Over on what most referred to as “the bad side of town,” there was a nearly-abandoned strip of shops, home to a sketchy-looking video rental store, an old laundromat, and one of the best Chinese food restaurants in the state of Georgia. Nestled between those businesses was a small structure with double doors made of glass, and if it weren’t for the faded sign limply hanging up top, no one would know that this place of commerce and entertainment was there, a sacred proving ground. Many wayward souls sought sanctuary here in the darkness and quiet of the bar or reached for glory in the cracking sound the ball makes as it strikes against a full set of pins, but for me, the real battles were waged in a small smoky backroom arcade.
The doors of the bowling alley opened up to a long flight of brown steps, leading patrons to an underground hideaway with no clocks or windows, making sure that the hours would simply fly by. In the back, down a short hallway with dim lights roared the sounds of the coin-op coliseum, where games like Altered Beast, X-Men, The Simpsons, and Turtles in Time blasted their audio effects over the struggling air conditioner. Over the chorus of change dropping in and attract modes, one cabinet stood out above the others. A new challenger had entered the fray, and it was brutalizing the competition.
It’s hard to explain to those that weren’t there how big Mortal Kombat II was. In a world before guaranteed video game sequels, where things could still be kept somewhat secret, and eager fans might not know exactly when the local haunt would get the new cabinets, this release felt huge. The game had a sizable marketing campaign with a superb live-action trailer, but I didn’t know it had been released until wandering into the bowling alley one faithful day and seeing everyone crowded around the same machine, waiting for a turn at the new hotness.
Excitement rushed through me, causing my hands to shake. I waited patiently in line, a sweaty palm holding the only three quarters I had to my name tightly. When it was finally my turn, I froze on the selection screen – so many new characters, they all looked enticing, but time ran out and I was playing as Jax whether I liked it or not. It was over too quickly. I landed a few hits in, I did his backbreaker by accident – that felt cool – but in a matter of moments the guy playing Kung Lao made short work of me while people yelled at him to try different inputs for new Fatalities. To the back of the line I went, with only two more chances to redeem myself, but I was smiling. The whole time I waited, I was thinking over the brief experience I had. It was worth it.
I was in love with MK2. The developers had done precisely what they promised: more characters, more blood, more moves, more secrets, and it dripped with this air of badassery. Even when I didn’t have any money to play the game, I would watch others, or hang around to try and read about the new story, even if I was unaware how deep the lore was about to go. It was hard to catch these little bits, or character profiles, because everyone just wanted to play.
What I did see was that this new tournament was being held in Outworld, which explained the motif for many of the vivid and mesmerizing stages. These areas looked excellent and helped set the tone, while the two new bosses felt incredibly threatening; Kintaro with his multiple arms and tiger stripes, but especially Shao Kahn, who showed off those vicious lightning-quick attacks and chided the player with that cruel and booming voice. It took me a while to recognize the returning Shang Tsung, as his youth had been restored and his clothes were quite different, but all of this added to my wonderment.?
Returning characters like Liu Kang, Johnny Cage, Raiden, Scorpion, and Sub-Zero (but as his younger brother) all looked great on the selection screen, while Reptile was promoted from secret fighter to full-on kombatant. I thought he was so cool, but it took me forever to get good with him. New secret characters Jade, Smoke, and Noob Saibot took his place, while a glitch made Kitana’s outfit look red sometimes and gave us the origins of Skarlet.
Fans seem to be weary of bringing in too many new fighters at once, but MK2 gave us iconic new warriors like Kung Lao, Kitana, Jax, Mileena, and Baraka. The only two participants missing it seemed were Kano and Sonya Blade, who could both be seen in the background of the arena as Kahn’s prisoners. Some accounts claim that they were cut because of a memory limitation and time, but they were also deemed the least popular characters picked in the original from the data the company collected, so the truth is probably a bit of both.
Everyone here is a legend of Mortal Kombat and almost all of them are wearing their most iconic costumes within the franchise. All of the selectable fighters feel more fleshed out as well, with several moves, additional personal and stage Fatalities, as well as the debut of Friendships and Babalities. These silly maneuvers seemed to be a response poking fun at the controversy surrounding the first Mortal Kombat. That joke might have been lost on some though, as a glitch also made it possible to attack one of the recently created babies in one version.
Playing MK2 feels excellent, as the expanded moves and tweaked combat make this an upgraded experience. It does, however, get ridiculously hard when playing against the computer, one could even go as far as to say it cheats. Not only is the tower punishing (even without Endurance fights), but they also decided to make players do 250 matches to unlock a round of Pong.
According to co-creator Ed Boon, the real challenge of MK2 was the amount of content the developers wanted to generate for the game. Beyond that, fans were likely to be more critical this time around, as the bar had been set, “All eyes were on us, whereas before, we kind of snuck up on everybody.” It turned out there was little to worry about, as MK2 was a financial and critical success. This undeniable force was more than just a game, as the merchandising showed that fans couldn’t get enough of the IP, and its influence is still hard to measure.
So many fans see MK2 as the true start of the franchise, the game that first comes to mind when someone mentions the words Mortal Kombat. It remains one of the greatest fighting games ever made and laid the groundwork for the series going forward. I will go out of my way every time we enter the local arcade bar to play at least one match on the machine there, even though the controls stick a good bit, and the screen has begun to fade. My friends and I still face off against each other in this classic virtual battleground, not just for nostalgia but because of how good it feels to be embraced by one of the best.