It has occasionally felt like a dirty secret that Mortal Kombat 9 was one of my favourite games of last year. But there it is. It hit just the right blend of punchy violence, imaginative special moves and accessibility, and it got me invested in the (silly) Mortal Kombat universe and its (ridiculous) characters all over again.
Today, the game will be re-released on Sony's handheld Vita. The Vita version is, essentially, a "game of the year" version of the 2011 console game -- every single feature and piece of downloadable content that was made available for the console versions is included in the portable version, with some new features added for good measure. The transition has been nearly seamless -- this game looks good, plays smoothly and offers an almost ridiculous amount of content.
For some in-depth thoughts on the original game, check out Michael McWhertor's review from last year. I feel similarly to Mike in most respects. The Vita version has all of the DLC characters that have been released for on consoles, with a grand total of 32 characters playable from the start. It also includes all of the outfits for each character and the original game's the crazy number of unlockables, which can be unlocked in the "Krypt" and viewed in the "Nekropolis."
(Allow me to say: As someone whose name begins and ends with a "K," I very much appreciate what the folks who made Mortal Kombat are doing with language.)
In addition to the 300-mission Challenge Tower from the 2011 game, the Vita version includes a "Bonus Challenge Tower" that contains another 150 challenges. There are a bunch of new Vita-specific challenges as well, including modes like the great Fruit Ninja riff that involves slicing severed heads with the touch-screen, or a challenge in which you use the Vita's gyroscope to tilt the battleground while fighting. It's all fun stuff.
The most pleasant surprise I found in the console version was the meaty single-player campaign. It takes players on a whirlwind tour of the plots of all of the past Mortal Kombat games, letting them hop into the boots (or high heels) of every main character from the game. Yet while doing this, it somehow manages to weave a (mostly) coherent story. The deliberately b-movie writing and cheesy voice-acting serve to make things more enjoyable, and the occasionally stiff tag-team challenges are fun and give you a real reason to learn each fighter's moves. All of that is included in the Vita version, and it runs just as smoothly as it did on consoles.
One of the joys of Mortal Kombat 9 was having a friend over, cracking some beers, and trading the controller off as we worked our way through the story or challenge tower. That isn't really possible in the Vita version, of course. That said, Mortal Kombat Vita does have multiplayer in the form of online matches just like its console counterpart, as well as ad-hoc wi-fi play for taking on other Vita-owners in the vicinity.
From a technical perspective, Mortal Kombat Vita performs quite respectably -- the combat moves at a locked framerate (the promotional materials claim 60 FPS, which seems about right), and the animations still impart that great feel of weight and fluidity that the console version had. Developer NetherRealm has put some serious elbow-grease into ensuring that this version runs well on the not-quite-PS3-powered Vita as it did on a PS3.
Mortal Kombat Vita makes two technical concessions -- first, there are loading screens between each of the menus that, while never long enough to really feel like a nuisance, still detract a bit. The other concession is larger -- the textures on the characters in matches have had a significant downgrade from the console version. Some characters like Liu Kang and Skorpion look damned ugly up close -- but when viewed from the side while fighting, they move so smoothly that I didn't really notice. (For example: The character models don't look nearly as good as they do in the launch trailer embedded here.)
But really, if that's what it took for NeatherRealm to get the game playing as smoothly as it does, then so be it. The graphical downgrade is mostly noticeable during the story mode, when the end of a fight smoothly transitions to your character saying a pithy one-liner before hopping into another cutscene. It's long enough for you to think "Ew!" before you forget about it. That said, the story mode still plays out without a single loading screen.
While the brutal X-ray attacks and bracing, snuff-film-like fatalities are all still in the game and intact, the lower-resolution graphics do take some of the "I can't believe I'm seeing this" factor away. The fatalities are the most iconic element of Mortal Kombat (a fact celebrated in the group-review I contributed to last year), and it's weirdly anticlimactic to see versions of them that can only be described as "portable-quality".
But neither the reduced graphics nor the diminished fatalities can detract all that much from Mortal Kombat Vita. The gameplay is all but identical to its console predecessor. It's a fleshed-out, feature-complete port of last year's game, made even more substantial additional game modes, challenges and unlockables. It contains hours upon hours of single-player gameplay alone, and I find myself wondering if I'll ever be able to see all of it.
When I was a kid, I was obsessed with Mortal Kombat on the Game Gear. The Vita rendition feels like a homecoming of sorts, the ultimate portable iteration of a fighting game franchise that's been in and out of all our lives with an unexpected frequency for more than 10 years now.
If my childhood self could see this version of the game, his head would probably explode in great gouts of blood and bone fragments. Which would be too bad, because he'd probably like this game a lot.