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RANT: My Love/Hate Relationship with Mortal Kombat

Mortal Kombat is, without a doubt, my favorite game series that I hate to play.

On the strength of Abortion Fists's review of the most recent release in the franchise, I borrowed it from him and hunkered down for a rich, character-driven narrative. I got about two thirds of the way through the story mode before I had to call it quits: I ejected the disc, put it back in the case, and handed it back to Fist the next day. Not for any lack of interest, mind - I wanted to know what happened next, and I'll probably watch the remainder of the story mode segments on YouTube or something. Nor was it a problem of inaccessibility - the game was mine to borrow as long as I liked. Load times were no big deal - there's one medium-sized load at the main menu, but that's about it. The game had a few difficult fights, but nothing that stopped me completely in my tracks (although MK2 Shao Kahn came close).

I had to stop playing because I despise playing Mortal Kombat.

And that match is ... my smoldering disgust. Even Baraka's affectionate hug can't protect you, NetherRealm!

1993. Mortal Kombat II debuts and becomes one of the most beloved arcade fighters of all time. I had missed the boat on the first one, owing to the fact that it didn't show up in my local arcade and I wasn't allowed to play games like that on my home console, but I got caught up in the fervor for this exciting new sequel. The schoolyard was abuzz with talk of the new characters. We were young, and innocent, and didn't fully comprehend the magic of the palette swap yet. So too were our minds filled with thoughts of the radical fatalities, including many that we simply just made up in order to sound like we knew something secret. Character endings held a special place in many of our hearts: the mystery of Reptile's real face ranked up there with the secret prototype of the Mario and Sonic collaborative game that that one kid's friend from Canada saw that one time, or how to turn Edgar into Cecil from Final Fantasy IV if you equipped the right pieces of armor on him (although, to be fair, FF6 didn't come out until '94). Mortal Kombat was what was hot. It was the Hansel of its time. Every kid wanted to have it and to master it, and by becoming master of death, feel truly alive.

Spoiler alert.

My parents didn't condone violent video games in the home, so the local Magic Carpet Golf and the town's only arcade was the one place where I'd be able to get some practice in. But even after long hours of feeding token after token into Midway's money-making monster of an arcade cabinet, I could hardly ever get past the second character in the ladder. Special moves of any kind were a mystery to me - the only one that I was ever capable of accomplishing was Reptile's acid spit move, and this only because it consisted of only two types of input (forward, forward, high punch.) I eventually quit and began a long career of waiting by the side of the school yard, scowling at my classmates, and waiting for livejournal to be invented so that I'd have someone to talk to about how angry I was at all times.

It would be really easy to blame my disgust with the MK experience on the fact that that I already played and preferred Street Fighter, and for many years I did, but I know full well now that that's not really true - I really enjoy both Super Smash Bros and King of Fighters, and both of those have pretty drastically different control schemes (Smash Bros' control scheme is brilliant for its simplicity - you stare at the screen and then who ever is playing Fox automatically wins.) It could also be reasonably guess that I was simply bad at the game, but after enough practice with even the most basic moves, I was able to get a handle on how to beat most installment of the series, starting with MK2. And Mortal Kombat was a game that I WANTED to be good at: For all its ridiculousness, it had characters and storylines that really called out to a 9 year old's interests (ninjas! revenge! a guy with an Australian accent!) It wasn't the first time I would try to have fun with the series, but no matter the iteration, I almost never could stomach it for more than a single session or two.

The comic even had both ninjas AND revenge!

Looking back at this problem now, I'm reasonably certain that my issue with the game lies somewhere with the problem of the uncanny valley - a term usually reserved for talking about character model quality, but can be applied to any aspect of a human simulation. For those of you unfamiliar with the idea, the uncanny valley is used to describe a dip in a graph that measures the likeness of a human simulation of some kind (character model, robot, whatever) to how accepting the human brain is of that simulation. It trends upwards until it hits a certain point, at which point people start to freak out about how weird something looks. Until the simulation can clear the threshold of the valley, then the brain doesn't accept it as a quality simulation, even though by-the-numbers it's doing everything right ... up to a certain point.

Liu Kang's bicycle kick somewhere on the steep upward slope for me.

I think that my brain was seeing the "lifelike" sprites of the original Mortal Kombat arcade game and having difficulty matching up their realism with the absurd movement of their animations. Watching characters move across a Mortal Kombat fighting stage is like watching some chart perfect 45 and 90 degree angles for fun. Characters pop into flying kick poses and soar 30 feet across the screen. And while I don't have a problem with bending the laws of physics for fighting game fun factor, I think that the juxtaposition of this ludicrous movement and the perceived realistic nature of the characters completely poisoned my appreciation of the gameplay.

There's a very good chance that I'm completely wrong on this, but it's the best assessment I've been able to make thus far in my life.

I love a lot about Mortal Kombat. I love the ridiculous story. I love the insane movies, the USA Network cartoon, the Hercules: The Legendary Journeys style adventure that came on TNT right after WCW Nitro. I haven't watched the YouTube "Legacy" series yet but that's only because I'm saving it for a special occasion, because I already know I'm going to love it. But as happy as I am that the series continues to live on, I can virtually guarantee that I'm never going to enjoy picking up the game and playing it.

I admit, I'm sorta glad I don't have to watch the last two and a half minutes of Nitro to watch Legacy.

What about you, dear reader? Do you have a game you want to love but can't because it broke your heart? Sound off on Facebook!

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Melissa on :

*Sums up how I feel about most video games. I like the stories and characters, but don't really care to play them...
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