In movies, books, and even music, sequels are never as great as their originals. Iron Man 1 is superior to 2 and 3. The Hunger Games novel is far superior to Mockingjay.

No one would ever dispute that The Blueprint is superior to The Blueprint 2 or 3. Sequels can have bigger budgets, bigger hype, and bigger talent, but none of that matters. Bottom line, sequels lack the excitement that comes from breaking new ground and pushing audiences out of their comfort zones.

Video game sequels, however, are the exception. The best game developers relish sequels—they are opportunities to incorporate new technology, expand a game’s world, and correct mistakes or oversights. Compare: Sonic the Hedgehog versus Sonic the Hedgehog 2; Uncharted versus Uncharted 2; Super Smash Bros. versus Super Smash Melee. These are video game sequels that not only equal their predecessors; they improve upon them. Today on Throwback Thursday, we’re going to be talking about a classic video game sequel—Mortal Kombat II. Mortal Kombat was the ground-breaker, but Mortal Kombat II added fighting depth and variety, ensuring that the franchise would endure—and flourish—for years to come.

My first exposure to the Mortal Kombat franchise was when I was nine years old—there were several arcade machines outside the local movie theater. I loved watching the older kids play the fighting games—arcade cabinets like Fatal Fury and Street Fighter II. In these games, no matter how bad the beating, no character seemed like he/she was really getting hurt—perhaps knocked out at the very worst. They had a cartoon look to them, with soft coloring and exaggerated facial expressions, and it let the player know that no matter how violent the fight, it was ‘only a game.’

On this particular day, however, I saw the Mortal Kombat arcade, and I remember being shocked—by the pools of blood spilling on the ground, by the photo-realistic rendering of the fighters, and by the screams of pain during a Fatality. Here was a fighting game with a dark edge—it was not enough to merely defeat your opponent. You had to kill him, and do so in the most demeaning manner possible.

The original Mortal Kombat may have been groundbreaking, but objectively speaking, it was not a very good game. It was the work of a developer who was overly concerned with one aspect (the visual presentation) over another, equally important aspect (the gameplay itself). The fighters’ basic moves had little variety from one another, and their animations were choppy and stilted. Compared to Street Fighter II, Mortal Kombat lacked depth. You got what you saw, and that didn’t bode well for the game’s replay value. 

Mortal Kombat II corrected every flaw in Mortal Kombat. First, the visuals were better. The fighters’ animations were fluid and more realistic, and even the background art was phenomenal. In the Living Forest, the trees scowl, moan, and sneer. In the Pit II, you can see another fight taking place in the far distance. These small details rewarded an observant player, and they gave the Mortal Kombat universe a sense of mystery and expansiveness.

The developers improved the combat system significantly. You now had 12 playable characters to select from instead of seven, and those characters were extremely varied—in quickness, in range, in strength, and in special moves. Jax, for example, had five unique special moves—all of them were useful, and each served a specific, contextual purpose. My personal favorite was the backbreaker—by pressing block in midair, Jax would grab his opponent, and slam him/her on his shoulder. The move had extremely high priority, and it was an excellent deterrent to airborne opponents, such as Mileena and Kitana.

No Mortal Kombat game would be complete without its Finishing Moves, and Mortal Kombat II had the best ones of the franchise. Who knew that there were so many ways to decapitate, dismember, burn, and explode one’s opponents? There were Stage Fatalities—you could knock your opponent into an Acid Pit, or uppercut him into a spiked ceiling. Every character also had at least two unique Fatalities —Shang Tsung had three.

My favorite Fatality was Shang Tsung’s ‘Kintaro Fatality.’ By holding Low Punch for an entire round, Shang would turn into a four-armed behemoth, and rip off his opponent’s torso. It was brutal, yet satisfying. My next favorite was Kung Lao’s ‘Siamese Cut,’ which would split an opponent in half vertically, instead of horizontally.

There were also Babalities and Friendships. Mortal Kombat’s gore was a nationwide concern for pearl clutching, moral arbiters, and the game developers devised a tongue-in-cheek, trolling retort. Press the correct buttons, and Liu Kang would turn his opponent into a baby, or do a disco dance for his opponent. Kitana would make a birthday cake. Kung Lao would pull a rabbit out of his hat. It was self-aware, deliberately lame, and always hilarious.

And of course, there were the hidden characters—Jade, Smoke, and Noob Saibot—who were hiding out in Goro’s lair. The steps to access them were convoluted and appropriately mysterious. To fight Smoke, for example, you had to be on the Portal Stage. Then, when developer Dan Forden’s face appeared in the lower right hand corner and yelled, “TOASTY!” you held Down and pressed Start. Jade, Smoke and Noob were blindingly fast and excessively cheap—I was never able to beat any of them.

Today, we remember Mortal Kombat II for its anarchic spirit—the game was endlessly intriguing and weird, and it had an uneasy atmosphere—anything could happen at any given moment. Critics derided Mortal Kombat as meaningless shock value, but its sequel proved those naysayers wrong.

Mortal Kombat II was a Flawless Victory—irreverent, hilarious, and horrific in equal measures.

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