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Coming to Grips With Your Fatality

‘Mortal Kombat’ returned this week with its 11th installment. The graphics are better and the fatalities are crueler, but at its core, the latest version of the classic fighter is still the game ’90s kids hid from their parents.

Eric Foster

Words cannot convey my sense of accomplishment when I first successfully decapitated a dude with my razor-brimmed hat, kicked him in the chest, teleported behind him, sliced his body in half head to toe (with the razor hat), then sliced his decapitated head in half (horizontally) in midair by flicking said razor hat like a Frisbee between the two bloody halves of his (vertically) bifurcated body. A fatality, in the parlance. Big moment for me, personally.

Pictures (or better yet, video) can at least convey the precise balance of disgust and adrenalized delight that powers Mortal Kombat 11, as well as, uh, the 10 Mortal Kombats that preceded it. Yes, the latest installment in perhaps the loopiest and goriest video game franchise of all time came out Tuesday, on Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Playstation 4, and PC. Yes, this is the 11th game in that franchise, which launched with an infamously bloody 1992 arcade game so outrageous (and so popular) that Joe Lieberman, then a Democratic senator from Connecticut, led Congressional hearings that indirectly resulted in the industrywide ratings system still in place today. (Mortal Kombat 11 is rated M, for “Mature,” which is hilarious.)

“We’re talking about video games that glorify violence and teach children to enjoy inflicting the most gruesome forms of cruelty imaginable,” Lieberman explained at a press conference. For the blissfully uninitiated: Mortal Kombat is a fighting game, a one-on-one brawl—three rounds, best two out of three—consisting of fists and jump-kicks and fireballs and spears and whatnot. “FINISH HIM,” the game exhorts, when one player is victorious, whereupon the victor can inflict a character-specific fatality on his or her vanquished opponent that revels in Itchy & Scratchy–style cartoon ultraviolence. Here, then, were the most gruesome forms of cruelty imaginable in 1992.

As a sullen teenager, I was guilty of all of these murders, many times over. (My favorite character was Scorpion, the yellow ninja guy who had the spear and could also breathe fire.) The original Mortal Kombat was the surly goth expelled-from-high-school foil to Street Fighter II, a 1991 arcade colossus that revolutionized the fighting-game template (distinct characters with their own exclusive moves and doofy backstories) but was not sufficiently grody enough to allow you to rip out anyone’s spine. Street Fighter V came out in 2016; the series overall remains the Beatles to Mortal Kombat’s Stones. (For what it’s worth, the 1995 Mortal Kombat movie is way better than the 1994 Street Fighter movie, for the righteous theme song alone.)

Mortal Kombat 2 hit arcades in 1993 with several new characters (most notably Kung Lao, my beloved friend with the razor hat) and, for that era anyway, way gnarlier fatalities. And then—well, listen. I’m gonna level with you. Until recently, with precious few exceptions, I hadn’t played a Mortal Kombat game in 20-odd years, and I certainly had no idea they’d made 11 of them. Occasionally I would watch YouTube compilations of a new game’s fatalities, borne of the same perversion that compels me to read horror-movie plot summaries on Wikipedia. It’s a great way to feel a little worse about the world. Here, then, is every fatality from Mortal Kombat 11; a good psychological-profiling technique would be tracking how long it takes someone to get totally grossed out or (this is probably worse) bored.

So I got an Xbox One review copy of Mortal Kombat 11 and played it a bunch and enjoyed it quite a bit despite being slightly overwhelmed and monumentally queasy. Some things about this franchise are, remarkably, still the same, nearly three decades later; the differences tend to be a matter of scale, in terms of both button-mashing complexity and Congress-antagonizing odiousness. “You think it’s over, but the final push with the eyeball at the end is just [chef kiss sound],” Mortal Kombat 11 art director Steve Beran told Kotaku, describing his favorite new fatality, which involves a character named Skarlet fashioning her opponent’s drained blood into giant frozen spikes. Please do not play this game around impressionable youths. And prepare yourself, if you happen to be a Gamer of a Certain Age, to revisit a simpler time when you were an impressionable youth yourself.

In the beginning, there was the hadouken, a sort of rad energy fireball flung by various Street Fighter characters, most notably Ryu (awesome, a true hero) and Ken (lame, a disgraced hair-metal front man). Swing your joystick from down to forward and hit a punch button. Try this move in literally any fighting game from any era—one that involves dinosaurs, or superheroes, or claymation, or rappers, or blocky 3D fellas—and something cool and potentially ruinous will happen. Try it in Street Fighter V and it’ll still make that immensely pleasing hadouken sound.

Mortal Kombat 11 relies on this same continuity, a historical foundation such that any old chump can pick up a controller and instantly join, or rejoin, the fray. (Related: There’s a character in this game literally named Noob Saibot.) The full move list for any one fighter is deeply harrowing, but the idea is you know enough to get started whether you know it or not. The feral thrill you get from uppercutting the bejesus out of someone—the bone-crushing sound effect mingling with the guttural Ohhhhh of your waylaid opponent—is apparently timeless.

There is thus an eerily transportive power to these games, even if you’ve skipped most of them. Specifically, I am transported back to 1993, when the original Mortal Kombat was ported to both Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis, a Beatles vs. Stones dichotomy all its own. The Genesis (and Stones) version kept all the fatalities and blood intact, provided you knew the cheat code ABACABB, making it easily the second-greatest cheat code of all time and the only one inspired by a prog-rock song; the Super Nintendo version watered down the fatalities and colored the blood gray in a wan attempt to pass it off as sweat. It was the J. Cole of ’90s video games, and the hell with it.

One thing the first of several games in this series didn’t have (or particularly need) was a luxe in-game tutorial, which is the best part of Mortal Kombat 11 by orders of magnitude. At the onset, it is patient to the point of making sure you know how to move forward and backward. But as it progresses, delving into advanced defense and juggle combos and frame data, it’s granular to a degree that is both objectively ridiculous and legitimately enlightening. (Sorry, I meant juggle kombos; when you komplete lessons, you can earn koins or time krystals or konsumables.) I am currently stuck at the part where you have to use an amplified special move to extend your kombo, having not yet mastered the exact timing of back-X + Y + special move cancel back-forward-X + RB + forward-B. Someday, though.

The tutorial mode, if nothing else, makes you appreciate the vast gulf that separates a joystick-mangling novice from actual Mortal Kombat professionals. (Shout-out to SonicFox.) The frame-data section alone is mesmerizing if you’re new to this realm: Every individual attack can be broken down by fractions of a second, which is to say how many individual animation frames it takes for the Beginning (the windup), the Middle (the actual attack part that causes damage), and the End (the recovery). The savants who play Super Smash Bros. Ultimate for money long ago internalized this stuff, but at least now you might come to know what you don’t know.

There is also a Fatality Training section, for those players in it only for the blood and viscera and atrocity, a safe space in which to cause unspeakable harm. This may be a more humane place to hang out than Mortal Kombat 11’s main story mode, which all told racks up nearly four hours of theoretically cinematic cutscenes, all of which I, as someone unversed in the time-traveling, realm-spanning, doppelgänger-spawning lore of the eight previous Mortal Kombat games, found pleasantly incomprehensible.

Let’s just say that it starts off with multiple characters sassing some evil dude’s severed head, and circumstances do not improve, in terms of drama or convolution. (Actually, let’s also say that Ronda Rousey provides the voice for longtime series heroine Sonya Blade, and as Ronda Rousey performances go, she was better in the Entourage movie.) But the dialogue overall has a splendid anti-rhythm to it: “My work’s perfection has been irreversibly affected by Raiden’s actions.” “Withdraw or feel the wrath of EarthRealm’s protector.” “It is you with no future, Baraka.” “I’ve not forgotten our last encounter at the Sky Temple.” Also, there is currently a minor Gamergate-style controversy afoot surrounding the character Jax, whose story line involves him traveling back in time to end slavery. It might not all add up to a rich text, but it’s certainly a long one.

The end result is that I am, temporarily at least, a Mortal Kombat fiend again, and now, as I jump around flinging my razor hat, I fancy that I am applying frame-rate-savvy tactical principles, even if this is pure delusion. I even manage to execute the occasional Fatal Blow, a new come-from-behind mechanic that triggers a wave of ungodly violence that is not, incredibly, technically fatal. It’s nice to feel competent, however briefly. No way am I venturing online, where I would doubtlessly be annihilated by juvenile delinquents shouting obscenities as they rip my face off. It is enough to understand, finally, what always made those juvenile delinquents so much better than me, even back when I was a juvenile delinquent myself.