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Mortal Kombat X: Is the video game too violent even for its fans?

04/13/2015 05:00 EDT | Updated 06/17/2015 09:59 EDT
Two warriors face off in a lethal duel. One, a ninja named Scorpion with cloudy grey eyes, uses his magical powers to shoot a fireball through his opponent's chest. It blows straight through the victim, the warrior princess Kitana, leaving a gaping hole in her chest.

Scorpion then takes a sword and slices her face off, which slides off with a sickening gurgling noise. Kitana's maimed body slumps to the ground, as her brain flops out of her bisected skull.

This is a scene from Mortal Kombat X, the latest fighting game from NetherRealm Studios, showing off its trademark "Fatalities."

It's nothing new for the series, which has been synonymous with over-the-top gore since the 1990s. But several critics and gamers have suggested the crystal-clear fidelity vividness of the Fatalities in the new instalment may be too much for them to stomach.

"It's taken two decades, but I think I've outgrown Mortal Kombat," wrote Kotaku UK's Ian Dransfield.

"Maybe I'm old, maybe it's the graphical fidelity that puts me off - there's a distinction between the blocky, pixellated, B-movie style spinal cords ripped out of the original Mortal Kombat and seeing someone's internal organs slapped in front of the camera in vivid detail."

When Chad Sapieha, a games critic for the National Post, first saw the clips of MKX's Fatalities, he said, "My jaw dropped, I cringed a little and then I kind of giggled at how outrageous they were." 

He said it wasn't unlike his reaction to the first Mortal Kombat decades ago, though.

"From the perspective of what's in good taste, Mortal Kombat went beyond the limit years ago, but that's always been the franchise's schtick."

Too much blood, not enough camp?

In many ways, Mortal Kombat X is doing what the series has always done, pushing the boundaries as advances in technology allow it to render more graphic violence. 

But the series has always mixed that with a dose of winking humour.

The first game, released in 1992, was supposed to be a tie-in to the Jean-Claude Van Damme movie Universal Soldier. The game's cocky movie star character, Johnny Cage, was originally modelled after Van Damme's appearance in Bloodsport (1988).

One only needs to watch Mortal Kombat's storyline mode, featuring a cast of wise-cracking commandos, ninjas and zombies, to see that the series hasn't lost its sense of fun.

Shaun Hatton, a Toronto-based video game and pop culture critic, remembers the first time he saw kids crowd around a Mortal Kombat arcade cabinet in the '90s.

"It was like playing one of those cheesy, dubbed Asian martial-arts movies, and it also had a healthy dose of Big Trouble in Little China influence sprinkled on top."

For Hatton, though, the pendulum has veered a little too far away from the camp and more towards the gore.

"I don't know that they're necessarily more violent, because ripping someone's heart out is still very violent whether you portray it in high graphical fidelity or low fidelity. But right now, with the amount of detail that people can put into these visuals, you start to realize how gross they actually are," he said.

"And for me, they stopped being funny or entertaining."

CBC News contacted Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment for this story, but no representatives from NetherRealm were made available for comment.

To Sapieha, whether or not you want to play should be determined by your personal limits. But he does praise the game's diverse cast, with characters of various ages, genders and races throwing down with equal ruthlessness.

"I see men and women and people of different races all getting diced up equally. There's no implied hate here towards a specific group, so there's no reason to jump on it from a moral perspective."

MK1 spurred creation of games ratings system

Back in the '90s, public outcry over Mortal Kombat and other games with mature content, such as the teen horror schlock fest Night Trap, prompted a U.S. Senate hearing on video game violence led by Senator Joe Lieberman.

In response to the criticism, the industry formed the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, the first ratings system for games in North America.

Mortal Kombat was the first high-profile game to receive an M for Mature rating, which restricts teens under 17 from buying it without the consent of a parent or guardian.

There's no denying the blood-soaked fisticuffs are a winning formula for its creators. With over a dozen sequels and spin-off games, it's sold more than 26 million copies worldwide, making it one of the most successful video game franchises of all time.

Mortal Kombat has also spawned several comic books, a live-action television series and two Hollywood movies.

Back in the mid-2000s, though, fighting games like Mortal Kombat and rival Street Fighter were waning in popularity. Midway, the studio behind the Mortal Kombat series, filed for bankruptcy in 2009.

The series was eventually resurrected by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, with series creator Ed Boon again at the helm, and re-christened NetherRealm Studios, named after the world inhabited by the series' demonic villains.

Flawless victory for Warner Bros.

However, the developers aren't relying solely on dismemberments to sell their game.

The last instalment, released in 2011, earned praise for its tighter and more responsive gameplay. Players had more options to fit their preferred playstyles.

It became the first MK game to be included at the Evolution Championship Series, the biggest competitive fighting game tournament in North America.

In short, while Mortal Kombat is becoming a gorier game, it's also becoming a better one from a technical standpoint, rivaling more skill-focused competitors such as Street Fighter and Tekken.

It's for this reason that Hatton is still looking forward to playing Mortal Kombat X. 

"I do love the game. I love the fighting component, and the techniques behind it, [even though] when it comes to the finishing moves, I'm a little bit squeamish about some of them."

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