From ColecoVision To iPhone Games: Some High Water Marks In Video Game Design History – Part 12

In this ongoing look at significant moments in the history of video game design, we have already taken a look at Bungie’s Halo & Halo 2, Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls series, New World Computing’s King’s Bounty and several others. The goal of this series is to go beyond simple gaming magazines and iPhone Apps reviews, and take a closer look at what defines memorability and quality in game design. In this twelfth part of the series we will examine some more of those classic moments where video game designers undoubtedly got it right and delivered a memorable, enduring and progressive gaming experience.

Mortal Kombat (Arcade) – Developed by Midway and released in late 1992, Mortal Kombat (MK) was the perfect counterpart to Capcom’s Street Fighter II. Rather than take the cartoony approach of Capcom’s mega-hit, MK was gritty, bloody and incredibly violent. Whereas Street Fighter II’s battles ended with the victor raising their hand in celebration, MK fights ended with the winner yanking the loser’s head and spine clean off their body. Clearly this was a completely different type of fighting game. MK eventually went on to spawn hit music (a remixed version of the games ‘attract mode’ music), several major films and many successful sequels. But, what was it about the game that made it so popular? Was it merely the violence, or was there more to MK than initially met the eye?

While this series has previously heaped praise upon Street Fighter II for its incredible balance across its entire spectrum of characters, MK actually eclipses that title in this regard. Featuring only seven selectable characters, MK certainly did not up the ante much in terms of fighter selection. What it did do, however, was make the character choice secondary to the actual development of skills. The beauty of MK is that every single move you make is able to be countered. If your leg sweep gets blocked, there will be a penalty. If your special attack comes up short, there will be retribution. MK players who saw any kind of success in the tournament setting typically earned that success by realizing that the game is best played as an intricate exchange of techniques, rather than an all out offensive assault. If the player merely begins hauling their special attacks at their enemy, their attacks will be countered and they will quickly be defeated. This essential gameplay difference is where MK diverges from Street Fighter II and truly stands on its own merits.

In examining the balance of MK even closer, we can see that the combo system in the game is also very fair and well implemented. Each player in MK is afforded their own two hit combination, typically including a jump kick followed by the special attack of the player. There is no juggling (juggling WAS present in early versions, but was later patched), chaining or killer combo to be found in the game. What this means is that, unlike in Street Fighter II where the vast majority of players chose the offensive juggernauts Ken and Ryu, there is no single go-to character in MK, because none offers any particular advantage. In fact, the hand to hand combat (combat without special attacks) in MK would have made for a stellar game in and of itself, but is only enhanced by the addition of special moves.

The fatalities may have made MK famous and controversial, but the tightly balanced gameplay is what has made it an enduring classic.

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