And no, jerks, it’s not the gore, the graphics, or the fatalities…Well, maybe a little
There’s an obvious truth that, aside from Smash Brothers and probably arena fighting games based on popular properties like Naruto, there is nary a more popular mainstream fighting game than Mortal Kombat. It appears regularly on year-end bestsellers lists, and its online modes are arife with competition, especially since it’s very easy to link up with Sony’s extensive online tournament series. Despite that, when it comes to competitive offline events, MK is a far more niche title than it might seem. It can get a lot of buzz early, but inevitably that dies off until it averages about 100 or so people at tournaments, more at the larger tournaments. So what gives?
Simply, I think that it’s because the gameplay, despite aesthetic similarities to other, more popular games, rests in a niche that is quite polarizing. It is somehow both a traditional 2D fighter like Street Fighter or King of Fighters, with the mobility and space-control strategies that entails, and also a close-combat 3D fighter like Tekken or Virtua Fighter, with various hit levels and attack strings. It should not work, and yet…it does. Mortal Kombat 11, in my opinion, is the strongest realization of that system, even if I ultimately favor MK9 as the funnest and silliest of these styles of games. It is simpler to get in and move around then a game like Tekken, and the combo routes and special moves are a bit more direct than something like a Guilty Gear, which gets the game a reputation as somewhat mindless and/or braindead.
I think this accusation is really unfounded.
The reality is MK’s reputation has, over its competitive history, rarely had discussions of its mechanics and how they work together discussed in good faith. The dedicated but relatively small sub-community is pretty susceptible to the thoughts and opinions of its most popular figures, which, due to the relatively short turnover times between games, often come out hastily and from the hip. Histrionic proclamations of balance and hopes for massive system overhauls tend to overshadow earnest conversation about in-game strategy. While it definitely gets more attention, that constant lust for the drama that results from that has left technical talk of the game mostly as a bullet point for what MK ought to be, rather than what it is.
Really, what I want is to try and put into words why I, personally, have really taken to Mortal Kombat, particularly MK11, as my preferred game of choice, which has just as much to do with gameplay as it does just being a fan of the series from childhood. I find that gameplay to be stimulating, rewarding, and most importantly, unique from the dozens of choices I have available out there, and I’d like to articulate why
Note that I’m mainly speaking about the “reboot” series that started with Mortal Kombat (2011) and not the entire series proper. Old-school MK, 1-4, is a beast all its own, as are the 2000’s era titles like Deadly Alliance or Vs DC Universe. While I think they are unique and cool as well, I’m only mostly familiar with the more in-depth strategies and mechanics of the more recent titles, so that’s what I’ll stick to.
Before we get into why I like MK, I think it’s important to emphasize why I think the style it rolls with is so weird and repulses a lot of people who might otherwise play it as a competitive fighter.
Basically, Mortal Kombat is a 2D fighter with 3D Frame Data
What do I mean by that?
Like a lot of 3D fighters, MK uses pre-made combo strings as its main source of “normal” attacks, consisting of three different hit levels: high, mid, and low. Highs are able to be ducked by crouching, which also blocks lows, but the thread of a overhead hitting mid reinforces the need to block standing. Crouching attacks are low damage and usually disadvantage on block, but they are also typically the fastest moves, give major frame advantage on hit, and pull the double duty of ducking highs as you attack. It should be noted, however, that mid attacks in MK are more like “special mid” attacks in other 3D fighters – they can be blocked ducking or standing, rather than being true overhead hitting attacks. All of these attacks have chunky frame data, the fastest attacks starting in six or seven frames rather than three or four.
Despite all those similarities to 3D fighters, the game also clearly takes place on a 2D plane and is chock full of wacky special moves that control space and can start combos. Movement is uncomplicated but straightforward – no side-stepping into the back or foreground, and no hexagonal ring keeping you enclosed. Stages are long and you have to learn how to move to get past walls of projectiles or really strong neutral game attacks. Chip damage is a big deal, as is learning how to deal with jump attacks. Speaking of, jumps propel characters high and count as overhead attacks, and the threat of a crossup attack where the character turns and attacks from the opposite side is a concern. You can die from chip damage even on normal attacks, so even blocking has a stronger element of danger to it than usual
Tekken has been experimenting with putting characters with unique options like low jumps and fireballs, invulnerable moves, cancels, etc. but MK is more like adding moves from King of Fighters or Guilty Gear into the game. Characters will have teleports that track and attack from the other side, moves that make you reverse time, rising sparks that cover most of the field, full screen leap attacks, etc. They are powerful attacks that lead to big damage or are annoying to deal with AKA the best kind of special moves. The most recent MK trilogy added a traditional meter to use amplified specials (EX moves), which has led to all sorts of fun bollocks
Despite the 2D framing, the 3D aspects always but their way in. For example, a lot of 2D fighters use jump attacks and chained attacks to try and lock characters down while they set up gaps for a counter-hit or maybe a sneaky throw. When they’re not up close, there’s a lot of baiting with whiffed attacks or maybe building meter with whiffed specials. MK kind of does that, but remember it has 3D style frame data – slower, less active frames and more recovery frames.
A classic scenario might be that you throw fireballs from more than half-screen, all the time setting up bait for the opponent to jump, then smack them out of the air by faking a fireball motion with a quick, low-commitment normal. The long duration of the jump plus the quick recovery of the attack means the defender has enough time to knock the opponent out of the air with either an invincible move or another anti-air attack. This doesn’t work quite the same in MK – the recovery of normals is extensive and whiffing an attack that isn’t a ducking attack is usually equal to the duration of a jump. Even attacks with decent range are often forward advancing, meant to put the player into close-range at a disadvantage, rather than simply holding down the mid-range.
A lot of discussion about fighters tends to emphasize the mid-range game and pre-emptive strategies that can contain multiple movement options and attacks, but MK takes a different tack. Single-hit attacks that can function as “pokes,” being low risk and generally pushing the opponent back, are typically restricted to common universal crouching options and special moves, while most standing attacks function as the first strikes in a more layered offense. Those low-risk options don’t lead to any more damage than a couple percent here or there – at some point, you have to engage in the up-close game. Because most fireballs and other keepout moves can be crouched, too, there’s really not a ton of range-y attacks that both keep the opponent locked in place and do damage at the same time.
Another jarring difference is that MK treats hitstun states more like 3D fighters do – you cannot link into attacks even if the frame data adds up correctly. Other than a pre-made string or capture special, you can only convert from errant attacks should you catch someone in the air and make general use of MK’s lax juggle system, or somehow force a trade, which “resets” the normal link protection. While you are able to block in between non-string hits, however, that’s not guarantee you will. Like most 2D fighters, you can 2-in-1 cancel certain normal attacks into specials, including a lot of combo strings and single hit pokes. A quick low poke, normally only very little damage into frame advantage, can become very dangerous should the player take a risk and 2-in-1 that poke into a launching special. You always have to be ready to block, even when things don’t combo naturally
Suffice to say, this unique combo of ideas from a bunch of different fighters, combined with its own eccentricities, can be very alienating. It’s kind of like some games in one aspect, kind of like others in another, and I imagine the synthesis of both is a bit of a shellshock to someone who sees what is, visually, a 2D fighter and tries to play it just like that. Klassic MK doesn’t exactly play by the usual 2D fighter rules either, but that is still closer to a standard 2D fighter than the later hybrid games. Whenever I hear complaints that the series feels “weird,” it’s extremely easy to sympathize with that point of view.
Now we can get to the good stuff!
The two key things that I think set modern MK apart from the rest of its contemporaries are the interesting way it handles two of its core mechanics: Blocking and Throws.
Famously, MK has a block button rather than having you hold back to block. It’s not the only 2D fighter to have it, and some newer games (Granblue Fantasy Versus, Dungeon Fighter Duel) are starting to experiment with it, but I think it’s the most well thought out use.
I would actually compare it to Virtua Fighter 5 or Dead or Alive (although it’s optional). Once that button is held, the only thing you have to account for is a mid (overhead) or low hitting move. Only a throw or command grab can break your block, although unlike VF5 you do take chip damage from every blocked hit. You can’t attack or move from block, but it is nevertheless like a stop sign as far as doing direct damage.
This has implications that aren’t immediately clear unless you play and see for yourself. One of those is that, unlike almost every 2D fighter, there is no ‘proximity block’. This is the state in which a character is forced to go into a blocking animation while walking backwards, even when the attack isn’t physically hitting. As such, you can move more freely while playing at mid-range or up close; there isn’t a built-in mechanic that can force characters to stop holding back for a moment. It can make walking backwards for a whiff punish easier, while also forcing the player to react to incoming attacks with an actual tap of the block button rather than an automatic block.
Guarding can also cancel out movement, which is another shared similarity to VF5. Dashing and canceling the animation with block is a critical movement technique, as it can allow you to advance quicker than just walking and allow you to defend incoming attacks. If you see a high-level competitive match, it’s rare that dash-blocking isn’t used constantly. The block button is going to get used a lot, regardless of whether or not it’s for actually blocking an attack.
As with all things, however, there are drawbacks to holding block as opposed to not. One of those is that if you crouch and block (the standard position), your character’s physical hurtbox is wider and taller. As such, things that would harmlessly sail overhead will now usually connect, such as a high projectile or standing jab. This is crucial in up close pressure – most characters’ run their offense based off of powerful combo strings that sometimes start from a high attack, and crouch blocking means that you are playing directly into this.
Because you will have to let go of block to avoid strong offense and start your own counter-offense, MK becomes a game where the goal is to get people to let go of the safety of block. That might sound like a no-brainer, but it’s important to remember that MK doesn’t have exactly the same kind of system as Tekken or VF5. While there are hit levels that can be avoided through neutral crouching or jumping, ‘mids’ in MK don’t mean the same as 3D fighters: they can be blocked standing or crouching. Depending on the MK game, true overheads and lows that are difficult to block on reaction can be few and far between, so opening people up can sometimes be difficult if you don’t have things like a command grab or a really tricky special move that advances more offense.
Funnily enough, there is one other drawback to holding block that should probably be mentioned – when you’re holding block, you cannot use any of the four attack buttons to break a throw attempt.
Which leads us right into the other key mechanic.
Also very similar to VF5, throws in MK games tend to start up in 10 frames and are a high attack, which means they can be ducked. While ostensibly being a high hitting move, throws will catch the hurtbox of people when they’re crouch blocking or in the middle of an animation that widens their hurtbox, just like other high attacks, making them closer to “special high” attacks. As if all that weren’t enough, MK throws share a property with their VF5 cousin – you cannot input multiple escape attempts and there is no visual distinction between front and back throw. They are a true guess, a true 50/50.
Because they do a chunky 14% in MK11 and can, depending on the character, lead to great okizeme, a throw that you have a coin flip chance of breaking is a pretty darn good tool. It’s important to keep in mind too that the only real way to avoid them is to either neutral crouch, make yourself airborne, or mash out an attack with specific timing for an early or late break attempt. Unlike VF5, you can be thrown out of attacks, so a crouching poke is not necessarily a guaranteed option against a throw. Still, it’s usually a good option to mash against a throw with either a crouching jab or an uppercut, usually the latter as it breaks forward throws and is a damaging option (14% minimum from a down 2 uppercut).
It’s important to note, however, that MK throws have a pretty hefty whiff recovery, and jumping or ducking one is nearly always a guaranteed punish. Considering what some characters can get from their fastest combo strings, the risk might not seem worth the reward. For some characters, it is easily their strongest mixup option, something that can really only be countered if an opponent is sharp and using high-level tactics like specific option selects to guard against several options at once.
The goal of up-close offense in MK should then become pretty clear: good old two-alternate forced choice, straight out of Virtua Fighter, or Nitaku, if you’re a cool kid. Mid or throw, and no one defensive solution can cover every single option. You have to guess, you have to engage, and make decisions really fast should the frame advantage not be in your favor.
The Australian MK player and streamer Gilbagz did a live stream that covered the basic offensive options of MK11, and some of the charts he constructed do a very good job of explaining that goal and breaking down the options therein:
It’s not as complicated as it looks, but you can see how the threat of throw, and the fact you can’t break a throw while blocking, opens up a layered offense and defense. And this is something that every character can enforce, although some have less juice to back up their throw game or they may not have the best approach. Tiers still matter, there are definitely good and bad characters, but the basic mixup game that any character can enforce is good enough that it has to register in your mind while playing up close.
I certainly don’t mind the typical 2D fighter route of looping pressure through positive frames on block from chained light attacks or using advanced movement options like shorter jumps, cancelling specials on block, or air dashes to extend pressure. But what I like about MK11 is there are certain options which are just so powerful that there is simply do or don’t do: neutral crouch or mash out of the throw, both of which carry an element of risk. Other MK games have some other options that get introduced into the typical Nitaku, and they are at times painfully ham-fisted, but that constant is always there.
And that’s just the up-close game!
What is awesome about MK is that you have an up close game that plays by unique rules and can get very heavy in reads and feeling your opponent out, like so:
While simultaneously dealing with huge special moves that dominate the space of the screen and having to navigate around them, like this:
In many ways, this can be really frustrating – playing against a character who can flood the screen with projectiles then also dominate the Nitaku game is really annoying. But still, I enjoy the challenge. Also being on the other end absolutely rules. There are few things more fun that throwing out derpy specials that demolish real estate with very few drawbacks, and MK has those in spades, although 11 has less of those. That there can be such powerful, fun special moves in conjunction with a close-range system that resembles the more complex, read-heavy systems of Virtua Fighter or Tekken is nothing short of brilliant, in my opinion.
I’m not trying to say MK is a thinking man’s game – far from it. And this is in no way a shot across the bow at other fighters, which all have an element of read-heavy play and crazy special moves. But in order to play effectively I think it demands a knowledge of the systems in play and how to tweak them to your advantage, lest you start losing to players who mash a lot or do galaxy-brain fivehead special moves after blocked pokes, or the worst of all, someone who mashes pokes constantly and you are powerless to stop it. In fact, that probably speaks to the strength of MK’s systems – poking is a powerful defensive tool that everyone hates, even though it only does 2% damage, because they (in MK11, more on the older games later) give so much frame advantage that you’re immediately caught in Nitaku if you get hit by one.
When it all comes together, such as I think it does in MK11, you get a game that has a ton of player interaction at almost every range that is playable by most of the cast. But that isn’t always the case, especially in the not-so-distant past…
But we’ll save that for Part 2!