Compare – Contrast: ‘Street Fighter’ vs. ‘Mortal Kombat’

The two biggest fighting game franchises of their time (and ours) were adapted into feature films one after another: first Street Fighter in 1994, then Mortal Kombat in 1995.

The question is, why did one work and the other didn’t?

The Structure:

The first and, I think, the most important factor is how the two films are structured, particularly with regard to their characters.

Mortal Kombat has eleven characters drawn from the first two games of the series, plus two cameos (Jax and Shao Khan). Street Fighter has fifteen characters from its game’s roster, plus one who is sort-of based on the sixteenth. On paper, that’s not a huge difference (a matter of two to five, depending on how you want to count), but consider how they are deployed.

In Mortal Kombat you have a structure that looks like this:

We have our three protagonists: hero, secondary hero, heroine. These three join forces pretty early in the film and from then on they spend almost all their non-fighting screentime together. There is a fourth hero in the form of their mentor, Raiden, and a fifth in Kitana, who is kept in the background for most of the film for plot reasons. We see almost the whole story through the eyes of those three characters. If they need to talk with someone, they talk with each other, meaning that when Johnny Cage has some dialogue, Liu and Sonya naturally get some development as well by dint of being the ones who have to react to him. The rest of the cast are aligned with the villain and serve as his henchmen or tools to challenge the heroes.

The structure is thus designed to maximize each character’s role by putting them as close to the center of the story as possible. It’s clear and easy to keep track of. Some of the characters still get marginalized, but everyone has a purpose and often more than one. You couldn’t really cut anyone, even Scorpion and Sub-Zero, without damaging the story.

On the other hand, Street Fighter’s structure looks like this:

Rather than the two camps of the other film, here we have five or six (depending on whether you want to count Dhalsim as separate from Bison). The main heroes are Guille, Chun-Li, and Ryu and Ken, but of those four only Ryu and Ken spend any degree of screen time together. Guille and Chun-Li each have their own duo of supporting characters to talk to, except that said duos are both almost completely extraneous to the story and receive little to no development, meaning that those scenes basically do nothing except to move the plot around and sort of develop the leads, but without the reinforcing feedback of working off of another relevant character. Each of the protagonists, therefore, more or less exists in their own little story independent of the others and has to develop more or less on his own. And since they only rarely interact it creates a disjointed and extremely shallow effect.

This structure is designed simply to shove as many familiar names in as possible, without necessarily providing them an actual role in the story. If Balrog, E. Honda, T. Hawk, Dee Jay, and/or Cammy were cut, nothing whatsoever would change, story-wise. The same could be said of Blanka (though he at least personalizes Guille’s motivation somewhat), Dhalsim, and Zangief.

One partial solution might have been to keep Chun-Li’s game background as an interpol agent rather than a journalist and have her partnered with Guille, allowing them to build off of each other and form a genuine relationship. That would have left no clear role for Cammy, Honda, T. Hawk, or Balrog, but, again, they don’t really have a role in the film to begin with except giving the protagonists someone to talk to, which would have been better served by having one of the other protagonists filling that role.

Another issue is how the characters are deployed in each film. In Mortal Kombat, we have eleven characters, but they’re not all present throughout the story. They are all established by about the half-hour mark, but then Goro and Reptile remain off-screen ‘in reserve’ for most of the second act while Kano, Scorpion, and Sub-Zero are eliminated one-by-one. Only once they’ve been removed from the story does Goro take an active role. Reptile, meanwhile, is established in two scenes: one where Shang gives him his assignment and one where he performs it by ambushing Liu to prevent him from making contact with Kitana. The point made (that the heroes can’t just go up to her and ask for help or vice-versa), he disappears from the film until it’s time for his fight scene. This also serves to keep Kitana largely ‘in reserve’ until close to the end, after Raiden has dropped out.

This makes sense given the nature of the story and characters: it’s a tournament, so characters will be eliminated and other characters will be waiting until they’re ‘called up.’ This keeps the active cast to a manageable level, even when there are actually a fairly large number of characters in the film, because at any given time we only have about five or six whose actions we have to keep track of.

On the other hand, in Street Fighter, every character is active and ‘on the board’ at all times in the story, meaning that the audience has to keep track of what every one of the fifteen characters is doing. They are all established as quickly as possible and then by and large just sit around contributing nothing for the rest of the screen time until it’s time for one of them to punch out a random goon, like freeloaders camped out on the couch. The result is an inescapable impression of empty bloat.

Again, a solution might have been to simply have some of the characters come and go throughout the film: have them fill temporary roles and then drop out of the story once the role is completed to make way for another character. So, you could have T. Hawk play a role in the beginning, get killed off or invalided out and replace him with Balrog (or something).

The Plots:

Mortal Kombat kept to a very simple, straightforward plot based on a venerable movie template that fit closely with what story the game had. In this case, it’s Enter the Dragon with fantasy elements: there’s a martial arts tournament that will decide whether an evil emperor from a dimension of magic will be allowed to invade the Earth. The premise is goofy, but imaginative and makes a certain intuitive sense (evoking the idea of trial by combat). Each character has a clear, simple reason for being there and taking part in the plot. Most importantly, it’s easy to grasp and to follow and it provides for a lot of martial arts duels.

Street Fighter took on a much more convoluted plot featuring a civil war against a power-mad dictator in a fictional country that superficially resembles Vietnam. There’s a hostage plot that doesn’t really affect anything except to provide a ticking clock (except that all the characters are already motivated to go after Bison, so…what was the point?), a plotline of Bison wanting to create an army of super-soldiers, which sort-of personalizes the battle for Guille, but otherwise only exists to create Blanka (and again unnecessary since Guille’s already motivated to go after Bison), a plot of Ryu and Ken going undercover with a local crime lord to try to find Bison’s hideout, and a plot of Chun-Li trying to get revenge on Bison for her father’s death. Of these the only ones that really tie together are the Guille’s and Ryu and Ken’s (since he’s using them to get to Bison), and none of them have much of a payoff. Chun-Li’s quest for revenge is simply forgotten about after she ambushes him and gets re-captured. The hostage plot again, doesn’t actually affect anything one way or another, and Blanka doesn’t do anything except electrocute one guard and look sad before apparently dying (why not have him join the fight against Bison to save Guille from the villain’s sudden-onset superpowers?).

At any point it isn’t really clear just what Bison’s resources and capabilities are: we’re told he has high-tech weapons that he uses to make up for his comparatively few troops, but we never see them. He has a bunch of faceless henchmen, but then so does Sagat. It isn’t clear why Guille needs Ryu and Ken at all, and the plot as a whole has very little weight to it.

The Characters:

Mortal Kombat had eleven characters to adapt: the seven playable characters of the first game, the two boss characters, one hidden character, and one character from the sequel. They solved this by choosing to focus on the three most heroic, relatable characters as their three protagonists, casting another character in a mentor role (which simultaneously serves to temper what should be his overwhelming power), and working the remaining three in as supporting antagonists to allow for the kind of duels one would see in the game. The two boss characters of course play the main antagonist roles, while the remaining two – Kitanna and Reptile – are worked together as a potential ally to the heroes and the monster assigned to guard her, respectively. You also have one more character – Jax – in a cameo role, and another – Shao Khan – as an unseen presence and then as the ‘stinger’ to end the film. This meant that some of the characters – especially Scorpion and Sub-Zero – got far reduced roles, but it gave more time to focus on the three leads and the plot with the villain.

Street Fighter had fifteen characters to adapt, since the studio insisted on including the enitrety of the game’s large cast. Trouble was that, as noted, the film’s framework didn’t intuitively allow for that many characters, so they were squeezed in to whatever roles there were or could be made for them. You have of course Guille as the hero, Bison as the villain, and Chun-Li as the heroine. So far so good. Though this leaves the two protagonists of the game, Ryu and Ken, without a place, so they become supporting characters and comic relief. Sagat as a secondary villain allied with Bison makes sense, as does having Vega as his subordinate. Likewise Zangief as Bison’s enforcer and Cammy as Guille’s second in command. But then we start running off the rails: we need an excuse for Blanka. He’ll be an abortive super-soldier experiment. That means we need a scientist, so Dhalsim becomes Dr. Dhalsim. Chun-Li’s a reporter now, so she can have a film crew. Shove E. Honda and Balrog in as her sidekicks (no, we don’t care that Balrog was a villain in the game). T. Hawk can be another soldier under Guile. And Bison needs a computer guy, so make that Dee Jay because Theo worked in Die Hard.

See, in the latter they’re pretty much just dropping names into whatever roles they have available or that they can force into the story, like they’re casting a play and need everyone to participate, while in the former, the characters all fit the story and serve it.

Ironically enough, though it follows the game much more closely, Mortal Kombat is much less dependent upon it. People can (and do) enjoy it without knowing anything about the game (I know this for a fact since I first saw it with almost no prior knowledge of the game, on the recommendation of a critic who likewise knew nothing about the source material). Street Fighter is almost wholly distinct from the game in every way, but a good chunk of its cast only exists because they were in the game. Someone who had never heard of the game would watch that movie and find himself wondering why half the cast even exists and why it makes such a point of letting us know who they are (not to mention wondering why it’s called ‘Street Fighter’).

This makes sense when you think about it: these characters were originally designed for a certain context. The closer you can stick to that context, the more sense they will make, while the further away you get, the more you have to struggle to justify them.

The Villains:

Raul Julia’s M. Bison is an over-the-top caricature of a mad dictator; truck-loads of fun to watch, but utterly unconvincing as a threat. He lets Guille bait him, gets outwitted or put on the back-foot more than once, and even his own allies and subordinates seem to regard him as little more than a lunatic most of the time. Julia was no martial artist, requiring a lot of strategic camera and editing tricks to allow him to fight Jean-Claude Van Damme, and even then he’s on the ropes for most of the fight, and that’s after he gets thoroughly trounced by the heroine half way through the film.

Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa’s Shang Tsung is played on a more restrained, if still hammy note, conveying an air of sophistication and chess-master-like control of the situation. He rarely loses his cool, covers almost every base he can, and is convincingly dangerous throughout. He’s able to get away with taunting a god and successfully outwits and manipulates the heroes on more than one occasion. His underlings, even the monstrous Goro, treat him with fearful respect. Tagawa is fairly big and well-muscled, and he’s skilled enough to go toe-to-toe with Robin Shou in the climax with some very fast and fluid martial arts. Before that it’s made very clear that none of the others have a chance against him, and he in fact tries to take advantage of this by challenging first Sonya and then Johnny to the final bout.

Their introductions provide an illustrative point of contrast. Both villains are introduced killing minor characters: Bison takes out two random soldiers in a stiff, blatantly staged manner, snapping their necks in two moves (though accompanied by the great line, “You came across the world to fight me, soldier. Now is your chance!”). He then sees Guille on a news broadcast giving him an off-color hand gesture and is infuriated into challenging him directly.

Shang has a nightmare fight with Liu Kang’s brother, delivering smooth blocks and bone-breaking blows to illustrate his legitimate skill and power (as well as being more emotionally effective – seeing a young man being beaten to death while calling for his brother, instead of two randos dying with little fanfare – despite the hammy acting). He then tells Liu “Your brother’s soul is mine! You will be next!” before transforming into a skull and ending the dream.

The Bison scene is fine in concept as a way to establish his ruthlessness and physical prowess as well as to set up the conflict between the hero and villain. Though it falls apart in the execution and again, I don’t like that he lets himself be rattled so easily. And the interaction between Bison and Guille is both unnecessary (Guille’s whole mission is to fight Bison and so he is already motivated to take him down) and ridiculous (that Bison can somehow talk to him through a television camera).

The Shang scene is cheesy, but effective, again establishing the villain as a dangerous and brutal opponent, while also setting the hero’s motivation, as well as suggesting right at the beginning of the film that Liu doesn’t really believe he can defeat Shang, as shown by Shang turning into a skull right after promising to take his soul. So, right there we have “the hero must fight the villain, but he doubts he can triumph.”

Even apart from the execution (for all his acting talent, there was no way Raul Julia would be as convincingly dangerous a fighter as Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), the Street Fighter scene makes Guille and Bison equals at best: Guille can rile Bison, and Bison can taunt him right back (I really wanted to find something that rhymed with ‘Bison’ there). Guille clearly isn’t the least bit intimidated by Bison, which means there’s no tension regarding the outcome of their battle. The Mortal Kombat scene portrays Shang Tsung as literally Liu Kang’s worst nightmare, to the point that he sees him as his own death incarnate.

The former tries to establish the credentials of both the hero and the villain at the same time. The problem with this is that it means the villain can’t be allowed to overshadow the hero, so we aren’t really worried about whether the hero can prevail. The latter focuses entirely on establishing the villain as a dangerous threat and setting up the hero’s motivation, trusting that a). they have the whole rest of the film to establish Liu’s badass credentials and b). the audience will naturally assume he’s a badass once they see him (writing short-hand again: “you know you’re watching a martial arts film. Here’s a handsome, muscular young Asian guy. You can do the math”).

The Action:

Both films are based on fighting games, but as noted, Street Fighter has very little fighting in it: the action is mostly fairly generic, underwhelming gun fights, explosions, and standard war / action movie fare. What fights it does have are mostly filmed in quick close-ups (partially to disguise the lack of training in key cast members – most notably Raul Julia – and partly because the film’s chaotic schedule meant that many of them had to be improvised or choreographed on the fly).

Mortal Kombat has quite a few showpiece fight scenes, including a sequence of four or five in a row mid-way through the film. The fights are mostly filmed in fairly lengthy long-shots interspersed with close-ups, allowing us to clearly see the actors performing extended sets of fast and fluid martial arts. Most of the cast are trained martial artists of one description or another, and it’s clear the fights were a high priority for the filmmakers (the release date was actually pushed back to allow new fight scenes to be filmed when test audiences didn’t think there was enough of it).

(The one exception, as noted, is Bridgette Wilson as Sonya, whose few fight scenes are filmed more in quick individual cuts, where they filmed her doing one or two moves at a time and edited them together. By contrast, almost every fight in Street Fighter, including every fight involving the main villain, is done this way. What is a sparingly-used expedient in one film is the norm in the other).

The result is that Street Fighter’s action is mostly forgettable boilerplate stuff when it isn’t laughable (e.g. trying to pass off the ravaged Raul Julia as a master fighter on par with Van Damme). There are a small handful of decent fights, but all pretty short and not filmed particularly well. Mortal Kombat boasts some really solid and excellently filmed martial arts, as well as having much more of a distinct ‘style’ to its action scenes.

(As a point of contrast: Guile and co spend as much time running around with guns as they do engaging in martial arts. Sonya’s the only one who uses a firearm in her film, and her gun gets almost contemptuously destroyed as soon as the main plot gets going, leaving bare hands and simple weapons the only recourse for the rest of the movie).

The Behind-The-Scenes:

There are also some interesting points of similarity and contrast in how their respective studios and filmmakers approached the movies, and how the shoots went. A few of which include:

  • Both films had fledgling directors, though Stephen de Souza had worked in the industry and built up a stronger track record than Paul Anderson at that point. De Souza had written some of the biggest action hits of the past decade (this is one of the guys who wrote Die Hard, for goodness sakes!). Anderson had only made a low-budget crime film.

De Souza explicitly had no interest in making a martial arts or tournament film, instead opting to base his script off of a storyline he had seen being considered at Capcom for future entries, involving M. Bison as a dictator trying to take over the world. He figured he could re-cast the game’s colorful lineup of characters into an original action-sci-fi film, rather than a straightforward adaptation of the game.

De Souza wanted only seven characters, and initially Capcom agreed (persuaded by his argument that audiences can only really follow seven characters at a time). But then, as pre-production went on, Capcom kept insisting he add more characters to the cast. Then more. Then more. Until by the end he had exactly the problem he had warned them about.

Mortal Kombat had at its helm not just Paul Anderson, but more importantly producer Lawrence Kasanoff. Kasanoff, upon discovering the Mortal Kombat arcade game, immediately saw the potential in the premise. The blend of martial arts and weird fantasy, he thought, was potentially a billion dollar franchise, extending to movies, books, TV, anything you cared to name. Kasanoff fought hard to get the film made and enthusiastically promoted it all the way, keeping in close touch with Ed Boon, the game’s co-creator (and voice of Scorpion in the movie) to make sure they were matching the spirit of the game.

In short, the people behind Mortal Kombat really believed in the potential of the property and meant to translate it to the screen. The people behind Street Fighter saw it more as a jumping-off point for an idea they thought would be more interesting.

  • Ironically, Universal and Capcom loved Street Fighter and were very enthusiastic about it, while New Line frankly hated Mortal Kombat and had very little faith in it (Kasanoff tells a story of the studio head yelling at him for an hour about how much he hated the script before concluding “go ahead and make it”). This actually might have helped things, as Kombat didn’t have the problem of the studio trying to force changes upon the production (other than the PG-13 rating) or demanding an early release date. Street Fighter was forced into a rushed production to be in theaters by Christmas in order to push the merchandise that had been enthusiastically churned out for it, no doubt exasperating the films myriad other problems. Studio enthusiasm isn’t always a positive.
  • Much of Street Fighter’s $35 million budget went to hiring Jean-Claude Van Damme and Raul Julie (Van Damme alone cost $8 million: over a fifth of the film’s entire budget!). Van Damme, then at the height of his stardom, addicted to cocaine, and coming off of a very bitter divorce, was by all accounts a nightmare to work with, refusing to rehearse, showing up late to the set (if he showed up at all), and being an absolute diva when he did. This on top of demanding an expensive private hotel room for his own use (Julia on the other hand was a consummate professional respected by everyone on the set and often accompanied by his children).

Mortal Kombat had a budget of $20 million, part of which went to hiring veteran star Christopher Lambert. Money was so tight that they originally thought that they’d only be able to use him for a few days of shooting on an LA soundstage and resort to long-distance body doubles for the Thailand shoot. Lambert, however, liked the role and wanted the film to succeed, so he volunteered to pay his own expenses to come down to Thailand and film more scenes. There he helped keep the production going smoothly with his laid-back, helpful, professional attitude, setting the tone for everyone else (he also proved himself an absolute mensch by buying a wrap party for the cast and crew out of his own pocket when filming concluded with nothing left in the budget).

  • As noted, Moral Kombat cost $15 million less than Street Fighter. Yet they clearly spent the money much more wisely, focusing on the elaborate sets and any necessary special effects (e.g. Goro) over hiring big name actors. The cast was mostly relative unknowns, with veterans Christopher Lambert and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa filling in the heavy lifting. Some characters were simply played by stuntmen since they wouldn’t have any lines anyway.

Street Fighter spent a good chunk of its budget on its somewhat-bizarrely strong cast: in addition to Van Damme and Julia, we have veteran dramatic actors like Wes Studi, Roshan Seth, and Grand L. Bush, not to mention Australian pop sensation Kylie Minogue (who, incidentally, was very well liked by the rest of the cast for her sweet, professional behavior on set and supportive attitude off it). Since the film also included a lot of extras, numerous locations, and a fair number of special effects and explosions, the remaining budget ended up being noticeably stretched thin, with the result that the film looks considerably cheaper than Mortal Kombat, despite costing almost twice as much.

The short version of all this, it seems to me, is that Mortal Kombat is a much more focused film: the filmmakers knew what they were aiming to achieve, knew what the particular appeal of the film would be, knew the effect they were trying to create. They concentrated all their effort on the things that would contribute to that effect and tailored the story and characters to the film they meant to make.

Street Fighter seems to have been cobbled together from multiple conflicting visions, not only different ideas of what would happen in the film, but even what kind of film they were making. The most basic elements – the fighting and characters – are mostly done half-heartedly in favor of large dollops of shallow plotlines and out-of-place action scenes. Half the crew seems under the impression they’re making a comedy (e.g. the goofy reactions to the impending truck bomb), the other half thinks they’re making a serious action movie (e.g. Guille contemplating the home videos of his friend, Blanka).

Kombat succeeded on a combination of faith in the material, solid writing, a wisely-spent budget, a cooperative cast, and a clear sense of priority. Fighter failed on a blend of doubt in the material, weak, haphazard writing, a poorly spent budget, a chaotic shoot on a hard deadline, and a general failure to prioritize.

Some of these things are just a matter of bad luck (it would have been hard to predict Van Damme’s absurd diva behavior for instance), but there are a lot of things here for those who are writers to try to keep in mind: understand what you are trying to achieve and what i necessary to create that effect (and what isn’t: do you really need a first-class dramatic actor as the generic scientist in an action movie based on a fighting game?). Consider the structure of the story and character interactions and whether it uses them efficiently. Keep an eye on what each scene is doing and what it says about each character (e.g. is a character who is supposed to be intimidating being undermined?). Ask what role each character plays and whether the story really needs them, or needs them to be present at the moment. Ask how many characters the audience has to keep track of at each given moment and whether there is a way to shuffle them around to keep the active cast down to a manageable level.

And above all else: have faith in the material you’re working with and commit to it.

Thoughts on ‘Mortal Kombat'(1995)

Video Game movies seem to be going through a bit of a renaissance at the moment. Which is rather ironic, given the state of the film industry in general.

2019 gave us Detective Pikachu, a light-hearted, fun, and generally well-received take on one of the biggest gaming franchises out there, being essentially a family adventure-comedy that happens to be set in the Pokemon world. 2020 saw Sonic the Hedgehog, another light-hearted, easy-going family film buoyed along by massive amounts of good-will and a hamtastically delightful turn by Jim Carrey. And just recently we had the new Mortal Kombat, which I haven’t seen (and don’t really have much interest in from what I’ve heard), but which I think is probably not a light-hearted family film. In any case, it seems to have done pretty well at the box-office last I heard.

As such, it seems a good time to revisit a couple of the major early efforts at adapting video games to the screen, back when the medium itself was, it not in its infancy, at the very least in its childhood. We’re going to look at one that I think works and one that doesn’t and then compare and contrast.

And we’re going to start with the one that works: what was, for a very long time (as in, probably up until 2019), considered the best of the bunch.

MORTAL KOMBAT!

For the proper effect, listen to the theme song.

We open in spectacular fashion with the rousing cry of “MORTAL KOMBAT!” accompanied by the driving techno theme song as the credits play over flames shooting out of a giant version of the dragon logo. This pretty much lets you know right away what kind of film you’re in for.

From there we swiftly (as in, over the course of less than five minutes) meet our three protagonists and learn their motivations. First there is Liu Kang, a Shaolin monk who ran away to America to escape his supposed destiny, but who is summoned home when his brother is killed by the kung-fu sorcerer Shang Tsung (who has the power to steal the souls of the people he kills). Then there’s Sonya Blade, a badass, self-reliant cop on the trail of the slimy underworld boss Kano, who murdered her partner (and who is in league with Shang). Finally there’s Johnny Cage, an egotistical Hollywood action star whose martial arts skills are derided as fake by the press and who secretly fears this might be true.

All three eventually meet up on a boat bound for Shang Tsung’s island, where they will partake in the mystical tournament of Mortal Kombat. They get a taste of the kind of opposition they can expect when they come face-to-face with two of Shang’s enslaved champions: Scorpion and Sub-Zero, both of whom wield supernatural powers (Sub-Zero demonstrates his cryomancy by destroying Sonya’s pistol, swiftly removing any firearms from the film).

The rules are then laid out for them by Raiden, the god of thunder and lightning and protector of Earth. Mortal Kombat isn’t just any martial arts tournament: it is part of a mystical ritual that, if completed, would give Shang’s master, the Emperor of Outworld, the right to invade and conquer earth. For one realm to win the right to attack another, their champions must win ten Mortal Kombat tournaments in a row. And Shang’s champions have won nine so far.

Upon arriving on the island, our three heroes uncover more of the plot, including the fact that Shang is seeking to manipulate them for his own purposes, and that they may have another ally in the form of Princess Kitana, rightful heir to the throne of Outworld. Also that Shang’s ace-in-the-hole is an eight-foot, four-armed monster named Goro.

From there the tournament begins in earnest, with the fate of the world hanging in the balance and Shang and Raiden each trying to guide our heroes into their preferred outcome.

I think if I were to sum up the movie, I would call it “if Bruce Lee and Ray Harryhausen did a film together.” It’s Enter the Dragon with a fantasy twist.

Upon re-watching this film for the first time in years for this review, I was rather surprised to find just how good it really is. Don’t get me wrong: it isn’t a great film by any means, and there are many elements that could be picked apart. But it is a good film, given what it is, with many very real strengths, some remarkably solid, even excellent storytelling touches, and, most importantly, it’s fun.

In the first place, as noted above, the film wastes no time at all. We meet our three protagonists, two of the antagonists, and get an idea of their motives and personalities within the first five minutes. Liu wakes up from a nightmare of his brother being killed at the Shaolin temple to find himself amid the trappings of a normal American life and reads a telegram summoning him home. That right there, in almost no dialogue, establishes a fundamentally conflicted nature as well as setting his motives. Sonya is found snapping orders at her subordinates, dismissing the idea of trust, and butting dancers in the head with her shotgun as she makes her way through a crowded nightclub in pursuit of Kano, establishing a single-minded, self-reliant character who doesn’t play well with others. Johnny’s introduction has him taking on a bunch of thugs…only for one of them to miss his cue and expose the flashy martial arts we just witnessed as nothing but a show, which prompts Johnny to storm off the set in anger. We thus have a perfect illustration of both his self-absorbed personality and his doubts regarding the reality of his talent.

(Linden Ashby as Johnny Cage is really the stand-out among the three leads, acting wise, by the way. He gets most of the best lines – partly ad-libbed – while also employing some strong, simple emoting to convey his character. I especially like the immediate affection and respect that comes into his face when he meets his old instructor, or the drop of his eyes as he comments on the press deriding him as a fake).

All this requires a good deal of writing short-hand. Most of the plot points and characterization are things we’ve seen in other films, so the movies takes advantage of this to get things moving quickly. For instance, a modern film would likely have a whole scene of Johnny trying to defend his skills to the press and being challenged on it. Here the point is established in a throwaway line, followed by seeing the amusingly on-the-nose “Johnny Cage a Fake!” headline, leading directly to a discussion of the tournament with his old instructor (all while giving Johnny a chance to both crack-wise and show his sincere side). No time is lost and vital plot and character points are established swiftly and smoothly, often two or three at a time. Johnny’s a superficially flashy actor who secretly wonders if he has any legitimate talent: we’ve seen this sort of thing dozens of times before, so the movie can trust us to ‘get it’ right away and move on.

The plotting is remarkably solid as well. Of the three, Liu knows more or less the truth about the tournament, though he’s become a skeptic and only gets involved for personal reasons (amusingly shown when he announces his intention to avenge his brother and then adds with a touch of sarcasm, “Oh, yes, I forgot. We’re fighting for the fate of the world!”). Johnny is only told that it’s a great martial arts tournament and a chance to test his skills against the best of the best, and Sonya is tricked into going without intending to compete at all. Thus each one is there for a reason that fits with their characters and motivations without having to clutter up the narrative (e.g. Sonya clearly wouldn’t be interested in going to a martial arts tournament for its own sake and Johnny isn’t the type to volunteer to defend the world). Not to mention that it gives an excuse for any necessary expository dialogue as the characters in the know – Liu and Raiden – have to explain things to the characters who aren’t.

This also helps prevent matters from seeming contrived or repetitive and to give each character their own motive and plot-line. Then, when the characters do things, even seemingly foolish things, there’s always a reason for it. They never just do something stupid to move the plot along; all their actions follow their characters and motivations.

For instance, after Shang welcomes the fighters to the island, Sonya follows him into inner recesses of the palace (as she knows he has information on Kano). Liu goes with her, since he wants to fight and kill Shang to avenge his brother. And Johnny goes with them because he’s interested in Sonya (“You know, you have to admire her. When she sets her mind on something…” “It’s not her mind you’re admiring.” “…It’s true.”).

Basically, the characters aren’t stupid, and that includes the villain. Shang Tsung is legitimately cunning and avoids many of the standard ‘evil overlord’ tropes. Much of his plot involves trying to subtly rig the tournament so that he won’t have to fight Liu Kang – the one supposedly chosen by destiny to save the world – in the final battle, but instead be able to take on one of the other two, who would be far easier targets. He is confident in his own ability to win regardless, but he’s not fighting for his own ego. His goal is simply to win the tournament for his master, so he’s going to do anything he can to make that easier and safer for himself without actually cheating (he also has a slimy interest in Sonya, but again, he works that in to his greater goal). Really, how many bad guys show this kind of focus and pragmatism?

His manipulations are themselves pretty clever, with multiple contingencies to ensure his preferred outcome. In the ordinary course of the tournament, he’ll let his fighters try to win. If they start to lose, he’ll send out the four-armed giant Goro to dominate the mortals. When Johnny requests a duel with Goro, Shang turns it to an opportunity to select his own challenger for the final match (this despite the fact that everyone fully expects Johnny to lose). He also knows that Kitana is a dangerous potential ally to the heroes and so assigns Reptile to be her chaperone (forcing her to make contact with Liu by challenging him to a fight and delivering cryptic advice, which has to be cryptic since Shang is watching them).

In short, the film shows Shang covering his bases and not just assuming that his plan will succeed or barreling forward out of sheer pride. He’s convincingly portrayed as an intelligent villain whose evil scheme fails primarily because the heroes were brave and skilled enough to triumph over it in spite of his planning rather than because of his own stupidity or arrogance.

Speaking of which, the film does a good job of laying out the rules by simply having the characters ask Raiden about them: obvious questions from characters trying to get a grasp on the situation like “so why doesn’t Outworld just invade Earth?” “What about the other fighters on the boat?” and so on. The stakes are established early on and then reinforced near the end when we see Outworld and learn its history, illustrating the fate that awaits Earth if the heroes fail.

(At the same time, the movie wisely doesn’t over explain things and leaves a lot of what we see a mystery. Why can Sub-Zero freeze people? Just what the heck is Scorpion? What’s the deal with those weird cruciform statues in Outworld and why does Reptile become a human ninja when he’s pulled into one? Briefly, because this isn’t the world we know. Enough is explained to know the gist of what’s happening, but both we and the characters are in uncharted territory where everything is strange and it isn’t clear what is and is not possible anymore. At one point Liu faces off with a seemingly ordinary opponent, and then the man suddenly growls like a lion at him. It’s never explained or even comes up in dialogue, it’s just a reminder that – as indicated by Sonya’s spinning compass – we’re off the edge of the map here.)

Another clever bit of exposition comes after Shang Tsungs’s champions threaten the heroes before the start of the tournament. Raiden steps in with a rare showing of anger, hurling the bad guys about with his lightning and chewing Shang out for violating the rules. Shang apologizes and then ‘helpfully’ reminds Raiden that things will be different once they reach Shang’s island. This lets us know that Raiden won’t be able to just zap the bad guys for us and smoothly justifies providing the information by the sorcerer clearly meaning it as a subtle dig against the deity (“My domains are well known to me, sorcerer!”).

On that note, Christopher Lambert’s Raiden is one of the most delightful aspects of the movie. The biggest name actor in the cast, he’s very clearly having a blast playing the larger-than-life thunder god, disappearing into his role as a smooth, supremely self-assured, yet somewhat playful character. But it isn’t just his charisma and enthusiasm that makes the role, but also the fact that he manages to convey a distinctly non-human perspective (something honestly rare amid movie deities).

One the best moments of the film comes when he solemnly informs the heroes: “The fate of billions will depend upon you,” and then bursts into a delighted laugh before catching himself and apologizing with a shrug. That tells us pretty clearly what we’re dealing with here: Raiden is legitimately on the side of the angels, but he’s chiefly hoping the mortals will at least put on a good show (besides which, whatever happens it’s not his neck on the line). Throughout the film he approaches them with a gently patronizing, somewhat sarcastic attitude, as if they were precocious children, yet always while doing what he can to help them along without either violating the rules or making things too dull.

There’s another good moment when he chastises Johnny for challenging Goro and Johnny pushes back by reminding him that it’s Mortal Kombat and therefore up for them to decide how to fight it. Rather than getting angry or standing on his dignity, Raiden is delighted that, “at last one of them has understood.”

I also love the faux-politeness Shang shows to Raiden whenever they share a scene, bowing when he enters and maintaining an even, almost reverent tone when he addresses him, though one dripping with barely-veiled sarcasm (“You grace us with your…presence”). It’s a great touch: acknowledging that, though they are in opposing camps, Raiden is nevertheless of a much higher status than Shang and the sorcerer knows it. Again, it’s not a huge deal, but it’s something they bothered to think about and to get right.

It’s these little details that I think really show the passion and care on the part of the filmmakers. Another is the way Shang bows. The traditional Kung Fu salute is a palm-over-fist pose that (I am told) symbolizes ‘peace over power’. Shang bows fist-over-palm, indicating ‘power over peace.’ No one ever draws attention to this in the movie, and most viewers won’t even notice it, but it’s something that the filmmakers or possibly the actor came up with and included as a bit of visual characterization.

Again, much credit to veteran actor Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa as Shang Tsung, who like Lambert (and really everyone for that matter) is obviously having a great time in the role and who invests the character with a tremendous amount of life and personality. He does a marvelous trick where, for most of the movie, he keeps a fairly stoical expression, but with enough small variations to convey the actual emotion behind it as effectively as if he’d been broadly mugging to the camera. Then when he does cut loose, he hams it up gloriously (“Your soul is mine!”). He is also, like most of the cast, an accomplished martial artist, allowing him to convey a convincingly intimidating air and to go into the climactic battle with gusto.

“IT HAS BEGUN!”

What about the rest of the cast?

Well, I’ll say first off that this isn’t an ‘acting’ movie. The filmmakers (wisely in my opinion) largely chose to prioritize fighting ability over histrionic power, so most of them are just adequate. Hong Kong veteran Robin Shou as Liu Kang gets the most attention and the biggest story arc, and while he doesn’t stand out acting wise, he gets plenty of good moments showing a good-natured, but defiant personality (again, I like the touch of sarcasm when he parrots the ‘official’ reason for fighting in Mortal Kombat). His interactions with Johnny are pretty fun, where Liu enjoys poking the filmstar’s ego. When he has to do heavy emoting, he’s what you might call ‘b-movie adequate:’ not great, but he gets the job done enough that you’re not pulled out of the film.

As said, , Linden Ashby is the stand out among the three protagonists as Johnny Cage. He provides most of the film’s comic relief with his ‘everyman’ perspective, frequent jokes, and occasional slapstick (such as his enormous, but ever-dwindling supply of suitcases in the early scenes). At the same time, as noted above, he gets some really quite good moments that call for actual emoting, and, refreshingly, he’s allowed to be an honest-to-goodness hero underneath his ostensibly shallow, self-absorbed exterior. I especially like the matter-of-fact chivalry he shows towards Sonya by repeatedly stepping in to defend her almost from the moment they meet (when she gives him the “I don’t need your help” line he replies “We can’t help it, it’s a guy thing”). Though he also gently mocks this trait in himself by suggesting Sonya should take point after they catch their first glimpse of Goro, preventing the touch from being too mawkish. Honestly, Johnny’s just a flat-out likable character, with a decent story arc of his own that comes to a satisfying conclusion when he takes on Goro and has to forego any ego-saving flashiness to come out on top. He also gets one of the best fights in the film in his duel with Scorpion, allowing Ashby to show his martial arts skills to the fullest.

“WELCOME!”

The main weak point in the cast is Bridgette Wilson as Sonya. Her acting is again adequate: not great, but not distracting, and the character comes across perfectly well as a self-reliant, somewhat abrasive tough girl single-mindedly focused on her goal (which makes for an amusing contrast with Johnny). No, the problem is that she’s the one non-martial artist in the main cast and it shows. This was apparently due to her being a last-minute replacement when the original actress, Cameron Diaz (!!) injured herself during training, leaving no time to bring her up to snuff.

To their credit, the filmmakers work around this as well as they can. Sonya has the fewest fights of any of the leads and they use careful staging and quick edits to make her look more skilled than she is. It works pretty well during a big group fight where the three heroes take on a gang of baddies, but her solo fight against Kano is pretty awkward (though her lack of training is most apparent when she’s tossing slow, clumsy air punches right before the match). Let no one say she wasn’t game, though: that’s really her doing all the fighting and stunts without a double (most of the actors did the majority of their own stunts and fighting, which helps immensely to sell the film).

Of course, the idea that Bridgette Wilson could defeat ex-professional-boxer Trevor Goddard is probably the least believable thing in the entire movie. Though again to their credit, they at least make a point of showing that she feels his blows a lot more than he feels hers and she finishes him with a wrestling move that could at least conceivably work in that situation (rather than pummeling him into submission or something equally ridiculous).

Looks like a fair and even fight

Kano himself is mostly just a slimy pig, but he really doesn’t need to be anything else, and Goddard’s gleefully horrible performance is a lot of fun to watch. I especially like the scene where he’s chomping down on the provided feast while chatting with an unimpressed Goro. It’s just such a ridiculous situation, and yet one that naturally might occur under those circumstances. I also like the contrast Kano, the slovenly crime boss, presents to the more dignified Outworld villains, allowing the audience to sense at once that they are on a different level of dangerous compared to a mere criminal.

By this time there had been two games in the franchise, with a third one coming out the same year as the film. The filmmakers wisely chose to focus primarily on the first game, drawing the cast almost entirely from its roster, which consisted of seven fighters, one hidden fighter (Reptile), and two boss characters. They also include Kitana and Jax from the second game (and Jax is pretty much just a cameo).

(Jax’s presence, by the way, is itself a nice touch: they needed someone for Sonya to talk to in her early scenes, so they took a character already connected with her from the games and just declared ‘this is that guy’; a nice nod to the fans and a way of saying that they were paying attention.

I was going to say that I wish they had done something similar with Art Lean, a friend of Johnny’s who gets killed by Goro…until I reviewed the line-up for the first two games and realized that there really wasn’t a suitable character to fill that role. Which also shows that they didn’t just shove a familiar name into an unsuitable position – e.g. calling him ‘Smoke’ or something – simply to be able to say they had the character).

With such a large cast to account for, however (and with a limited budget and run time), someone was going to get the short shrift, and in this case it’s Scorpion and Sub-Zero (ironically enough, given that they’ve become the faces of the franchise). Their rivalry is only obliquely alluded to, neither gets anything that could be considered characterization, and they’re pretty much just one step-up from the interchangeable faceless thugs. This could understandably annoy fans of the franchise.

Me, I more appreciate the fact that the filmmakers knew they couldn’t fit everything in and so picked their battles. Rather than overstuffing the movie with irrelevant side-plots, they focus on the three protagonists and their conflict with the villain and structured everything else around that. Scorpion and Sub-Zero’s storyline didn’t fit, so they ended up sidelined in order to streamline the film. It isn’t ideal, obviously, and I’m not sure they couldn’t have fit them in better if they had wanted to, but it seems to me an acceptable sacrifice to have a leaner, more focused story.

Their role here is to provide antagonists for the characters to face and defeat, but this is a role that these two characters (plus Reptile, whom we’ll get to in a minute) are well suited to perform due to their supernatural powers. The three heroes are all normal, well-trained humans (well, Liu shows some pseudo-supernatural moves toward the end, but nothing too crazy or out-of-the-way for a martial arts hero), so pitting them against super-human opponents ups the stakes considerably and lets us know just how far they’re out-classed.

This meant that the filmmakers sensibly didn’t bother casting actors in the roles of Scorpion, Sub-Zero, and Reptile, as only Scorpion has any dialogue at all (and that just a few disparate words, including his “GET OVER HERE!” catchphrase, all of which were dubbed by Ed Boon, the game’s co-creator) and none are ever seen outside their ninja outfits. Instead, they cast professional martial artists and stuntmen – some of whom also served as trainers the other actors – thereby shoring up the all-important fight scenes and probably saving more than a few pennies of their modest budget.

That said, I think Chris Casamassa does get some good eye takes as Scorpion, especially his creepily ambiguous twitch after Johnny destroys his harpoon.

On that subject, as an adaptation I think Mortal Kombat is really one of the best examples of how to translate something like a video game into a movie. They take the central story idea – a mystical martial arts tournament – and the core structure – fight through a series of opponents until you take on first the villain’s chief henchman and then the villain himself – and applied it to a tried and true film template – Enter the Dragon and its successors. Then when that superstructure is functional they focus on how to make the distinctive elements of the game work in the new medium, with smaller details – aesthetics, dialogue, specific moves – thrown in as a treat for the fans.

Having played the game on an emulator (well, most of it: it’s a tough game and harder on a keyboard), I found that the film managed to fit in a surprising amount from the source material. Not everything, obviously, and not perfectly, but enough to convince me that the filmmakers were invested in what they were doing.

Though there is one major element of the game that didn’t make it in: the gore. The film is rated PG-13, despite the famously over-the-top fatalities of the games. Its absence is particularly conspicuous given that this was one of the most distinctive elements of the series. This was done because most of the fans of the game were teenagers or kids at the time and so the studio wanted to make sure they would be able to come out to see it. Again, many fans might find this annoying.

That said, they do push the rating a fair bit. There’s a good deal of bone-cracks during the fights and several over-the-top deaths: Sub-Zero freezing an opponent so that he shatters into a thousand pieces, Scorpion’s fiery demise, etc. It’s toned down from the games, even at the time (they’ve gotten a lot more extreme since then to keep their reputation up), but I think the filmmakers found a good balance between following the games and working within the rating requirement. Obviously an R-rating would have been preferable (as far at matching the games is concerned), but you can understand why they went they way they did and they clearly tried to do their best in spite of it.

Of course, the most important thing in the film are the fights, and they’re pretty impressive. The film takes its time building up to them, then when the tournament begins we get three or four in a row. Most of the cast are trained martial artists and their moves are consequently crisp, fast, and well-choreographed, with plenty of flashy show moves to spice things up and judicious use of wirework (as well as some over-the-top silliness in places – especially the Reptile fight – but not as much as you might think). Credit too to director Paul W. S. Anderson for shooting the fights in a way that you can clearly see what’s happening (if only he’d remembered this when he made Alien vs. Predator), and for giving each fight its own pace and structure so that no two feel like a repeat of each other. My own favorites are Johnny’s fight with Scorpion (a lot of people consider that the best fight in the film), Liu’s climactic fight with Shang Tsung, and the early group fight. I also like Liu’s fight with Sub-Zero for the clever way he was dispatched, and Johnny’s duel with Goro, though that’s more of a character scene than a fight scene.

Round One: Fight!

Speaking of Goro, let’s talk about the special effects. They’re…a mixed bag. In fact, you have here a pretty direct compare / contrast between practical effects and CGI. On the one hand you have Reptile, realized for most of the film’s run time as a truly awful computer-generated creature, one that looks like it came out of a demo reel for the Nintendo 64. On the other you have Goro, realized in an elaborate costume and puppet. Goro doesn’t look ‘real’ as you might say – he’s clearly a puppet – but the interesting thing is that he goes down a lot easier than Reptile, and you eventually kind of just accept him as a character. This is because Goro is actually there, actually on camera and interacting with the other characters, which lends him much more life and presence than the animated creature. People have a much easier time ascribing personality to an actual physical object, however un-lifelike, than they do to something they know isn’t there at all.

This isn’t to say that practical effects are always and objectively ‘better’ than CGI, but that there is a difference between them, and it means that bad practical effects can still be charming and even functional, while bad CGI is just bad.

That said, Goro’s puppet is pretty impressive. It reminds me in some ways of the turtle costumes from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie, with a similar sense of “it doesn’t look ‘real,’ but it works nonetheless.”

“I am Goro! General of the armies of Outworld and Prince of the subterranean real of Shokan!”

There are some other effects, such as Scorpion’s living ‘harpoon’ (which looks just as bad as Reptile, and frankly was an odd stylistic choice to begin with), some composite shots, and a number of electricity and freezing effects, most of which are just fine and acceptable in a cheesy kind of way. Thankfully, Reptile has the power to camouflage himself, and when he fights Liu he first turns into a human ninja through some weird fantasy magic, so he has very little screen time as a wee cg beastie.

On the other side of the equation, the sets are gorgeous. These are really a high point of the film: towering, ornate banquet halls and palace corridors lined with statues, mountain-top temples, a fire-lit cavern filled with rickety platforms lined with skeletons, an eerie, smoke-filled chamber, lush beaches, and maze-like forests. Clearly a good chunk of the film’s modest budget went to constructing or traveling to interesting environments for the fights to take place in, which I would say is money well spent. At times the movie looks like it’s set in a Weird Tales cover.

And, of course, I have to mention that famous techno-beat theme song, which opens and ends the film, as well as playing during several of the fights. It’s the absolute perfect theme for the film: driving, energetic, and with just the right amount of cheesiness.

In terms of flaws, well, there are plenty, though for my money they don’t detract much from the overall effect of the film. The sometimes wooden acting and questionable special effects have been mentioned. There are debatable issues like Raiden flat out telling the characters what their arcs are supposed to be at one point (though as he’s their mentor and they’re up against the wall, you could argue that’s what he ought to do). In the climactic battle, Shang Tsung’s “army of souls” is rather laughably shown as five or six bad guys who go down with one or two hits each, and Liu’s progression through the ‘battles of enemy, self, and deepest fear’ is rather lackluster. Also, Shang tries to trick at one point by turning into his dead brother, but he does so right in front of him, so why wouldn’t he immediately see through it (I mean, his back is turned, but still they could have staged that better)? Likewise, Johnny inexplicably just disappears from the film during the Reptile fight, despite the fact that he had been right there a second ago. You could be generous and say he was distracted by something, but they should have had a scene to at least show what he was doing all that time.

There’s a bit where Goro goes on a rampage, devastating the mortal fighters in a montage, then gets a set-piece fight where he kills Art Lean. For some reason, everyone’s shocked by Goro’s appearance, but shouldn’t they have already seen him while he was killing all those other people? It would have been better to put the fight first and the montage after.

Then there’s the fact that the theme of ‘Mortal men and women deciding their own destiny’ seems kind of at odds with Liu Kang’s status as ‘the chosen one’ or that he specifically wasn’t able to escape his destiny to fight in Mortal Kombat.

Finally, I don’t like the cliffhanger ending (I’m generally against these, and not just because it led to the infamous sequel Mortal Kombat: Annihilation). I always prefer to go out on a high note, and the ending doesn’t really make any sense given what’s been established.

By the way, in the aforementioned ‘Raiden tells everyone the lesson they need to learn’ scene, I rather love how Sonya’s lesson amounts to the gloriously un-PC “recognize when you’re a damsel in distress and just need to be rescued.”

As I say, Mortal Kombat was long regarded as the best video-game adaptation yet made. It was a bona-fide hit when it came out, spending three weeks at the top of the US box office. What is more, it was so well-received by fans of the games that many of its changes, story elements, and characterizations were integrated into the games themselves. For instance, Kano was originally envisioned as a Japanese or Japanese-American character. But following Trevor Goddard’s deliciously slimy depiction, he was forever after portrayed as Australian. Likewise the notion of having to win ten Mortal Kombats in a row and Johnny Cage’s romance with Sonya, among other story beats, were integrated into the mythos of the games.

Now, let’s be clear: Mortal Kombat is no one’s idea of a classic. It’s a B-Movie through and through, with everything that implies: it’s silly, cheesy, the acting is mostly only fair, the effects are often down-right bad, and there are several goofy moments or gaps in logic. But it’s a B-Movie done very well, by filmmakers who clearly cared about what they were doing and strove to make the best product they could with the limited resources at their command. Most importantly, it’s just a very enjoyable, simple little film. It knows exactly what it is and what it’s trying to do and puts in the effort to make it happen, and it’s done with a degree of competence and creative energy that many more prestigious films would envy.

“MORTAL KOMBAT!”

A Terrible Fate

I found this video the other day. It’s a shockingly well-done short film depicting the backstory to The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. Not only is the animation beautiful and of a professional-grade quality, but most importantly I feel like they really captured the tone and atmosphere of the game perfectly. Not just of the Zelda franchise as a whole, but more specifically of that game, which is arguably the most atmospheric of the entire series.

If they ever were to make a Legend of Zelda movie, this is what it ought to look like.

Ross’s Game Dungeon Does America

For this week’s Saturday entertainment, I offer the 2018 4th of July (sort of) episode of Ross’s Game Dungeon, where he reviews The Crew and takes a cross-country tour of the United States.

I haven’t kept up on the game itself in the intervening years, nor its sequel, so I don’t know what the state of the series is, but I have to say that I agree with Ross that I love just the idea of a giant, continuous map of a miniaturized version of the United States, and that you could really just sell the game on that alone. No story, just the chance to drive around the country, see the sights, learn bits of trivia, and maybe have the option to play some mini-games, like races or stunts or something. I would absolutely buy a game like that, assuming it wasn’t a glorified rental like this game is.

(The size and scope of the map also makes me dream of an ‘Arkham City’-style sandbox game for Godzilla: maybe with a miniaturized version of the Pacific Ocean and Japan, plus some other coastal regions and islands. Better not dwell on that too much, or I’ll get depressed that it doesn’t exist).

In any case, enjoy Ross’s tour of America. Stay to the end for a visit to my hometown of Detroit.

“Come get me now, punks: I’m in Nebraska!

Polybius

I like video game history, I like urban legends, and I really like seeing people put a tremendous amount of research and effort into their videos.

With that, I present you Retro Ahoy‘s documentary on Polybius, one of the most prominent myths of the video game world.

First a summary: according to the story, Polybius was a mysterious arcade game available for a brief time in Portland in the early 1980s. Descriptions of the gameplay are vague, but was said to be abstract and strange, combination puzzle and shooting, supposedly highly addictive despite its abstract nature. However, those who played it began to experience odd side-effects such as nausea, amnesia, night-terrors, and behavioral changes. Then a few months after its first appearance, mysterious men in black appeared and wheeled the machines away, never to be seen again.

The rumor is that the game was a CIA experiment: testing mind-control or personality-alteration technology on the general population.

The video goes into greater detail of the story, its history, place in video game culture, and (most impressively) seems to track the legend back to its source. Though even then, there’s still a potential mystery left unanswered to tickle the fancy.

It’s a long video (over an hour), but well-worth it.

I recommend you check out the rest of Retro Ahoy’s channel: the guy puts a ton of research into his work, especially for his longer videos. If you have any interest in video games or video game history, he’s well worth the time (his equally-long and in-depth documentary on ‘The First Video Game‘ is also a must-view).

Weirdness Epic

I think I’ve mentioned before my fondness for Ross’s Game Dungeon, one of the more unique game-review pages on YouTube. Rather than striving for ‘relevance’ with reviews of the latest triple-A games, Ross tends to aim at more obscure, odd, or interesting games, old or new.

It’s hugely entertaining for two reasons: one because Ross comes across as very genuine, like he’s just a guy talking about things he likes. He’s open about the fact that he just picks games to review or topics to cover because they seem interesting to him. The other is that his sense of humor is very much to my taste. A lot of it is of the ‘say something utterly outrageous with a straight face’ variety which I adore. He swears sometimes, though not very often and it always feels warranted, not just a cheap way to get laughs.

Like most people, I found Ross through his Freeman’s Mind series: a playthrough of the original Half-Life where Ross narrates his interpretation of the famously silent protagonist’s thoughts on the events. That’s a brilliantly hilarious series as well (“Give peace a chance! Or at least stand still”), but I’d recommend any viewers who haven’t played the game itself and have any interest in doing so should play the game first to get the full experience (I swear I will do a full Half-Life essay at some point).

I also find many of his videos on other topics to be interesting. I don’t like when he gets onto global warming or peak oil (which happens sometimes, though he at least tries to back up what he says with research), but his talks about, say, improving the GUI or VR are great, and I especially appreciate his efforts to sound the alarm on games being destroyed (see his Games as a Service is Fraud video for an excellent summary of the problem).

Here’s an nice, low-key episode to give you an idea of what Ross is all about: Puzzle Agent

But for Saturday, I’m going to present what I think is his magnum opus in terms of game reviews: possibly the weirdest, most surreal, most insane game ever made. And I mean literally insane, as in some viewers might find this hard to watch because the game honestly feels like its internal logic and aesthetic sense is that of someone with legitimate mental illness. Not just ‘quirky’ or imaginative, but genuinely insane. I can’t even think of any other examples of that sort of thing that I could compare it with.

Put it this way: the instruction manual for the game includes a statement from the developer that “This game is not the fruit of a sick man’s mind.”

They actually felt the need to assure people of that in the introduction to the manual.

This on top of a truly surreal, slightly disturbing artistic and musical sense and…well, it’s really hard to convey just what this game is like. Ross describes it as “The Odyssey of Gaming,” an utterly unique epic of weirdness that very few souls have explored, let along conquered. You really have to experience it for yourself, and the best way to do so is with Ross as your guide.

I give you Armed and Delirious. Proceed with caution!

Thoughts on ‘Psychonauts’

With volume 2 of Fantastic Schools (featuring a story by your humble servant) coming out soon [UPDATE: It’s alive!], I thought it appropriate to revisit one of my own favorite entries in the fantastic schools subgenre: the video game cult-classic Psychonauts.

We open with a man in an army uniform giving a speech before the projected image of a brain:

“The human mind. 600 miles of synaptic fiber, five and a half ounces of cranial fluid, 1500 grams of complex neural matter. A three-pound pile of dreams. But I’ll tell you what it really is. It is the ultimate battlefield, and the ultimate weapon. The wars of this modern age – the Psychic Age – are fought somewhere between these damp, curvaceous undulations. From this day forward, you are all psychic soldiers. Paranormal paratroopers! Mental marines who are about to ship out on the adventure of their lives! This is our beachhead! And this is your landing craft. You shall engage the enemy in his own mentality—you shall chase his dreams, you shall fight his demons, you shall live his nightmares! And those of you who fight well, you will find yourselves on the path to becoming international secret agents. In other words: Psychonauts! The rest of you… will die!”

At which point the camera reveals that he is addressing a group of small, terrified children huddling around a campfire, one of whom bursts into tears and wails that they told him this was a summer camp. Another camp counselor kindly reassures them: “Children, you are not going to die.”

Welcome to the bizarre, hilarious, and gloriously imaginative world of Psychonauts.

This is one of those games where, though the gameplay is fun and often very satisfying, it is the premise, story, and characters that really set it apart. It’s a shining example of video games as a story telling device; there’s more than enough material here that you could easily have done it as an animated movie or TV show, but the interactivity and the chance to explore the strange world undoubtedly adds something to experience.

The premise, as indicated above, is that in this world psychics exist, but are generally shunned and feared (not without reason). At Whispering Rock Psychic Summer Camp, those born with a gift they never asked for learn to focus and control their powers and, possibly, have the opportunity to be recruited into the top-secret organization of the Psychonauts; international secret agents dedicated to preserving peace and freedom throughout the world (picture a cross between the X-Men and MI6 from the Bond films).  

Mostly, though, the kids spend their time in petty, soap-opera-like antics.

The player takes the role of Razputin ‘Raz’ Aquato, an extremely gifted young psychic acrobat who ran away from the circus to join the camp and become a Psychonaut. Since he arrives late and without his parents’ permission, the counselors – the militaristic Coach Olleander, the super-stoic Sasha Nein, and the warm-hearted, free-spirited Milla Vodello – naturally tell him that he’ll have to be sent home. But having gotten a glimpse of his abilities, none of them can resist working with him a little while he waits for his father to come pick him up. In the process Raz discovers an evil plot to take over the world using the brains of his fellow campers and soon, under the guidance of the brilliant, but mentally-shattered Ford Cruller, ex-head of the Psychonauts, he finds himself the only one capable of stopping the villain and saving both the world and his new maybe-girlfriend Lilli.

The story is pure cartoonish fun, especially combined with the witty writing and the vividly sketched characters. And since most of the game involves jumping and out of minds, many of them receive a remarkable amount of development as we not only learn sketches of their backstory, but are able to see the actual structure of their minds and personalities. Reserved, stoical Sasha’s mind, for instance, is a uniform cube floating in space, from which different aspects of his personality can be summoned at will. In contrast, the kind, loving Milla has a mind that is a never-ending dance party where you float from room to room (though there is one area of her mind that she strenuously warns you not to go into). Militaristic Coach Oleander’s mind is a chaotic battlefield which he claims is “the memory of every battle I’ve ever fought,” but which perhaps hints at something darker (more on the mindscapes in a bit). The collectables you find inside their brains, particularly the ‘memory vaults’, further flesh them out (one vault in Milla’s mind hints that she and Sasha are partners in more ways than one…or at least that she would like them to be).

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This vividness of character extends beyond those whose minds you visit. The Whispering Rock campers are a stunningly varied and often quite disturbed bunch of adolescents (their official ages range for seven to twelve, but they generally act more like teenagers). Among others are Elka Doom, a boy-crazy girl who can predict the future and annoys everyone with her relationship drama aimed at Nils, the would-be Casanova who boasts “My parents let me watch R-rated movies” and hits on anything that he confirms to be female. There’s Maloof, who is the camp underdog and most frequent target of bullies until he befriends Russian strong-man Mikhail and instantly becomes a pint-sized mob-boss (“For the meek, justice. For the abusers of power, wedgies and Indian burns. Choose your sides wisely”), Chloe, who believes herself to be an alien, wears a space helmet at all times, and spends most of the game trying to contact her ‘people’, and Dogen, a…strange boy who is sweet, but clearly not all there even by the standards of the camp and has a slight problem with making people’s heads explode (“But now I wear this special hat so I won’t have any more accidents. Wanna try it on?”).

The campers and Ranger Cruller

The interesting thing is that you can follow the various antics of the campers all throughout the game, as almost every advance causes them to change what they’re doing and what they have to say. Early on you find Elton, a boy who wears a sailor hat, talking to the fish down by the dock. A little later Milka, a girl with penchant for invisibility, catches his eye by protecting some of the fish from abuse. After that, they can be found making out together non-stop. Raz then can read a letter from Milka on the notice board warning off the other girls from making a move on him. 

And despite the relatively little amount of time they all get, the characters often show a surprising degree of nuance. Like how Bobby, the obnoxious camp bully, reveals an awkward crush on Chloe and hints that he wants a father figure.

That’s all just the incidental characters filling out the camp. Much more focus is directed at Lili, the daughter of the current head of the Psychonauts. She affects a jaded, detached attitude towards everyone and everything owing to her having been coming to camp longer than anyone else, though she quickly develops an infatuation for Raz that she has a hard time hiding (and not just because he can hear her thoughts). And for all her sarcasm, the game establishes her straight away as a fundamentally decent person by having her comfort Dogen when he starts crying in the opening cut scene, as well as being the only one other than Raz to pick up on the ominous signs at the camp, and she periodically lets her mask slip to reveal the chipper, adventurous girl beneath her aloof exterior. She comes across quite well as a very talented, tomboyish girl (her back-and-forths with Raz are all great), but with a softer heart than she lets on.

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“No…you don’t smell like pond scum.”
“Nice. You should write greeting cards.”

Then there’s Raz’s chief mentor, Ford Cruller. Ford used to be the head of the Psychonauts and is still one of the most powerful psychics on Earth, but his mind was shattered in a psychic duel, leaving him with a split personality (he shows up around camp as a cook, ranger, janitor, and so on). He’s able to pull his brain together in his secret lair under the camp owing to a massive ‘Psitanium’ deposit (a rare element that boosts psychic powers…and can cause insanity). From there he monitors world events and sends Sasha and Milla – the only two agents still loyal to him – on their assignments. As well as “making sure you little spoon-benders don’t kill each other.”

Unlike some video game mentors, Ford maintains a continual presence throughout the game, both in terms of cut scenes and frequent trips to his lair and because Raz can psychically summon him for advice using a piece of bacon (Ford’s advice is entertaining enough that you’ll quickly learn to call him whenever something new happens just to see what he says).

Picture a more crotchety version of Dumbledore and you’ll be fairly close to the mark on Ford, though honestly I found Ford and Raz’s relationship to be the more charming. There’s more give-and-take to it than with Harry and Dumbledore, in the way Raz will make snide remarks or push back against Ford’s crotchetiness (among other things, at one point they get into a debate about whether ‘ca-caw’ is one word or two: “sure, if you’re gonna use a hyphen…”). There’s a definite sense of a surrogate grandfather figure in Ford’s rough, yet playful handling of Raz: he not only provides him training and guidance, but is able to interact with him on his own level (“only use pyrokinesis if it’s very, very important or it’s really, really entertaining”), while periodically dishing out elaborate threats of violence (“Very nice. Now set me down easy and go pick up something that won’t blow up your head if you make it mad”).

“Hey, she is not my girlfriend!”
“Oh, that makes all the difference. Just let her get eaten, then.”

Finally, we have Raz himself, the psychic acrobat who ran away from the circus to become a secret agent. Like Manny, the protagonist of Tim Schaefer’s earlier Grim Fandango, Raz is a clever, personable hero with a sharp tongue and a wicked sense of humor to go with his righteousness. He befriends strangers easily and stands up for camp outcasts, but he’s equally ready to take shots at anyone who gets on his bad side, or just to provoke someone for fun if he doesn’t like them. He’s willing to get into fights but seems to prefer using his wits to overcome obstacles, making him a decent amateur therapist / conman (it’s a fine line).  

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His determination and focus make him admirable, while his playful, boyish nature (“Shooting things is fun and useful!”) make him endearing. I like how, despite his mischievous and sarcastic personality, he’s in some ways the most idealistic person at the camp. He’s the one who believes the most in the Psychonauts and their mission, who can recite the camp advertisement word-for-word, and who is invested enough in the people around him to notice when things start going wrong. Refreshingly, his whole goal is that he wants to be a hero, and he’s willing to put in the work to make it happen. Another nice detail is that he’s initially uncomfortable with blasting enemies in the mental world, until Sasha reminds him that they’re just thoughts and not really alive at all. It helps too that he’s one of the saner characters at the camp, allowing him to be an audience surrogate, though we soon learn that he has his own issues as well (crippling aquaphobia due to a family curse being the least of them).

Now, one of the most interesting aspects of the game is Raz’s relationship with his stern father. We see a memory of his father forbidding him from going to camp and tearing up his brochure, and every time he comes up Raz insists that he hates psychics and hates him for being a psychic, even suggesting at one point that his father’s been trying to kill him. At the end of the game, however, we get a revelation that not only sheds light on his father’s character, but on Raz himself. He’s revealed to be, for all his cleverness and power, ultimately still a kid with a child’s understanding of the world. Need I say that I love this undermining of the patriphobic attitude (“father doesn’t understand you! You need to defy him and show him what’s right!”) found in so many contemporary stories?  

I also have to mention the endlessly quotable dialogue. Again, just about every step of the game brings a new response from almost every character, and the oft-bizarre goings on lead to a lot of simply hilarious lines:

“Relax, this won’t hurt a bit. Unless something really very bad happens.”

“You have the insanity of a manatee!”

“There is no ‘I’ in ‘team’, Goggalor.”
“No, but there is an ‘I’ in ‘squish’, so watch it.”

“Just throw my innocent bones into the cruel machine of war. I’m ready!”

“Oh no, they got Freddy. Poor Freddy. He was such a good secret agent. I mean, assassin.”

“If anyone talks to the squirrels, they shouldn’t listen because the squirrels are a bunch of stupid liars.”

“I run a nice, quiet insane asylum.”

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“Lili! A deranged madman is building an army of psychic death tanks to take over the world, and there’s no one who can stop him except for you and me!”
“Oh my God! Let’s make out…”

Now, as noted, most of the game consists of Raz jumping in and out of the minds of various different characters. At first these are primarily instructive journey’s; he jumps into the minds of his counselors so that they can teach him about his psychic abilities. As time goes on, however, he ends up in the stranger and more dangerous minds of other people (and at one point, a giant lungfish), where he has to go in to try to solve their psychological issues.

The mindscapes the game creates are one of its great triumphs. Each one is completely different, but each one makes sense given the character whose mind you’re entering. The mind-controlled lungfish’s brain, for instance, is a miniature world artificially built up, where Raz appears as a giant monster, reflecting the fact that he’s a human entering a fundamentally simpler animal brain (and giving us a hilarious parody of kaiju movies, complete with a pitch-perfect Ifukube-esque score). Manic-depressive actress Gloria’s mind is a theater whose spotlight switches the mood from bright and benevolent to dark and hostile (while her bloated inner critic presides over the whole, hurling non-stop abuse). And the mind of Boyd, the paranoid-schizophrenic security guard, is a set of suburban streets suspended in space, twisting back upon each other like the tangled threads of his conspiracy theories, while literally every bush, mailbox, and fire-hydrant is watching you.

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“Goggalor!”

For all its eeriness, Boyd’s world is also one of the funniest parts of the game, populated by sinister secret agents ‘masquerading’ in a variety of roles via the expedient of holding a single prop and talking in disjointed monotones about their profession (“I am a sewer worker. Although I often smell of excrement, I deserve your respect because I provide a useful service to the community.” “Plants need to have water poured on them because they have no hands to hold glasses of water.”).

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“What is the purpose of the goggles?”

I really have to give the game credit for how well the minds are structured in psychological terms. Not only do the structures of the minds make sense given the characters, but the way you deal with them and the issues you face likewise fits with how those problems would be dealt with. Sasha’s mind ends with his ultra-controlled brain exploding into a giant ‘censor’, reflecting the potential of an overly suppressed mind to lose its sense of proportion and just try to control everything. Gloria’s inner critic is defeated by Raz shining spotlights on him, subjecting his withering commentary to rational scrutiny and revealing his hostile intentions, while split-personality Fred Bonaparte is healed by conquering the part of his brain controlled by Napoleon, which requires Fred to actually grow a spine.

As indicated, the artistry and design of these levels is amazing. The game is often a visual and imaginative feast. At one point you enter the mind of an artist, and it’s a gorgeous living black-velvet painting with a swirling, multi-colored sky. Milla’s mind is a technicolor explosion, while almost everything in Coach Oleander’s brain is military themed, down to the bushes made of ammo belts. The camp itself is very nice to look at, particularly around sunset, with its blue skies and lush forests, while the abandoned insane asylum is as creepy and nightmarish as you would expect. 

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Welcome to Black Velvetopia

The gameplay takes the form of an action-platformer collect-a-thon, mixed with puzzles and combat. The player uses Raz’s acrobatics and psychic abilities to traverse obstacles in quest for a huge number of collectables to level up and gain more power. Gathering all of these, especially the elusive ‘figments of imagination’ can be frustrating (since the figments are often hard to see and can be hidden anywhere), but it’s not required to win the game; just if you want to go for the hundred percent. So far I’ve only done that once, and it required a walkthrough to find them all, but your mileage may vary.

Raz’s psychic powers – telekinesis, levitation, psy-blasts, and so on – are generally a lot of fun to play around with. Almost each power gets a different response from each character, meaning that each time you get a new ability it’s often worth just going around the camp and trying it out on everyone you meet. Clairvoyance (letting you see through other people’s eyes) and Confusion can be especially amusing (“yes…I love war…”).

I also give props to the worldbuilding. Raz can find a timeline of the camp, which is honestly rather unsettling (“75 Years Ago: Houston Thorney builds his Home for the Demented to deal with the insanity epidemic. 60 Years Ago: More residents in the Asylum than in the town. Houston Thorney commits suicide by throwing himself from the tower.”). Psychic powers, while cool, are explicitly shown to be dangerous as well, making it believable that people would fear psychics and showing why a place like Whispering Rock would be necessary. The game tries very hard to make all of its elements consistent with its world, so that there is a reason, say, for Raz having multiple lives, gaining health as the game goes on, and even for enemies dropping pickups (these explanations don’t carry on to the real world, but at least they were trying). Again, it’s goofy comic book style science fiction, but it is science fiction and the game really does explore and develop its world pretty well.  

As you can tell, I love this game. It’s one of my all-time favorites. But it does have some serious problems, mostly involving the final level. The Meat Circus (a blend of Raz’s own mind and the villain’s) is a nightmare, and not just in the way that was intended. Frustrating platforming challenges blended with an escort mission and a wonky camera lead to the player dying again and again and again. Trying to make your way up the platforms while the little kid you’re supposed to be escorting wails about being attacked and his life bar goes steadily downward is like being stuck in traffic with a crying three-year-old. Not fun at all. Neither is the platforming challenge that follows, where thanks to the perspective and the structure of the challenges you sometimes have to just trial and error it to figure out what you’re supposed to do.  

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One of the most infamous levels in all of gaming

The frustration factor has since been mitigated by a patch that effectively gave the player infinite lives for this one level, but it’s still extremely annoying. From what I understand, they ran out of test time, forcing them to ship the game with the final level insufficiently edited, and I can well believe it. It’s a striking blot at the very end of an otherwise great game (though the awesome final boss battle and continuing great humor helps make up for it).  

Beyond that, my main complaint is simply that I wanted more. I would have loved to have spent more time with these characters, in this world, learning more about their backstories and quirks, seeing them follow through on their arcs, and just discovering what else they get up to. Again, you could easily make this into an animated TV series or ongoing comic book. But I suppose it’s much better to leave the audience wanting more than overstay your welcome.

Fortunately the game’s cult status means that we are getting more at last! First there was a short VR follow-up called ‘Rhombus of Ruin,’ which I haven’t played, but have seen playthroughs of. I think I’ll give that one its own rundown. And now we’re finally getting Psychonauts 2, supposedly coming out next year. It’s too early to tell yet, of course, but previews promise the same stunning imagination, wicked humor, and great characterization, along with more worldbuilding.

In summary, Psychonauts is simply a great game. It’s a delightful story told with wit and boundless creativity, tackling a rich premise and mining it for all its worth. This is a world and characters that I’d love to explore further and always enjoy revisiting.  

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*thinking* “When are you gonna shut up and kiss me?”
“Um…I can hear that.”
“I know.