Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Mario Kart 8 (Nintendo, 2014)

Mario Kart 8 Cover Image
I was leading all the way into the final turn. Cruising, even. Then I got hit by a Blue Shell, a Red Shell, another shell. I finished 7th.

Not only did I get hit by a Lightning Bolt, but it zapped me mid-jump, so I also fell into the pit. #ItHappenedToMe

Got hit right _before_ a jump. Didn't have momentum to make the jump, so I fell into the gap. #YouAreNotAlone

Finally, a break. They give me Crazy 8. Before I can use it, Shy Guy rams into me and I explode. He set off my Bob-omb. #ItDoesNotGetBetter

Game hands me Triple Mushrooms on Rainbow Road. What am I supposed to do with these? Can’t even dump them. #TakeBackTheseMushrooms

I had the Golden Mushroom, so I figured I’d cut through the rough. Lightning zapped me and left me stranded in it. #YesAllMarioKartPlayers

Lakitu fished me out of the water. Before I could even start driving, another Lakitu dumped Donkey Kong on top of me. I was Toad. #IWasToad.

The coin was really a banana peel. #NeedGlasses

Mario Kart remains frustrating as ever. The above is a fair representation of the running commentary from my siblings and I, every time we sit down and play the Grand Prix mode against the CPU in Mario Kart 8. If someone were to record the audio, transcribe it, and then have strangers read it back in solemn voices, I imagine it would sound something like the therapeutic sharing that goes on in a support group meeting.

More than any of its other series, Mario Kart exemplifies both the positive and the negative to Nintendo’s iterative design. The games are consistently excellent yet rarely surprising. The latest, Mario Kart 8 for the Wii U, is the first in HD, and, at least visually, it sparkles brilliantly.

Many of the tracks actually play up the sport of kart racing as some sort of arena spectacle, which recalls for me the podracing sequence from Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. I also see it as carrying on the legacy and glossy sheen of F-Zero, Nintendo’s other racing series, which was last seen in action two console generations ago.

The similarities to F-Zero, specifically the 3-D installments, F-Zero X (1998) and F-Zero GX (2003), extend beyond the visuals, as Mario Kart 8 features a number of vertically winding tracks, with sections that will have players racing along slanted roads or even fully perpendicular to the horizon. There are even anti-gravity segments, which feature the most notable new mechanic.

Vaguely reminiscent of Burnout, making contact with another kart while in anti-gravity mode will result in both racers getting an immediate speed boost. Factoring in also that the anti-gravity sections are very often the parts of the track without railings, the high speed and the feeling of danger during these segments provide for the game’s wildest, most exhilarating moments.

Quite a number of Mario Kart 8’s original courses are staged in the sky, the better to showcase the expanded vertical component. But the most original course is surely Mount Wario, the final track of the Star Cup. Mount Wario is not a circuit with laps, but rather is raced continuously down a snow-covered mountain. Not entirely an original concept (but new to Mario Kart), it resembles an SSX downhill course, cramming in as many elements as feasible—ramps to trick off, midair targets to hit, cave and forest areas, moguls and slalom sections—in rapid succession to create the most seamlessly varied experience in Mario Kart 8.

Mario Kart 8 includes more playable characters than ever before to toy around with, including nine "brand new" racers. But, seriously, who wanted all the Koopalings, let alone such complete oddball unlockables as—SPOILER—Baby Rosalina and Pink Gold Peach, especially while favorites like Birdo and Boo are MIA? One thing I appreciated in Mario Kart DS, my favorite entry, was that almost every racer had unique stats, so you might play around with all of them just to get a different experience (and because Mission Mode forced you to use everyone). In Mario Kart 8, why would I ever use Larry, if his stats are just the same as Toad, Koopa, and Shy Guy, all of whom are much cooler characters?

For all the bells and whistles, the experience of playing Mario Kart 8 is altogether familiar. The meat of the game is the Grand Prix. You can still try to beat the staff ghosts in Time Trial mode, and Balloon Battle also returns, although it's very lazily implemented this time (not that I've cared for that mode since Super Mario Kart (1992), when I only played it because, as a nine-year-old, I was not a skilled enough player to enjoy the actual race modes). But what I’ve traditionally loved about the Grand Prix in Mario Kart is that it includes support for local split-screen multiplayer—a rare feature in the 16-bit days, and seemingly even rarer now. Mario Kart 8’s Grand Prix mode even accommodates up to four players simultaneously.

Playing with other humans helps to make racing against the CPU a little fairer. With unlockable cups, classes, characters, vehicles, and stamps at stake, players may be incentivized, especially in the ruthless 150cc class, to transgress into unsanctioned team racing against the CPU. This is no worse than the cheating and collusion that the CPU itself engages in, of course. As always, the game will randomly designate one CPU racer at the start of a Grand Prix to be the players’ “rival,” who will consistently place highly. Even if you knock them down a few times during a race, they will somehow miraculously fight their way back ahead of the other CPU racers, such that a Grand Prix cannot be won without outracing that rival specifically.

Even on 150cc, simply outracing them would pose no difficulty. But Mario Kart isn’t a pure racer, and what inevitably frustrates is the unavoidable cheap shots that can snatch victory out of one’s grasp. The worse your position, the better the items you receive. Being in first just means you get to be the target of everyone else’s assaults. The worst part is that the most devastating items, Blue Shells and Lightning, are only handed out to the poorest racers. Such tools still won’t suddenly vault a racer from last place into contention, so the Blue Shell doesn’t actually help the user; it just screws with the people in the lead.

This is an old song now, the cheapness merely reflecting Nintendo’s longstanding socialist philosophy toward competitive multiplayer, also seen all over the Mario Party series. Nintendo does not equate ability with performance in Mario Kart, nor, theoretically, performance with fun. I even understand it, given that Nintendo designs its games for all audiences, and so needs to ensure that a young child, who might never be able to win a race against a hardcore enthusiast gamer, can nevertheless feel engaged while hurling thunderbolts from the rear. But I play to win, and it’s really not my concern whether some five-year-old novice is having fun while eating my dust. That never happens anyway, because I don’t play with five-year-old novices. It’s only ever the CPU running these item scams against me. Are you telling me the game needs to handicap me in order to preserve the CPU’s ego? I also swear, any time I’m not actually looking back at them, the CPU racers behind me just start flying.

Yes, the game is still fun and worth playing, despite the moments of frustration. It has charm, the controls and physics are perfect, and it’s great for parties. It is both the best racing game and the best local multiplayer game of the moment. Unless you take the game online, it does run out of content quite quickly. Once I beat all the cups on 150cc, there wasn’t much else for me to do. And how anticlimactic! All you get for it is Mirror Mode and the same lame ending credits that I already saw on completing the lower difficulties.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Uh Huh Her - Future Souls Tour (Belly Up Tavern, June 19, 2014)

Uh Huh Her - Future Souls Tour 2014 Poster

I did not know that Leisha Hailey, bassist for the electropop duo Uh Huh Her, was also an actress, apparently best known as one of the stars of Showtime's The L Word (2004 - 2009). I did not know that Hailey was, in real life, an out lesbian, who had dated none other than k.d. lang herself for a number of years. I did not realize that Camila Grey, lead vocalist and guitarist of Uh Huh Her, was also openly gay, and had, in fact, been romantically linked to Hailey. I had not heard the story of their having been kicked off a Southwest flight, allegedly for arguing with a flight attendant over their public display of affection ("Leisha Hailey escorted off Southwest jet after kissing girlfriend." Los Angeles Times, September 26, 2011). I honestly had no idea that Hailey and Grey were lesbian icons of any sort. But that became very clear very quickly, as I went to see Uh Huh Her perform at the Belly Up in Solana Beach, CA, where the crowd was 95 percent female, mostly girls each with an arm around another girl. And, in case that wasn't clue enough (and I never jump to conclusions!), I overheard the girl next to me say to her companion, "They're such lesbian icons, y'know?" Well, now I know.

Prior to seeing them perform live, all I knew about Uh Huh Her was that I really dug their debut album, Common Reaction (2008), at its best resembling the progeny of Depeche Mode and Garbage—channeling the new wave in its synths, and with grittier vocals and an all-around darker, moodier, subtly more menacing sound than many contemporary electropop acts. With their recent third LP, Future Souls (2014), they went entirely electronic. While the album has overall more of a dance sound, its best tracks ("Innocence," "Bullet," "Fine Lines White Lies") retain the soulful swells, intimate harmonies, and haunting edge of Common Reaction, along with more polished and sophisticated production that lends the synth a cinematic flavor.

The quality of the songwriting also came to the fore during the live show, where, in contrast to the arrangements on the Future Souls album, Hailey and Grey stuck to their bass and guitar almost throughout, only switching to their keyboards on a few select songs or parts of songs. With just a lone drummer added to back them up, the sound was more minimalist than on the album, yet surprisingly it had the feel of a hard rock show. Missing a large portion of the synth component, Uh Huh Her live did not sound very much like they do on the albums, yet the melodies and lyrics carried through intact and continued to stand out, while Camila Grey's raw guitar solos were impressively legit.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Edge of Tomorrow (Doug Liman, 2014)

Edge of Tomorrow Poster

Edge of Tomorrow, about a future soldier who finds himself endlessly reliving the same hopeless battle against a race of aliens dubbed "Mimics," effectively plays out as a cross between Groundhog Day (1993) and Starship Troopers (1997). Well, the visuals, composed of shots of soldiers in armored battle suits running and gunning across desolate arenas, borrow even more directly from sci-fi shooter games such as Halo and Gears of War than from Starship Troopers. And the video game-like aspect to the film runs deeper than just the visuals. As protagonist William Cage (Tom Cruise) is repeatedly killed by the Mimics, only to "reset" after each death again to the previous morning to give it another go, the process resembles the experience of playing a classically challenging video game.

Lately, I've been playing Konami's Otomedius Excellent (2011) for the Xbox 360. A spin-off of the Gradius series of horizontally scrolling shooters, it is not an especially difficult game on the shmup spectrum, yet it is nevertheless unfair, in the way that all shmups are. Lives are fragile; unless you have a forcefield, a single hit of any kind will be enough to destroy your ship. Yet there are enemy attacks that, I contend, cannot possibly be evaded on pure reaction. And even if you could move out of the way on reaction, if you were to fail to evade it in the "correct" direction, you might just end up cornering yourself with no chance whatsoever to dodge the next attack. But, of course, the game has no expectation that you will be able to avoid everything on reaction, nor that you will be able to perform well at all on your first attempt. This style of game demands rather that you learn through repeated play and repeated failure, only prevailing after having committed to memorizing all the enemy patterns, so that you can always position yourself in the right place to dodge an enemy attack before it even happens.

Likewise, in Edge of Tomorrow, Cage fails repeatedly, but each time he learns, and the next time he is able to exploit that knowledge when everything resets. When eventually he starts gunning down Mimics before other soldiers can even spot them, it may seem to everyone else that he has the reflexes and battle instincts of a god of war, when, in reality, reflexes and instinct have little to do with it. He is indeed able to hone his abilities to expert levels through the unspeakable number of hours that all his resets come to comprise, but, more than that, he knows the future, because he has already lived it (having also died many times to make it this far), and so he knows what the enemy is going to do before it even happens. This ability is, in fact, the only thing that permits him to even survive, let alone win, a battle against the Mimics. Although Cage begins as a common man with no combat training, the truth is that even humanity's most decorated soldier, Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), stands no chance trying to fight the Mimics without the advantage of foresight, and seeing her fall repeatedly, always suddenly and rather feebly, reaffirms the disheartening fragility of life and the fundamental unfairness of the reaper.

Edge of Tomorrow is based on a screenplay adapted from the Japanese light novel All You Need Is Kill (2004), whose author, Hiroshi Sakurazaka, has stated that video games were indeed his inspiration for the story. Based on the movie's early trailers, I honestly expected (and hoped) for the video game connection to be actually made explicit in the plot. I had this theory, actually, that Cage and Vrataski were unknowingly video game characters, who somehow became aware that they were being made to play the same brutally themed game over and over again, though still with no understanding of why or how to stop it. Basically, I was hoping that it would be like that classic The Onion story about Solid Snake pondering the meaning of the endless loop of his video game existence.

I was disappointed that there wasn't more of a twist to Edge of Tomorrow's story. The "time loop" plot device has already been done several times in fiction, perhaps most famously in Groundhog Day. The concept was also similarly handled in the greatest episode of Stargate SG-1, "Window of Opportunity" (Season 4, Episode 6), which I feel actually treated it more purposefully. In Edge of Tomorrow, there is no great explanation behind the time loop, nor behind the existence of the Mimics, who really are just malicious alien monsters.

The pleasure of this movie is in how it spends the loops. Cage, not a soldier at first, though luckily already in peak physical shape within the window of the loop, has to learn clumsily and comically the hard way through trial and error how to progress inch-by-inch toward victory. The movie perhaps returns too often to the same joke of Cage almost wearily informing other characters (and the audience) what's about to happen, to their astonishment, with such exact attention to detail of someone who must have lived these moments hundreds of times already, far beyond what is depicted. But it is cleverly constructed to keep viewers on their toes, as they realize that their first time witnessing a scene may be Cage's thousandth time experiencing it.

Where Edge of Tomorrow actually differs from other time loop stories, such as Groundhog Day, is in Cage's consistent earnestness. Rather than getting bored to numbness, he's more just saddened by the Sisyphean futility of it all. He has moments of exhaustion. He gets demoralized at times and has to take the occasional break. But he never really "has fun" with his ability. The movie forgoes the obligatory moment when the looping protagonist decides just to lay a kiss on an unsuspecting female, knowing that, when they reset, she won't remember. Cage never takes the opportunity to tell other characters how he really feels about them, whether positively or negatively, knowing that there will be no one to hold him accountable. On the contrary, the most compelling aspect of the film may actually be the way Cage's relationship with Vrataski continually deepens, but only on one side, because she can never remember the experiences they've shared. On the one hand, he surely appreciates how profoundly he comes to know her life, her mind, her spirit over the, for all we know, hundreds of years that he is able to spend with her. On the other hand, it must also be somewhat of a torment for him that she can never have more than a day or two to develop any emotions for him before her regard resets back to zero.

What we learn about Cage is that, at his core, he really is a good person—someone who does the right thing when no one is watching. I don't personally read this as any kind of redemption story a la Groundhog Day. As the story begins, Cage is a coward, who hopes to avoid combat any way he can. His spinelessness is good for a few laughs, but, honestly, I was totally on his side, and I think maybe the writers were too. The film provides a none-too-flattering portrayal of the military, which is at least a sub-antagonist in this story. In truth, even today's weapons would be enough to annihilate the Mimics several thousands of times over. Yet the military repeatedly dooms humankind in the movie, because its leaders are inflexible and preoccupied with schlong-wagging. Only a crazy person would willingly follow such command. If the time looping in Edge of Tomorrow has any allegorical dimension, it must relate to the tedious and inert bureaucracy of the military machine.

One last thing I appreciate about Edge of Tomorrow is that it evinces a sincere affection on the part of its cast and crew for the main characters, who are fun to follow along with and easy to root for (even when Cage is being a coward). Contrast this with current hot blockbuster screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (Transformers, Star Trek Into Darkness, The Amazing Spider-Man 2), who, for all their success, seem to write always as though with limited respect for their own work, resulting in movies that degenerate from promising components into cheap stunts done for their own sake. Edge of Tomorrow, meanwhile, although it borrows its aesthetic from some of the most violent video games on the market, is good-humored and surprisingly gently themed. If the ending wraps up the war a little too neatly and easily, still its final shot, one of the more applause-worthy in recent memory, feels earned, not through manipulative stunts, cheap romance, or overly clever plot twists, but simply through respectfully and honestly written characters who are cool and admirable.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Little Daylight - "Mona Lisa" (Live X-Session)

From a 91X "X-Session," rising Brooklyn-based group Little Daylight performs a sweet acoustic version of one of their earliest compositions, "Mona Lisa":

And, off their forthcoming debut LP, Hello Memory, here's the studio version of "Mona Lisa," a fun synthpop track blending both live instruments and electronic elements, along with alluring vocals and infectious hooks and choruses:

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Little Daylight's Hello Memory is due out July 15. You can pre-order it on iTunes.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Mortal Kombat (NetherRealm Studios, Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, 2011)


By the time Midway went bankrupt in 2009, the strength of the Mortal Kombat brand had diminished greatly from its 16-bit heyday, when it was a controversy-courting cultural phenomenon. The series transitioned uneasily to 3-D with the lackluster Mortal Kombat 4 (1997), but it weathered the demise of arcades better than most fighting games, rebounding after director Ed Boon and his Midway Games team refocused to exclusively target the home market with 2002's Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance. A generation later, however, Mortal Kombat was again struggling to stay relevant. 2008's Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe for the PS3 and Xbox 360 was a title suffering an identity crisis—too mechanically crude to satisfy competitive fighting game players, too bare-bones a package to long occupy more mainstream gamers, and too low-budget to try to get by on its looks. Even the die-hard Mortal Kombat fans were up in arms over the game's "Teen" rating and accompanying softer fatalities.

If nothing else, the underwhelming crossover perhaps paved the way for Warner Bros. to step in and purchase both the Mortal Kombat brand and its Chicago-based developer, to be rechristened NetherRealm Studios. Given this new lease on life, Boon and his team took the time to reevaluate what had worked about past successes, to truly get at the essence of Mortal Kombat, as a guide to determine what direction the series should take moving forward. The end result was 2011's reboot, titled simply Mortal Kombat.

Commonly referred to as "Mortal Kombat 9" (in order to distinguish it from the arcade original), this most recent installment dials the story and characters back to the beginning, retelling the plots of the first three games (i.e. the ones that most people are actually familiar with and fond of), though with subtle yet significant changes here and there. Every character from the original Mortal Kombat through Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 is included, although the traditional bosses remain unplayable, and the centaur-like Motaro is relegated to only appearing in the background and briefly in the story. Meanwhile, the only characters drawn from the 3-D installments are the villainous sorcerer Quan Chi from Mortal Kombat 4 and, as DLC or in the Game of the Year edition, the blind swordsman Kenshi from Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance. Two new(-ish) additions to the roster include another robot ninja and another female ninja (DLC). Guest characters Kratos from God of War (PS3-exclusive) and Freddy Krueger(!) (DLC) round out the cast.

There was clearly a conscious effort here to take the series back to its roots, and that extends to the gameplay, which has triumphantly reverted to being entirely 2-D. The combat is classic and familiar yet also refreshing. Gone is the bloat of all the stances and weapon styles introduced in the 3-D games. There is a "change stance" button, but the effect is purely aesthetic; you can have either your character's front or their back facing the camera, but it won't alter their attacks in any way. This back-to-basics approach was initiated in Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe, but the reboot even dispenses with that game's sidestep. It's also a much sharper and more polished game besides, no longer plagued by floaty jumping or instances of weird collision. The combat is fast, maybe not the most fluid, but accessible while still possessing enough depth to give it some competitive legs.

Evo 2011 Mortal Kombat Grand Finals

Mortal Kombat remains confidently unique, a 2-D fighter that is not a Street Fighter derivative. Projectiles pass through one another, normal attacks inflict chip damage, and you have to press a button in order to block. Nor is the game comparable to 3-D fighters, such as Tekken and Soul Calibur. The ranged game in Mortal Kombat is more of a factor than even in Street Fighter, as virtually every character has one or more projectiles. There is a certain degree of homogeneity to the characters, as everybody walks and jumps about the same, and they mostly all have the same uppercut, jump kick, and sweep.

The one major new Street Fighter-esque mechanic is a revamped three-level super meter. At one bar, the player can perform an enhanced special attack (similar to "EX moves" in Street Fighter III and IV). At two bars, you can perform a combo breaker to get yourself out of trouble. Saving up a full three bars gains you access to your character's "X-Ray Attack." These risky yet devastating attacks are Mortal Kombat's take on the super combo—a first for the series. They also provide this installment's signature effect, wherein the camera zooms in and enters X-ray view to show the extreme damage inflicted as it happens—bones shattering and blades piercing the skull. Landing an X-Ray Attack can quickly turn the tide of battle, and yet, even as powerful as these moves are, the damage they deal to the opponent's health bar doesn't quite live up to just how horrific the attacks are made to look. It's a bit silly watching a character's skull get bashed in by an X-Ray Attack, only to have them get right back up and ready to continue the fight. You would expect such an attack to be fatal. In fact, Liu Kang's X-Ray Attack is his classic fatality—a cartwheel into an uppercut—from Mortal Kombat and Mortal Kombat II. At the competitive level, of course, the hard-to-land X-Ray Attacks are seldom seen, meter being most often reserved for the combo breakers.

For the majority of consumers, who will never play at a competitive level, Mortal Kombat includes a ton of single-player content. The game has received much praise for its story mode in particular, which many reviewers have stated should be the model for all fighting game story modes. In reality, the format is nothing revolutionary. The structure, alternating between gameplay (i.e. fighting) and non-interactive story sequences, is essentially the same formula that has been employed in most triple-A games of other genres for as long as video games have aspired to be like movies. Within fighting games, Guilty Gear and the other Arc System Works games have included story modes that basically operate the same way, only they have had to make do with flat images and text (and maybe voiceover), compared to Mortal Kombat's fully animated cut scenes. This game's own immediate predecessor, Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe, included a story mode that was done in the exact same manner, advancing the plot through voiced and animated cut scenes in between fights, yet it received barely any notice, probably because the story was insufferably stupid.

What elevates this game's story mode so far above all those others, ultimately, is not any inspired narrative technique. Rather, the story itself is simply entertaining. At least, the back two-thirds of it is. The first part, which retells the story of the first Mortal Kombat, is overly familiar and simplistic—a vaguely mystical take on Enter the Dragon, or any number of early Van Damme movies based around underground martial arts tournaments. Or if you've ever seen the 1995 Mortal Kombat movie (as I have multiple times for some reason), this is just an uglier version of that. Although the game generally looks pretty good—better than Mortal Kombat ever has before, with even the various ninja characters appearing visually distinct—the cinematics, rendered in real-time, are merely serviceable, and are especially disappointing after the awesome pre-rendered opening to Mortal Kombat: Armageddon (2006).

The chapters based on Mortal Kombat II and Mortal Kombat 3 are stronger, thanks in no small part to the addition of archvillain Shao Kahn, surely the series' most transcendent creation and one of the greatest video game antagonists, period. Beyond gameplay, the pitiless emperor of Outworld's personality comes to permeate the series. As the announcer, his booming delivery has become forever attached to such series-defining exhortations as "Fight!" and "Finish Him!" And, while cheap video game bosses may be common enough, perhaps no other has such brass as Shao Kahn to pause mid-battle to add insult to injury, taunting the player repeatedly with lengthy and cutting barbs. His obsessed schemes to invade Earthrealm through victory in Mortal Kombat tournaments frankly defy all reason, but his brutality and treachery at least provide for some enjoyably lowbrow material for the story mode.

Even for players who already know the plots of the first three games, this retelling is really the first time the story has been told via a (mostly) linear, coherent, and fleshed-out narrative. In the original games, the only in-game story material consisted of prologues and the various characters' bios and arcade mode endings, which often conflicted with one another. There was probably a story bible somewhere that detailed the canonical sequence of events, but you would have had to venture beyond the games themselves to learn why, for example, Johnny Cage was missing from Mortal Kombat 3. At last, in the reboot, players can learn what happened to Jax's arms between Mortal Kombat II and Mortal Kombat 3, discover how Kabal came to be so disfigured, and experience the origin story of Noob Saibot. Some questions linger. For example, what the hell is Nightwolf's deal?

The movie sequences are easy to follow and enjoy, but, as a game, the story mode is not quite as fun to play, and it doesn't do a great job of teaching players the mechanics. Although every heroic character gets a turn in the spotlight, combat can quickly become a dull exercise of just repeating the same jump kick with every character, as the most efficient way to get past the AI and advance the story. As is typical with fighting game story modes, there are also way too many totally contrived matches, where one character will randomly run into another character, and they'll immediately start exchanging blows over some misunderstanding. I also have no idea how the Mortal Kombat rules committee justifies having so many tournament rounds pitting the player one-on-two against a tag team of opponents.

Once done with the sizable story mode, there is still the more traditional arcade mode as well, where you can fight through a ladder of opponents and unlock your character's ending upon defeating Shao Kahn. With a playable cast of 27 characters (+4 DLC/GOTY additions, +1 PS3 exclusive), that's a lot of endings to unlock, although these are done up in the classic style—narration over still images—and considerably more inane than the story mode cinematics.

Most of the offline player's time will probably be spent in the "Challenge Tower," consisting of 300 short challenges. These include fights with special victory conditions, as well as a number of mini-games, including a shell game (which uses severed heads in place of shells) and the classic "Test Your Might" bonus round. Many of the challenges are conceptually clever, although, without an attached story to motivate progress, there's no real hook to keep players going for round after round. I wish some of the challenge content had been integrated into the story mode to give it more variety, a la the story mode in Jojo's Bizarre Adventure for the PS1 (1999), which I still consider to be the greatest single-player mode in any fighting game.

Completing challenges earns the player coins, which can be spent to unlock concept art. There is enough art to unlock that it would take the average player weeks to complete the collection. I personally had no interest in this, so I didn't delve very far into the challenges. I should point out that I did not grow bored of the game in a vacuum. Were I a younger gamer, or one with only funds enough to buy a new game every few months, I'm sure Mortal Kombat could have kept me happily occupied for a very long time. As it is, I simply have other games to move on to that I'd rather spend my time on.

But I truly admire NetherRealm for its commitment to producing a fighting game that actually includes substantial and worthwhile (and, unlike in the previous generation's Mortal Kombat titles, germane—no puzzle or kart racer games this time) single-player content, and not at the expense of the competitive component. Comparing Mortal Kombat to Street Fighter IV, certainly Capcom's game has more refined art and has cultivated a much healthier competitive scene. But, to almost anybody who is not a part of that competitive world (i.e. the vast majority of gamers), Mortal Kombat has so much more to offer. And most of the modes and features that Mortal Kombat has over other fighting games are actually incredibly obvious inclusions to anyone who hasn't already been conditioned to expect only the bare minimum that is the standard in the genre.

One feature that I especially appreciate is Mortal Kombat's tag team mode. You can play versus matches with up to four players, and you can even fight through the arcade mode with a partner cooperatively. It's not perfect. The arcade mode endings only recognize the first player. This led to an awkward moment, when my brother and I completed it as Liu Kang and Raiden. After my Liu Kang fell to Shao Kahn, my brother as Raiden finished the fight... only to watch as Liu Kang jumped in to steal the kill in the succeeding cinematic, followed by an even more awkward ending, where Liu Kang actually killed Raiden in order to take the thunder god's powers and position for himself. Nevertheless, it's a lot of fun being able to take the fighting beyond one-on-one, and it boggles my mind why this isn't more standard an option. Capcom doesn't have tag modes, it has tag games. Namco is the same. The only times Tekken includes tag team gameplay, the word "tag" has to be in the game's title. In Mortal Kombat, it is humbly included as though a matter of course.

Much as it has always forged its own path as a fighting game, apart from its Japanese peers, here Mortal Kombat looks not to Street Fighter as the standard for what a fighting game should include, but is rather more comparable to such a genre-transcending industry leader as Call of Duty, which receives equal attention for its campaign and online components, or to EA's sports games, which are full of modes and options to accommodate playing alone, online, or with three friends locally.

Mortal Kombat, as a brand, will probably never again be as prominent as it was in the '90s. It's certainly not as novel anymore. If anything, the gratuitous gore is, along with the ridiculously skimpy outfits for the female characters, the most unbearable aspect of the game for me, as some of these HD fatalities are truly stomach-churning. But 2011's reboot is, better than novel, a legitimately great game, which all other fighting game developers should look to and learn from, if they mean for this genre to survive and expand beyond the hardcore competitive audience.