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‘Mortal Kombat 1’ needs to stop being old

THE WASHINGTON POST – It’s fitting in many ways that Jean-Claude Van Damme appears in Mortal Kombat 1, a reboot of the 31-year-old fighting franchise.

In 1992, John Tobias and Ed Boon hoped to make a martial arts fighting game that placed the Bloodsport star as one of its central characters. They were already working on a game version of Van Damme sci-fi vehicle Universal Soldier, but they couldn’t make the star align for what eventually became Mortal Kombat.

Now in Mortal Kombat 1, released recently a three-decade-old wish is fulfilled. Van Damme plays an alternate version of Johnny Cage, the fictional Hollywood star created to lampoon and satirise him. Like Elon Musk and his long obsession with calling a company ‘X’, the Mortal Kombat franchise feels like it never outgrew its youthful desires.

That goes for the story of Mortal Kombat 1. It’s the second attempt by developer NetherRealm Studios to reboot the franchise, yet beyond a few superficial changes, it reuses the same characters with basically the same characteristics under the same circumstances. When the credits rolled, I did not gain a great understanding of series protagonist Liu Kang, who was promoted in Mortal Kombat 11 from zombie to the actual deity of all creation.

The Mortal Kombat series are basically R-rated Marvel movies, and it shares much in common with the blockbuster films. The more devout consumers are rewarded for their knowledge of and dedication to the back catalogue.

ABOVE & BELOW: Photos show screenshots from ‘Mortal Kombat 1’. PHOTO: NETHERREALM STUDIOS
PHOTO: NETHERREALM STUDIOS
PHOTO: NETHERREALM STUDIOS

The story will end with people yelling and shooting different-coloured laser beams at each other or at a thing. On the flip side of that comparison, this single game franchise has a character roster that’s as diverse and fun as the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe. The writers are without parallel when it comes to filling out last-century action movie archetypes, giving them quirky character traits and placing them in simple yet relatable soap opera drama.

Fu Manchu-stroking kung fu villain Shang Tsung who glowers and said ridiculous things like “Your soul is mine”, remains an iconic antagonist. These distinct, memorable personalities have helped make Mortal Kombat king of the fighting game genre when it comes to sales.

For the first two hours of Mortal Kombat 1, it plays with audience expectations while colouring new lives and stories for these old characters. After Liu Kang reset the universe, Shang Tsung is no longer a powerful sorcerer, instead recast as a literal snake oil salesman down on his luck. Thunder deity Raiden is now a mortal and pleasant farmer boy with ‘aw shucks’ charm.

Even the titular Mortal Kombat tournament plays out differently than it has in the past, and there’s something tantalising in watching and waiting for the inevitable turmoil as these volatile people can’t help but find themselves in conflict. When that bubble finally bursts, that’s when the disappointment sets in.

The second half of the plot relies on already-used story beats from past games, including the 2011 reboot attempt, which was also frustratingly named just Mortal Kombat.

NetherRealm seems incapable of creating a new type of story with these characters. In theme and presentation, this is a series in arrested development.

There is still great entertainment value here anyway. Mortal Kombat 1 is never shy about using one liners and making winking references to past games and adventures, even outright just saying the name of the game. This entire story is a constant stream of they said the thing moments.

Most critiques of fighting games don’t account much for stories, because it’s almost always besides the point. But the Mortal Kombat series is different.

The 2011 reboot was an industry pioneer in how the genre presents a story mode, complete with great acting and a plot with dramatic twists. It was so successful it saved the studio from doom after years of failed sequels, and NetherRealm found its winning formula and has repeated it since.

Part of that winning formula is packing each title with so much content, it’s almost impossible to run out of things to do. The new Invasion mode is a board game that unlocks so many cosmetic assets simply by playing your favourite characters. – Gene Park

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