Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Stuff and More Stuff: Mortal Kombat Memoirs

I've run out of immediate things to post on my blog. I have a metric ton of stuff I've written, but I haven't established what I'm doing with all of it just yet (the RoC revision....the Warlords of Lingusia Pathfinder project....the entire Enzada campaign) so until I determine what's destined for a future print product and what can be cleaned up for the blog, I'll just have to rely a bit more on my own effort at new content. Gah!!!!

I picked up Mortal Kombat - The Komplete Edition over the weekend. It was an entertaining trip down memory lane, and also a reminder that there are some games out there that I may not be all that good at.

Back in the early nineties I enjoyed Mortal Kombat in the arcades. It was a fun game, and cool for what it did for the time. I remember living in Wilcox, AZ in 1995 or thereabouts, working hard to figure out what in the hell I was doing with my life while living with a woman who had taken violent bipolar-induced rages to an art form, even as I struggled with a post-college minimum wage job as a floor manager at a truck stop. I had little disposable income, my PC was dying, and I was away from any sort of meaningful population center so I was cut off from friends and, now out of the University life, I was left with a lot of empty free time that once were absorbed by by studies.

Amidst all this, there was a Mortal Kombat arcade machine that I had some fun with where I worked, but there was rarely any free time to play, so I rented a Sega Genesis along with a copy of Mortal Kombat 3 at a rental shop in Wilcox. It was a weird, solitary beacon of enjoyment in an otherwise desperate period of life when simple survival was a struggle. For that alone I keep a special place in my memories for the Mortal Kombat franchise.

(1995 was so bad that I got almost zero tabletop gaming in for most of the year, I ostracized myself from my buddies in Tucson over the matter of this girlfriend with whom I was having such an unhealthy relationship, and it was not until a long time friend of mine showed up in September, suggesting I move up to Seattle for a fresh start, and that he would help with the move, that I was able to make the break).

The movie, which came out in August of 1995, was probably the last film I saw in Tucson before moving to Seattle. It was not arguably a good movie by any stretch, but it did (for the time) manage to be a fairly correct portrayal of the otherwise frenetic and confusing storyline (such as it was) of the Mortal Kombat universe.

The Mortal Kombat Komplete edition has been out for some time now. Years ago I learned that I was not really that good at the console-style arcade fighting games, though I did like playing them. I've played most all the other MK games as they came out, but I kept away from this one, largely because I knew it wasn't going to be an absolute "must have" like a Bioware title would be, and since it's publisher was going to deploy a lot of pricey DLC I figured eventually it would all get placed in a game of the year edition at a budget price and I could snag it then. Low and behold, it was!

So with the wife and child house-sitting for a week I decided to dive into the new Mortal Kombat game. Before doing that, however, I downloaded the coupon that came with it for a free copy of the original movie by way of Zune (Zune, Microsoft's Achilles' Heel). It was fun to watch the movie again, and also surprising, as some things I remembered from way back when didn't quite resonate in the same way as they do now. So some observations:

The movie was, and remains, a relic of that unique era of film-making that predates ID4 (the first movie to herald in truly impressive CGI graphics) and the last of the old-guard of weird and wonky action films that dominated the 1980's and early 90's. It utilizes some CGI effects, but they are mostly atrocious or have that sort of weird, vaguely inappropriate feeling of cheapness to them. There is also Goro.

Goro is the four-armed boss monster at the end of the MK games (up through 3 at least; he shows up often in later games, as does a female version of his kind, but he was the Big Bad right before Shang Tsung (the soul-stealing guy) and Shao Khan (the evil emperor dude who uses the same stylist as Skeletor). Goro is taller than most men and has four arms. He would be served very, very well by today's CGI special effects....I mean, John Carter features an entire species of similarly proportioned creatures and does so without missing a beat. So to see a four armed monster like him in a 1995 film is kind of a Big Deal.

Back in 1995 I remember having a suspension of disbelief problem about Goro, which was why what I noticed today surprised me: first, he looked a bit stiff; I recall in the theatre that his movement didn't always seem to match the background properly. Second, his scenes were cleverly staged; obviously the guys he interacted with, when we did see interaction, were fighting something else entirely that had been green-screened out. Finally, I remember thinking how cheap but necessary his defeat was; they obviously couldn't figure out how to make a good fight between him and Johnny Cage, so they had Cage kick him off a cliff. Even the cliff fall is only marginally better than the atrocious Joker falling death of the 1989 Batman film.

Today (well, Sunday night) I noticed a few different things: first, Goro's FX actually looked a lot better in HD than I remember it from back then. I did not notice any jarring inconsistency with his movement and the scenery this time which surprised me, because I distinctly remember noticing it in the theaters. Second, his actual animations were smooth enough that for the first time I realized that if this really was a CGI creature it was pretty good for that time (and in contrast to the rest of the film's effects) so I think he was actually a costume with some puppetteering. Wow. In that context, he looks damned good. I don't know why I didn't notice that before. All that said, he is still given the worst fight scenes, which have to use clever camera work to make the combats look better. Once again, current CGI would smoke anything this movie has on offer, and makes me think a new Mortal Kombat film would greatly benefit from an update. Not necessarily going in the direction of the recent fan short trailer, though; the feel is good, but the revisionism of the characters bugs me a lot.

Aside from Goro, the movie managed to somehow craft a tale out of the threads of plot that somehow weave together to keep the fighting game vaguely coherent. The acting was typical for that era of filming, and we often saw dialogue and events that lacked proper context. When Goro slays Art Lean,* for example, the reaction of Sonja is over the top, especially considering the last time she even saw him (as far as the audience can tell) was days ago for two seconds on a ship, in passing. There's this implication that they had a closer relationship, since she seemed to care about him....but like most late 80s/early 90s action flicks there's also an assumption that the director kindly removed all that talky, mushy emotional stuff so we could get right to the action. Also, the wandering aimlessly around Outworld for endless hours so that the set decorator could show off his crazy set pieces they put together.

The movie had a few other bits I only now have really noticed: a lot of the combat is intentionally staged in linear battle zones, to simulate the game's 2D battlefields. There are scenes that deviate, but when Liu Kang and Sub-Zero face off, its mostly linear; likewise with Cage and Scorpion and later with Liu Kang and Reptile. Not all arenas work like this, but the ones that are most evocative of the game (right on down to crazy, weird set pieces designed to look like environments you might fight while playing the game) seem to start or end in such a manner.

Speaking of fighting zones, I never could figure out why Johnny Cage is in a vast field of orchards on this tiny, weird island. Was he just "there" or was that actually the arena? This scene along with many others feel like there was a minute of film footage right before that which explained everything, lying somewhere on a cutting room floor.

And those set pieces. In HD, they look more than ever like set pieces, begging you to look closely for evidence of the plastering, some sign of the wire mesh underneath. The sets looked interesting in 1995, but today in 1080p they beg you to scrutinize them for the facade they really are. They have this weird, hollow sort of iconography with a lot of "dead warrior" statuary all over the place. It's weirdly evocative on some occasions (the Greek hoplite warrior suggests the agelessness of the tournament) while also being utterly devoid of any real-world meaning; no writing, imagery that feels like it was ripped from a high school student's doodles, and a sense of vagueness about whether it wants to be its own thing or true to its Asian roots.

Anyway, Mortal Kombat as a movie was amusing but not terribly deep fun, with special effects that range from atrocious (poor Reptile) to better than remembered (Goro). Then, of course, there is the game.

Playing Mortal Kombat yet again always reminds me that I should have been playing a lot more of Feng Shui: Shadowfist the Action Move RPG from Atlas Games than I have. I own it, and I am going to break it out again soon and see if I can get a game going. It's a wonderfully bizarre, evocative game with over-the-top stories and mechanics. It is also a game that can reasonably be said to have more than a passing influence from the Mortal Kombat aesthetics and concepts, even if it also manages to borrow from a wild and crazy array of Hong Kong action flicks. It's a fantastic game.

The Mortal Kombat game itself, of course, is plenty of fun but its once again reminding me that my fighting skills at these games are fair to middling. It does seem to dumb down opponents if I lose too often,** and it provides a rather hearty (so far) storyline mode that actually provides a structure to the fighting and lets you move through multiple chapters focusing on different participants. Pretty cool.

I've only played it a little bit so far, and not really intending this as a review I won't say much more than "you get what you want out of this sort of game." It's a return to form for Mortal Kombat, with side-scrolling combat using 3D graphics, a cartoony environment, less offensive fatalities than I expected (more graphic than ever before and yet the violence is so over the top it becomes literally unreal; the X-Ray zoom-ins work against instead of for the graphic nature of it all). The story mode is hillariously dubbed at about the quality of any cartoon and yet still manages to be a bit more involved and elaborate than the movie I had just watched. It's like the game contains all the dialogue and exposition missing from the film.

So in a moment of irony I realize I bought Mortal Kombat in the wake of big changes at work, which could lead to most of my staff being laid off, and likely will lead to my unemployment as well. When I played MK in 1995 I was out of college, desperate for a job that paid a living wage, and soon to move to Seattle to make things better and to escape a predatory relationship. Things aren't that bad now, but the stress of my monthly medical bills and the need to provide for my child and wife make things feel comparable in some ways. So....I guess its good to know that for whatever bizarre reason Mortal Kombat continues to occupy a weird zone to me as the video-game equivalent of comfort food.

*When you're a new character in a franchise film and appear to have been invented whole cloth just for the movie, odds are you're gonna die.

**I say this because it seems fairly evident that I am not getting better, but instead the AI-controlled opponents eventually start acting stupider.

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