A lot of people are excited about the latest instalment in the Mortal Kombat series, and for good reason - MK9 is a stunning return to form for a series that's been through more than its fair share of peaks and troughs in the past couple of decades.
Here we look at some of the areas where the Mortal Kombat series lost its way, and how Mortal Kombat 2011 sorts them out. There are some grisly screenshots here, so look away if you're feeling squeamish...
1. Fatalities get less gruesome, less exciting, or both
Let's start with the biggest deal of all, the thing that made Mortal Kombat notorious: those ridiculous finishing moves.
It's well known that the fatalities have been soft for a while. In the previous instalment, Mortal Kombat vs DC Universe, the squeamish comic company wouldn't have their heroes do anything as unpleasant as kill someone, so in many cases - Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman - we had to make do with non-fatal and oxymoronic 'heroic brutalities'. What a missed opportunity. Baddies were allowed to kill, but many of the moves were limp, with virtually no gore on display. Kano, for example, had a feeble finisher where he jumped on his opponent's prone body "like Mario", as one site put it.
And that game's predecessor, MK: Armageddon, introduced Kreate-A-Fatality: a valiant but badly received system where you string together smaller acts of violence into a long-winded, silly whole. I think this maligned system grows on you - once you've got a few little ensembles of your own worked out it's quite satisfying - but it definitely took away the specialness of fatalities, the sense of occasion. Pretty much every Armageddon fight would end in some kind of screen-darkening event - often just a couple of arm breaks or a groin kick squeezed in before the timer ran out. And it just felt wrong that there weren't unique finishers for each character.
The fatalities in early MK games had graphics that were laughable by today's standards (Sheeva half-heartedly removing your skin with all the physical effort of someone unwrapping their Christmas presents was a particular highlight of MK3). But players were dazzled by the sense of excitement they provoked, and their inventiveness and range. Somewhere along the way that got lost.
Does MK9 fix it? Heck yes. The fatalities are some of the most disgustingly gory yet - you can chop off your opponent's arms, burn his face off in a pool of lava, throw him into the mouth of a carnivorous tree or make him rip his own head clean off - and the high-quality graphics make even the simpler or less original fatalities astonishing to watch. And each character has at least two finishing moves that are unique to them.
Someone enjoying a fatality, yesterday
2. Characters lose much-loved moves...
The thing that blew me away about Mortal Kombat II (sorry to keep harping on about the olden days, kids) was the fact that you could play as Shang Tsung, the boss of the first game, and do his morphing special move - turning into any other character and even doing their special moves and fatalities if you could remember the buttons. That blew my tiny mind. But Shang hasn't been able to morph since Mortal Kombat went 3D. This sucks.
And he's not the only one to mysteriously forget stuff. Johnny Cage's groin punch was highly amusing to me and my pals in the 90s, but that bit of innocent fun was snuffed out from Deadly Alliance onwards. Sonya can't do her handstand throw since DA. Jax lost his mid-air backbreaker throw. Sektor lost the ability to do guided missiles. Sub-Zero's fun ice puddle doesn't appear in every game.
I don't care if these moves were found to be unbalanced - they were the fun moves. Why take that away?
Does MK9 fix it? In a lot of cases, yes. I don't know if it's because NetherRealm realised they'd been taking out people's most cherished moves, or just part of the retro theme, but a fair few favourites are back: Sonya has her handstand throw back, Johnny Cage has his 'nut punch', Jax has his mid-air throw and Sub-Zero can do his ice puddle.
But they're not all back - Sektor's unavoidable homing missile is still AWOL [edit: actually it is available, as an 'enhanced' power move], and while Shang Tsung happily morphs into various characters when you fight him, he can only morph into his opponent when used as a player character. (Unless that's an unlockable feature that nobody's discovered yet...)
Finally, of course, the new X-rays are sure to become cherished moves of the future. Need convincing?
3. ...or get lame make-overs
Sub-Zero has suffered the most in this area. The first time we ever saw him, he looked brilliant: an evil ninja in simple blue and black gear. But they messed with the formula, turning him into a boring civilian in MK3, and some kind of operatic ice king in Deception, for no apparent reason.
And he's not the only one. Kung Lao looked awesome in MKII - creepy and cool, like a martial-arts goth cowboy. But he's never looked quite right since. Liu Kang died and got turned into a zombie. Johnny Cage keeps changing hair colour. And in their keenness to move away from the palette-swap sameyness of the ninjas in the early games, the designers turned Reptile into a Dr Who monster, Smoke into a weird alien and Ermac and Rain into exhibits from the British Museum.
Finally, of course, turning 3D made all the characters change their look entirely. Everyone became inexplicably sturdy. Particularly the ladies.
Does MK9 fix it? Mostly. I love the look of the characters in MK9, and they've often gone back to the classic, 'canon' look, polished with up-to-date graphics. Sub-Zero is a plain old (bright blue) ninja, Johnny Cage looks like Johnny Cage and Mileena and Kitana are thin again. Sorry if that sounds shallow.
That's more like it, Sub-Zero (image from themortalkombat.com)
Reptile still looks too much like an actual reptile for my taste (I liked the way he mostly hid his hideousness behind a ninja disguise - less is more, Reptile!). Ermac is still weird. And they've done one entirely new make-over - Smoke, for some reason, has done his hair like Gary Oldman's Dracula. But I love his new look, so I'll shut up.
Next page: Filler characters, missing characters, and the third dimension >>
We look at some of the things the Mortal Kombat series has got wrong over the years, and how Mortal Kombat 2011 sorts them out.
4. Too many filler characters, or not enough of the key ones
Things have been steadily bloating for years in the MK world, but things got truly ridiculous in Armageddon. I think 62 is an absurd number of playable characters.
I suppose you could argue that you don't need to play as them all, and of course you don't. But having so many makes it incredibly difficult to get attached to any of the newer characters. They all just blend into one. Who needs that many identikit large-chested ninja brunettes? And how is the game supposed to be a genuine test of skill when half the time your opponent is picking a character you've never played as, and maybe never even fought?
And this leads on to other problems mentioned above. Having 62 characters was presumably why they went for the Kreate-A-Fatality system instead of having individual fatalities. And clearly it would have been impossible for Shang Tsung players to memorise 61 morph button sequences.
62 characters: ridiculous (the slots directly above Scorpion and Sektor's heads are for home-made characters, maths fans, so I've not included them in the count)
Conversely, the following game, Mortal Kombat vs DC Universe, trimmed things down in some areas - it missed out Cage and all the robot ninjas, for instance - while still feeling the need to pander to comic-book completists with relatively dispensible also-rans Deathstroke and Darkseid.
(Apologies to comic-book completists if those two are massively significant, by the way. But if you need to be a comic-book nut to know who the characters are, they shouldn't be in a Mortal Kombat title at the expense of Cyrax.)
Does MK9 fix it? There are far fewer characters in MK9 than in Armageddon, but more than in MK vs DC. And I think they've balanced it well - this time you get all the biggies, and very little filler. There will probably be a fair few filler characters added later as DLC, mind, but you'll only buy them if you like, say, Kenshi. You weirdo.
Scorpion and Johnny Cage: two characters that should be in every Mortal Kombat game
Fujin and... Taven? Or is it Daegon? Anyway, two characters we can live without
5. Going 3D to keep up with the times
Perhaps rather controversially, I've never been a huge fan of 3D in fighting games. I like my fighting games dumb and old-fashioned. But even if you could get me to admit its appeal in games that know how to use 3D - Virtua Fighter and Tekken are both distinguished fighting franchises - surely it's undeniable that Mortal Kombat never got the hang of it.
3D works best, in my mind, when the action is close and grapply. Mortal Kombat has always been more of an arms-length sort of a game, with a lot of emphasis on projectiles and leaping in from distance with flying kicks; and the boring old sidestep move is poison in that environment.
Does MK9 fix it? Mortal Kombat 9 is two-dimensional (in action terms; the character models have been rendered three-dimensionally). And I'm pleased about that. But I suspect not everyone will agree that this was something that needed fixing. I'd be interested to hear readers' views on this one.
Cyrax and Kitana, showing why two dimensions are best
Agree? Disagree? Let me know what you think in the comments box below. And don't forget to read our comprehensive review of MK9.