Review by Ryan Harrison
""It has begun.""
Like any classic video game series with any number of big titles, spinoffs and stop-gap games alike, they all start out with one single game and go on from there. Many of the most well-known and popular series in today's scene are those that got their starts a handful of generations back when gaming hit a big boom in the 1980s and early 1990s, and the Mortal Kombat series is a classic example of a series that has grown so huge with a vast number of titles covering a plethora of home video consoles and handhelds over the last few generations, but the series is plagued by that classic example of a rather standard and overrated debut title in the series becoming heralded on that fact alone.
The very first Mortal Kombat game first graced arcades in 1992. While as a fighter the gameplay isn't anything too shabby and it does also feature some neat graphics, sounds and a few unique traits, the game gained its notoriety from its (back then) excessive amount of blood and violence. Proving to be such a big hit, there was never going to be any question of a home console port, and it duly happened over the next couple of years, with the first MK being ported to a handful of systems, perhaps the most well-known versions of which are those on the Sega Mega Drive (Genesis for North Americans), and Super Nintendo Entertainment System.
This particular version is a pretty respectable, and reasonably faithful port of the arcade original. I may have to concede that no home console version from the days could ever really match the gameplay and graphical qualities of the arcade version, which I continue to regard as the best experience. It sticks with that classic single-player style of climbing a table of characters with the challenge gradually increasing, as well as a simple two-player mode to pit your fighting game skills against a second player. However, the game seems to perform at a rather sluggish speed, the controls are a little stiff, and...well, the action itself is really not a whole lot more than what you get from your standard fighter anyway.
Between the Genesis and SNES versions of Mortal Kombat, this is definitely by far the superior version, at least in my own opinion. It's true that the SNES port often got a bad rap for its severe censorship, lack of blood and taking away many other qualities that made MK such a big hit in the first place, but bad controls, crummy graphics and challenge resulting from gameplay flaws resulted in a pretty butchered port. Yes, the Genesis version does have the trademark blood and some better-looking and more gruesome fatalities, though to compensate these features need to be unlocked with a cheat code beforehand. When you get to the fighting itself, it's also very much worth noting that the control isn't so bad; whether going with the standard 3-button controller or a 6-button pad, the layout and feel of a Genesis controller makes for an easier time adjusting to, and learning, the control in this game.
The game has a decent storyline that has continued to evolve along with the series itself, and does a good job of tying each character into the MK tournament with their own unique back stories, to give each fighter more character, and make them more interesting. The story goes that the grand tournament takes place in an outer-dimensional realm known as 'Outworld', in which every generation a handful of fighters are invited to compete in a tournament to try and earn the title of grand champion. Should Outworld's own emerge victorious in this particular tournament, they have won 10 on the bounce and can seize control of the Earth Realm for some reason or another. (Ever heard of the MK movie inspired by this game? Go watch it and that will explain it a little better. It's a good movie. Honestly.) For any character you select, winning the tournament results in a different ending. The overall story is a pretty solid one, and it is good that every character has their own story and unique ending to make it worth playing through with each one.
As for the gameplay style of this game; it is quite fun to play, though like I said, not a lot more than what you get from most of these other typical old-school 2D fighters. For each fight, both characters have a set time limit of 99 seconds to pound away at the other fighter, and to successfully win a round, you must completely deplete the other guy's energy meter. Winning the best 2 out of 3 rounds wins the fight altogether. Every character has their own set of strengths and weaknesses; in addition to close-quarter physical attacks, they each have their own unique special moves that are pulled off with various button combinations. It makes for a good deal of time spent learning how best to use certain characters and fight with them, though you will often find yourself more often than not applying the same particular strategies in each fight anyway.
One of the best features of this game, which has been a recurring theme in just about every major Mortal Kombat game since its inception, are the brutal finishing moves (better known as 'Fatality' moves) that one can perform to finish off a defeated opponent upon depleting their health meter in the decisive round of a fight. The words 'FINISH HIM/HER' will appear in large, bloody letters on-screen, and by entering a particular button combination relevant to each particular character, one can perform a unique finishing blow to cap the opponent off in style and gain a big point bonus. When blood is enabled, some characters perform even more gruesome looking moves, which is great. The Fatalities may not really be so shockingly graphic compared to what you see in so many of the newer MK games, but back then they were very controversial. The way the screen goes dark also adds to the effect, and one stage even has its own unique universal Fatality in which you can knock an opponent down into a pit of spikes forty feet below! The Fatalities are my favourite particular feature of the game, though being limited to one per character (as well as pretty simple-looking by today's standards) left a standard that has in later editions continued to be improved upon.
The main single-player mode has a table of characters, in which your selected fighter starts out at the bottom, and you continually work your way up to the top following each successful battle. The structure is good and rather simple; you first fight all of the other six characters before facing your own character in a mirror match; from there it's onto three endurance rounds in which you have to defeat two random opponents in succession all on one health meter, then you take on the boss characters before winning the game. The challenge curve is very much dead on and the endurance rounds and boss battles do provide a good test, as well as add a little more playing time.
In-between every few fights, there's also a neat little mini-game to try out, where you have to very quickly tap the buttons on the controller to build up a strength meter, before karate chopping an object in an attempt to smash it for bonus points. There's nothing really special about this mode, but it is a nice little diversion and gives you something else to try so you're not finding the action becoming a little over-repetitive.
What is perhaps one of the very obvious drawbacks to this game is that it is the shortest major Mortal Kombat game. Even though adding the endurance rounds and a secret character to look for does give the game that little extra something, you are still only restricted to seven selectable fighters; by no means the smallest or worst character selection, but not the biggest or best choice either. The good thing is that they all have their own unique standout looks, fighting style, special moves and ending storylines that makes them all worth playing through with, but still, even around this timeframe a good number of other fighting games could offer larger, and more varied, character rosters.
Also, when you look at everything else the game has to show besides the blood and fatalities, this just seems to look and feel like any other bog-standard 2D fighter. The single-player and multi-player modes do their job but aren't anything outstanding; the range of special moves between characters is little, and the presentation is on the whole quite average.
When it comes to the controls and mechanics, I will point out that the control feels a lot better on the Sega Genesis than the SNES version, though I still noticed that at times it can be delayed and a little stiff. This seems to happen particularly when pulling off special moves straight after dealing physical attacks or throws. Otherwise, the movement is good and responsive, and special moves are quite easy to pull off, once you get the timing down and know the button combinations.
The game's visuals aren't too bad in general, but again show room for improvement. The stage designs look pretty good and suit the martial-arts theme of the game very well, and while they make for some very interesting venues for these fights, they serve just for decoration mostly. I do like how the stages look a little more colourful and take up more of the screen than their SNES counterparts do, though at times they can also seem a little less lively due to the game's generally slow animation. Character models also seem to appear a little bland and again don't animate quite so smoothly compared to the SNES port. MK is noted for being one of the first games to use digitised real-life character models rather than hand-drawn, animated ones; the models in this port do look recognisable, though their graphics don't look all that great.
I did, however, consider the musical soundtrack of Mortal Kombat on the Mega Drive to be my favourite of every version I've listened to. The music that accompanies each stage is good to listen to. It sticks out with the Mega Drive's trademark, loud-volume 'chunky' sound that is rich in bass and a little more defined. It gets your attention right at the beginning with a great title screen theme, and the various stages all have their own themes too. They go quite well with the fighting action and dark theme of the game.
The sound effects are passable, though some could have been polished up. For one thing, the voice-overs that declare 'FIGHT!!' or 'FINISH HIM!!' don't have that heavy, booming and gruff sound you get from many of the other games. The sounds of the characters grunting when they jump or take damage, also doesn't really sound too particularly good, nor does the lack of a blood-curdling scream to accompany fatality moves. Otherwise, the usual sound effects of clobbering, carcasses hitting the ground with a heavy thud or Scorpion's GET OVER HERE!! are done quite well.
While this game does still have enough charm to it to be worth picking up and having a quick blast through from time to time, it does suffer the classic case of being outdone in all areas by its sequels; there's almost, if not nothing, to get from this in terms of the trademark action that you won't from any other later MK game. With seven characters to play through with and a decent selection of difficulty settings to offer some extra challenge there is some lifespan and replay value to be had, as well as a hidden character to search for if you're skilled enough, though once you're through with this one and move onto MK2, MK3 and the many modern games in the series, you'll find that they offer more characters and levels, moves, finishers and much more polished looks, sounds and gameplay, all but leaving this one as an afterthought.
The challenge in this version is reasonable. I did find that the difficulty on the whole wasn't too bad for the Medium setting, and those endurance and boss rounds do give your skills a good testing. It still may require understanding the mechanics and having to take advantage of some glitches to win some fights, though on the whole getting through the battle plan in the single player mode wasn't too difficult and I found the CPU not to be so cheap and flawed as its SNES counterpart.
The Sega Genesis/Mega Drive port of Mortal Kombat is all round a respectable, though generally average fighting game. I will have to admit that it was one that would have been much more enjoyable and longer-lasting back in the old days, and even so it doesn't quite match the quality and experience of the arcade original. These days it doesn't go for a whole lot so fighting fans and devout MK players might get a good couple of hours out of playing this, otherwise for a more refined and substantial experience, the follow-up game for the same console is a better bet.
Reviewer's Rating: 3.0 - Fair
Originally Posted: 12/03/13
Game Release: Mortal Kombat (EU, 12/31/93)
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