The rebirth of Mortal Kombat, and the team behind it, from a team within Midway Studios to Netherrealm, an autonomous studio under the auspices of WB has brought an almost total increase in quality. Compare the last efforts under the Midway label to the last two attempts under the Netherrealm label: Armageddon and MKvDC, almost unanimously considered the worst games in the history of the franchise, versus Mortal Kombat X and Injustice 2, which, from an objective perspective, are almost certainly the best.
Graphics relative to the competition, gameplay, balance, meta, story mode, marketing, everything has improved massively. There can be no doubt that the enhanced time and funds afforded to the team under WB has massively improved the overall quality of the games, even if it has arguably come at the ‘commercialization’ of the franchise through the addition of multiple guest characters.
One thing that has actively regressed, however, to the point where it is demonstrably worse than at any other point in the franchise, is the music.
The glory days.
Compare, for instance, this…..
Now, obviously music is almost entirely subjective. If you think the music in the most recent NRS games has been great, more power to you. I have to acknowledge that music, like all art, is inherently subjective (although I will say, to quote Yahtzee Croshaw, “if you maintain that a book is more enjoyable if the pages are covered with brown sauce, I don’t care if it’s your opinion, you’re just wrong”).
It is entirely likely that there is someone reading this who genuinely thinks that Five Finger Death Punch is good metal…..
Allow me to correct you
….or that Drake is good hip hop….
Allow me to correct you once again
….and that’s totally fine. In my opinion, however, the music in the more recent NRS games and is demonstrably worse. So, dear reader, preface everything below with the qualifier “in my opinion”.
And its also the opinion of the one and only @Shad, who you almost certainly know as one of the voices of the Netherkast. Although he is a grown man who still listens to The Cure, he’s also a grown man who listens to Nine Inch Nails and KMFDM, so it balances out.
Not pictured: a band anyone over 16 should listen to.
I had intended to critically assess the more recent Mortal Kombat soundtracks but Shad has saved me from doing so, and done it far better than I ever could have. He writes:
I fully agree with the above: but why is this the case? If all of the funds and time available to the team serve to enhance the games quality everywhere else, why does the same principle not serve to enhance the quality of the music?
I once heard a theory that constraints breed creativity, that by having set parameters to work in, creativity blossoms. Think about it this way: if someone asks you to tell a joke, your mind goes blank. If someone asks you tell a joke about children, you say [EDITOR’S NOTE: Removed on grounds of decency and to save the soul of anyone else who would read the joke.]
Charybdis is dead inside.
So, under that logic, when Dan Forden sat down to work on the soundtracks for the earlier games, limited by technology, budget, time and available additional personnel, he was trammeled by those constraints, allowing the creative juices to flow. On the other hand, when presented with almost a year of massive budget, technology and as many personnel as any game in the industry, the lack of constraints means that there is simply not the equivalent level of creativity.
That may be part of it, but I don’t think it’s the entirety of it. If we look at some of the music used in the trailers for MKX, it stands out as being of far higher quality than the music actually in the game.
What, did you think I was going to link Wiz Khalifa? Get that **** outta here.
So what else can we look to for an explanation? Well, I would argue that there has been a deliberate policy from Netherrealm to utilise music in the franchise in such a way that, possibly inadvertently, reduces the importance and quality of the music.
In the arcade, the loud blasting music of the game served as one of it’s most powerful attractions to grab the attention of the crowd, while even beyond the arcade and into the console, it serves to set the ambience. MK1, 2 and 4 are rooted in Eastern mysticism, so the music for those games is heavily Eastern-tinged, a feel brought back in Deadly Alliance, combined with modern electronica.
MK3 and Deception, however, are different. MK3, although it began the tradition of camp in series, has music far closer to industrial dance and metal, set as it is in the midst of what is essentially a post-apocalyptic Earth.
Similarly, Deception is arguably the darkest game of the franchise in it’s tone and design, and heavy industrial music, almost reminiscent of early 90s industrial, carries this through.
The ambience of the most recent NRS games, however, has been decided, not only by the music, but by the story mode. The story mode has rapidly become arguably the USP of Netherrealm games, the ‘story’ fighting games, with wide branching cinematic story modes. This contrasts to the 'Konquest' mode of earlier games, even if the Konquest of MKDA remains the best source of lore in the history of the franchise and should absolutely be revived as an extended training mode, lore included.
Okay, it doesn't make for great viewing but trust me, it's awesome.
The stories themselves can be criticised (the script for MK9, taken away from it’s presentation, is actually extremely lacking in storytelling and logic) but, in all reasonableness, the presentation cannot, nor can the impact the story modes have had. Demands for story mode in fighting games have led to a far greater emphasis on story mode in fighting games, such as in Killer Instinct, Street Fighter V and MvC: Infinite, and this can largely be traced back to the advent of story modes in Netherrealm games, beginning with MKvDC and in earnest in MK9.
If story (as well as overall design and colour palette etc) is now the primary vector of ambience, what is the role of music? In my view, the role of music is now to enhance the story told through story mode. Instead of having the entire ambience of, for instance, the Pit or the Courtyard demonstrated through music, the ambience of Mortal Kombat is demonstrated through the story mode.
We do not need to 'feel' that Outworld is a dangerous, strange, twisted world: we can be shown such in story mode, or even told outright (though, given that MK9's soundtracks consists of remixes of previous themes, this is not so apparent with MK9). We do not need to 'feel' that the Lin Kuei Temple is a place of secrecy and martial arts training, we are shown it in story mode. The role of music in Mortal Kombat games is now to enhance the story being told, not to demonstrate ambience in and of itself.
This can be seen in the other Netherrealm series: Injustice. Right now, I want you to think of a single Injustice 2 stage theme. I'll give you a specific one: Gorilla City. How does that theme go?
Like this, incidentally.
To build on what @Shad said above regarding MKX, there is nothing in this theme which sets the ambience of Gorilla City. What is Gorilla City? What role does it play, how should we feel about it? The theme itself tells us nothing. For the love of God, it's a city built by sentient, hyper-intelligent giant gorillas in the middle of Africa and nothing about the theme screams 'African' or 'animalistic', and the same principle applies to every stage in Injustice 2 (with the arguable exception of Joker's Playground).
On the other hand, the Living Forest theme immediately tells us 'alien' and 'foreign', 'strange' and 'dangerous'. You can listen to that theme and get the ambience of the Living Forest without any other context.
In essence, music in Netherrealm games has become similar to music in most by-the-numbers Hollywood blockbusters, as averted to by @Shad above.. Leaving aside franchises to whom music is central (Star Wars being the great example), music in movies is intended to enhance the story told but to not itself absorb attention. Think about it: when was the last time you were distracted during a Michael Bay movie by the orchestral score behind the giant 80s toys smashing each other?
Similarly, the music in the most recent Netherrealm games is not designed to grab your attention, but to underscore the atmosphere of the cinematic story mode or the stage fought on. The music is bombastic but incidental, not memorable. Now, this doesn't necessarily reduce the quality of the music per se, but if music is designed to be incidental, to amplify rather than stand on it's own merits, that will, in my view, have a natural impact on the quality of that music relative to music design to stand on it's own merits.
But why is this an issue? To be fair, it isn’t, really. Music in a video game is very much a ‘quality of life’ issue, particularly when taken in conjunction with the massive other improvements and high quality in the most recent Netherrealm games.
And yet, music can be hugely important for reasons other than simple enjoyment, for three reasons.
The first of this is recognisability. Consistent themes lend huge amounts of recognisability to anything, be it characters within a fighting game or whole franchises, such as Guile’s Theme or the riff from Jin Kazama’s theme in Tekken 3. Now, this doesn’t really apply to Mortal Kombat, as Mortal Kombat never had characters tied to stages as other fighting games did. But there is no reason why improved quality of music could not itself lend the game and its characters enhanced recognisability from game to game. For instance, Jin Kazama's theme from Tekken 3 was echoed in a later theme in Tekken Tag 2
Jin also makes for an interesting character study for our purposes. He was introduced in a game with many new characters, made the central protagonist of the series and is the child of two previous characters.
And yet, Jin became beloved almost instantly, in a way that Cassie most certainly has not. Now, I'm not suggesting that the only reason for this is because Cassie doesn't have a bitchin' theme with an awesome riff, but that couldn't hurt could it?
Secondly, attraction to the franchise. Although the days of the arcade are gone, music can still serve to attract people and eventually make fans of them. For instance, I had no interest in Killer Instinct as a franchise until I heard some of Mick Gordon’s themes. In particular, his themes for Spinal, Orchid and Combo are some of the greatest music ever made into a video game. Not only does this serve to bring more fans to the franchise, it also helps with the recognisability touched on above.
In general when making a fighting game, if Killer Instinct Seasons 1 and 2 did something, its probably wise to do something similar.
Let's conduct the same experiment we did earlier with themes. So, remember how nondescript the Gorilla City theme is?
Unless you speak Swedish, you don't understand the lyrics, but you get what Spinal is about and you can imagine the kind of scene where one might find a character defined by this theme. The fact that you fight Spinal here only confirms that.
God, I love that game.
It's also worth noting that Mick Gordon is an absolute musical genius and having him on-board for MK11 would get me unbelievably pumped. Just a quick shout out there.
Finally, media profile. Mortal Kombat fans know this better than almost anyone: Techno Syndrome is arguably the single most widely known piece of Mortal Kombat media in the entirety of pop culture, even more so than the likes of Scorpion and Sub Zero.
You knew this was coming at some stage in this article
This helps these franchises grow within pop culture: what would Mortal Kombat actually be like with Techno Syndrome? Where would it stand in the pantheon of pop culture without that single song, and how much would Mortal Kombat’s pop culture soft power be diminished if that song were to never exist?
This brings us to an interesting issue. We all acknowledge the central role Techno Syndrome plays to the place of Mortal Kombat in pop culture and, even if it's slightly, ironic, we all love it. Even people who don't play video games love the song and that brings with it great recognition. And yet, Netherrealm have never used it.
Similarly, they've never used any of the other tracks from the album Techno Syndrome comes from, a concept album by the future Lords of Acid, consisting of a track for each of the original Mortal Kombat characters. To fans of a certain vintage, some of these songs are inherently wedded to these characters.
To younger fans, you're welcome.
The music is somewhat dated and cheesy, admittedly, but since when is Guile's Theme as timeless as Beethoven? There's no reason those songs couldn't be updated or remixed or featured in some way to enhance the profile of the game and the characters itself. I suspect the reason, frankly, is mild embarassment and a wish to distance modern MK games, with their serious, cinematic soundtracks, from the classic sounds. Which is odd, considering the only embarrassing music in the history of Mortal Kombat is Immortal.
So bad, it's bad.
So, to conclude, the music of Mortal Kombat has been on a significant decline and, for the good of the franchise, this decline must be arrested and music restored to the central importance it had during the classic era of the franchise. This would not only provide the enjoyment we would derive from better music, but would enhance the franchise itself in several ways.
What do you guys think? Would you like to see Netherrealm use music as less incidental and more central to the series? Can we all agree Mick Gordon working on Mortal Kombat themes would be an absolute dream?
Whatever you think, don’t forget to check back to TYM every day for all the latest news on Mortal Kombat, Injustice and everything NRS!
Op-Ed: there must be an improvement in MK11's soundtrack, featuring the Netherkast's Shad!