Hot take: MK11, and the Mortal Kombat series as a whole, would almost certainly be better if the majority of your favourite characters weren’t in MK11.
Before you go to the comments section to let me know why Kitana or Tanya or Sonya (it’s always one of those three fanbases, for whatever reason) is actually the greatest character conceived of by human minds and how they should be retroactively worked into every piece of fiction ever written, just hear me out.
My point is not that you should actually dislike your favourite characters, liking a character is inherently subjective and they’re almost certainly some of my favourites too, but the likelihood is that your favourite characters are drawn from amongst the more popular characters in the fandom already. This is only natural: certain characters are inherently cool or have an appeal which goes to multiple people for whatever reason.
Like avid fans of Ru Paul, for instance.
My point is that the proliferation of these characters is harming the franchise and the characters themselves.
I’ll clarify that: they are obviously not harming the franchise in the most obvious way: sales. MKX was, of course, the best selling video game of 2015 and MK9 sold like hot cakes itself. If NRS has reached the conclusion of “include 95% of the MK2 roster and the game will sell like a mother******”, I can’t really dispute that.
But from the point of view of long-term fan enjoyment, I can.
MKX was, on every objective metric, the greatest Mortal Kombat in history. Graphically beautiful (by and large), chock full of content, with a fully fleshed out story mode and incredible character designs, it should be cherished in the hearts of fans everywhere. Yet it’s not.
Now you could tell me this is just because the nostalgia goggles haven’t been fitted yet, and I’d agree, but I’d also argue that a groundswell of discontent started around MKX almost immediately upon its launch and the primary reason for this, and one of the most consistent grumbles in relation to MKX, is its roster.
And yet why? The roster of MKX was full of the most iconic characters in the whole franchise. In terms of pop culture status, only Baraka, Noob and Smoke are missing to give MKX essentially every single ‘upper-tier’ character. From Raiden, Scorpion and Sub Zero to Ermac, Reptile and Kenshi, the roster had so many of the more recognisable characters it was incredible, as well as enough new blood to make the game feel fresh.
The overarching reason for this is to appeal to a broader audience. Maximillian Dood is the single biggest and most influential fighting game content creator on Youtube and, while it was a relief that he stopped shitting on MK long enough to actually play an NRS game, his attitude towards guest characters is unfortunately symptomatic of the attitude NRS sees reflected in the wider audience for MK: recognisable characters, even guests, good, less recognisable MK characters bad.
"Holy shit Alien! And three robots in one, disregarding what makes those characters special and beloved! Oh and some fat guy"
But for those of us who love the franchise dearly, who return to it so often, who write over-long articles about it when we have actual work to do, MKX doesn’t feel quite right. It feels staid, it feels like we’ve seen it all before, it feels dull. There’s no freshness, no spark.
This is easy to chalk up to time and obviously a three year old game isn’t going to feel new when we’ve all put hundreds of hours into it, and yet, for many of us this malaise set in quite early in MKX’s life. It was dismissed at first as we delved into the mechanics of the game but ultimately the most important asset a fighting game has is its roster and the inescapable conclusion of the fanbase was and is that MKX's roster is lacking.
But why was that roster lacking if it included all of the most iconic characters? The reason is that familiarity breeds contempt, and this is a lesson which absolutely must be learned by NRS and by the community itself.
Let’s take Ermac, for instance. Ermac is a telekinetic super-warrior, composed of thousands of souls fused together by the black magic of the Emperor of another dimension, who used the souls of the most powerful warriors he had slain to create his ultimate weapon.
This should never, in any way whatsoever, be anything approaching boring.
His design also changes in every game, from his appearance (from mystic to zombie) to gameplay, and with tools like telekinesis and teleports, he consistently looks like one of the most impressive characters to play as. And yet, Ermac now elicits a shrug from most MK fans. It’s not a shrug of contempt or of dislike but one of passive acceptance. “Yeah he’s pretty cool I guess but meh”.
Part of this is writing. Ermac’s greatest moment was his return in Deception, when he represented the redemption of the UMK3 roster and featured the greatest character development seen in Mortal Kombat history, a believable face turn that expanded on the character and the mythology of the franchise. It was storytelling par excellence, and contrasts hugely to his role as Goon #3 in MKX.
Also, can we get trailers like this again?
So you have to make your characters feel special in story, okay. But only lore guys like me really care about the story or let it impact how we feel about characters. What explains the nonchalance towards Ermac from a more general NRS audience?
Remember that familiarity breeds contempt? Well, Ermac has missed one Mortal Kombat game in 14 years, and that was MKVDC.
If you see someone, even someone you love, so often, you’ll just grow accustomed to their presence and they lose the special sparkle that drew you to them in the first place. The same principle applies here: we have become so inured to Ermac’s presence that he just isn’t special anymore.
Remember how funny this guy was in Anchorman and Old School? Remember that it's been about a decade since he last made you laugh?
Maybe you disagree with me entirely, maybe you think you can never have enough of a good thing, in which case fair enough, we're two fundamentally different human beings. I think eating my favourite meal for every meal would make it boring, you should try putting Nutella on Doritos and then come back to me.
Or maybe you think I have a point but that familiarity leading to contempt hasn’t hit X character yet. To which I would ask you to ask yourself two questions:
1. Is that character one of your favourites? If so, are you really being entirely objective? and
2. Shouldn’t we err on the side of caution? Isn’t it better to have a character sit out a game and regain their lustre before we become as bored of them as we can be?
I hear the next objection you could raise. “Well you aren’t being subjective either, you want Shang in the game”!
Yes, Shang Tsung is my favourite character and yes I want him in the game desperately. But Shang is precisely the point I’m getting at. The thought of Shang Tsung returning is interesting and exciting because we haven’t been oversaturated with him, despite him being one of the most iconic characters in MK. Nevetheless, he’s far more of a series mainstay than many characters and it is for this reason that it is far more important that other characters return in MK11 than Shang Tsung.
The likes of Kabal, Stryker, Nightwolf, Sindel, Sheeva, Kintaro, Fujin, Li Mei, Nitara, Havik, Hotaru, Ashrah, Taven and Daegon are walking a tightrope. Unfortunately, for the purposes of this argument, I’m accepting Reiko, Kai, Mavado, Hsu Hao, Drahmin, Kira, Kobra, Dairou, Shujinko and Darrius as lost. Prove me wrong NRS.
Like Shang and the cyborgs, as long as the trilogy roster endures (which it always well) we will never really lose Kabal, Stryker, Nightwolf, Sindel, Sheeva and Kintaro but those characters are in serious danger of being thrown into that roster for completeness sake while never developing as real characters. Similarly, Fujin, Li Mei, Nitara, Havik, Hotaru, Ashrah, Taven and Daegon all have sufficient potential to develop into true roster mainstays and enough of a fanbase to justify their re-inclusion now.
But more than doing the characters themselves justice, it is the inclusion of these characters which is so crucial to MK11, in my view. This is for three reasons.
Firstly, it will introduce an element of surprise, of unpredictability. Yes, Ashrah may tank and go down as a total miss but it will have been a risk, a chance taken. Surely this is more desirable than turning to the same old characters again and again and seeing what new ways they can present Jax and Sonya?
Secondly, it gives these characters the chance to reach new levels within the fandom. Kenshi is likely to be the most contentious character I would argue needs to be benched for his own good: he’s incredibly popular and a phenomenal design, and at this juncture likely one of the ten most popular characters in the franchise. But Kenshi was given the opportunity to reach this level of fandom. Like Ermac, he has missed only one Mortal Kombat game in 14 years.
Kenshi is the Roman Reigns of the 3d era, essentially.
If that level of exposure can transform Kenshi from “great character design” to “near iconic character”, then surely we should try and make as many near iconic, or even popular characters as possible? By so doing, NRS would get more sales and more pop culture soft power, and we as fans would derive more enjoyment from the product.
Thirdly, it helps the characters left out. This is what ties my whole point here together. Let’s remember, familiarity breeds contempt. If Ermac sits out MK11, as I think he should, his return in MK12 would be fresh and new, years after we last saw him. He would, in short, feel special again.
I'll return to subjectivity. Shang Tsung may be my favourite character but Reptile is absolutely in my top 3, along with Shang and Shao Kahn.
Let me tell you about Reptile, because my love for this character goes beyond appreciating him as a design and a function in the games. When I was 4 or 5, the neighbourhood kids and I got together to play Mortal Kombat. Not on console, but amongst each other.
We all trained in martial arts (at the very beginning levels obviously), from Karate to Tae Kwon Do to kickboxing (which was me) and we loved Mortal Kombat so we played make-believe. We stole a mattress from a field and dragged it back about 4 miles to the area near one of our houses. See, we could get on top of the garage and “uppercut” each other off the garage, over the fence and onto the mattress.
Basically like this, but shockingly none of us died doing it.
I was the youngest of the bunch, a good two years younger than the rest. So they quickly got dibs on the characters. I’d played the games but I didn’t know enough to pick one so I watched as Scorpion, Sub Zero, Shang Tsung, Raiden etc all got chosen as alter-egos. I vividly remembering tugging my friend Dean’s sleeve and asking what about me. He said “you can be Reptile” and told me about this guy who was really a lizard/dinosaur thing beneath his skin, who could turn invisible, spit acid, rip heads off with his tongue and create energy balls. I thought this was the greatest thing I’d ever heard and, for the next several years until that group of rapscallions broke up, my nickname was “Reptile”, even outside the game. I identified with Reptile as 'my guy' and he was, for at least a decade, my absolute favourite character in Mortal Kombat and possibly all of video games.
So, Reptile makes me smile. Whenever I see the character, I feel happy and, moreover, he’s just an awesome design and in inescapable part of Mortal Kombat. He’s one of the most identifiable characters in the whole series and one of the most beloved and, more importantly from my point of view, he forms one of the strongest positive emotional bonds I have with the series. Long story short, I love Reptile.
And the absolute last thing he needs is to be in MK11.
Forgive me, old friend.
Everything I said for Ermac and Kenshi goes double for Reptile. He is a walking lizard, the last of his race, which was exterminated by the brutal Emperor whom he now serves and fears. He spits acid, shoots energy balls, can turn invisible, can slice a bitch up, move at super speed and, unfortunately, can generate fumes so noxious they cause physical harm to even Gods.
He is an exceptional character too: he serves as a great otherworldly monster while also a tragic figure: after UMK3, he was convicted of genocide by the Edenians while being the only survivor of the greatest genocide in the history of the realms. Sure, subsequent writing has reduced him to Goon #1 with his motivation of re-founding his race written off but, that can be saved: right now, he has no one to fear. Should he meet Khameleon again, with no Shao Kahn to dread, he could refound the Saurian race. And from there, why coudn't he do an Ermac-style face turn?
There’s no reason Reptile should not be one of the absolute hypest characters in all of fighting games.
But he’s not. He's just there, part of the furniture of the franchise.
You know why: familiarity breeds contempt. Even if another Saurian, maybe Reptile’s son, takes his place, the original Reptile absolutely has to sit out MK11 for his own sake.
So who else? Reptile, Ermac, Kenshi and? Well, the logic applies to many characters. Kung Lao, Sonya Blade, Johnny Cage, Jax, arguably Kitana and Liu Kang, hell arguably the big three of Scorpion, Sub Zero and Raiden.
Think of how hyped you are for the return of Sektor and Cyrax, Noob and Smoke. Wouldn’t it be nice to feel that for MK12 for Reptile, Ermac, Kenshi, Sonya, Johnny? As well as Baraka and Mileena?
Variety is the spice of life and so, for the sake of MK11’s roster and for the sake of preventing the ‘meh’ with which many of us regard MKX, people need to acknowledge that we need a break from our favourite characters to let the lesser lights of the series shine bright.
Our favourites will also come back, after all. No one ever really dies in Mortal Kombat.
So cheer up Mileena fans.
Thus, for the sake of MK11, for the sake of the franchise as a whole, for the sake of the lesser-spotted characters and yes, for their own sakes, it would be better if many of your favourite characters, and mine, sat out MK11.
EDIT: For the record, I'm not advocating MK11 should have no classic characters whatsoever. Only that, for the good of the franchise, some of our favourite characters should sit the game out and, while I think they'd benefit from it hugely, I don't think it's feasible to even advocate for leaving out the likes of Scorpion, Sub Zero and Raiden
Op-Ed: why we should want our favourite characters to not return in MK11