Kombat Bloody Kombat

Sep 18, 2019

The moment I first laid eyes on a packaged Arcade1Up console, I noted to the Countess, “As soon as there’s a Mortal Kombat version of that – whatever that is – I’m getting it.” So many months later, I have it. I’m not about to review the machine; it was $300 and I love everything about it. That’s all there is to say. It’s an at-home arcade, but man, I’ll be damned if there isn’t something magical about the whole thing.

I think I was seven or eight years old when I first heard about “Mortal Kombat” through the whispers of friends at recess – rumors about ninjas freezing each other with ice blasts, breathing fire, and best of all, knocking one another’s heads off. If that wasn’t gripping enough, the graphics and the realism of the game surpassed any expectations my imagination had conjured by my friends' musings. Sure, Nintendo’s pixilation was great, but to see a photo-captured rendering of a fighter getting uppercutted (that’s a verb) off of a ledge and landing in a pit of spikes... well, it gave me shivers. It was like Ed Boon and John Tobias were peering over my shoulder to watch my action figure battles and then worked to manifest everything I wished they could be, albeit in the form of a 2D fighting videogame.

Mortal Kombat was amazing in its own right – and it still is – but if anything ever outperformed it, it was Mortal Kombat II. I can still vividly recall walking into an arcade and seeing it for the first time, it's neon lights radiating through puffs of smoke produced by dry ice. Someone was using Kung Lao. With a quick motion on the joystick, he threw his bladed hat and cut his opponent with it, and the world as I understood it turned upside down. Mortal Kombat had been outdone, and for as much time and effort and energy as I had put into memorizing special moves and fatalities in the initial game, there were now twelve characters as opposed to seven, each with multiple ways to annihilate or humiliate their opponent at the end of a match. And, strangest of all, the boss of Mortal Kombat was now a playable character in Mortal Kombat II (as well as Reptile, the greatest hidden fighter of all time). It was unheard of. It was the videogame equivalent of killing an A-list actor in the first minutes of a movie (i.e., “Psycho"), and it said that whatever you thought you knew about Mortal Kombat needed to be thrown out the window. If you thought Shang Tsung was tough, you have no idea what we have in store for you now.

(At this point, I’m assuming you’re only still reading this if you have some nerdiness about this stuff too)

I think I was angry about it all – about the challenge it posed to me to master it. I wasn’t one of those kids who ditched school to play it at the arcade all day, but I showed up on weekends and held my own against those guys. It’s not easy holding down a B average AND competing as a world class Mortal Kombatant, I’ll have you know. I don’t often have an opportunity to brag about my Mortal Kombat prowess, but if ever there were a time, it was back when the Countess and I were still dating. Side note – why I thought I should try to impress her with my Mortal Kombat skills, I have no idea. None.

We met a few friends at a bar arcade in Chicago a couple of decades after my time as a self-proclaimed champion of Mortal Kombat. After the initial pleasantries, I sought out the Mortal Kombat II arcade and found that it was occupied by some dude who looked like he knew what he was doing. “Watch this,” I said and approached the second player’s controls. The Countess stood by with our friend Joel as we selected our characters. My opponent took Kitana, a solid choice, and I started with Scorpion, an old favorite. The match began and ended in my quick defeat - my defeat. I shook it off as rust and we went at it again with different characters. Again, he kicked my ass. And by this point I could see Joel in the reflection of the screen glancing over at The Countess, grimacing in his second-hand embarrassment for me. The Countess wanted to be supportive of me, but we were at a social impasse because I dragged her to the game to cheer me on while it was becoming abundently clear that I had either lied to her or grossly overestimated myself – a predicament I'm sure many young men have found themselves in. To resolve the dilemma, we implicitly agreed to stand around and wait for me to win something so that we could ease the tension and move on with our night.

My opponent and I played a third match and it was much closer. Then I hit my stride in our fourth, fifth, and sixth matches when I started bouncing between Sub-Zero, Liu Kang, and Mileena. Finally, my opponent and I started trading victories before he had to excuse himself for the night. As he turned to leave, he shook my hand and explained to us that he was actually on the cover of a videogame magazine in the early 1990’s as a Mortal Kombat II world champion. And because of that, I can admit that he was better at Mortal Kombat than I was. But also, I beat a real-world Mortal Kombat champion.

I digress. What began as a quick note to acknowledge my love for Mortal Kombat and the lingering joy I still find with that replica arcade in my basement has devolved into an ineffective boast. To bring this back to something of substance, let’s just call this an opportunity to remember to find the things in life that give you shivers. And if you can’t find something to give you shivers, maybe find something to give you the creeps.

Keep it spooky,