In 2009, fans of Mortal Kombat watched anxiously as the video game’s developer, Chicago-based Midway Games, teetered like a bruised MK character awaiting a cruel “Fatality” move. After years of running losses, the studio that had once boasted blockbusters like MK and NBA Jam filed for bankruptcy—just as the ninth installment of MK got under way. “Midway was in the process of collapsing. Teams were being dismantled and many people were losing their jobs. It wasn’t a fun time,” Ed Boon, MK’s cocreator and current director, recently told me via e-mail, as he prepared to release the new Mortal Kombat Tuesday 19.
Before MK debuted in 1992, Midway Games had been a major force in entertainment for decades. When I visited the company’s old Avondale headquarters several years ago with a UIC game-studies class, the walls were bedecked with ephemera from its pinball-machine and arcade-game heyday, when it licensed hits such as Pac-Man in the U.S.
But it’s MK that defines the company to this day. As angsty teenagers, my friends loved nothing more than to kick my ass in the unique outlet of deathmatch fighting, adding creative insult to injury with spine-ripping finishing moves rendered in state-of-the-art graphics. The fact that parents hated the game gave it automatic countercultural appeal. Still, after eight titles, several bad movie adaptations, the addition of DC Comics characters, ridiculous plotlines and an egregious "teen" rating (instead of "mature"), by summer 2009 the franchise needed a reboot.
New parent company Warner Brothers retained Midway’s local development team, renaming it NetherRealm Studios last year and building it a new Northwest Side office several blocks away from the old one. “This game’s development was done in the middle of chaos,” Boon admits. “When we finally moved to the new place, things were immediately better.” The studio’s throwback arcade, river views and proximity to Hot Doug’s presumably help.
The new game goes back to MK’s roots: While the characters are modeled in three dimensions, gameplay occurs in a traditional side-scrolling 2-D format. Because the game’s designers built on the existing Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe engine, they could focus on improving more than performance. “We really upgraded the graphical capabilities to allow for better detail and gore effects,” NetherRealm’s director of technology, Alan Villani, says. Thirty unique backgrounds feature distinctive technical elements: Light flickering through trees leaves lifelike shadows on the characters; birds and bugs make the game’s world feel alive. A muted, cinematic palette veers away from previous editions’ bright, cartoonish colors. “For this version, we wanted to dial down the campiness a bit and up the serious level,” Boon explains. “Not to the point [where] we have no humor, but we did want this game’s tone to match its dark and gritty visuals.”
NetherRealm hopes a new element outdoes MK’s grisly reputation. Art director Steve Beran elaborates, “ ‘X-ray mode’ is kind of like a mini Fatality. Once activated, devastating blows come down on the victim, [whose] skin pulls back to display a fully modeled muscular system…and the breaking of bones.” The Scorpion and Sub-Zero characters of the first three games—almost identical animations except for the colors of their garments—have come a long way.
Though Boon believes the game will resonate with new players, he expects nostalgia to draw in MK’s first fans. “It’s come full circle,” he says. “Many players remember when they first saw MK, and this new game has really tapped into their ‘warm and fuzzy’ memories. If you could call someone’s heart being ripped out ‘warm and fuzzy.’ ”