Recently, I took a look at Mortal Kombat here on Gaming Respawn, seeing as the game will turn 30 in October 2022. As successful as the original Mortal Kombat was, its sequel¸ Mortal Kombat II, was also a ginormous hit, both commercially and critically. Mortal Kombat II was actually the first time I personally played a game in the series. I’d been aware of the first game, even just through word of mouth and the occasional glimpse of a gory fatality at the arcade, but I hadn’t ever gotten a chance to sit down and play it. However, my mum’s friend had children that were older than me, and sometimes she would look after me. They also happened to have a Mega Drive with Mortal Kombat II on it.
Thus, I broke my MK-playing duck by finally getting a chance to play one of the games. I promptly started playing as Sub-Zero and was thrown into a mirror match where I got absolutely clobbered. I don’t think I even managed to get in a single hit, after which I was brutally uppercut into a bath of acid and watched as my fighter’s remains floated away. This was eye-opening stuff for me as I was still in primary school at the time (that’s what we call school between the ages of 5 and 11, if some confused Americans happen to be reading), and I don’t think I’d ever seen that visceral violence in a video game before. The older kids scorned me for picking such a wimpy character and promptly took over, leading to me getting to see Raiden roast a slew of opponents with his electric powers until they promptly exploded.
As you can imagine, being a young, impressionable youth, I though the unabashed violence was positively brilliant, and I giggled like the little boy I was every time Raiden caused an opponent to fry like a fillet of hake in your local chip shop. It was only when I got a bit older that I realised that Mortal Kombat II actually had things like game mechanics and a storyline. The story that Mortal Kombat II has is pretty great, actually, and probably why it’s so well remembered. Spoilers for the first game incoming, by the way, so if you still haven’t managed to play it, you might want to skip down a paragraph or two.
The first Mortal Kombat game ended with shaolin monk Liu Kang defeating evil sorcerer Shang Tsung to win the MK tournament and save Earthrealm from the unwanted advances of warmongering ruler of Outworld Shao Khan. As you can imagine, the Khanster was none too pleased that Shang Tsung failed him in such a manner, so he was all primed to give Shang a good old-fashioned execution. Thinking on his feet, Shang Tsung convinced Shao Khan to spare him by coming up with a plan to lure the Earthrealm fighters into Outworld itself so that Khan could hold his own tournament and give them a right, good thrashing. Khan was pleased enough with this notion not only to spare Shangy from execution but to restore his youth in the process. What a charming lad, eh?
Taking the fight into Outworld not only raises the stakes, it also allows for a whole host of interesting venues for the fights to take place, with Mortal Kombat II having a more fantastical theme, with things like living trees and portals to other dimensions on full display. It’s certainly a game that isn’t lacking in atmosphere, with the foreboding nature of Outworld lending itself well to a violent tournament where folks fight to the death. New characters such as Kitana, Mileena, Baraka, Kung Lao and Jax help freshen things up from a roster perspective, and Shao Kahn remains one of the most iconic villains in video game history with his brutal attacks and trademark cocky laugh. Everything from the bigger roster, more interesting fighting arenas and richer story is improved upon when compared to the original game.
The soundtrack is also an all-timer, with the home ports doing a decent job of transporting it. However, as good as the game is to look at, you’ll be lucky when it comes to how much you actually get to see of it due to the incredible level of difficulty on display. I played the arcade version along with the home ports for the SNES and Mega Drive, and I honestly couldn’t get past the second fight, even with the console ports on the easiest difficulty level. When I played through the arcade ladder mode for Mortal Kombat, I was at least capable of making it to the endurance battles before hitting a brick wall, but in Mortal Kombat II, I got stuck on the second fight every single time, usually against Mileena.
I’ve come across some difficult fighting games over the course of writing these articles for Gaming Respawn, with Virtua Fighter on the 32x and with Street Fighter III: Third Strike on the original Xbox being two of the hardest. However, whilst I was able to keep plugging away and eventually managed to complete the ladder mode with those games, I wasn’t able to come remotely close with Mortal Kombat II. I’ve read online that the CPU can read all of your imports in Mortal Kombat II, which would certainly make sense when taking the difficulty into account. The computer can destroy you in seconds by spamming its more effective special moves and cutting you off before you can even begin to reply. It’s honestly one of the most merciless A.I.s I’ve ever come across, and I could barely lay a glove on my computer-controlled opponents.
It’s such a shame because so much of Mortal Kombat II works so well. It’s got great music, a good story, interesting characters, and the arcade version generally looks good from a graphical perspective. However, though the story, look, sound and general ambience are on point, the gameplay is a big old tick in the negative column. I’ve got nothing against a fighting game being hard and testing you. I’m not someone who enjoys difficulty for difficulty’s sake, but I have played a number of difficult fighting games and enjoyed them once I’d managed to get into a rhythm. Unfortunately, the computer in Mortal Kombat II is so unrelenting and vicious that I couldn’t manage that here. I’m fine with the difficulty ramping up the further you get (I didn’t mind tapping out in the endurance round in the first MK because at least I managed to win a few fights first, and the difficulty spike didn’t feel unfair), but to not even get past the second rung on the arcade ladder because the game is so ludicrously difficult is a step too far, in this humble scribe’s opinion.