Note: All game images in this article have since been replaced by a DMCA takedown email I received from Twitch and Warner Bros. Entertainment related to a broadcast on the Twitch service.
Let’s try to rationalize the Mortal Kombat series for a second. It is a video game where you — playing as the avatar of a human, ninja, or alien — fight computer- or human-controlled characters — who also happen to be humans, ninjas, and aliens — to the death. When I say “death,” I don’t mean “you kicked them so hard that they lapsed into a coma and never recovered until their untimely demise.” Mortal Kombat has you ripping heads off, playing with spines, and bathing in blood while a disembodied announcer voice laughs. It’s pretty gruesome, but it depicts gratuitous violence in an almost comical manner.
For over 20 years, I couldn’t get enough of this. I remember playing the original Mortal Kombat for days in the Westchester Marriott. My sister and I would pummel the crap out of each other in Mortal Kombat II every time we went to our local video store. My dad somehow got a bootleg PC copy of Mortal Kombat 3 in Chinatown for MS-DOS. Actually, the first console game I ever bought with my own money was Mortal Kombat Trilogy for the first PlayStation. I’ve counted myself a fan of the series since its initial release in American arcades, and I’ve played every iteration of the game, save for a few mobile adaptations.
- Scorpion fighting Sub-Zero in Mortal Kombat X.
But times change. I’ve matured as a person, no longer taking immense interest in video games and instead budgeting my time to play when permitted. Video game consoles are no longer just game consoles, but streaming media devices, broadcast tools, and communication hubs. As it was hypothesized in The Cable Guy, you can now “play Mortal Kombat with a friend from Vietnam.” Yet when you do so, you’re expected to livestream it on Twitch, share your progress on Facebook, and periodically keep in touch with said friend over a gaming network. As a 28-year-old male with a full-time job, a significant other, and a lot going on in my life, how am I supposed to get excited about this “all-in” approach to gaming and social media while retaining a similar experience to the old arcade days?
I decided to pick up a copy of Mortal Kombat X, the latest iteration of the series, with the goal of holding on to some part of my youth and reliving the golden days spent in a cool arcade on a hot summer day. I own a PlayStation 4, which I bought on the eve of its release on instinct. After all, I’ve owned the first three of its kid, so why not keep going? So far, in the 17 months I’ve owned the console, I’ve almost exclusively used it for streaming Netflix and maybe the occasional game. I hoped Mortal Kombat X would pull me out of a gaming slump and make me reconsider picking up the controller a bit more.
Just a sample of the game modes offered in Mortal Kombat X.
Mortal Kombat has always been the game where you take a character, beat the crap out of ten or so other characters, and start again. This process, when done well, could take anywhere from 12 to 30 minutes. But since Mortal Kombat is no longer an arcade game and a console game, consumers expect more than just beating the holy hell out of other characters and maybe an explanation of their chosen character’s motivation. Since Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance, the first title in the series to eschew an arcade version, the games have included a story mode, where all the game’s characters interact with each other through the most hackneyed, cliche plot imaginable. Essentially, story mode gives you an excuse to try out the characters, look at all the stages, and give you a small reason to root for/against characters. This is a noble effort on developer Netherrealm Studios’ part (formerly Midway Games), but if you think about the fact that you can fight as a robot against a goddamn centaur, it seems just downright goofy to invest yourself in the series’ lore.
The story mode in Mortal Kombat X takes roughly four hours to beat. After that, you have the option to do the original arcade-style “towers” of fighting a number of computer-controlled opponents, play a few button-mashing mini-games, or kick the crap out of other people online. Playing and winning matches nets you “koins” (with a stylistic “k”), which you can spend in “the Krypt” to unlock costumes, production art, finishing moves, and a few bits of behind-the-scenes content.
Here’s Why I Hate It
Video games cost $60, but they don’t just cost $60. In addition to a game, you have the option of buying extra characters, levels, moves, etc. This doesn’t just go for Mortal Kombat X, but for pretty much any tentpole game released today. Publishers and developers adopted these monetization techniques from their wealthier smartphone cousins to squeeze out as much money as possible from the consumer. Over the year or two after a game’s release, that initial $60 turns into $100 or more.
The downloadable Predator character in Mortal Kombat X.
Mortal Kombat X gives you the option to play as the four-armed character, Goro, but only if you pre-ordered the game and got it on its release day. If you don’t do that but still want Goro, you have to pay real money for him, despite the fact that he’s pretty much already in the game. Netherrelam Studios also announced four additional characters for the price of $30 together (or $10 each when purchased separately). These characters were ready to be included in the final game and were announced well before the release date, but Netherrealm and parent company Warner Bros. opted to hold them out of the $60 product to sell them at an additional cost. In older Mortal Kombat titles, one used to be able to unlock the characters. Starting with the last Mortal Kombat title, you now have to buy them in an additional purchase.
Fatalities are gruesome finishing moves players can pull off if they press the correct sequence of buttons when prompted. In a new money-generating scheme, Netherrealm now allows players to press a simple button and perform these fatalities — if they cough up anywhere between $.99 and $4.99 for a pack of 5-30 “easy fatality” tokens. You can earn a few of these tokens by purchasing them in the Krypt with in-game koins. However, thanks to an update to the game on its release day, you need to invest in dozens, if not close to 100 hours to earn enough koins to unlock everything in the Krypt and find all the easy fatality tokens.
Or, you could just buy the entire Krypt for $19.99. Yes, instead of playing the video game you bought (at a grind, mind you), you can just open your wallet and earn everything in a simple transaction. What used to be fun, hidden secrets that players would trade in an arcade are now monetized shortcuts. Is this due to the normalization of such a practice in major video games? Is this because of the influence of relatively new IP owner Warner Bros.? I don’t know, but I do know that it sucks a large part of what made the series fun and instead makes it an accessory.
It needs to be said that once you have all of these unlockables, secret moves, and so on, it’s still just a fighting game. You can pay the $30 for more characters and $20 to unlock everything else, and you still just have two make-believe people, ninjas, or aliens beating the crap out of each other. Maybe I’ve done this enough to last a lifetime, because after playing the game for a total of eight hours, I find myself bored with Mortal Kombat X. What’s my motivation to continue on after beating the story? Getting beaten by a random online opponent to earn a small amount of coins to unlock a picture of Liu Kang? Why would I keep playing a game that’s pretty repetitive in nature with such meager and insignificant outcomes?
Faction Wars in Mortal Kombat X.
Why I Won’t Continue To Play Mortal Kombat X
I didn’t even touch on the “leveling” and “Faction Wars” parts of the game. Like many role playing games (and modern games, because why not?), Mortal Kombat X has a progress system where you increase your player level, special moves level, fatality level, and Faction level to achieve…what, exactly? Do you see some semblance of progress from increasing your various “levels”? Do you play to earn more koins to buy more unnecessary items that you could also buy with real money? Perhaps you would continue to play for bragging rights to show off to your friends, who for some reason would be impressed by how good of a fake fighter you are in the digital world. Levels and related measures of progress simply create an illusion for the player, duping them into believing that they’re accomplishing something by playing within the game’s rigged, time-sucking rules. This could be said for many modern video games, but the fact that the Mortal Kombat series now uses these boring tricks makes it pretty heartbreaking for a fan who just liked to play the game and discover secrets.
Mortal Kombat is no longer a unique series where you’re in on a few jokes (Toasty!) and enjoying a bunch of callbacks while having fun. Now it’s just a dumb video game employing dark, anti-consumer industry tricks. Then again, Mortal Kombat originated as a machine that stole every quarter in your possession, so this shouldn’t be so surprising. Still, it’s a bit sad when its creators nonchalantly charge me extra to have the fun I used to have at the base cost.
Note 2: The DMCA takedowns were issued after I streamed the game on Twitch (a first for me) a few days before release. I legally procured the game at retail price a week before it came out. Though I bought the game with my own money and decided to broadcast my own gameplay on my own console through my own Internet connection, Warner Bros. Entertainment et. al. still thought that I, the consumer, was not operating at best business practices. Fun times were had.