• Review: Mortal Kombat
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04.19.11

Review: Mortal Kombat

Rather than deconstruct the new Mortal Kombat (Hint: You beat up people/demons/robots. The game is more fun the better you are at playing it.) we decided to go straight to the main attraction, the coup de grâce, the intimate character study, the secret ending, the money shot—the new fatalities. Take the camp of the original, stir in modern technology and a pinch of self-awareness, and you have the videogame equivalent of a grindhouse matinée. We took the most representative finishing moves from the game and had critics weigh in on their depth, originality, and beauty.

Johnny Cage, "And the Winner Is...
Johnny Cage has had a well-documented, difficult relationship with fame. Born John Carlton, the movie star joined the Mortal Kombat tournament to prove to the world that he didn't use special effects in his films ... and we all know how that turned out. Of course, longtime fans of the series will know that Cage's original fatality was the least interesting of the lot; with a single weird-looking uppercut, he knocked his vanquished foe's head clean off. Kinda cool, but limp broth when compared with the spine-tearing, heart-ripping work of his compatriots. So it certainly seems that Cage came to this reboot with something to prove. "Watch this," he says, swiftly cleaving his opponent's skull in two with a well-placed karate chop. Their head! With a karate chop! His foe stands twitching, their newly bifurcated head spurting blood in rhythmic pulses. Cage then withdraws an Academy Award from his back pocket and, with a pithy one-liner, raises it up with both hands and plants it firmly into his victim's newly exposed spinal column. The award for most improved fatality goes to: Johnny Cage. Don't call it a comeback. (82/100) — Kirk Hamilton

Cyber Sub-Zero, "Kold Fusion
I don't particularly understand or care why Sub-Zero is apparently a robot with Predator dreads, but his/its fatality is strangely moving. Seriously. First, Cyber Sub-Zero (also, seriously) enters a series of commands into his wrist terminal. He then leaps onto his standing opponent, clinging like an oversized metal baby. As his opponent moans in fear, ice radiates from Cyber Sub-Zero, freezing his entire body and the upper half of his opponent's. The kombatants stand frozen together for only a moment before the robot explodes, shattering the conjoined-twin statue and leaving the opponent's legs to stumble comically before collapsing. Unlike the nihilism of Cyrax's suicide fatality in Mortal Kombat 3, this one is oddly intimate: Cyber Sub-Zero needs to join his body with his opponent's, locking them together in death, literally freezing them into one form. And whether it's love or hate, we all know how it feels to be so passionate about someone you just want to explode. (70/100) — J.P. Grant

Nightwolf, "Ascension
Despite being grounded in Native American stereotypes, Nightwolf has always struggled to set himself apart from his opponents. We see him dealing with this dilemma even in victory, and the results are mixed. Tellingly, "Ascension" begins with Nightwolf praying for ... spirit knives? They appear in his hand, glowing a mystic green, and Nightwolf stabs them forcefully into his opponent's shoulders. If you're like me, you're asking a lot of questions right now. Can you hold spirit knives? Can you stab things with them? Would they even hurt? Why not just use regular knives? If the opponent's reaction is any indication, spirit knives hurt quite a bit, and they have an added benefit: They attract a kind of holy glow that results in the speedy decomposition of the unlucky recipient. Nightwolf's ability to call down the judgment of deities is certainly impressive, but the knives thing? That's just arbitrary and uncalled for. (44/100) — Richard Clark

Baraka, "Take a Spin
Let's imagine watching Baraka's "Take a Spin" backwards to see if that will make it more interesting: A limbless, headless torso is lifted from the ground and skewered onto Baraka's right arm-blade; he holds it above his head triumphantly. Slowly, the torso begins to spin counter-clockwise, and as Baraka holds up his left blade, the torso's limbs reattach themselves in an impossible reverse-helicopter un-dismemberment. In short order, Baraka is holding a complete body above his head. He sets it down, removes his blade from its chest, and regards it as if pondering his next move. Hey, what do you know, seeing it in reverse was more interesting. (53/100) — Kirk Hamilton

Conquered and conquerer, their eyes nearly meeting—in another lifetime, in an entirely different kind of game, this could melt into a romantic embrace. But ... no.

Quan Chi, "Beat Down
There's a moment in the fifth season of The Wire when Chris, the icy, seasoned assassin, is tasked with "taking care" of a problem in the form of another boy's family member. A beating ensues—a profound beating, in fact. One that moves past the point of efficacy and suggests, as many things in The Wire often do, that meaning for violence takes place somewhere off-stage, somewhere in the negative space of David Simon's work. I had hoped that when Quan Chi plucked a man's leg off his body and commenced bludgeoning, it would signify some type of deeper subconscious amalgam of rage, guilt, or sexual frustration—a confrontation of childhood, the id, or civility. But then I realized he's probably just gassy. (24/100) — Jamin Warren

Stryker, "Time Served
No fatality has gotten under my skin quite like this one. Facing his already dazed opponent, SWAT officer Stryker draws his stun gun and tases that bro with a thoroughly unnecessary jolt of electricity. In one smooth motion, he withdraws his stun gun with his left hand while his right brings up his Glock for a point-blank bullet to the face. The gun's echo resounds as we are shown the opponent's head being blown to shreds from three different angles. As the lifeless body falls, Stryker fires two celebratory shots in the air. The grim satisfaction on his face, combined with the disturbingly plausible execution he's just enacted, make this one hit a little too close to home in this age of the backscatter machine and the Twitterfied revolution. Not the most original fatality, but extra points for unnerving realism. (65/100) — J.P. Grant

Raiden, "Transplant
Raiden has a special skill, and over the years he's learned how to use it in more and more creative ways. While others might use the ability to direct lightning to solve the energy crisis or to create some Frankenstein-like monster, Raiden obsesses over how he can destroy life with his gift, not create it. Raiden shows surprising restraint in this fatality, being careful to remove only a couple of pieces of his opponent's head rather than the whole thing. He charges those outward pieces of cranium with electricity, slams them back into place, and directs the charged force to explode. The head disappears in an explosion of red goo, and with a mere jerk of Raiden's hand, the torso evaporates as well, leaving a mere bottom half lying on the floor. If I didn't know better, I'd say Raiden was trying to bring his opponent back to life, and failed. (63/100) — Richard Clark

Sonya Blade, "Scissor Split
It's hard being a girl in a man's world. A man's dumb, dumb world. Sonya Blade was always a bit of a Mortal Kombat afterthought, edged into the first game at the last minute and cut from the sequel before finally returning for the third and and all subsequent releases. Blade was billed as a badass kickboxing special-forces type, so it was always a bit odd that her best-known fatality involved blowing a kiss (?) that somehow brought on spontaneous combustion (??). In the first Mortal Kombat, Sonya's fatality barely even had any new graphics or animations—Scorpion achieved the same result, but he did it by breathing fire from his skull-head! In the reboot, we see Sonya do a handstand and grab her opponent between her legs, lifting, squeezing, and finally disemboweling. A torso flies in one direction, legs in the other, as a gout of blood splashes straight onto Sonya's crotch. Grinning, she stands at attention and eagerly salutes. At ease, soldier; at ease. (21/100) — Kirk Hamilton

Their head! With a karate chop!

Sheeva, "Lend a Hand
The sexual politics of Mortal Kombat are so byzantine, so bizarre, that it takes moments of absurd lucidity to identify the exact moment when the writers of these fatalities completely ran out of ideas. It is exactly at that nexus of boredom and ennui that creativity appears—that moment when Joe Kombat said, "I really do not give a shit." Only looking into the abyss, that bottomless craw, could you conceivably create a scenario wherein Sheeva, upset that the world has blessed her with only four arms, tears another man's arms off and then beats him to death with them. She celebrates the event with self-congratulatory applause by clapping another man's hands. Let that marinate. Further, the details here are profound, and questions emerge: Why are Sheeva's hands behind her head like she's posing? How many arms are too many arms? Why doesn't Sheeva have four boobs? I just can't even. (100/100) — Jamin Warren

Kano, "Heartbreak"
In this kallback to a klassic fatality, Kano spins his opponent around and thrusts his fist through his back, bursting through the ribcage with the unfortunate victim's still-beating heart in his palm. Kano holds up the heart for him to glimpse, Mola Ram-style, before he dies. There's a sickly squishing sound as Kano crushes the heart before yanking it back through the hole in the opponent's torso and letting the body fall face-first to the ground. The fatality concludes with Kano raising his bloody trophy in triumph, completing the homage to his finisher from the original Mortal Kombat. It's a solid update, especially with the added gruesomeness of the close-up on the victim's face gaping in horror at his own heart. Still, I wish the camera had lingered just a little longer, allowing us to truly inhabit the dying opponent's final moments of terror. In related news, I'm off to therapy now. (59/100) — J.P. Grant

Scorpion, "Nether Gates
The needy ninja from Hell packs two references into this fatality: one pleasant, the other very dark indeed. His opponent immobilized, Scorpion no longer implores that she "come here." He can, instead, go over there. Once there, he jams his dagger into her sternum, and as we brace ourselves for the imminent decapitation (or zipper-like body-halving, the new favored mutilation in this Mortal Kombat), he wraps the long chain around her neck and kicks her into a dark portal. Where does this portal go? Much is left to our imagination as the camera cuts back and her freshly skinned body drops out of a second portal above, hanging by the neck. The camera lingers for a good four seconds on the quietly swinging sight. In a country where the image of a body hanging on a noose has seriously loaded subtext, Scorpion's fatality is downright provocative. Mortal Kombat's creators are edging the series closer to its exploitation-film influences, and playing with a lot of unholy fire. (81/100) — Ryan Kuo

Ermac, "Pest Control
Ermac probably got this idea from a Looney Tunes cartoon. He shrinks his opponent. As the opponent is shrinking, he screams horrifically, because he knows what's coming. His voice changes pitch and becomes comically high. He runs in circles, conveniently, before finding himself squashed beneath Ermac's boot. Ermac scrapes him off and poses for us, victorious. Really, Ermac? That's supposed to impress us? Next time pick on someone your own size. (39/100) — Richard Clark

Liu Kang, "The Beast Within
Gotta love the initial misdirection here. His hands spouting flames, Liu Kang rotates his arms like a Polynesian fire dancer, enveloping his body in a wall of fire. We're preparing for the inevitable fireball attack until—oh hell yes, they brought it back!—the fire dissipates as Liu Kang morphs into a towering gunmetal-grey dragon. Dragon Kang belches a gout of fire before rearing back and biting off his opponent's torso. In faithful reptilian style, the dragon tilts back its head to choke down its prey in one gulp. As the opponent's lower extremities fall to the ground, the dragon coils up into a ball and flame-morphs back into Liu Kang, his hands pressed together in a bloody namaste. Finally, the promise of Liu Kang's primitive shapeshifting in Mortal Kombat II, 3, and 4 is realized. This is the power of next-gen engines, friends: A giant-ass dragon chomping and swallowing the loser looks awesome. (75/100) — J.P. Grant

It is exactly at that nexus of boredom and ennui that creativity appears—that moment when Joe Kombat said, "I really do not give a shit."

Smoke, "Smoked Out
I love Mortal Kombat's down-to-earth values. At heart, this is a fighting game about returning to basics, pressing a button to have a fake fighter punch another fake fighter in the face. If it took gallons of fake blood to convey the impact of fake fighting in a post-Street Fighter II world, so be it. Smoke—like Sub-Zero, Raiden, and even Reptile—embodies the raw, powerful elements of the game world, whether it's water, energy, gross lizard fluids, or ... smoke. Here he jabs two fingers, movie-ninja-style, into his victim's eye sockets. Smoke pumps from Smoke's body into the victim's head, shooting out of his ears—ha, ha!—and other unexplained crevices in his body, lending a newfound, sobering realism to the familiar expression "letting off steam." Of course, this is Smoke, not steam, which means the reason his opponent's clothes and skin are evaporating as if exposed to scalding water is that Smoke must have lit a fire inside his enemy's body, which is burning the outside ... of his ... OK, it doesn't really make any sense. (68/100) — Ryan Kuo

Sektor, "Robo-Sek
Here's a good rule of thumb: At the end of a Mortal Kombat tournament fight, never lose to Sektor when he has extra ammunition. Here is what he likes to do with it: He shoots his large leftover missile directly at your stomach, separating you from your legs. While that separation is taking place, he unleashes four heat-seeking missiles—each of which finds its personal target among your now-splattered remains, and connects with it in mid-splatter. It's a fatality that spotlights the best aspects of Sektor and his robot brethren: cold, mechanical accuracy. Sektor doesn't seem angry, proud, or disturbed. He's merely efficient. The close-ups on each explosion draw less attention to the gore than to what's truly fascinating about this feat: Sektor is an unparalleled marvel of technology. (71/100) — Richard Clark

Shang Tsung, "Bang Bang!
This finisher makes about as much sense as Gus Van Sant's 1998 shot-for-shot remake of Psycho—which is to say, not much. After a moment's consideration, Shang Tsung morphs into a crude simulacrum of the Joker from Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe. He then proceeds to reenact the Joker's fatality beat-by-beat. First Shang Tsung fakes out his opponent by pulling out a pop-gun pistol and spraying him with confetti; then he draws a real Magnum and blasts off half his opponent's face. Shang Tsung drops his revolver and dances an evil little jig before bowing to the crowd, while his approximation of the Joker's maniacal cackle adds insult to injury. Look, I understand calling back to previous Mortal Kombat fatalities, but this imitation is weak. Besides, is MK vs. DC really the game you want people remembering? (21/100) — J.P. Grant

Mileena, "Be Mine
Oh, the hunger of Mileena. The insatiable desire of this beautiful golem, driven mad with rageful horniness, built to be as a goddess but cursed with the fang-laden mouth of a Lovecraftian fish-monster. She regards her helpless prey, drawing out the moment before launching both of her sai into his chest, leaving him standing skewered and bleeding before her. She sensually saunters over, laying her hands upon his cheeks and gently turning him to face her. It's a quiet, intimate moment, almost shocking in its immediacy. Conquered and conquerer, their eyes nearly meeting—in another lifetime, in an entirely different kind of game, this could melt into a romantic embrace. But ... no. Mileena tears his head from his body, stepping into the spotlight and removing her mask. With her true visage revealed, she lowers her horrid maw and feasts upon the severed face of her foe, throwing the remains to the ground and moaning in blood-soaked ecstasy. I could lie and say that wasn't the hottest thing I've seen all day, but where would that get us? (92/100) — Kirk Hamilton