Fighting games like Mortal Kombat 1 should never reboot their stories

It is a commonly held belief that fighting game stories are, categorically, bad. Stories are not what people come to fighting games for, the logic goes. They are an optional indulgence, and a compromised one at that, because they must always account for why, for example, a giant military cyborg would ever fight a kangaroo.

I disagree. Fighting game stories rule, actually, because they are such brazen works of thinly veiled justification. Why does M. Bison, recurring villain of the Street Fighter games, have something called “Psycho Power,” and what’s up with his evil club, Shadaloo? Why does Tekken let a kangaroo fight in the King of Iron Fist Tournament? What is the deal with literally any Guilty Gear character?

The answer is usually nonsense. But when a fighting game becomes popular and gets sequels, something wonderful happens: The creators have to write more nonsense. And then that nonsense has to be compatible with the nonsense they wrote the first time around! It is corporate improv, as studios, compelled by profits and enthusiasm, begin iterating furiously on their prior work, yes, and-ing their game stories until they end up somewhere impossibly absurd. This is how the Tekken games went from a story about a martial arts tournament built around a long-simmering feud between father and son to, well, the story of a literal demonic bloodline in a world so over-the-top that is in fact quite normal for a kangaroo to fight a cyborg.

This is the joy of fighting game stories: Add enough things that don’t make sense and, eventually, it all starts to feel perfectly sensible. The fact that people come for the fighting, and not the stories, affords the writers this freedom — if the story was the point, people might be a little mad about their glib attitude toward narrative consequence.

Mortal Kombat was different, though. Mortal Kombat could be ridiculous with the best of them. But it also took care to flesh out its characters, portray them as friends and rivals, give them moments of affection and jokes to deliver. All of the stuff that other fighting games would tuck away in character descriptions and optional, disparate cutscenes? Mortal Kombat would put it front and center. Modern games in the series come with a story mode as the star of the show — a cheesy, bombastic action movie with intermittent pauses to let you play a fighting game. It rocks.

Mortal Kombat 1 shows the developers at NetherRealm flexing in a big way, with a massive story that’s ambitious in scope and lavish in execution. There’s just one problem: It’s a dang reboot.

Mortal Kombat 1 restarts the MK universe following the events of Mortal Kombat 11, offering a fresh, polished take on the ’90s franchise that, while still not interested in realism, is more grounded than previous games — at least at first. The story’s opening act will spend a surprising amount of time explaining why iconic characters are the way they are: how Kung Lao got his razor hat, how Raiden (not a god this time) got his lightning powers, and so on and so forth. With respect to Mortal Kombat 1, a game I find otherwise good: Boo to that!

If we must reboot Mortal Kombat (for the second time, with 2011’s Mortal Kombat, also known as Mortal Kombat 9, pulling a similar, but less radical reinvention), it should maintain the fighting game genre tradition of weird characters being the way they are Just Because. Mortal Kombat lore embraced the multiverse before it was cool, with “Earthrealm” being one plane of existence and the “Outworld” being another — that’s kind of all you need to justify a game full of demons, spiked monsters, and elemental ninjas.

Granted, I am only through Mortal Kombat 1’s first act, and there are four more ahead of me. There are signs that NetherRealm might be doing something meta with its reboot — which would ultimately be pretty cool in a Final Fantasy 7 Remake fashion. It’s a good way to have your cake and eat it, too, luring in newbies before going full Lore Fiend in the final act. Also, it would prove me right, which is about as fun as winning a fighting game. Those are the best fighting game stories: the ones where I win.

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