I’m sadder than anyone that schoolyard fighting isn’t the done thing anymore



Mortal Kombat Advance (2002)

It’s crazy to think about, but when I look back on my days in primary school (where kids would be roughly the ages of 8 to 13), I can remember there being a brawl in the schoolyard almost every day without fail. And it’d always be the same: we’d all be sitting about in the freezing cold in our respective groups, showing each other how to trigger Missingno. or comparing Simpsons pogs which briefly made a faddy reappearance in my town (my favourite was the vaguely sinister naked Bart Simpsons complete with shiny gold finish).

Then suddenly, from a far-flung part of the schoolyard, someone would take a joke too far or make a comment about the sexual profligacy of someone else’s mother and the punches would fly like confetti. Almost immediately, there’d be an almighty charge from every single one of the 300-strong school towards the scene of the action, all of us hoping that we’d catch a live view of a great punch, perhaps even the decisive blow. However, we’d all end up heartbroken as a teacher, previously and haplessly brushed aside, recomposes themselves and jumps into the middle of the fray to break things up, earning widespread boos as the ruddy-red-faced pugilists are brought to justice.

And let me remind you, this was every day almost without fail. Things got so belligerent in my school that I half-expected that I’d be the one having to go over the top by the time I moved on to secondary school. Call it base and primal, but you can imagine my disappointment when I made the step-up to a supposed secondary school of hard-knocks and saw maybe three fights in six years. Looked to me like the all-fart-no-fecal-matter brigade found their fighter’s spirit waning when threats of detention and suspension and expulsion loomed.

Talk about sacrificing your principles – when did the usual suspects ever kowtow to authority like that? At what point did they all retreat to the shadows and shirk schoolyard combat? If nothing else, it cruelly deprived us of a wonderful distraction in the schoolyard (by this time, terribly grainy porn and “funny” sound-effects including that toxic Crazy Frog on Sagem phones had become the dominant fads).

It was never voiced, but everybody missed that wonderful half-second when you’d spot a fight boiling over in some other part of the yard, before feeling your fight-or-flight hormone kick in as you scramble over to bag yourself a ringside seat. You’ve got to be nippy; after all, you’ve just eaten a deliciously carby fast-food “treat”, but you’re buggered if that’s going to stop you from seeing “Mad” Mick Murphy dispensing justice and issuing slaps.

If you’re lucky, you may even be pushed into the fray and get the chance to throw or receive a straightener or two yourself before it’s all over. The fisticuffs are cackhanded, clumsy and clunkfooted, no doubt. But it’s childish fighting, with bodies and limbs everywhere and people getting in each other’s way, and we all secretly love it.

That’s what fighting games should be all about, if you ask me. Tournament fighters? Who wants that? One on one, with fairness involved? Give me a hundred-strong melee any day. Mind you, I’ll say this for Mortal Kombat Advance: I’ve never played a fighter so realistic that even just going a few rounds with it made me feel like I’d had my head weaved into the canvas by Drederick Tatum, but this game has marvellously changed all that for me.

Mortal Kombat Advance is a Game Boy Advance port of Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3, a mid 1990s entry to the series that had simply lost far too much momentum to Street Fighter and was trying desperately to rectify matters.

Ignorant? Narrow-minded? Look, permit me to ask you all a question. Do any of you really enjoy Mortal Kombat that much? Now I’m talking, do you really enjoy it to the extent that one of its entries would be in your Top 5? It had a bit of a run with the whole blood issue of all things, in a time when soccer moms were still blissfully unaware of shooters and that there’d be games called Grand Theft Auto and Manhunt some day.

You’d never guess it by looking, but this was a very early game in the GBA’s life. To be fair, while it may possibly be the first shocking GBA port of a SNES game, it’ll certainly not prove be the last. To be fairer still, though, a tournament fighter should’ve been a pretty difficult thing to cock up. But some part-time team out there managed it.

There’s five different difficulty levels, but I’d clued myself in prior and read that this game is unassailably hard no matter what. So I choked whatever’s left of my pride down and went with the Easiest setting. I picked Scorpion for my tumultuous struggle to the top obviously, because for some reason Johnny Cage wasn’t available and Scorpion is the best of the perhaps two or three other Kombatants worth a damn.

In my very first fight, I was placed against what looked like a palette-swapped Scorpion. In fact, let me be clearer – I say “looked like a palette swap” but in actual fact he seemed to have exactly the same bumblebee motif as I had, so there was nothing to differentiate us, save for the fact that he was countering every one of my basic moves with ease and even started stringing some combos together, which I always thought the Mortal Kombat games shunned.

I lost, of course, and in most subsequent cases I was really losing badly. And this was even despite my time-honoured Mortal Kombat tactic of catching the opponent with the ridiculous uppercut that, when it connects, often prompts a cry of “Excellent!” from the series’ bloodthirsty commentator. But that still wasn’t enough, and I was getting chiefed time and time again by the game’s easiest foe.

But then I switched characters to Liu Kang and suddenly everything changed.

Suddenly, my newfound tactic of crouching and mashing A for all my miserable life was worth was beginning to pay dividends. The enemy Scorpion literally could not get near me, bar a few occasional stray punches which did little damage. Flustered, the AI Scorpion then spammed both his screen-warp move and the admittedly classic “GET OVER HERE!” harpoon in equal measures, while my guy kept throwing feather-duster strength kicks at breakneck speed. It was a lengthy, arduous process, but it was the best way I’d found of winning.

Cheap? Who gives a fig? The way I see it, with only two usable face-buttons on the GBA, special moves are fully out of the question in this effort, to say nothing of Fatalities. I haughtily brushed Scorpion aside, but not before he threw out this ridiculous looking KO animation where his lifeless body just fell backwards like a tree being felled (and at one stage, an opponent I’d knocked down stood back up only to keel over in the same limp fashion).

I went on to plough through about 17 palette-swaps of Scorpion and Sub-Zero. I was looking for more cool characters, but I didn’t really get any. At one stage I even overcame this real loser who was dressed up as a police officer and had stupid moves like stun-guns and baton smashes. Really?

If you happen to have a friend who’s equally as luckless as yourself, you can ruin their day by insisting that they join you in the game’s two-player mode. You’d do yourselves less long-term damage and probably have more fun by having an actual scrap. If you’ve shelled out good money for this clart however, I would have every sympathy for such players with the mutual need to get as much enjoyment, scant as it may be, out of the game as possible. Suffice to say, I know nobody with such a galling lack of taste that they’d have bought Mortal Kombat ten years after it was relevant, so I can’t exactly test it, but the mode is there for you.

Graphically, the fighters look their usual unfittingly real self, which means the backgrounds are left to suffer. Take a look at them under maximum brightness and contrast; I don’t think I’ve ever seen graphics so grainy. I’m moreorless a blind man, so when I wake up after a hard night’s drinking, the dusky maiden I’ve inevitably spent the night with looks a right state beside me – all blobs and pimples and zits and blotchy skin. But even these trollops look a bloody sight better than the stages in Mortal Kombat Advance, and that almost gives me hope. The game has to do a screen transition into some Fatalities, and probably for Babalities and Friendship merks as well – I’d know if either I or the Artificial “Intelligence” were able to pull them off.

As for the sound, there’s little for me to savage there. There’s music, but it hardly comes under scrutiny in a fighting game anyway – no chance of there being a rival to Guile’s Theme. It’s genuinely nice that there’s classic voices for each of the characters being selected, although the vastly repetitive grunts and robotic noises of the fighters can grate fairly quickly. Especially since the humans sound less like they’re emitting a cry of pain and more like they’ve just realised they’ve left their keys in the car, left the gas on or left their newborn baby on the bus.

I do vehemently think that any tournament fighter that isn’t old Street Fighter 2 is pretty much a sad waste of time and thus it certainly doesn’t suit me at all to be looking at a game like Mortal Kombat Advance. But when you get a game like this that gives an absolute fistful to its genre, its franchise, the console it’s on and most importantly its buyers, I simply have to sit up and take notice. Most don’t agree with my opinion, in fact I’d worry gravely for them if they did, but even the die-hard fans couldn’t say that I took liberties and stretched the truth like Monsieur Armstrong himself in this review. This game is an absolute con, on every level.

12 October 2014

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