Ultimate Mortal Kombat – DS
Platform: Nintendo DS
Release Date (NA): November 12th, 2007
Developer: Other Ocean Interactive
Publisher: Midway (?)
Nerd Rating: 6.5 out of 10
I haven’t talked about it much here at Nerd Bacon, but I’ve been a collector of Mortal Kombat games even longer than I’ve been a collector of video games in general. Now I’ve never really made a concentrated effort to hunt down unusual ports for the Saturn or other odd but otherwise equal releases, but I have gathered up every major installment in the franchise and continue to pick up the occasional odds and ends when I run across them. My obtainment of Ultimate Mortal Kombat happened in much the same manner.
In the past, handheld versions of Mortal Kombat have often differed significantly from their console counterparts, due primarily to space limitations, but by the days of the DS, this was becoming much less of a concern. However, Ultimate Mortal Kombat was intended not as a portable version of a console release, but as an updated re-release of the famed Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3. UMK3 was an arcade mainstay during its time and remains a revered entry in the series. (Who remember Rain’s first appearance in attract mode!?) For reasons unknown, UMK3 suffered a strange mutation by the time it hit 16-bit consoles. We now had Rain and Noob Saibot as playable characters, however, some of the MK3 stages were missing. Bosses were playable via code, but Sheeva was outright excluded. Brutalities were added, but many of the new characters’ fatalities were downright pathetic (and don’t even get me started on the animality discrepancies). We had a lot of cool stuff that was never in the arcade version, yet simple flourishes such as sound bytes from the arcade version were outright missing.
So at the time, what we had was in some ways better than the arcade UMK3 but also worse than the arcade UMK3. Either way, it wasn’t quite the UMK3 that arcade goers were familiar with. I guess it took 10 years for someone to realize it, but nevertheless, we’re finally given an arcade-perfect port of Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 for the Nintendo DS, now known as simply Ultimate Mortal Kombat. This will probably feel like a step backwards for anyone familiar with the 16-bit versions of UMK3, but in a way I sort of enjoy having this “purer” version at my disposal. For one, it more clearly illustrates the progression of MK3 to Mortal Kombat Trilogy, whereas home versions of UMK3 essentially spoiled all of the surprises of MKT while cutting corners at the same time. So how does the game itself stack up?
For starters, UMK is likely to feel dated by some, but since the goal was an arcade-perfect translation, I can’t fault it for that. Considering the era, it plays exactly like it should. Special moves, fatalities, and versus screen codes are all intact. Anything that you remember from the arcade game (and likely some features of the home releases) is preserved in UMK. I thought that playing on the small screen of my 3DS would be unpleasant, but it’s not at all. From a hardware perspective, the only issue I had was the placement of the D-pad. I was unable to use the circle pad when it came to special moves and the like and was forced to use the D-pad; however, its placement makes for a slightly awkward grip on the unit that can get uncomfortable after a while. (Note that this wouldn’t actually be an issue were I playing on a pre-3DS model, as the game was designed for.)
One of the standout features of UMK3 was the improvement in graphics. MK3 took the series through its first major leap, but UMK3 took much of this imagery and made it sharper and clearer. I felt that much of this newfound crispness had been lost by the time UMK3 made it to home consoles, but luckily, the DS is unencumbered by data of this size and does a decent job of replicating the extra “oomph” that the arcade imparted.
The DS also allows for some enhancements unavailable in the original, namely the creation of a profile. Having a profile tracks wins, losses, and other stats, and perhaps most conveniently, permanently saves the unlocking of the game’s 3 hidden characters. However, I had hoped that other bugs and annoyances would be patched up, yet some of these issues remain. For instance, the sweep distance is absolutely ridiculous when the opponent’s arm is extended; it’s almost as if a sweep anywhere under the arm will cause the player to drop, regardless of whether the sweep actually makes contact with the other player’s foot/feet. The AI makes constant use of tiny flaws like this to gain the upper hand, leading me to my next complaint, the difficulty. Even though it’s supposed to be “arcade-perfect,” you’d think they’d allow for some flexibility with the difficulty…not here. I suppose the challenge towers are as close as we get, though I always saw these more as a “how many people do you want to fight” rather than a gauge of the AI’s skill level. The best I can figure, they do actually have some correlation with the computer’s skill, though the AI is still a 100% purebred bona fide asskicker on the shortest ladder. Arcade games are (usually) intentionally set to a high difficulty via their DIP switches, and this I understand – $$$. But do I really need to have my ass handed to me every time I attempt to teleport or even jump for that matter on my DS? No. UMK is hard, way hard, any way you slice it.
Like any good fighting game, Ultimate Mortal Kombat allows for 2-player “kombat,” albeit this tends to be rarer on handhelds. Unfortunately, I’ve never had the opportunity to test UMK’s online or local multiplayer, so I can’t directly comment on it, though I assume it functions as seamlessly as the same feature in similar games.
“Puzzle Kombat” is a secondary mode offered as a way to stretch the DS card a little further. It’s a Tetris-like environment where players “play as” miniaturized versions of Mortal Kombat characters (although the characters have their post-MK4 looks, not their UMK3 renders) and generally follows the trend laid out by other recent MK games with puzzle game inclusions. “Puzzle Kombat” is a competent game, but I’ve never fully understood why these made it onto MK titles. Fighting games never really get me in the mood for competition puzzlers, and it’s not a unique enough puzzle game on its own for me to pick up and play for its own sake.
So where does all of it leave us? Well, as an arcade-perfect port, it works great. If you’re interested in replicating that same soul-crushing feeling of defeat, this is probably your best alternative short of an original cabinet. However, I am of the opinion that media should not be replicated indiscriminately, and as such, a remake or re-release should include improvements, supplements, or something additional. And in that regard, UMK fails. Yes, it’s UMK3, but that’s about all it is. We could’ve been given all sorts of new things like concept art, commercials, improved AI, access to virtual DIP switch settings, and so many other cool features to give audiences a hearty arcade-level experience.
Rarely have the “older games” been touched on since 2002’s release of Deadly Alliance, and I think the powers that be missed a golden opportunity here to provide not only a retro experience, but a worthy tribute to a past era. As (what I like to call) the “third generation” of Mortal Kombat† goes into its second installment next year, thoughtful glances at past games seem more and more unlikely. I’m glad Ultimate Mortal Kombat exists, I just wish it gave both older and newer fans a little more to take in. Fans of earlier games will enjoy it, though they may struggle with having nothing new to added to the original game. Newer fans may find the older aesthetic appealing, but may also find themselves quickly alienated by the insane difficulty and lack of options. All told, UMK will probably only appeal to a niche group of fans and completists; casual players may want to steer clear unless you missed out on the older games and are interested in a glimpse into the past.
Reviewed by The Cubist
† Personally I like to group the major stylistic changes of the series into 3 distinct eras – the original up through MKT is the “first generation,” Deadly Alliance through Armageddon marks the second, and the latest reboot kicks off the third. As for MK4…well, it’s just in a corner by itself.
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