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Friday, April 23, 2021

‘Mortal Kombat: Deception’: The Under-the-Radar Ambition of a Stalling Franchise

Mortal Kombat was once among the hottest and most controversial commodities in the video game community and for how much the franchise has grown since its inception, the implications surrounding its roots feel forever understated. A large percentage of video game fans have likely heard of and/or experienced the period in which the ultra-violent fighter helped usher in the birth of the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) back in 1994 as a response to the game’s bloody content.

Though some may bemoan the game as one of the unlucky ones that inspired a rating system designed to limit the access of explicit games to minors, the controversy created cash, as the famous saying goes. The 1990s belonged to games like Mortal Kombat that seemed almost desperate to distance itself from the 1980s and create something that felt fresh and “in the now.” The rating system proved to not even dent the games’ success, especially if 4-year-old me was able to play Mortal Kombat: Trilogy thanks to my generous parents.

But cheesy one-liners and a near-constant barrage of blood and guts can only feel cool and edgy for so long and before the new millennia came, so did a swarm of fighting games that aimed to make their own respective marks in history. Tekken, Street Fighter, Virtua Fighter, Marvel vs. Capcom, Killer Instinct, Fatal Fury, and the many MK clones that wanted to capitalize on its hyper-violent style had all came in and offered respectively different experiences. Even during the initial hot run of MK, other fighting games strived to raise the bar while the former stuck true to the appeal of carnage.

But the signs of MK’s appeals wearing thin were becoming more and more obvious, especially with the lackluster release of Mortal Kombat 4 in 1997, which finally delved into the 3D realm with mixed results. Positive strides were made in improving gameplay with more complex combos, but the game still felt years behind despite coming out in the same year as Tekken 3, another 3D fighter that is now seen as a cornerstone of fighting games decades later. Whatever positives MK 4 had was overshadowed by its inability to change.

By 2002, MK made the jump to the next generation with Deadly Alliance and by then, 3D gameplay had evolved to the point where the MK team was finally able to capture the magic they had initially intended for 4. The fighting mechanics felt robust and fun and the introduction of the adventure mode, Konquest, felt like an attempt to showcase that MK had more to offer than just cool fatalities. It was mostly subjected to the structure of the Tower mode, but it wasn’t nothing.

MK wanted everyone to know that it wasn’t content on just being that “bloody fighting game” anymore. Steps to achieve this was the decision to kill off Liu Kang, the game’s main protagonist up to that point, in the game’s intro. It was undoubtedly more to shock than anything else, but this was a sign that the franchise could indeed be open to change when need be. It felt…fresh!

Yet there always seemed to be something missing here. 

The games themselves sold well enough (Deadly Alliance being one of the biggest sellers at the time) and it was clear that MK was far from irrelevancy during this era. Still, the initial shock-and-awe that the franchise inspired felt lost by then; the franchise known for cool ultra-violence felt stuck in the past even with attempts to innovate the sequels. Once the violence became repetitive, what else was there to come back to? Should we even be taking this franchise seriously at this point?

These were questions that creator Ed Boon and colleagues saw fit to answer with Mortal Kombat: Deception, the sequel to DA released in 2004-05. Deception was a game that Boon intended on being “an unpredictable fighting game that gave players new features that they could never imagine.” Expectations likely soared after these comments, as Mortal Kombat finally seemed destined to switch things up after nearly a decade of playing exclusively in its wheelhouse. Could the franchise expand with Deception?

The death of Liu Kang was only the beginning of serious changeups to the franchise and Deception continued that concept with its opening cinematic. Deadly Alliance mainly focused on the warriors of Earthrealm as they sought to defeat villains Shang Tsung and Quan Chi, avenging Liu Kang in the process. Deception’s opening reveals that Earthrealm had almost completely failed in their mission, with the bodies of several of the key franchise players sprawled throughout the steps of a temple.

Legacy characters like Johnny Cage, Kitana, Sonya Blade, Kung Lao, and Jax Briggs had all been killed off-screen, with Raiden being the only defender left to battle the two sorcerers. This wasn’t simply for the cinematic either; everyone except Raiden was not a playable character for the rest of the game. There are small moments where you can play as or against them in Konquest mode, but the game treated the characters as genuinely deceased. Jax and Kitana would get added in the PSP port of the game, but the majority of the franchise’s protagonists would stay absent until the next game.

Oh and Liu Kang was playable again! Except this version of the franchise player was a literal undead corpse, neck rotting away from the wound that killed him in the first place. Though his spirit lives on to help in the fight against evil, his body is resurrected and he is left a shell of the noble warrior he was for the past 5 games. Almost all of this is established in the opening cinematic alone, barraging the player with the idea of Deception being unlike any other Mortal Kombat game they had played thus far. Inklings of this concept were introduced in Deadly Alliance, but Deception built on it.

Deception introduced 9 new characters and brought back some older favorites like Mileena, Baraka, and Nightwolf, with the final roster being a nice mix-up of classic and new characters. Mortal Kombat X would follow in its footsteps years later after the tragic events of MK 9 (don’t piss off Sindel, am I right?), but even that game allowed us to play most of the original cast, dead or alive. But Deception took a huge risk shelving the majority of the originals and changing up the few that survived to be different versions of how we knew them.

The grim lore extended beyond window dressing, bleeding over into the actual gameplay and establishing a new tone significantly darker than the previous games. Most of the OG trilogy’s penchant for dark slapstick humor was replaced with a heavy emphasis on the fighting mechanics, built on the foundation set by Deadly Alliance. There was less time to marvel at the gnarly blood and gore (though it was there in abundance for sure) when the fights encouraged players to pin their focus on self-improvement within the game itself. 

Deception employed this attitude with the inclusion of a then-revolutionary mode for fighting games: online. The internet was rapidly becoming a growing force in the world by 2004, so the MK team sought to take advantage by letting players, extroverted or introverted, play matches against real people online. For someone like me who didn’t have the luxuries of internet until later in the decade, I could only enjoy the mode if I stayed at my cousin’s place, but it still felt like one of the coolest things I had ever experienced in a fighting game. I lost almost every match online, but I still got the opportunity to try, along with the millions of people that bought Deception.

Deception didn’t skimp out on the fatalities either; in fact, they were increased to two after time constraints limited them to 1 per character in DA. But the game distanced itself from the pulpy atmosphere of before and this was evident in the fatalities themselves being considerably less goofy, amping up the brutality with a mostly straight face (unless you were playing Bo’ Rai Cho). Deception was not content with maintaining the shocking tone of the 1990s and it led to a system that was potentially alienating for longtime fans who were accustomed to the franchise’s trademark campiness. 

Deception’s minigames offered its own type of campiness with the introduction of Chess Kombat, a chess game with the pieces being replaced by the game’s characters, and Puzzle Kombat, a falling block arcade game that ends in a bloody finale for whoever loses. Each mode offered an experience unique to the world of Mortal Kombat and though the minigames themselves simply served as a break from the core action, their implementation pointed to a franchise that was not afraid to toss out left-field ideas for a fighting game, akin to something like Tekken Ball in Tekken 3.

Arguably the biggest change in formula was spearheaded by the updated Konquest mode. The opening cinematic I mentioned saw Raiden, Shang Tsung, and Quan Chi band together when the arrival of a new big baddie, Onaga, threatens to destroy them all and despite their best efforts (with a triple beam attack that still goes hard today), the Dragon King bests them. But the end of the cinematic presents a silhouette surrounded by flames explaining that only he can stop Onaga’s reign of terror. A new hero?

Konquest Mode introduces us to the silhouette 40 years in the past: a young man by the name of Shujinko. Hailing from Earthrealm, his dream is to become a great warrior with the desire of defending his world in the next Mortal Kombat tournament. He comes under the tutelage of Bo’ Rai Cho to train himself until a glowing ball of spirit named Damashi comes to him for the purpose of bringing together 6 sacred artifacts called the Kamidogu. Ever impressionable, Shujinko sets out on this quest.

The previous game had a Konquest mode that was more of an adventure-type game and it still only loosely told the canon story of the game. But Deception’s version branched out into a full-fledged RPG that included a complete narrative surrounding the origins of the franchise’s next protagonist. Mortal Kombat had experimented with a story mode before, but Deception can be considered the first with an official story mode that was canon to the series and every game following this one would include their own story modes in the process.

The mode was not without its faults, namely in the voice acting department and the fact that Shujinko himself was not exactly an interesting protagonist. But Konquest made up for those faults through its surprisingly large open-world, filled to the brim with secrets and the ability to come across many characters from the franchise. It’s here where you had the chance to potentially play as any one of the deceased heroes from the previous game since Shujinko himself had little presence in the Konquest fights, resorting to him copying other fighters’ movesets (literally transforming into them).

Konquest Mode, above all else, gave Mortal Kombat the opportunity to generally materialize the extensive lore that had built up over the past decade in what was essentially a showcase mode. Mortal Kombat’s world felt like a genuine reality for the first time in the series and it helped develop a stronger connection to the crazy world the franchise lived in. Exposition dumps would still continue for the series, but Konquest, and Deception as a whole, was the first to show us its world in the extensive detail that would build in the sequels.

Deception is in a strange place in the world of Mortal Kombat, coming after the success of Deadly Alliance and before Armageddon would close the PS2/Xbox era as the “end all be all” of the series. It’s a stretch to call the game “underrated” in that sense, but it still doesn’t seem to receive the credit it deserves for continuing in the direction of Deadly Alliance and making moves that were considered incredibly risky in its time.

A serious tone, the implementation of online, minigames that were out-of-the-box for a Mortal Kombat title, a story mode that ran the risk of overstaying its welcome for players who weren’t as used to story-heavy elements in the series, and the introduction of a slew of new fighters in place of popular mainstays all helped define Deception as an attempt to break the formula that stagnated by the late 90s. The series was still the beloved gore bath that fans had come to know and love, but it was clear that a change was needed in order to survive as a franchise.

As of this writing, the series is still going strong, what with Mortal Kombat 11 and the new live-action film adaptation keeping Mortal Kombat in the news. The PS4/Xbox One era is now entering the next generation and while the plans for Netherrealm Studios are unclear at this point, it’s safe to say that there appears to be no end in sight for the legendary fighter that has now joined established fighting franchises like Street Fighter, Dragonball FighterZ, and Tekken as mainstays in the Fighting Game Community.

But Deception (and Deadly Alliance as well, to be frank) and its contributions to the franchise cannot be overstated. In many eyes, the game serves as a blueprint for what the modern games would strive to be. Even if the games moved away from 3D fighting, the core is still there, though the series has done well to recapture the campiness of the early games. For as much love as the original trilogy receives to this day, it’s only fitting that a quietly influential title like Deception can one day be on the receiving end as well.


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