Mortal Kombat: A Loving Rivalry

Mortal Kombat trademark of Warner Bros Entertainment.

Mortal Kombat isn’t exactly family friendly. With its storied history of exaggerated violence and attempted censorship, it’s been a long favored target of organizations and individuals who argue against the psychological benefits of gaming. Fortunately for me, my family never got that memo. In fact, Mortal Kombat is one of the first games I remember playing. It’s certainly the first game I remember playing socially. I didn’t realize the personal relationship I shared with Mortal Kombat until recently, when my girlfriend asked how “big of a deal” the series was. I was buried in thoughts of the GAME-exclusive Kollector’s Edition for Mortal Kombat 11 Ultimate, talking about how excited I was for Kombat Pack 2, while sitting just beneath the promotional banner for Mortal Kombat 11 that I scored at my local GameStop in April of 2019. Maybe I looked at her crazy. Yeah, I thought, it’s a big deal.

I wasn’t upset. She couldn’t have known. Looking around my office, I’m not sure even my best friend would be able to guess how much I care about this series. Sure I’ve missed out on more Kollector’s Editions than I care to admit. My collectibles are even fewer and further between. But what I do have are stories. I have experiences. I have moments in my life that, once I looked back, were impacted categorically by the Mortal Kombat franchise. That’s a big statement, isn’t it? Usually the “life changing” category of entertainment is reserved for a property that doesn’t include sending someone’s head through their rear end with the heavy side of a warhammer. I might be the only one putting Mortal Kombat on this kind of pedestal but I think I’ve got a pretty good reason to do so.

Mortal Kombat 4 released in 1997.

Round One.

As a kid I moved around a lot. That’s a common story these days and some of the themes are the same. I was never in the same school for more than a year or two at a time. I lived in locations as far apart as Livermore, California and Piscataway, New Jersey with sometimes less than a year in between each new home. It was hard for me to make friends. It was just as hard to maintain relationships with my family. As I got older, online gaming eventually served as a bridge for me and those people I’d left behind. I didn’t always have that luxury however. Gaming was a rarity when I was young. Gaming with a loved one? That almost never happened.

But I can still close my eyes and remember 1998 in Piscataway, New Jersey. I was six-years-old, overwhelmed by the M-shaped Nintendo 64 controller and a bit too young to be picking up the M-rated Mortal Kombat 4. Thankfully I wasn’t alone. I was playing beside my uncle and he didn’t know it then but it was the first time I’d played video games against anyone. Before that I might have spent some time playing my great grandmother’s copy of Dr. Mario or my cousin’s copy of Final Fantasy but this was different. This was real time, me versus him. Of course I wasn’t particularly good at my grandmother’s or my cousin’s games. I wasn’t good at Mortal Kombat 4 either. My uncle didn’t do me any favors. He beat me mercilessly. He still talks about it to this day.

Mortal Kombat Deception released in 2004.

Round Two.

We didn’t stop playing with Mortal Kombat 4 after all. I moved and we spent years apart. I followed the series on my own. Eventually I played through all of Deadly Alliance, Deception and Armageddon on my PlayStation 2. My uncle would visit once every several years and like Sabretooth visiting Wolverine on his birthday, it was a tradition for him to pummel me in whatever Mortal Kombat game I was enjoying most at that time. I wish I could say I took it easy on him but that wasn’t the case. He was just better. And that gave me a clear goal. It was more than “complete this chapter” or “play this game to the end.” This was a goal for an entire series. Whenever I picked up another Mortal Kombat game, I needed to be sure that I could at least play as well as my uncle.

Five more years passed. I skipped Mortal Kombat vs. DC. Give me Mortal Kombat vs. the Suicide Squad and maybe we’ll talk. Suddenly I was out of High School. I lived on my own back in New Jersey. My uncle conveniently was in Illinois at the time. As Mortal Kombat returned to the horizon with its 2011 rebirth, I was allowed to bask in my excitement without another of his visits looming overhead. At least I could train. The day of launch came. My friend and I walked an hour to our local GameStop and then stood in line for twelve more. We wanted to be the first to get home and install MK9 onto our PlayStations. We camped out and played the demo on the GameStop unit until the employees decided to break out one of their own systems. They turned the full game on for everyone in line.

Mortal Kombat (2011).

Flawless Victory.

My friend and I were put in charge of watching that system and the controllers the customers were all using. We’d been around the staff enough up until that point and for a long enough duration throughout the day that they knew we were trustworthy. Not that my uncle would ever believe me, but as we stood there and took turns on the still unreleased game, I was unstoppable. I’d sunk so many hours into that demo back at home that I’d already memorized a few of Mileena’s combos. The customers just popping in to pick up their pre-orders, who hadn’t yet had a taste of the game, were food for the Kahnum’s jaws. It was a great time. It’s one of the best memories I have with that friend. Who else would have stuck by me for twelve hours playing the same four demo characters over and over again?

It wasn’t only my friendship that Mortal Kombat touched that day either. That’s just part of the moment. By that holiday season I was working at that same GameStop. I knew about games, I knew how to talk to people, and I had practically run a late night game tournament on my own thanks to that late night release. While many things would change over my life as time passed and circumstances evolved, that was a career I held onto for seven years. I moved to another state and went back to school. I had a kid. My career with GameStop made all of those things possible and that career only began thanks to Mortal Kombat. And just as my career continued, so did the series.

Mortal Kombat X released in 2015.

Run it back.

Mortal Kombat X came out in 2015. I was still learning how to be a father at that point so my time with that installment was fleeting and limited. I was sucked back in anytime new DLC was released and I remember how ecstatic I was when guest characters like Jason Voorhees and the Xenomorph from Alien showed up. At the risk of losing any credibility this article has given me with the Mortal Kombat community, I have to admit that I’m a fan of guest characters. Of course this would also be the entry my uncle decided to challenge me in. We hadn’t faced off since Armageddon. I thought this time might be different. I’d become a decent player through the lifespan of Mortal Kombat (2011). I was wrong. I lost again.

Mortal Kombat 11 is the latest release in the franchise. It’s the best yet. It debuted at a time when I was finally getting my life together. I was transferring into a new career. I’d even gotten the hang of being a parent. I was (and still am) in a wonderful relationship that also started thanks to GameStop and that 12-hour wait for Mortal Kombat 9. I wonder if she’ll understand why the series is so important when she reads that. Either way, I picked up my copy of Mortal Kombat 11 at launch. I bought myself a fight stick and a wireless headset. This time I was finally going to “get good.” I’m no SonicFox but I manage. And my uncle got one look at my setup and stopped challenging me altogether. I accept his forfeit as a permanent victory. That’s better than risking another loss, right?

Look at her. She’s beautiful.

Prepare to Fight!

Mortal Kombat 11 Ultimate debuts on November 17th. I haven’t figured out how to get my hands on that GAME-exclusive edition just yet but I’ll let you know if I pull it off. The game’s going to run faster and look prettier thanks to the upcoming Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 consoles. Rain, Mileena and Rambo will also be arriving as playable characters on this version of the game. I’ve since transitioned into more of a grapple-style player, so between the debut of John Rambo and the return of my old favorite Mileena, I’ve got plenty on the horizon yet again.

More than that, my son is six now. I keep reminding myself that it’s too young. I was too young, wasn’t I? But there’s still that part of me that wants to make a call to his uncle and describe his new MK responsibilities. It was a relationship like that which shaped me as I am today. Besides, my son wouldn’t have to deal with the discomfort of an N64 controller. That’s an advantage already.

So maybe Mortal Kombat 11 isn’t your favorite entry in the series. Maybe you’re more of a Street Fighter player or a new gamer altogether. Still you owe it to yourself to give Mortal Kombat 11 Ultimate a try. Look beyond the comic-like violence and the 80s action movie plot. Think about who you could play it with and how much fun it might be experiencing the game together. Play it with your nephew. Play it with your best friend. Maybe don’t wait 12 hours in line for it, but at least keep it in mind as this holiday season approaches. You never know what game might shape you.

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