I have a real love/hate relationship with Mortal Kombat. I enjoyed both MKX and MK11 enough to put 80 hours into each of them, and yet my memories of them often involve why I got frustrated with both of them instead of why I had fun with them.

I tried to go into MK1 with an open mind, but I think I've settled on the conclusion that this game isn't for me. And that's fine. And it doesn't mean the game is bad, either! It’s certainly a gorgeous game, with a far more varied color palette than X or 11 ever had. And I’m glad the fatalities lean more into over-the-top absurdity this time rather than realistic depictions of torture, as the former was always the main appeal of Fatalities for me anyway. But I just can’t click with MK1’s combat system in the way others have.

If you've been following Fighting Game Community circles lately, you'll find that the topic du jour lately has been "player expression," or the idea that players should have freedom to play how they want instead of being limited to a single linear gameplan. But it feels like the common opinion these days is that longer combos means more opportunities for player expression, and….I don't exactly agree.

The argument in favor of MK1 is that longer combos compared to MK11 means more opportunities for improvisation, and yet if you play any ranked MK1, you'll find many players using the same assists (get ready to see Cyrax and Sareena a lot!!!!) with the same optimal combos. I think way too many people immediately blamed short combos for MK11's frustrating competitive play when I think the far bigger problems were the stale meta due to short-sighted balance changes and the inevitable mess that came from NRS changing their minds on allowing Custom Variations midway through the game's life cycle.

This doesn't mean I hate MK1's combo system, though. I admit that trying out combo strings in training and figuring out the best way to tie them together provides the same satisfaction one gets when building Legos into a cool starship. It's fun to see how a series of smaller combos along with kameo assists can come together into 40% damage. But being expected to do these kinds of combos in every match feels exhausting to me - I’d much rather focus on spacing and mindgames, but these combos are so important to the game that they take precedence. And while the mechanics are clearly borrowing a lot from “tag fighters” like Marvel vs Capcom, the slower pace of the matches means the chaotic, kinetic energy that makes a game like MvC3 so exciting isn’t really here.

Even people who dislike MK as a fighting game can admit that the games have always had a solid feature set, and while MK1 is no different, I feel like it’s less of a selling point now that its competition is finally catching up on the single player side. Outside of the story, there’s the usual ladders and the new Invasions mode, which is basically World of Light from Smash Bros. I’m sure some people will love the grindy nature of Invasions but I personally find it feels like busywork. But that’s a minor quibble, as anyone who has played a recent MK knows the main single player mode is the story.

The story mode has been the crown jewel of MK for a while, and 1's is no different. I genuinely enjoyed seeing the new spin on classic MK characters and lore; I'm glad Baraka and Reptile actually have solid backstories now instead of just being Shao Khan's lackeys (Reiko didn't get so lucky, unfortunately; sorry, Reiko fans!), and there's some really fun character moments like Johnny and Kenshi's hilarious bromance. My only real complaint is that the last few chapters feel like they came from another game; the story just kind of stops in service of an (admittedly entertaining) over the top fanservice climax. I hope the next story, whether it's dlc or in the next installment, is a little more cohesive and focuses more on having a satisfying beginning, middle and end instead of just a series of cool moments.

At the end of the day, I really can't say MK1 is bad. It's solidly made, looks great, and has plenty of winks and nods for longtime fans. It's just not what I want out of Mortal Kombat, and that's okay.

Reviewed on Oct 23, 2023