"We constantly have to revisit 'Why would Donkey Kong do this?' or 'Why would this environment be like this?' And then we start thinking: 'We're making a game about a gorilla wearing a tie.'"
-Michael Kelbaugh of Retro Studios on Donkey Kong Country Returns
"I have to say it's kinda scary how much you know about this game."
-Nicolau Chaud creator of Marvel Brothel
For nearly 20 years, Mortal Kombat's Ed Boon had been talking of a crossover. Most references were made to his respected rival Street Fighter, but the wish was always there. When Marvel's crossover with Capcom came to realization, the only natural conclusion gamers could wonder is when DC would enter the fight.
With Warner Bros. acquisition of Traveler's Tales in 2007, they we're now making a conscientious effort to break in to the games industry. A deal was then made with Midway to retool the 8th Mortal Kombat in to Mortal Kombat vs DC Universe. This deal came nearly a decade after Capcom's first crossover title, X-men vs Street Fighter.
Mortal Kombat had taken North America by storm in 1992. Originally created as a Bloodsport inspired Jean-Claude Van Damme fighter, it was quickly retooled in to what we all know of today. It's major selling feature was a special gruesome "Fatality" that would be performed after an opponent was defeated. This feature alone brought mainstream criticism and was one of the defining factors in the creation of the ESRB.
However, it was more than the fatalities that kept gamers interested. It was the simplified battle system that became a definition of Mortal Kombat. It was easy to control and tough to master with the 5 button scheme. For those intimidated by Street Fighter's half circle turns, there were sweeps and big upper cuts that could be pulled off with a jerk down on the stick and the press of any of the heavy attack buttons. There was also a dedicated block button so players could better time their defenses.
Most interesting was the air of mystery nestled inside the game. This mystery spread as players told the tale of a mysterious secret green ninja. Most left it to rumor, but we soon found that the character did exist. This would begin a series of content additions that would continually get added to each new iteration of the series.
These differences led to a noticeable split between players of Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat. However, Mortal Kombat's jump in to the third dimension radically changed the direction the series was headed.
Instead of slowly refining their battle system over time like Street Fighter did, they tried to add gameplay mechanics like multiple fighting styles. Some additions like "Motor Kombat" and "Kreate-a-Fighter" were focused on to bring some diversity in to the series. That addition of content was greatly appreciated, but the gameplay was sorely struggling under the unfocused teams. Mortal Kombat would definitely drop from many conventional gamers eyes.
The 8th Mortal Kombat that was scrapped was supposed to redefine the series. Something that would bring life back in to the game. Instead, we received something that didn't quite achieve what it wanted.
Midway's biggest development issue was Street Fighter IV looming over it's shoulders. Capcom was making a hard push with it's 2.5D iteration of the game and there was now no excuse for Midway to slouch in their gameplay. Street Fighter and many of Midway's financial issues led to a hard push to release. What we got was the first Mortal Kombat game that would feel light on content.
Due to Midway's retooling, many features were cut and changed for the final game. Planned downloadable characters like Quan Chi and Harley Quinn were never released. Other characters were proposed, but with Midway's financial issues, they weren't given a chance.
Without these additional characters, the game itself feels sparse. A total of 22 fighters make up the game. This is a huge downgrade from the 63 fighters of Mortal Kombat Armageddon. In comparison to Marvel vs Capcom 2's 56 characters, it's hard to call this anything but a tiny roster.
Since this included DC properties, Warner Bros necessitated that the game had to file itself under a Teen rating for the ESRB. This would be the first and only Mortal Kombat game to ever wear this label. In particular, this meant there could be no graphic Fatalities performed by many of the DC combatants. Instead of operating under the term "Fatality," DC's heroes performed a "Heroic Brutality."
One of the first showcases of these DC finishers was using the Joker. He would pull out a gun and shoot somebody in the face in a comical yet accurate fashion for the character. Eventually it was deemed to much to garner a Teen rating so it was edited. The brutality of the finish was edited to be done off camera. It arguably seems almost silly to be able to set someone on fire with Scorpion, and yet deem that a single gunshot by the Joker would be overkill.
Mortal Kombat vs DC Universe is built on a solid system for its fighters. There are some obvious balance issues with Batman and Sub Zero feeling greatly over powered compared to the other fighters. However, creativity is still there with some of the lower end characters. There is a lot you can create with grab characters like Wonder Woman or distance characters like Jax.
Move sets still follow the regular Mortal Kombat principles with a fairly simplified move list. However, Midway was focused more on combo chaining this go around. This was showcased in the Kombo Challenge mode. Focusing on this creates a fighting system that could be interesting to use, if only the arenas weren't so troublesome. At any point, cornering can suddenly lead to a mini-game which resets back to center.
Still trying to add a gimmick, fighting events like Klose Kombat, Falling Kombat and a Test Your Might mini-game breaks up the technical aspects. It devolves the game down in to a button masher. Klose Kombat and Falling Kombat work on the same concept. You are trying to press one of the face buttons to build an attack to deal damage as the dominant attacker. Your opponent is trying to guess your move. If he guesses it, he reverses the attack and the damage is dealt to you. Falling Kombat is the worst because you can potentially get reversed with a maximum damage of 30% being done.
It removes so much from the middle of a fight to suddenly play rock, paper, scissors.
Test Your Might has you dragging your opponent through a wall pressing the four face buttons rapidly as you both try to change the amount of damage dealt to your favor. To change your hands from a comfortable position in a fighting game simply to mash buttons creates an issue. What these events do is give the game some interest in the short term to see the big scenes and garner an edge. After a while though, they start to detract from the well fought battles.
Putting these other issues aside, the biggest game changer came in the Rage system. Rage acts to boost all the character stats and makes knockdowns impossible for the duration of the effect. In essence, proper timing of the Rage trigger can greatly effect the outcome of a battle.
Where we see Rage's biggest boost is in characters that can close distance. The already over powered Batman gets a huge boost in his ability to attack from multiple angles. Further throwing a wrench in to the works is that Rage is unblockable and it deals damage when triggered. This greatly removes from comeback opportunities. It can literally change an outcome at it's most important stage.
Rage is such an important part of the game that it is the main driving force behind the story.
Veteran comic book writers Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray penned the plot behind this crossover. It begins with Superman's triumph over the team-up of Lex Luthor and Darkseid. As Darkseid begins his exit through the Boom Tube, Superman blasts him with his heat vision. In the Netherrealm, Raiden had banished Shao Khan through a similar portal. These oddly similar events set in motion the combination of both worlds through these gateways.
With this merger, the heroes and villains of the two realms begin to bleed in to each other. This bleed causes a magical shift to overpower the combatants and drive them in to a fit of Rage. This being a magic induced phenomena, it's hold seems stronger over the heroes weakest to magic. Superman and Captain Marvel in particular have a hard time over coming this magic pull.
At the center of this universal merger lies Dark Khan, the combined forms of both Shao Khan and Darkseid. His power is slowly being fed by the combined confusion and Rage that the warriors of both realms seem to be experiencing. With this building strength, Dark Khan plans to become the god of this new world.
While attempting to stem the effects of Rage, Batman and Raiden gather many of their realms affected fighters for one last charge to stave off their new invaders. With Rage clogging each team, they finally meet at the focal point of the merging realms. From here a great standoff occurs.
The last fighter standing must battle Dark Khan to separate the colliding worlds.
Sure this is all a bit silly, but does anybody want to even guess what Marvel vs Capcom 2's storyline was about? The idea that this was the first real attempt at creating a genuinely connected plot in a crossover fighting game is somewhat nice to have. Especially with the exposition split between both worlds. It gives a nice bit of replayability and it's certainly not necessary.
It draws upon the old notion of multiple worlds that DC has refined in to a science. While they have issues sorting out the multiverse later on, the event themselves are usually the defining standard of the crossover.
The concept of multiple universes gave creators an untainted world to use the heroes as they had seen fit. It also gave them a place to store plot ideas that just didn't make much sense. Utilizing this too much created confusion and alienation, so DC's editors designed the Crisis on Infinite Earths to clean up many of these loose plot ends.
In effect, Mortal Kombat vs DC Universe did the simplified version of this. Many questions as to where the rest of the inhabitants of each universe were are never answered or acknowledged. However, Quan Chi's involvement makes his non-inclusion in the game all the more disappointing.
What we do get is a decent story built around a silly game mechanic. It works, but ultimately doesn't have the impact.
Mortal Kombat vs DC Universe does have issues in presentation. Mark Hamill as the Joker is heads above the rest of the cast in terms of acting presence. This is only to the detriment of a few characters, but the rest unfortunately seem a bit bland. Green Lantern and the Flash in particular suffer from this. It's a difference simply in overall quality as the Joker's involvement in the game boosts the events of the DC side greatly.
The worst aspect is how the women of the DC side are rendered. Compared to their Mortal Kombat counterparts, Catwoman looks ridiculous and Wonder Woman has a terrible model. This doesn't help when selecting Wonder Woman from the character select screen causes a slight desaturation of her character.. Maybe Harley Quinn would have bucked the trend, but for all extents and purposes the women of DC are horribly rendered.
Even the Heroic Brutalities fail to have the same spark as the Mortal Kombatants. Seeing Superman pound somebody in the concrete just doesn't have the flair that lighting them on fire presents. It's not that they need to be more violent, it's that they fail to have the impact in presentation that setting somebody on fire has.
Fortunately, Mortal Kombat vs DC Universe is a decent game in everything it achieves. Though, it is a game that will ultimately leave players wanting more. Wanting a better story or more features. Wanting something even a little bit better. For Midway's final farewell, it is forced to rely on everything the series had held on to and it barely does that.
The game is fun though. It's Mortal Kombat fighting DC characters and it works. It isn't pretty, nor does it really do anything for the genre. It's just a fun game. More modes, characters or even mini-games like the other games in the series might have left us with something less than what we had received. Still, players wanted a surprise like Reptile, and it was never there.
What this game did was give Ed Boon and his team a leg to stand on for their revitalization of the franchise under their new studio Netherrealm. The sales clocked in at just under 2 million and would bring some serious clout behind the creators as they were brought in to Warner Bros. Interactive.
MK vs DC accounted for nearly 35% of Midway's revenue in 2008. It succeeded in bringing a sagging franchise back in to a respectable light. It made Mortal Kombat relevant after a decade of mediocrity. They did this by streamlining the gameplay and bringing interesting characters to liven up the universe.
The crossover worked. DC fans finally got the fighting game they had been waiting on for over a decade. Fighting game fans would have to wait for Ed Boon's team to rise from Midway's ashes and return the series to a better light.