Guest Issue #07 – FlawlessVictory

Posted by FlawlessVictory on December 31st, 2005

The Best of the Boss or: is MK about to jump the shark?

It’s the common sense rule of thumb in video game design: start easy, finish hard. For fighting games, this principle almost always manifests itself in the inclusion of one or more bosses: those entities who (supposedly) possess some trait that sets them apart. The inherent problems of character design for bosses are essentially to establish credibility, and if need be, maintain a logical hierarchy.

When dealing with a franchise like Mortal Kombat, that need for a hierarchy among bosses is well demonstrated. The underlying question, however, is how long the team at Midway can keep its hierarchy intact. What follows is a review of the bosses and sub-bosses that appeared as Mortal Kombat originally progressed.

Let Mortal Kombat Begin

The premise of the original game was humble enough. Warriors from Earthrealm competed in a tournament to preserve their livelihood, and their lives. The boss, Shang Tsung, was just an old sorcerer. Sure, he could morph into any of the regular kombatants, but that really wasn’t too much of a strategic advantage. The sub-boss, Goro, was arguably the main attraction. After all, he was credited as being the champion at this point in time, and his four-armed hulking body was far more intimidating. Plus, interestingly enough, you should have been caught off guard the first time you fought him: rather than cutting back to the game’s progression ladder, Goro jumped down immediately after the last endurance round.

Which brings me to exception number one: to a certain extent, the endurance matches were really the toughest in the game. The artificial intelligence may not have been the highest, but when you have only half of the life bar that your opponents do, you have your work cut out for you. At some point in time, you learn the weaknesses of the AI, but in the endurance rounds you’re always at the disadvantage.

The other, and last exception is the hidden characters. These entities always have the highest AI when non-playable, and only for the sake of mercy is their defeat not required to “beat” the game. The first of these was of course, Reptile, the personal protector for Shang Tsung. Regardless of the fact that he was not available in all versions, he earns the top spot for most difficult opponent.

Thus, even in the first entry of the series, Mortal Kombat has had a considerably atypical hierarchy amid its bosses. Thankfully, its sequels help to correct this oddity.

The Kombat Kontinues

MK II gave us a slew of hidden characters: Smoke, Noob Saibot, and the lovely Jade. Which one was the toughest is hard to say, but Jade by far was the hardest to even access at all. Setting that aside, however, we’re introduced to completely new bosses, unless you count Shang Tsung as a sub-sub-boss. Granted, Kintaro isn’t completely new. He’s yet another Shokan, but with a different backstory and a different look, primarily thanks to his tiger stripes. This time around, though, the sub-boss doesn’t steal the thunder from the true boss, Shao Kahn. The emperor himself displays a fair amount of physical superiority in stature, and sports unique attacks that make him a far more formidable opponent than the likes of old Shang Tsung.

As we move to MK3 the threat to Earth is much more apparent, but the boss is basically the same. Motaro takes the reigns in the sub-boss position, and intimidation remains the theme. Even if you chose to play as the Shokan, Sheeva, this Centaur would tower over you and chiefly fight with an assortment of powerful, one-hit moves.

Conversely, MK4 presented an old sub-boss and a new boss. Goro returned, literally with a vengeance against Liu Kang. The real story, though, revolved around Shinnok. To top the threat of a mere mortal like Shao Kahn, Boon and company unleashed a fallen elder god to vie for control of Earth. Unfortunately, Shinnok did not pose much of a challenge in the game, and the plot failed to thicken as the franchise went into hiatus.

A Turn of Events

Deadly Alliance, it seems, reaped the benefits of rest and relaxation, and brought Mortal Kombat back with fresh ideas. How do you top the threat of a fallen God? With an entire immortal army, of course! The combined sorcery of Shang Tsung and Quan Chi was proposed as the only means by which such an army could be revived, and an alliance was born. Gone is the notion that there is one definitive boss, and in MK:DA you must instead defeat the two sorcerers in random order.

And that’s not all that changed. This time around a new menace gets unleashed from hell to fill the duty of sub-boss. Moloch, ball-and-chain in hand, has a score to settle with Quan Chi, and somehow winds up in the possession of Shang Tsung. Odd as his story may be, Moloch crosses paths with another popular character and helps breath new life into part of the future plot.

Finally, we come to Deception. The popular conflict involving this, that, or the other’s conquest of Earth is abandoned and now all existence is at stake. Again we see the converse of the last installment, as we now contend with two sub-bosses and one boss. Noob Saibot has recruited Smoke to do his bidding, which allegedly is to form a dominant clan of assassins. How the two fit in as a sub-boss remains to be seen, but nevertheless, that is how they appear in a new tag-team format.

Meanwhile, Onaga, or the Dragon King, weighs in as the biggest incarnation of an MK boss. Unlike the half-dragon Shokan, he’s supposedly a full dragon, or at least as much of a dragon as one can become using Reptile’s body.

My Point

Whether you’re more afraid of four arms, four legs, flesh-eating demons, or winged dragons, the general approach to bosses in Mortal Kombat has been bigger and stronger. Where the plot is concerned, MK has managed to up the ante a little with every release, but how long can that last? Is there really a bigger threat than some monster trying to unmake all existence? Development staff have worked hard to keep the MK storyline within one generation, recycling and reinventing popular characters, as well as permanently killing very few of them, but the cost is that the tournament backstory must fall to the wayside and continually be circumvented.

Barring that some critics would say MK jumped the shark long ago, it is all too much of a reality that our beloved game cannot keep outdoing its self. Perhaps the introduction of new realms will open up some new possibilities. Regardless, I hope that we, the MK fan community, are prepared to support the franchise should it decide to go unconventional new directions. Particularly in our case, that direction most likely will be downhill in terms of story. At some point, an even bigger boss is just going to look stupid, and you have to admit that the scope of the conflict simply cannot get any bigger than it has with the Kamidogu.

So where will MK turn? We’ve been stuck in a “one boss for all” scenario long enough. A shift in focus from an all-encompassing story to individualized character stories could help keep the story from becoming repetitive. Then again, MK may try to break out of the box that assumes the only way to increase difficulty is to have a character with higher AI or more powerful moves. It has been said by many that Deadly Alliance should have ended with some form of endurance or tag-team match. There are plenty of ways to create a climatic battle that isn’t simply one-on-one.

At times, the character design for bosses has been clever. Other times, it fails to impress. Continuing the trend of oversized creatures bent on total domination is a quick way to run the franchise into the ground. Hopefully, we’ll see more unique ideas like the Deadly Alliance. They won’t all necessarily be flawless ideas, but you can’t win if you don’t play the game. Whether you realize it or not, Mortal Kombat is at a critical moment concerning its future. It may jump the shark if it’s not careful.