It's refreshing to know that, even if society has changed in numerous ways over the past two decades, Mortal Kombat is still Mortal Kombat.
Since the recent FXX mega-marathon of The Simpsons will make my reference to a 20-year-old episode of a television show seem less dated, here goes: There's a reason the "BoneStorm" parody from "Marge be Not Proud" continues to resonate with us all these years later. While gaming's generally matured since the early '90s, Mortal Kombat still looks like it sprung from the minds of a high school lunch table full of metalheads. Even with technology exponentially more advanced than the original's clumsy digitization, the latest take on Midway's popular fighter has all the overdone edginess of a 1992 Image comic book (let's say... Spawn).
And that's okay. When you pick up a Mortal Kombat game, you should generally know what to expect at this point. And while I lost my taste for the series around the time Clinton left office, sitting down for a few matches of Mortal Kombat X at PAX made me recall the sickly sweet tang of Surge—may it rest in peace. One thing I didn't expect, though, was for the series' trademark violence to make me wince instead of chuckle.
This isn't a pearl-clutching condemnation—it's a matter of personal taste. I'm not the biggest fan of violent content, but when it's presented in a way that contradicts the situation's horror, I'm generally on board. It's why I'll watch Evil Dead II 300 times before I see even a second of Hostel: Goofy monsters and blood spraying at fire-hose pressure make for a much more entertaining time than the brutal recreation of torture. And the Mortal Kombat I'm familiar with falls into the former camp, with its pixelated explosions of blood and guts not far removed from the low-budget practical effects of a Troma movie.
Before, Mortal Kombat limited its most infamous moments of ultra-violence to a series of finishing moves, but Mortal Kombat in its current form peppers them throughout a fight. After filling up a meter through landing hits successfully, players can unleash devastatingly powerful moves that zoom in for an x-ray view of the horror in exquisite detail. Series favorite Sub-Zero will rip an organ from his opponent's body, or shove a massive icicle through their brain via the eye socket, and the few other matches I participated in saw jaws shattered, spines crushed, and people walking away from injuries that should have killed them instantly. (Not that Mortal Kombat ever focused on realism.)
It's amazing to think what the anti-violence advocates of 20 years ago—who raised a stink over the made-for-TV movie naughtiness of Night Trap—would think if they could have seen Mortal Kombat X play out in front of their faces. I'm guessing Joe Lieberman would have melted like the guy at the end of Raiders. Even so, the silliness remains—in the course of one match, I pulled the same glistening organ from Kano's body multiple times, and he bounced back despite the massive internal trauma I must have caused. Still, with all of this violence on display, I wasn't quite sure where this newest version of Mortal Kombat drew the line.
Even though I expected a cagey, collar-tugging reaction from Adam Urbano, senior producer at NetherRealm studios, his response to my question about Mortal Kombat X's violence showed his team doesn't take the issue lightly. "You sort of assume there isn't [a line], but once you join the team, day one, that's the first thing you learn: There's a very clear distinction between what we're ok with and what we're not," says Rebano. "It's largely based around that tongue-in-cheek aspect of it, so you'll see a lot of things, like Cassie's fatality, where there's a bit of gum involved. It's something that we are aware of every day, and we try to make sure we are on the side of somewhat comical, somewhat light-hearted, but still, on that level of violence that has made the game famous."
Even though MKX presents its fatalities with a stomach-churning attention to detail, these grisly deaths are still outlandish, and might only be possible in the real world via the magic of bath salts. That said, I think it's safe to say "this isn't for me" without outright condemning a game, because Mortal Kombat's audience hasn't changed in these past twenty years. Just as I rented the first three games to see those fatalities play out over and over again, I'm sure a new generation of players will be getting their teenage kicks by gazing in wonder Mortal Kombat X's gory mayhem.