYU-KEN!!

Perhaps a latent Capcom fighting gene in the mix manifests itself in the ‘combo’ system, which is all kinds of ridiculous, and sets the bar for future combo-fests like X-Men versus Street Fighter, Marvel Versus Capcom, Capcom Versus SNK, Capcom Versus Larry Flint, and Capcom Versus Every Man And His Dog. It was certainly the first game I had ever played with upwards of 80-hit combos. It’s fairly safe to say, then, that the combo system pretty much defines KI as a fighter and sets it apart from the rest of the riffraff. It’s a pity, then, that I can’t do them. Couldn’t do them then and I still can’t do them now. I have three excuses prepared for this:

  1. My USB Saturn controller is still in the mail at the time of writing and I’ve got a deadline to keep here (or at least not stomp all over).
  2. This is a game that you really need the manual for. The special moves may be Street Fighter knock-offs but they’re not exactly logical. Glacius’ Dragon Punch uses a kick, for example. And those Mercy Moves aren’t going to just fall from the sky.
  3. Even when I have the manual, I’ve never bothered to master anything beyond what’s written in it. Got a combo I can do? Write it in the manual. Super Combo Moves were the best thing that ever happened to this lazy gamer, all wrapped up in a neat little bow.

If you’re into that kind of thing I’m sure love will find a way. Hardcore Voiceover Man will high-five you for your trouble – “Triple Combo!”, “Super Combo!”, “Brutal Combo!”, “Master Combo!”, “Awesome Combo!”, “Hyper Combo!”, “ULLLTRA COMBOOO!!” – a different superlative for each number of hits, it seems.  They want you to do lots of combos, get it?

SHOOOOO-RYU-KEN!!
SHOOOOO-RYU-KEN!!

There’s even a character named Combo. TJ Combo to be exact. That’s where the try-hard factor comes in. The “Teej” is a try-hard, Jago is a try-hard, Fulgore is a try-hard – every second character thinks they’re just so freakin’ cool – like the genetic by-product of a failed marriage between a pop singer and an Hollywood actress. The coolness rubs off to an extent, but the sons and daughters of privilege should never forget their place. Just put down the coke bowl for a second and slip into this gold bikini for me, willya?

Yeah, Killer Instinct, you’re cool, alright? You’re that kid on camp (you know, that kid) with the undercut number one shave that pretends to chew gum all the time as you size up the other kids, spits on the ground as if generally unimpressed with what this planet has to offer, and doles out approval to the rabid underlings that hang on your every word.  Like I said – cool.  But next time you turn your cap backwards and do olleys on your skateboard out the front of school, remember one thing:

Street Fighter got a little drunk at a party one night, looked over at Mortal Kombat across the room, and thought to himself, I’d smash that. And that, son, is how you came to be.

SHOOOOO-RYU-KEN!!
SHOOOOO-RYU-KEN!!

Jammit

Jammit: the title is self-instructive.
Jammit: the title is self-instructive.

The word ‘Jammit’ immediately elicits memories of a game very near and dear to my heart, Toejam & Earl.  A game that, in my humble opinion, is one of the greatest games of all time.  Those of you who have had the pleasure of playing that game will no doubt understand the reference.  Unfortunately for Jammit, it has just damned itself to the seventh level of Videogame Hell simply by being mentioned in the same breath as Toejam & Earl and failing to live up to that gold standard – an unfavourable comparison for many a videogame, and an unfair one, some may say.

Upon realising that Jammit is in fact a basketball game, it reminded me of yet another videogame: NBA Jam.  This is also an unfavourable comparison for any basketball game, recent or otherwise.  Basketball videogame aficionados feel free to disagree with me here, but to my mind there hasn’t been a good basketball game since NBA Jam (perhaps with the exception of NBA Hangtime, which was essentially NBA Jam 2).  Good simulations of the sport of basketball mayhap, but not good basketball videogames.

Speaking of simulations, dunking in Jammit is about as easy as landing an aircraft in Microsoft Flight Sim.
Speaking of simulations, dunking in Jammit is about as easy as landing an aircraft in Microsoft Flight Sim.

Now that I’ve done Jammit the disservice of comparing it to two great Jams, let’s discuss the game on its own merits.  What do I like about the game?  Well, I like the funky slap-bass soundtrack, which matches the title quite well; I like the fact that there’s a ‘Trash Talk’ setting in the options screen ranging from ‘off’ to ‘some’ to ‘lots’; and that’s about it.  Don’t say I didn’t try.

Aside from those things, Jammit is a rather bland basketball offering.  It’s street basketball, so it takes place on a grey concrete half-court with chain-link fences.  That’s a lot of grey.  It’s one-on-one street basketball, so there are only two fleshy sprites to break up the grey.  There are exactly three playable characters to choose from – two black guys and a white chick – meaning only three possible match-ups.  Said characters are photo-captured Mortal Kombat-style like just about every other awful game of that era.  To think this kind of gritty oatmeal ugliness and ‘street’ ‘tude is actually praised in today’s games – it’s boring and cringeworthy!

Says 'Chill' to 'Slade': "you as bored as I am, man?"  How delightfully 'urban'.
Says 'Chill' to 'Slade': "you as bored as I am, man?" How delightfully 'urban'.

And then comes the racism.  Again.  And the sexism; don’t forget the sexism!  Both of these vices are embodied in one character: Roxy.  Not only is she named and dressed like a prostitute, I’m pretty sure her stats have been messed with on account of her being both white, and female.

Rooooo-xanne, you don't have to put on the red light!
Rooooo-xanne, you don't have to put on the red light!

I realised this once I mastered the pilot controls for dunking – Microsoft Basketball Simulator-style – white chick can’t dunk, man!  Only lay it up.  Facts be damned, I call racism!  And sexism!  And the fires of the seventh hell upon this game!

Claymates

Does anyone else remember the ‘clay’ craze that took place circa 1993?  It seemed like every game and his dog wanted to be made out of clay, when in reality it was probably just Interplay.  Maybe the whole thing was a symptom of those ‘photorealistic’ FMV games on the Mega CD, or Mortal Kombat.  Then again, who really cares? Claymates is the second ‘clay’ themed franchise from Interplay, ClayFighter having just been released six months beforehand.

Claymates is built around a bizarre premise: your name is Clayton (get it?), and your nutty professor father has developed a formula to turn humans into animals(!) and is presumably about to show you/experiment on you(!), when out of nowhere an evil shaman teleports himself inside the laboratory, transforming you into a ball of clay with his stick before spiriting your father away!

THIS IS BLASPHEMY!  THIS IS MADNESS!!

This is Claymates.

"NO!!  FATHER, PLEASE!!!"
“NO!! FATHER, PLEASE!!!”

So now you’re this blue ball of clay rolling around a garish level that exists solely within the confines of your backyard sandpit.  You’d be surprised what you can fit in a sandpit!  It’s funny, because Claymates invented ‘sandbox’ gaming before GTA did [except not really, because that was a joke, and if we were to take it that literally the first child that ever took up a bucket and spade invented sandbox gaming].  Anyway, you pick up a coloured ball of clay pretty soon and transform into a slow-as-buggery cat or a mouse-with-his-ass-on-fire most of the time, but occasionally you might transform into something interesting like a bird that pecks and flies really badly or a squirrel that throws acorns or a fish that shoots bubbles.  I don’t know what goldmine they thought they were sitting on here, but I noticed before the title screen that Interplay had trademarked all these animals, giving them names like “Muckster™ the Cat” and “Globmeister™ the Gopher” (apparently not a squirrel anymore), which is interesting considering the animals pretty much look like generic depictions of what they are (the mouse looks like a mouse, the cat looks like a cat, etc.).

Timeless Classics(TM).
Timeless Classics™.

Thing is, I thought you were still ‘you’ (Clayton) when you picked up the clay and transformed into an animal.  After all, is that not what Prof. Dad’s formula was all about?  Perhaps this means that you’re imbued with the evil shaman’s animistic powers and can channel the spirits of these kooky characters, which begs the question, why, then, would the shaman even need the formula if he already had the power to channel animal spirits?! This game raises far more questions than it seeks to answer.

After you’ve pondered the logistics of animism and weird science, you run and jump from left to right kleptomanaically collecting gems, items, power-ups, and uncovering secret mini-levels.  The collect-a-thon is, however, spoiled by dubious checkpoint placement and the fact that you lose all gems, items, and animality upon dying (even if you’ve reached a checkpoint).  The harshness of it all really discouraged me, and was seemingly at odds with the game’s initial invitation to experiment and explore.  That said, Claymates is still inviting, and packed full of things to do.  Upon finishing the level, two robots are unleashed upon your backyard (overworld) and help you break into your neighbours’ backyards(!) and consequently, their sandpits (levels).  Curiouser and curiouser.

The action button doubles as the run button, which is a bit awkward, seeing as slow-as-buggery Muckety-Mucky-Muckster™ can’t run and slash at the same time.  Oozy™ the Mouse is impressively fast – possibly even faster than a certain blue hedgehog – and must make use of the ‘blaze-processing’ boasted about on some virtual box art I found the other day.  Problem is these fellas run about as smooth as an oil slick, but let’s chalk that one up to personal preference, hey?  The level design is Spartan, but clever – the various power-ups and level devices themselves are crude, ugly, and reminiscent of Apogee shareware.

Deliciously Ugly.
Deliciously Ugly.

The sprites look okay, and I suspect the clay effect would have knocked the socks off of kids on their CRT televisions back in the day, but now they look a little out of place juxtaposed with the decidedly un-clay levels.  The character animation is terrible once again – I’m starting to see a trend here in most non-Mario/Sonic platformers – to the point that I’m wondering whether it was animation, and chiefly animation, that separated those two giants of industry from the rest of the competition during that era.

It may not be Mario and it may not be Sonic, but Claymates is definitely one of the more interesting platformers out there.  I suspect the lack of polish is inversely proportional to the overabundance of ideas crammed into these sandpits.  My advice: climb into the sandpit wide-eyed like a child and you’ll be in a state of constant surprise.

Just don’t come crying to me if you get sand in your eyes.