In the early 1990s there waged a war in the world of video games. A war much larger than Republicans vs Democrats, larger than chicken vs beef, larger even than Android vs iPhone! At the beginning of the early 90s, Street Fighter ruled the arcades. No one even came close to challenging Street Fighter's supremacy. Many fighting games even made attempts to clone the Capcom fighter in an attempt to share in Street Fighter's success. Games like World Heroes, Fighter's History and Art of Fighting were among those. Even King of Fighters, which enjoyed moderate success in Japan, did not offer much of a challenge to Street Fighter's dominance. That is until one fateful day.
I remember that day well; I walked into the local arcade with a pocket full of quarters as many gamers did that very same day. There was a new game at the arcade that day and it created an incredible stir among the crowd. No one had ever seen a game like this before. It looked different, it played different. This new game was Mortal Kombat. Mortal Kombat didn't try to clone Street Fighter, as others have tried. It was like nothing anyone had ever played or seen and it got really popular really fast! Mortal Kombat began popping up in every arcade, liquor mart and convenience store all over the States. The war had begun.
The popularity of Mortal Kombat created a schism within the gaming community. Gamers began taking sides as to which franchise they chose to align themselves with. Mortal Kombat fans began ridiculing Street Fighter fans for being childish and totally lacking the guts to do what Mortal Kombat has done. Street Fighter fans lashed back at Mortal Kombat fans saying their game was dependent on the violence and lacking in all around depth. Popular gaming magazines at the time cataloged this gigantic fissure of video games and even offered their own opinions about it all. Say what you want now, but this gigantic event proved one thing; Mortal Kombat was no joke.
Fast-forward 20 years later, despite the closure of original MK game publishers (Midway), Mortal Kombat is actually stronger than it has ever been and is still giving the Street Fighter franchise a run for it's money. The most recent release of Mortal Kombat, simply titled Mortal Kombat, has seen the most balanced and satisfying gameplay of any game in the series. Just as important, this new installment also boasts the absolute most amazing art and animation the series has seen. Many developers of the MK franchise, including series creator Ed Boon, have been creating Mortal Kombat games from the beginning. Steve Beran is one of those developers. He is the series' current Art Director and Character Designer and he now gives us his insight on this latest installment.
“The overall artistic direction of this Mortal Kombat (MK)was dark, gritty, fantasy-based realism,” says Beran. “We really want to make the player feel like they are part of the MK universe. We make characters that people want to play. The player needs to have an arsenal of characters that look cool and have amazing powers. The environments bring the player into our worlds and makes them feel like they are part of the MK story. We want the player to feel empowered and we succeed by giving them great-looking characters, devastating moves, and otherworldly environments.” On a more specific note, Mortal Kombat has always been different from most games in the sense that the art direction of most games tends to lean more toward a dark Japanese look and feel. Mortal Kombat is much different in that it has always leaned more towards a dark Chinese feel. For example, take a look back at the main villain of the very first Mortal Kombat, Shang Tsung. Shang Tsung retained a very stark resemblance to the Chinese villain Lo Pan from the 1986 movie Big Trouble in Little China.
In the Mortal Kombat Deadly Alliance trilogy, the developers tried to implement a 3D movement form of gameplay where characters could move in and out of the scenery. In this newest installment of MK, the devs decided to bring things back to the oldschool. This actually proved to boost the quality of the environmental art immensely and here's why; “We decided to go back to 2D gameplay on this game,” says Beran. “That allowed us to create more of a stage for our characters to act on. We didn’t need to think about the entire world, as we did in the Deadly Alliance trilogy. We could spend our entire environment budget on making this one view look amazing. Designing this one view made it easier to design and allowed us to show off what we could do artistically. We are most proud of creating the Mortal Kombat that fans have been requesting for a long time. We have been making Mortal Kombat for nearly 20 years. This version has all the best elements out of all of them, plus a lot of new features we are really proud of, such as the XRay mode. Current gen tech removed a lot of previous barriers and allowed us to make the Mortal Kombat we and our fans always wanted.”
Speaking of the environments, the NetherRealm team offered a great service to the hardcore fans by re-imagining some of the more popular and memorable stages such as the Acid Bath, The Pit and the incredibly popular Living Forest. “First off, we have an AMAZING Environment team led by Dave Pindara,” says Beran. “They create environments that match our concept art exactly. One of the best environments in the 2011 Mortal Kombat game is the Living Forest. It was fun and challenging taking an environment that made its first appearance in Mortal Kombat 2 and remixing it to use the graphic potential of modern day consoles. We purposely went with a really muted blue/green palette, which almost gave the feeling of being underwater. We had new Gobo tech for this game which would allow us to project light and shadow on to our characters. We projected a leafy shadow onto our fighters which married them to the environment and gave a further sense of realism. We are also really proud of all of the life elements we included in the background. From hanging, half dead victims in the trees, snakes, characters being strangled by vines, insects, ravens, etc. There is so much going on in all the environments. Some elements are extremely subtle, but it’s those details that make the experience.”
The standard tools of the trade applied in this MK; Maya, ZBrush, some 3ds Max and even some Mudbox was used in the development of Mortal Kombat. However, using those tools to recreate the same 20 year old characters for the one-millionth time was the challenge. Giving iconic characters such as Scorpion and Sub-Zero a fresh look while still keeping them familiar is a challenge that most devs would be fearful to face. I know I would be! “Re-designing characters that have been around for nearly 20 years can be difficult,” Beran says. “We have hardcore, loyal fans that feel passionately about their favorite characters. If you redesign a character too much, you piss people off. If you don’t change enough, people still get pissed off. Luckily we generally have two costumes for every character. Our primary costumes are generally truer to the known design and the alternate costume is more aggressively different. Scorpion is always the hardest to design. He is easily the most popular MK character. We had a very hard time making his new design feel fresh. We had over 20 designs for him. We kept spinning different versions before we arrived at this final version. I couldn’t be happier with this incarnation. He has a very insect-based, skeletal feel which fits him and looks really bad ass.”
This Mortal Kombat has proved to be, quite possibly, the single most successful iteration of the entire franchise. The art is without question the most gorgeous of the entire series and the gameplay is so well balanced that this Mortal Kombat is now a featured title in many gaming tournaments. In fact, Mortal Kombat will be a part of the game lineup at the EVO Championship Series tournament this year at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, Nevada. Mortal Kombat is now available as a Komplete Edition on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 compiling the originally released game and all of the available downloadable content all on disc.
Big respect to the NetherRealm team and to Steve Beran for his insight. Enjoy the glory fellas!