Mod-al Kombat: How and Why Fans Rebalance Old Fighting Games

Mod-al Kombat: How and Why Fans Rebalance Old Fighting Games

When a developer moves on to their next fighting game, some die-hard fans still feel the need to “Finish It!”

Great fighting games usually live until they are knocked out of the spotlight by their sequel. Extended lifespans are reliant on refreshes and remixes; a tactic publishers use to repeatedly milk their highest-profile franchises between installments. Capcom alone has more Arcade Editions and Super Turbo Remixes than you could shake an arcade stick at. However, remixes don't grant immortality and, in the worst cases, can accidentally symbolize celebratory fireworks at a premature funeral—just ask Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3. It's the genre's own quarter-circle of life that some people are beginning to push up against.

Long after developers have jumped ship in order to push their newest title, some hardcore fans have stayed behind to mod in their own changes, picking up the pieces and retooling their favorite, past-their-prime fighting games. Most serious players in the genre don't dwell in the past, but for a few select individuals, the past is what drives them forward.

2011's Mortal Kombat is one of the fighting games fans have actively tried to mod and keep alive.

Iterating on a Klassic

Modder Futuretime23 has taken it upon himself to revitalize and rebalance NetherRealm Studios' 2011 Mortal Kombat, or Mortal Kombat 9, with its own Tournament Edition. Mortal Kombat 9 had a healthy run and, aside from being a successful return to form for the series, it was also Mortal Kombat's first serious foray into the competitive fighting game scene. However, NetherRealm's fighters tend to fade away every two years as their core audience moves on and adopts the studio's newest title. Biennial cannibalism pushed Mortal Kombat 9 out of the spotlight by 2013, but nostalgia and its inclusion in this year's upcoming Combo Breaker tournament has revived interest in the game; something this Tournament Edition is aiming to capitalize on.

That wasn't Futuretime23's original intention. He has been modding Mortal Kombat 9 since 2011, where he used custom PlayStation 3 firmware to add textures, retro Mortal Kombat music, and new challenge towers to the game. It wasn't until the PC release in 2013 that attracted a crowd of new modders and opened up more possibilities. Possibilities like, say, a Tournament Edition. Inspired by the Ultimate Mortal Kombat 9 mod that let players fight as the previously non-playable bosses, Futuretime23 wanted to go bigger and began brainstorming for the Tournament Edition in mid-2015. He had originally intended to make "the best possible version of Mortal Kombat 9," but that didn't quite go as planned.

"Initially the patch wasn't very well received when it made its original release back in January 2016," admits Futuretime23. "Mostly due to the fact [that] I had no clue how to balance the game."

Futuretime23 began buffing and nerfing according to his own personal wishlist as well as suggestions from the members from the TestYourMight community, a prominent forum for Mortal Kombat and Injustice players. The changes were unpopular and sporadic, leading tournament-level Mortal Kombat competitors to seek Futuretime23 out and give him advice. MK_REO, who lightly assisted Futuretime23 after the first patch along with other professionals in early 2016, stepped up and got more actively involved in late 2017. With a known name heavily championing it, more people slowly began to trickle in and the patch began gaining momentum and notoriety as a result. REO even debuted the trailer for version 2.0 of the mod on his YouTube channel in December 2017, garnering over 16,000 views in just two months and reaching far more people than version 1.0's trailer did earlier that year. Without REO's support, Mortal Kombat 9: Tournament Edition may have stayed in relative obscurity.

"It definitely attracted a bigger audience and people are slowly returning to Mortal Kombat 9," says Futuretime23. "There's also the factor that it's very likely [that] this year Mortal Kombat 11 is gonna be announced which, along with Mortal Kombat 9: TE being better known, could potentially bring even more people to it."

Fans of the mod should thank Futuretime23's love for the game and his perfectionism, both of which pushed him past the obstacles that stood before him. The unbalanced state that NetherRealm left the game in and the idea of improving its flaws drew Futuretime23 to the project. However, after nearly three years of intermittent updates and persisting through the game’s surprisingly "bad code," Futuretime23 says he can see the end in sight.

"The ending of TE may come very soon," admits Futuretime23. "I mean, I've been working on this project for a long time and once it's just technical issues I can't resolve or most of them are fixed or whatever, I'll probably just stop working on the mod. I've been thinking of passing the torch to another modder in case they want to continue the work I've done, but we'll see about that."

Whether he passes the torch to someone else or extinguishes the flame himself, the Futuretime23 screenname will forever be immortalized in the game's initial loading screen. Not everyone will care who made the mod, but that does not bother him. Internet fame didn't compel him to start this project; he says he did it to leave his own positive mark on the world in a way that made him feel useful.

"It wasn't done only to make Mortal Kombat 9 even better, but also because I wanted to do something useful for people and at least leaving my mark on something," says Futuretime23. "One day I'll look back and I at least I can say hey, I did at least one thing right with my life."

Games like Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 have to compete with sequels and new challengers.

Going the EXtra Mile

Mortal Kombat 9 had a decently-sized pool of professionals to draw support from, which was not the case for Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3. Everett "emc" McLeod found that out the hard way while making Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 EX, one of the rebalance mods for Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3.

EX began after Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3's PC release in March 2017—seven years after its release on consoles. The ridiculously late PC port stifled the community's ability to create unofficial updates and Capcom's inability to officially update it. It was the one-two punch that let the game stagnate. But in an odd, roundabout way, Capcom re-releasing Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 in order to build hype for Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite finally gave fans what they wanted: a way to update Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3. Still, the small group of core followers didn't initially reflect professional interest in the mod after its May 2017 release.

"There was already waning interest for Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 with Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite on the horizon," McLeod says. "When Infinite's fire started to dim many of those same players were then jumping ship to the new king, Dragon Ball FighterZ."

And that's the uphill battle these old fighting game fan rebalances face: they have to compete with new games and their own sequels. It took some time for EX to overcome those roadblocks as it has recently started to find an audience among those who soured on Infinite and didn't quite click with Dragon Ball FighterZ. Despite its progress and following, not everyone is satisfied with the mod and McLeod sees where they are coming from.

"The beauty of Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 is that it's probably a game that never needed a patch and many players really just love it the way it is, myself included," McLeod tells me. "But on that note, my inspiration for creating the mod wasn't out of spite for Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3's lack of support, it was to reinvigorate the Marvel scene to revisit the game they fell in love with way back in 2011."

McLeod's mission to revitalize Marvel fueled him through the days where an audience wasn't guaranteed. Locksmith by day, modder by night, he would spend his free time building EX after coming home from a hard day's work. Tweaking frame data and adjusting combo damage almost every night for around five months sounds like a non-stop break from demanding work, but McLeod doesn't see it that way. Instead, he found ways to apply his skills to both his hobby and job.

"I enjoy it for the challenge and learning opportunity," he says. "Locks are like puzzles and I've always been good at motivating myself to do something well if I can do it as a hands-on experience. Building the mod is similar because it's all about solving small mysteries until you get a bigger picture after enough time and research into how the game ticks."

McLeod says he likes his job, even though it isn't the career path he had in mind when he was younger. He wanted to work on games, but through life's twists and turns, he became a locksmith instead. His long-gone days of making maps for the World War 2-set shooter Day of Defeat weren't for nothing though; it taught him the value of creating for others.

"I think what drove me then is similar to what drives me now: building something new that others can enjoy. Because when people play my work, it's a compliment that I'm doing something they like and doing it in the games I've spent a lot of my free time on," McLeod says. "If putting hundreds of hours into a single video game is an investment of my time, then it's nice to see it paid back in that sense."

Making Super Smash Bros. on Wii U closer to Melee isn't easy.

A Smash from the Past

Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 EX is only trying to dig up nostalgia from seven years ago. 4XM, on the other hand, is reaching back 17 years.

4XM is a mod focused on making Super Smash Bros. for Wii U, or Smash 4, a lot more like its beloved GameCube predecessor, Super Smash Bros. Melee. If this sounds familiar, it's because this same concept was grafted onto Super Smash Bros. Brawl in the form of the ever-popular Project M. The Smash community adores Melee for its approachability and depth—a balance that fans feel the series hasn't quite matched since. Although Smash 4 has peacefully coexisted with Melee over the years (both are main-stage titles at this year's Evo), 4XM is, as modder Derek "Maximus Dimby" Battle puts it, trying to mix the best aspects of both games.

"Smash for Wii U has definitely been my personal favorite, but I've always had a thing for Melee's tech and skill ceiling," Battle says. "Between Smash 4's flashy and expressive nature and Melee's technical challenge, this has really been a best of both worlds scenario."

That's a different challenge from the other fan rebalances. While Mortal Kombat 9: Tournament Edition and Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 EX are just trying to update themselves and recapture some of their old fans, 4XM is trying to trace over and emulate a specific thing that fans have been meticulously pulling apart and examining under a microscope for almost two decades. That process is about as hard as it sounds, Battle explains.

"It's been pretty challenging getting mechanics one-to-one with Melee, so many characters see quirks they wouldn't typically have," he says. "Many characters from Melee also had certain flaws that kept them from performing well, which we'd rather fix than replicate."

But there's one thing 4XM doesn't want from Project M: the looming threat of Nintendo's lawyers. While different Project M Development members have made contradictory statements over the years, rumors circulated about Nintendo's disapproval with the mod and how Project M's end was a preemptive move to avoid being sued. Project M didn't even require players to hack their Wii, while 4XM requires Wii U homebrew to function.

Given Nintendo's multiple efforts to hush any talk of Project M on the Miiverse and its partnered tournaments, it's easy to see that it wasn't happy with the mod, but is hard to know exactly why since it doesn't require hardware or software modification. 4XM, however, does and homebrew's proximity to piracy would probably make Nintendo more hostile if this mod were to explode in popularity like Project M. Battle, having edited games on the Game Boy Advance and Nintendo DS, says he's familiar with working within Nintendo's morally gray areas and, although he's staying vigilant, isn't too worried about getting slammed with a lawsuit. In fact, he thinks this is just the beginning for Wii U mods like this.

"Because of how accessible Wii U homebrew is and how another crippling security patch isn't likely, I honestly think this is the beginning for these kinds of projects," Battle says. "I dare say that you might see a small bump in purchases of the so-called dead console at some point!"

Battle worked on other dead or abandoned Nintendo consoles, which gave him an advantage when starting 4XM. He began programming at 10 years old and started ROM hacking by the age of 12. Nintendo's similar internal architecture between platforms meant Battle was able to easily adapt to Smash 4 and dig up some of the same nostalgic feelings of modding DS games all those years ago. Aside from nostalgia, he just enjoys the liberty that the tools give him that let his inner programmer "feel at home."

Nintendo's hardware similarities make both of his responsibilities on the mod a little less difficult. Battle's main role is rescoring the game in a way that feels fresh, yet undeniably inspired by Melee. He also gives feedback to the team on technical gameplay fixes. While his experience with Nintendo products makes his job easier, it also draws him closer to realizing his personal dream: making the ultimate Smash game.

"Being rather new to the competitive scene, it was a personal passion to combine the flashiness of Smash 4 and the tech skill of Melee into one package," Battle says. "So in a way, [by rescoring and rebalancing the game] I get to fulfill two passions."

But the team's work is far from done. Given all the checkboxes that need to be checked off, version 1.0 is still a ways off. Programming in all the intricacies from Melee is a tall task in and of itself, but 4XM is also aiming to add new stages, balance tweaks, and other unannounced features. Going up and beyond just making it look and play like Melee makes the mod stand out more, but it's also making version 1.0's release date even more foggy. However, Battle doesn't seem to mind the "delays."

"Our goals are still expanding as we work on the basic purpose," he says. "So while a 1.0 is a clear achievable goal, I'm both unsure and excited about what an endpoint might be."

Regardless of any specter of legal ramifications or outright failure, all of these projects have something in common: the pride the modders have in their work. Diving into your favorite game in an effort to create something a community can gather around is a ton of hard, unpaid work that doesn't always pay off. But that doesn't seem to dissuade them. McLeod says it was incredibly fun to pour himself into EX almost every day after work in his free time, even when the mod didn't seem to have a bright future. Battle says the work satisfied his inner programmer, while Futuretime23 relates his work on the Tournament Edition to having a kid, though he isn't a parent.

"I could be talking out of my ass, but that's the closest comparison that I can think of when describing what it feels to dive into the guts of this game and making a mod out of it," Futuretime23 says. "It feels like a piece of yourself is going into that same creation you made."

Edit: Originally, the timeline for how the Mortal Kombat mod came to be was slightly inaccurate. This has been edited to reflect how integral it was that tournament-level Mortal Kombat players directly sought Futuretime23 out to give him advice for changes the mod would implement.

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