Mortal Kombat: Dying for a reboot

Mortal Kombat returns to its 2D roots along with classic characters and the return of fatalities.

Jeff Bakalar Editor at Large
Jeff is CNET Editor at Large and a host for CNET video. He's regularly featured on CBS and CBSN. He founded the site's longest-running podcast, The 404 Show, which ran for 10 years. He's currently featured on Giant Bomb's Giant Beastcast podcast and has an unhealthy obsession with ice hockey and pinball.
Dan Ackerman Editorial Director / Computers and Gaming
Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of computers and gaming hardware. A New York native and former radio DJ, he's also a regular TV talking head and the author of "The Tetris Effect" (Hachette/PublicAffairs), a non-fiction gaming and business history book that has earned rave reviews from the New York Times, Fortune, LA Review of Books, and many other publications. "Upends the standard Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg technology-creation myth... the story shines." -- The New York Times
Expertise I've been testing and reviewing computer and gaming hardware for over 20 years, covering every console launch since the Dreamcast and every MacBook...ever. Credentials
  • Author of the award-winning, NY Times-reviewed nonfiction book The Tetris Effect; Longtime consumer technology expert for CBS Mornings
Jeff Bakalar
Dan Ackerman
3 min read
Warner Bros. Interactive

Does the most iconic fighting franchise of all time come back with a vengeance? Or is this one resurrection better left letting the coin credit countdown run out?

If isn't broke, don't fix it. We've all heard the tired cliche, but now more than ever game developers are reaching back to a game's roots as inspiration for franchise reboots. The most recent example is the latest incarnation of Mortal Kombat.

The 2D fighting is back, along with the series' genre-defining iconic finale, fatalities. Mortal Kombat is a gift to the loyal MK fan. Anyone who grew up playing one of the classic Mortal Kombat arcade cabinets in the '90s will instantly feel right at home. The nostalgia is laid on thick at times with handfuls of inside jokes, references, and other "-alities."

We were also impressed to find that Mortal Kombat packed in a significantly deep story mode. While most fighting games go light on the narrative, MK successfully thickens the experience with in-game cinematics and dialogue beyond the trivial character intros. There are also hours upon hours of challenges here, including new "Test Your" modes including "Might, Sight, Luck," and more, not to mention the new double and triple tag team versus modes.

Mortal Kombat (photos)

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Graphically speaking, the character design in Mortal Kombat is nothing short of spectacular, with each unique fighter sporting a painstaking amount of detail. Speaking of pain, the new Mortal Kombat is more brutal than ever, properly taking advantage of current-generation hardware that delivers each gruesome blow, crunch, splat, and thud. Characters bleed and swell over the course of a match and their wardrobes rip and burn.

We were partial to the collection of character-unique X-ray moves that slow the action down to give players a biology lesson or two, showing bones snapping and organs rupturing.

Warner Bros. Interactive

As we mentioned above, fatalities are back. Instead of flipping through move list printouts, the team at NetherRealm Studios has conveniently listed special moves and fatalities in the pause menu, providing easy access in the game. There's even a fatality trainer mode that lets you practice your favorite "FINISH HIM!" moment without all the pressure.

For an in-studio demo of Mortal Kombat that includes two fatalities, tune in to this week's episode of preGame!

It's the game that parents, newscasters, and legislators love to hate, so it's not surprising that Mortal Kombat makes a return appearance every few years (or even more frequently). After all, labeling something as forbidden fruit is the easiest way to attract the game's target demographic of young males.

Yet, the latest incarnation of Mortal Kombat seems overly conservative, if anything. Sure, there's plenty of violence and some bloodletting, but other than improved graphics, it's not that much different in concept than the 1992 original. Since then, we've become so jaded by the more realistic violence in games, movies, and TV, that the fatalities in MK seem almost quaint and retro by comparison. Not that I'm complaining; to truly up the stakes, the game would need to move in the direction of "Hostel"-like torture porn, and there's a point beyond which that becomes self-defeating.

Like Street Fighter IV and other recent fighting games, the characters here are 3D renderings trapped in a 2D plane; think of the classic satirical/geometric novel "Flatland," but with more beheadings.

Warner Bros. Interactive

Being only casually familiar with the main characters and lore of the game's universe (but the image of Christopher Lambert as Raiden is forever burned in my brain -- even though my mind originally jumped to the late Raul Julia as M. Bison before some helpful readers pointed out I was mixing my fighting game references), a handful of things kept my attention for at least a few days. The PS3 version has two important bonuses over the Xbox 360 game. On the PS3, you can play in stereoscopic 3D, which definitely adds to the experience in this genre, and that version also has a very cool exclusive character: God of War's Kratos.

Finally, I will never forget the triumphant match where, by randomly mashing a few buttons after defeating my opponent, Kratos performed a little-known variation on the infamous Fatality move: my foe was transformed into a kicking, screaming infantalized version of himself, as the screen proudly proclaimed "Babality!"