Mortal Kombat is a series that has gone through wild ups and downs throughout its almost 24 year existence. Let’s track these peaks and valleys from worst to best. There is a lot to go through here, so let’s get right to it.
Mortal Kombat: Special Forces
A lot of people have never heard of this game, and with good reason! It is trash. Mortal Kombat struggled throughout the late 90's and early 2000's, and this is the series’ nadir.
This 2000 PS1 only release looks awful, plays worse, and brings almost nothing of note to the table. The only part of this game that lives on in the series is the brown ninja Tremor, who debuted as a DLC character in Mortal Kombat X.
Series stalwart John Tobias left Midway Games halfway through this title’s development, and many other employees followed suit. I can’t say I blame them.
Mortal Kombat Mythologies: Sub-Zero
The only thing that keeps this game off of the bottom of the barrel is the existence of Special Forces.
This platformer is one of the most frustrating things in existence. You press “up” to jump and can’t control your trajectory in air. You have to press a button to turn and face the opponent you are fighting, and that only seems to work about half the time. There are numerous puzzles that aren’t difficult to comprehend, but are overwhelming because of the terrible controls.
This game does have a lot of impact in the canon as it explains the backstory of the older Sub-Zero, his dealings with the evil Quan-Chi, and the death of Scorpion. If you are curious about that stuff, just read a Wiki.
Mortal Kombat 4
Of all the numbered Mortal Kombat games, Mortal Kombat 4 has aged with the least grace.
Aesthetically, it is atrocious. The graphics are ugly to look at, the art design is lazy, certain character designs are cringe worthy (hello, Reptile), and the animations are awkward at best. The gameplay can’t decide if it wants to be a 2D fighter like its predecessors or a 3D fighter like Tekken. Instead of making a significant change, the game adds a poorly implemented sidestepping feature. This game feels every year its age.
At least the fatalities are cool:
Before I leave MK4 alone, I have to call out Mortal Kombat: Gold, the Dreamcast port. It was expected to be a graphically stunning title such as SoulCalibur, which would at least improve on the eyesore that is the original MK4. Instead, we got a title that looked better than N64 and PS1, but worse than the arcade version.
The port job didn’t even make MK4 a better game. Gold was packed full of returning characters and features, but also it was packed with crippling, game breaking bugs. It is a stunning failure.
Mortal Kombat: Armageddon
MK:A is a playable game, but a profoundly lazy one.
As the final game in the trilogy of Mortal Kombat games released for the sixth generation of consoles, it is the culmination of all the characters and stories in the Mortal Kombat games so far. And yes, it has ALL of the characters from the series up to that point, 62 in all.
The huge number of characters has a drastic impact on balance and gameplay. A good chunk of this massive roster is either misused or instantly forgettable. The style switching system introduced in Deadly Alliance (which will be talked about more with that title) was pared back to one hand-to-hand style, one weapon style. Many returning characters are given another character’s secondary fighting style, making them a drag to play.
Coding individual fatalities for 62 characters would take work, so instead they introduced the Create-A-Fatality system. It sounds AWESOME, but it results in tearing your foe apart by hand, eventually taking out an important organ and killing the poor fool. They are brutal, yes, but have none of the individuality and character that makes fatalities enjoyable. Unique fatalities help give the fighters their character. Not having them really hurts the presentation and contributes to the uninspired feeling MK:A has on a whole.
Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe
This game is better than its reputation suggests. It was the first MK game released for seventh gen consoles, featured DC superheroes, and was rated Teen. Needless to say, fans were pretty confounded at the time.
Playing it now, there are a lot of things to enjoy. The stages are interactive and throwing enemies all around them contributes to the super hero feel. Overall, the blend of DC and MK into one ridiculous story is pretty well handled. Obviously, there is a base thrill in seeing Scorpion fight Deathstroke or punching Baraka’s lights out with Batman.
From a gameplay perspective, it is far from the worst Mortal Kombat, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the best ones. It is, as its placement on this list suggests, a middle of the road fighter.
And that Teen rating just cuts this thing down at the ankles.
Ed Boon tried, damn it! Punches and kicks yield a lot more blood than your average superhero fighter, and some of the fatalities flirt with the macabre. However, it feels sterile for a Mortal Kombat game. Between that and the solid, yet unremarkable fighting, this is a game that isn’t terrible, but also hard to recommend.
Injustice: Gods Among Us is an excellent DC fighting game that Netherrealm produced that feels like Mortal Kombat with superheroes. Check that one out instead.
Mortal Kombat: Shaolin Monks
This is the third and final adventure style game that Midway would attempt with the series, and it is by far the most successful.
It is a simple co-op 3D beat ‘em up set during the events of Mortal Kombat II. You play as either Kung Lao or Liu Kang, kill waves of enemies, and face off against a plethora of characters from the series in boss fights.
The graphics are ugly, the voice acting is laughable, and the gameplay is rudimentary, but none of that stops Shaolin Monks from being a good time. It is ridiculous, gory fun, which is Mortal Kombat at its best.
It is definitely not a great game, and I struggle to even call it a good game, but it is a hell of a guilty pleasure.
I know, I know. This is really far down the list, but hear me out:
It is impossible to talk about the history of video without talking about Mortal Kombat. It is absolutely iconic. Finish Him, Fatality, Flawless Victory, Scorpion, Sub-Zero, Goro, The Pit, secret fighters, the mixture of martial arts films with sci-fi tropes, and hand wringing over excessive violence started here.
But I am ranking these games as how they stand in 2016 and the first one hasn’t aged well. The game isn’t bad by any means, but compared to its successors it feels very slight. All seven fighters play exactly the same, except for their special moves. Outside of trying to track down Reptile, there isn’t a ton on replay value. Goro and Shang Tsung are not nearly as challenging as later bosses in the series, and once you have gone through the tower a few times and seen all the finishing moves, it is enough.
Obviously, you should play this game. It is still thrilling seeing the screen darken and watching Sub-Zero rip out Kano’s spine, but the game around that shocking display of violence wouldn’t come into its own for another year.
Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance
MK:DA saved Mortal Kombat. After the disappointment of MK4 and the action titles, this one needed to be a success or Mortal Kombat risked being a memento of the 90's.
Thankfully, the game was a hit and was a critically acclaimed. This is the first game in the series that is fully 3D and introduced the style switching system that is the hallmark of the sixth generation MK games. Each character has two hand-to-hand fighting styles and one that is weapon. These different martial arts can be switched between at will, even in the middle of a combo.
This game also introduced the Krypt, the now standard way of unlocking new characters, stages, and costumes. Where the Krypt stands out is the sheer amount of concept art and behind the scenes information on Deadly Alliance, but all of the games that came before. There is a lot for fans to geek out over.
As a fighting game, it is unbalanced, and the dial-a-combos don’t leave much room for player experimentation. Still, it is a hell of a lot of fun to play with friends and trying to track down all of the unlockables. If you are a MK fan, you will love MK:DA.
Mortal Kombat 3/Ultimate/Trilogy
Note: I am bunching these three games together because Ultimate and Trilogy are basically 3 with more stages, characters, and fatalities.
Mortal Kombat 3, and by extension, Ultimate and Trilogy, has always been an odd case for me. I don’t love it as much as other fans of the series.
There is a lot of great stuff, but little of it translates to an improved experience over MKII. The gameplay additions complicate its successor without really improving on it. There is a run button, which allows you to dash at opponents. The ability to run is controlled by a meter which is depleted by running or by performing the dial-a-combos which also make their debut in this game.
Ultimate and Trilogy are exactly the same gameplay wise, except each tweaked and rebalanced existing characters. However, with each new release, the glut of characters resulted in even more unbalancing.
Even so, I adore these games. They are everything people liked about Mortal Kombat II, except more of it. There are tons of characters, fatalities, brutalities, animalities, friendships, and all the other stuff that makes Mortal Kombat great. These games introduced some of the most iconic in the series, such as Sektor, Cyrax, Ermac, Nightwolf, Sindel, and Kabal. The gameplay is still fun, and discovering everything the game contains is an absolute blast.
In retrospect, you can see signs pointing to the decline in quality that the series would face over the next several years. Even in 1995, fighting games were starting to become deeper, more balanced, and more technical. The Mortal Kombat games have always gotten an unfair reputation for being style over substance, and MK3 and its reissues are the source of that reputation.
However, this is Mortal Kombat as most remember it, and that is a great reward on its own.
Mortal Kombat: Deception
I adore Mortal Kombat: Deception.
Aesthetically, this is my favorite game in the series. The art design is great. The sound design is, as always, incredible. The stages, both new and throwback, are lovingly built and packed with detail. The character designs are the best in the series overall, especially Baraka, Scorpion, Ermac, and Raiden.
The fatalities are also excellent here, obtaining that perfect blend of dark humor and gruesome violence.
The gameplay is almost identical to MK:DA. The style switching is a little looser and more malleable than its predecessor, but functions exactly the same. MK:D introduced Death Traps, essentially stage fatalities that you could do at anytime provided your opponent was in the right position. The emphasis on knowing the stages and using them to your advantage is a first in the series.
The Konquest story mode featuring new character Shujinko isn’t that great, but it contains a lot of cool unlockables and secrets and it is great seeing all the different characters and realms. Once again, The Krypt is a goldmine of content for Mortal Kombat obsessives.
Overall, most of what I said about MK:DA applies to this one. Deception is a more focused and refined version of an already very good game. If you seek out one game from this era of the series, this should be it.
Mortal Kombat (2011)
I know I will probably get some flack for putting the two newest games so high, but goddamnit, they are fantastic.
The tepid response to Armageddon and DC paired with the success of Street Fighter IV meant recreating the series was once again in order. Netherrealm knocked it out of the park.
Mortal Kombat 2011 is often considered a “back to the basics” game, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. For the first time ever, Mortal Kombat became a game that could be played at professional fighting game tournaments alongside Street Fighter. MK 2011 is fast, vicious, and deep, putting an emphasis on blending special moves and basic strikes to chain together your own unique combos. There are still dial-a-combo commands, but they are not the end all be all of the fighting system.
Another great decision was to hit the reset button on the years of confounding lore and repackage the stories of the original three games in a different way. Netherrealm embraced the past while setting the path to the future, which is easier said that done.
Aesthetically, MK 2011 looks fantastic and sounds even better. The animations are crisp and each hit feels crushing. The sound design for the fights do a lot for selling the weight and brutality of attacks. You can practically hear the bruises forming with every punch.
Come for the great gameplay, stay for the surprisingly fun story mode, the lovely graphics, and gruesome fatalities. This is a must play.
Mortal Kombat X
Netherrealm successfully followed up a great game because they understood what made it work. They took everything people liked about MK 2011 and improved it.
The amount of love, care, and thought put into this game by Netherrealm is apparent in every frame. This is a love letter to Mortal Kombat, from the cheesy one liners, to the signature sci-fi meets kung fu aesthetic, to the over the top gore, to the fact that people are still finding secrets within it.
MKX really shines with the new variation system. You not only pick a character, but you pick one of three versions of that character for different play styles. For instance, Sub-Zero has a variation that allows him to create ice weapons, another that allows him to use and ice clone for offense and defense, and another emphasizing his defensive capabilities.
Reading about them makes them feel slight, but the level of depth within these variations is insane. The game feels like it has a bigger cast of characters than it actually does.
Mortal Kombat XL, which is X with all downloadable content, just released. If you haven’t played MKX yet, buy XL immediately. Fighting games don’t get much better.
Mortal Kombat II
Could there be another answer?
I don’t know what I can say about Mortal Kombat II that hasn’t already been said. Even though it shares some of the same problems with the other 90's games, this one holds a rare power.
The graphics are sharp, the music is great, and the action is so good that it is tied into our shared consciousness. All twelve characters are fun to play and unique. The fatalities are all classics. Playing with friends is still fun, and challenging Kintaro and Shao Khan in the tower is a stiff challenge.
The wealth of secret characters and mini games helped remedy the first game’s replay issue, but more importantly, they gave MKII character. The 90's Mortal Kombat games have a mystique to them that was often imitated, but never replicated. MKII embraced misdirection and intrigue and rewarded players who were curious and committed. The aura around this game is such that as people discovered secrets, they always asked more questions.
Can you make the trees in the Living Forest eat people? Can you uppercut people on the hooks in the Acid Bath? Sonya and Kano are shown as Shao Khan’s prisoners, can you unlock them? Can you actually play as Noob Saibot, Smoke, and Jade?
If you are a certain age, some kid in class told you he knew how to do all of those things and that he could get Kitana and Milena naked too. Ed Boon, to his eternal credit, took some of the rumors people started about this game and out that content into its sequels. In fact, he started the process here by making the formerly secret fighter Reptile a playable character and a series stalwart.
There are better 2D fighting games out there, but Mortal Kombat II transcends simple genre. It is a titan in gaming history, and should be treated as such.