On September the 16th, 1993, The New York Times published an article sensationally titled 'Video Violence: It's Hot! It's Mortal! It's Kombat!; Teen-Agers Eagerly Await Electronic Carnage While Adults Debate Message Being Sent.'
The article, written by Lindsey Gruson, covered the release day of the first Mortal Kombat, a game which had been an arcade hit for a year and was getting the multi-platform treatment. The article tended towards the condescending - Gruson referred to fatalities as "that much cherished chance to kill" and related a conversation he had with 16 year old gamer Wilson Hung thusly – "Among his favorite moves, he says, is 'punching' an enemy off a ledge and watching him become impaled on a sharpened spike. The most gratifying moment, he finds, comes at one of the final moves when he can electrocute his opponent." You can almost smell the bemused self-righteousness.
It's now 19 years since the frenzy that accompanied the home release of that landmark game, and as the old adage goes, while some things change, others stay the same. The average video gamer is no longer 16 year old Wilson Hung or 15 year old Michael Morgan, cited in the above article as saying the original Mortal Kombat was "the best video game I've ever played". A 2011 study by the Entertainment Software Association revealed that the average video gamer is 37 years old and that around 42% of gamers are women. The games they play, too, are faster, shinier, richer narrative and visual experiences than the blocky digitised ones passing for 'realistic' back in 1993. There's no doubt that Michael Morgan, now 34, would probably call something else the best video game he's ever played.
But while the demographics have changed, the landscape remains the same. There's still a primacy placed on the role of violence in video games, by those who purchase them (only three of the top ten best-selling games of 2011 were not shooters or action-adventure games), those who rail against the dangers they pose, and those who cover them as some kind of childish novelty. It's an attraction that, funnily enough, we can trace right back to the Dear Leader of Video Game Violence, Mortal Kombat itself. Which brings us to the latest instalment of the notorious franchise, released on the year of its 20th anniversary – a PS Vita port of last year's popular (and banned in Australia) reboot. The reboot promised to get back to the roots of what made the series great – ridiculous characters, ridiculous moves, and violence – and, by all accounts, delivered.
By and large, the mainstays of the Mortal Kombat series are all present and accounted for here. Male and female characters ripple with absurd hyper-sexualisation, and the game faithfully subscribes to John Carmack's narrative philosophy, that "Story in a game is like story in a porn movie. It's expected to be there, but it's not that important."
Special moves look a lot easier than they are, combos are rigorously encouraged and the violence is still wilfully juvenile, to the point where one new minigame, a Fruit Ninja ripoff called 'Test Your Slice', replaces fruit with decapitated heads.
Violence occasionally approaches a level of grotesque beauty not seen in earlier Mortal Kombat games, such as the lone ribbons of blood that spray from an opponent's face after a Front Punch combo, or in the paintstakingly-detailed X-Ray Moves that play out as half-dance, half-autopsy. It's violence that is at once reminiscent of splatter cinema and the gracefully brutal work of martial artists like Tony Jaa and Jet Li; it's a long way from the crudely animated Fatalities of 1992.
Mortal Kombat has other advantages over the admittedly small number of fighting games in today's handheld market. NetherRealms have crammed enough features into this to keep the player going for weeks, even months. The absolutely ludicrous Story Mode is stacked with unskippable cutscenes, weaving the barest thread of a narrative through its pre-ordained brawls, but it manages to be unintentionally hilarious enough to keep attention focused; the Ladder and Tag Ladder modes offer classic no-frills match-ups; the two Challenge Towers provide for a structured, surprisingly addictive series of mini-games built around broad, frequently slapstick violence. A match where renowned teddy bear hater Scorpion must defeat a fighter in the thrall of one of those plush monstrosities is of particular note, and the 'Test Your...' mini-games are solid time-wasters.
This new Mortal Kombat isn't perfect, though. The in-game graphics are acceptable, but far from the standard set by some of the Vita's launch titles. It's also pretty jarring when playing Story Mode, as high-quality full-motion video and blocky character models segue in and out of each other about as well as can be imagined. It's also a tough nut of a game to crack, even on the lower difficulty levels, but that'll be even more of an incentive for some.
It's been 20 years since Mortal Kombat debuted in arcades. In those twenty years, not much has changed in the game's basic formula. Rosters have expanded, and now even include Freddy Krueger and Kratos for some bizarre reason. stories have 'developed', mini-games and moves have been added and taken away. Yet, at the heart of it all, Mortal Kombat is still the same old hyper-violent, hyper-sexual brawler it always was, and that's both its greatest asset and its greatest flaw. It's still an exciting, tough fighting game, and it's infinitely preferable to some of the attempts at shaking things up that we saw in the past.
But there's still this niggling feeling that maybe Mortal Kombat's time has been and gone. Stay in the same place for twenty years, people are going to start wondering what you're offering that you haven't already offered a hundred times before.