The Evolution of Mortal Kombat: Mortal Kombat Vs Street Fighter

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The variation in design came much later.

A long time ago someone directed a rhetorical question at me, “When you think of fighting games, what do you think of?” He said Street Fighter, but I was thinking Mortal Kombat. And with the arrival of Mortal Kombat X, I feel like these two have come full circle and Mortal Kombat has come out on top… but not without Street Fighter’s influence. These were/are the two titans in fighting games; a rivalry akin to Marvel and DC. While I respect both franchises, it is interesting to see what Netherrealm Studios took from its competitor and how they improved upon it.

In this article, I intend to show how Street Fighter (SF) paved the way for Mortal Kombat (MK).

Street Fighter 2 Vs Mortal Kombat

Street Fighter 2 (1991) was played in every household, in every arcade, and (in my case) every dentists’ office. Street Fighter 2 was awesome, but I don’t think I’m alone in saying that my favorite part (and equally the most humiliating aspect) was when the victory screen popped up:

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When you lost, it was miserable to see yourself bloody and bruised… especially knowing that they’d probably be scuffed up a bit too (but WHATEVER). Conversely, when you won, it felt great to see the CPU (or your brother) bloodied and puffy. That was what I played for; a street fight’s satisfaction. The fruits of your labor were bulbous, black and blue.

No doubt, Ed Boon (Creator of Mortal Kombat) must’ve felt that to some extent too. And while Mortal Kombat (1992) has a number of influences — not the least of which is Jean-Claude Van Damme — it’s clear that winning was a huge part of its success.

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Both Van Damme and Robin Shou defected to Street Fighter movies.

When you won in Mortal Kombat (MK), that was the end of it. You didn’t just get bloodied and bruised to fight another day, you straight-up murdered your opponent. It took the sensation SF made from the win/lose screen and amplified it 110%. And, in fairness, that could’ve been traumatizing, but Mortal Kombat carried on that — what, no doubt, Bruce Campbell would’ve referred to as — splatstick: sensationally gory, but wildly hilarious.

Additionally, MK pioneered palette swapping (ex: MK ninjas). Although many fighters (by which I mean, fighting games) did this as well, Mortal Kombat & Co. improved the premise. They would swap the palette but alter the moves.

mortal-kombat-ninjas
The variation in design came much later.

This was brilliant! Whereas the choice between Ryu and Ken was purely aesthetic (maybe as a way to have two protagonists for their two major markets: Japan & USA), Mortal Kombat made a move-set preference — a palette swap that affected gameplay. That’s great design! (Incidentally, this type of innovation has come back into play in MK X, only instead of palette swapping, it’s the same character but with a different fighting style.)

However, the “golden” age of Mortal Kombat would not last. After two more successful sequels and a kickass film… we entered into the world of the fifth-generation consoles and the supposed demise of the 2D fighter.

Mortal Kombat 4 – 8 and the Moratorium of the 2D Fighter

There seemed to be a collective mentality (among developers and gamers alike) that the 2D fighter was dead. People wanted 3D fighters as they could provide better graphics (arguably). Both Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat made attempts into the 3D fighting game world to… mixed reception.

Riveting.
Riveting.

Rather than continue churning out sequels — as Capcom is wont to do — Street Fighter went on hiatus for 9 years after the release of Third Strike (the 3rd installment of the 3rd-numbered game). Not knowing what to do with the SF series, the characters sought refuge in Capcom’s other blockbuster franchise: Marvel Vs Capcom and Marvel Vs Capcom 2.

The company was fresh out of ideas and while I won’t deny the child-like wonder and fantasy fulfillment Marvel Vs Capcom 2 wrought, it was essentially the fumes from an exhausted franchise (the creators threw every sprite already drawn into a Mugen-like engine; they didn’t create anything new [sans Black Heart], they just pooled their resources together).

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Marvel, not Capcom, drew that one.

Similarly, Mortal Kombat struggled to find its footing. Each 3D installment tried something new and embraced change, but it was not quite the phenomenon it was. Mortal Kombat: Armageddon was the series’ standstill. As its subtitle suggests, the game was intended to be the be-all, end-all to the franchise. Ed Boon had said (in Deception’s special features) that he wanted to kill off all the characters and start fresh with a new Mortal Kombat tournament (these are supposed to occur every generation) with a new roster with nothing but the staples of the franchise, i.e. Sub-Zero and Scorpion…

But even Armageddon copped out in the end. MK was experiencing burnout trying to continue a narrative that read more like Akira Toriyama’s Dragon Ball Z manga: each game definitively ends… and then a stronger villain awakens. As a result, the series (more or less) took a backseat and created Mortal Kombat Vs DC. A tepid crossover stranger than fiction.

And yet the parallel between SF and MK is there with another major rival: Marvel and DC. Of course, what we all actually wanted was to see SF Vs MK and a separate game of Marvel Vs DC. (Fingers still crossed.)

Personally, I think, without SF’s influence, MK suffered trying to figure out a new identity. Deadly Alliance epitomizes the identity crisis as they killed the main character of the series: Liu Kang. Although this raised the stakes… it ultimately left the MK series without a protagonist — Scorpion was the poster child, but he was hardly their leading man.

Deception explored other gaming genres with their many mini-games. They developed interactable (read: instant death) levels. And even a wildly expansive Konquest (adventure) mode. Plus, they fully-embraced the splatstick nature of the series with Yin Yang Island:

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You can’t tell, but hang drums and bongos play when it’s the sunny side.

And then Armageddon pushed the limits of a fighting game roster by literally inviting everyone, not to mention the create-your-own option.

But even with all these entertaining (and crucial) installments, something was missing… the MK series was now 20 years old and still hadn’t solidified its identity. No where is this more apparent than in the constant design and move list changes… These aren’t bad things, but it wasn’t clear where the series was heading. Until…

Street Fighter 4 Vs Mortal Kombat 9

In 2008, Street Fighter IV (hereafter referred to as SF4) came out almost a full decade after SF3  — and would continue with annual installments for the better part of a decade. They tried something new! Since 2D worked so well, but people wanted 3D, they did 2.5D — where characters are 3D and a Z-axis exists, but all gameplay is done on an X/Y axis. (Fittingly, the game’s story takes place chronologically between SF2 and SF3… and it’s in 2.5D [meta].)

This reset fostered pandemonium from long-time gamers desperate to see the franchise revived. Even though the art design came under some scrutiny, the game was a critical and financial success… All 4 versions of it.

I firmly believe that this paved the way for long-time competitor, Mortal Kombat, to draw inspiration. They saw the success of Street Fighter and decided to emulate it. With Midway (the previous MK publisher) now defunct, Netherrealm Studios was born unto Warner Bros. and they released a 2.5D Mortal Kombat (2011) — hereafter referred to as MK9, despite chronological technicalities. They too experienced the critical and financial success from the revival and they returned to being a true titan/competitor in the fighting game scene (for what that entails: see EVO).

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But here’s where there’s an interesting divergence and why Mortal Kombat is undoubtedly a species unto itself with the only real comparison between it and Street Fighter being their fighting game DNA (today).

In MK9, Boon pulled an X-Men: Days of Future Past and provided a canonical story for MK 1-3, as well as 1-9, and developed a Kenosis of itself — f*** yeah! For those looking for random trivia, it’s why Mortal Kombat (2011) is a reboot vs being MK9. It’s also why the recently released Mortal Kombat X is “X” and not the Roman Numeral ’10’ … it’s poetic coincidence… And technically, makes it MK 2… which revives elements of MK4, but that’s beside the point.

The Story is critical to longevity, something Ed Boon understands and the MK series is now widely praised for.

See back in the archaic days of arcades, fighting games had “arcade” modes, not stories or campaigns. And, if you were going to shell out quarter after quarter to play the game to the end, then your character’s ending needed to be something of note; of substance. This was great for 1992’s Mortal Kombat, but once serialization kicked in, a canon was created.

This still didn’t matter much, being in the era of arcades, since people came to play the game, not invest in the story. Nowadays, things have changed and sequels are just as profitable in Hollywood as they are in the gaming industry; however, if you’re going to serialize something and keep your fans buying, then you need to give them something to invest in. For Boon and Co., he provided a story and characters.

This is the divergence between MK and SF and why, once again, MK saw SF’s bid and raised them. Mortal Kombat has constantly learned from Street Fighter and improved on their formula.

See, for the most part, Capcom constantly repackages the same game: Street Fighter II. The quality of the graphics change, but ultimately Ryu, Chun-Li, and Guile have had the same move sets since 1991. Like I said, in the era of arcades, this was a good thing. All the market wanted was more of what they already had: more characters, more stages, better graphics. The “number” on the end of a SF game is really a formality as another adjective would be ridiculous (Ex. Ultra Hyper Street Fighter II Turbo EX 2015 Edition).

ryu-evolution

(For those not gamer-savvy, consider the iPhone’s many iterations (4, S, G, SG) before a sleeker model appears… that’s essentially the same shape and function.)

And while the SF series has largely been sticking with what they know, MK has been evolving.

Mortal Kombat X

Mortal Kombat X is the defining point, the crossroads (ah?), the identity. Already MKX has sold more copies faster than any other version of MK ever… but more than that, they’ve built on their franchise.

Finally, since Deception‘s inception, Boon did make the choice to kill off many of the familiar cast and added a tremendous amount of new characters to the mix. Not only this, but (as I mentioned above) they took one of their early innovations (of palette-swapping new movesets) and reverse engineered it. Now you can maintain the same character with three different forms, each with their own special movesets and mechanics. This also solves the age-old fighting-game dilemma of “clone” matches (where you and your brother both choose Scorpion). Bravo!

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In addition to this, you can see how they built off their other franchise, Injustice: Gods Among Us, by including heavily personalized introduction dialogues and interactable surroundings. This adds to that “investment” behind consumers who love the story-telling because characters actually interact with one another and you gain insight into characters relationships.

Additionally, while MKs 5-9 featured the iconic characters constantly changing costume designs and movesets, MK X ties it all together. Characters change because they’re growing. They exemplify this perfectly by aging the cast 25 years and leaving some characters dead. Meanwhile, Scorpion and his long-held grudge against Sub-Zero, finally resolved. Sonya and Johnny as a will-they/won’t-they of the series — finally resolved (i.e. Cassie Cage and subsequent divorce). Even the Liu Kang and Katana romance (sparked by the magnificent 1995 movie) has resolution (in death).

There’s a very real world being built and they’re only increasing the momentum by planting the seeds for the future (Ex. Newcomer, Ferra/Torr’s arcade ending establishes that they have a symbiotic relationship, and Ferra (the little one) will grow into a beast like Torr and eventually have a tiny male grow onto her back.).

The MK universe is creating momentum and its epitomized in every aspect of the game, and especially in the gameplay.

For instance, if Sub-Zero could still only perform a freeze-ball and ice clone, what kind of master would he be? Now, his movesets include using ice every which way. Juxtapose this with Ryu (SF) who’s a proclaimed “World Warrior” who travels to master his craft… but has he so much as learned anything new?

And while some will argue that that’s the point of Street Fighter, I argue it’s the downfall. See, when many laymens saw the preview for Street Fighter V, they said… what’s different? And it’s a fair question.

sf4-sf5-comparison
Graphics are less cartoonish… what else you got?

SF isn’t growing; it isn’t changing. SF is simply repackaging and while that is what many consumers want, it doesn’t foster growth.

MK X is not the first fighting game to jump into the future, in fact SF did it before them with Third Strike — and this is my main point in showing how MK learned and improved upon SF incarnations.

Based on hearsay from avid EVO players, Street Fighter III was supposed to have NONE of the original characters. Not only are the characters different, but the tone and stages were completely changed. Each background and character design seemed right out of a dystopian, steam punk future. Now, if this is true and had it succeeded, the SF series would offer quite a different landscape; each installment, no doubt, the next generation of fighters. Games that have the same DNA… but completely different everywhere else… but when people questioned, “What makes this Street Fighter?” Capcom started adding its elite: Ryu… followed by Ken, then Akuma and Chun-Li. They even made up some bullsh*t excuse for why they look the same as they did some 20+ years ago: their balance of ki slows their aging. Oi Vey!

But, and this is my point, because the actual movesets of these characters don’t change, they dilute the originality of their new roster. Rather than explore a new character, people stuck with what they knew. What started as a brilliant new chapter unfolding became a new cover to a used book. With the old roster mixed in, Remy’s allusion to his parental lineage becomes less of a through line for the series and more of a f*** you to Guile fans; Necro becomes less of an enigma and more of a milquetoast version of Dhalsim; Sean becomes less approachable and unique as the standalone Shoto character and more of a disappointment on Ken’s behalf.

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If Ryu and Ken had aged and grayed like their master, and their movesets altered from SF2, then people would see the roots of SF3, but still need to learn new characters since the old would have new movesets. But, as SF3 was still banking off the arcade era, people couldn’t afford to try “new” characters if they wanted to hold onto their money.

MK X’s Kung Lao does not play the same as MK9’s; MK X Johnny Cage does not play the same as he did in MK9. And having the multiple variations only adds to their characters. They’ve mastered multiple styles (sorta like the various martial arts they knew in Deadly Alliance) and they apply their experience to the combat.

In the fighting game scene, there should not be “bad matchups” in MK X, but different strategies built around the game’s mechanics.

It’s why there is no comparison to draw between MK and SF anymore (save the fact, they’re both fighting games). Mortal Kombat found its footing; found its identity; found a new market AND a way to please the old. Mortal Kombat is evolving.

More than all that, Ed Boon and NetherRealm Studios have a clear understanding of the fans and are in tuned with social media to build off their feedback — something they did before social media was even a thing.

In the early years (MK1 – 3), fan reactions and myths grew into ideas for the NetherRealms team. Ermac (an error) became a character; the rumored “Animality” in MK2, became an actuality in MK3; even the myth that you could perform a stage fatality on someone in the ‘evil trees’ stage became a reality in MK9.

Everything has culminated into this, Mortal Kombat X, 23 years in the making and it’s only getting better.

PS. I love how Mortal Kombat made a Puzzle Fighter in the same vein as Street Fighter’s. That’s one of my favorite games, iOS import please!

For more articles/reviews, visit Derek Hobson’s Article Archive

2 Comments on The Evolution of Mortal Kombat: Mortal Kombat Vs Street Fighter

  1. Now I really want to play MKX. Commando Kano? Sounds promising 😉 If you own this, I’m going to have to plan an entire vacation around a whole weekend of video games. You free in July?

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