Few games warped kids quite like Mortal Kombat did. Violent, controversial attractions have clung to the game industry ever since the 1970s and Exidy’s Death Race, yet Midway did something special by putting Mortal Kombat into arcades back in 1992. For a quarter or two, any passing child could try out a digitized, blood-spurting battle to the death, and they didn’t need home systems, the Internet, or permission from mom or dad. Mortal Kombat was soon a massive, gory success, with all of the parental complaints and hand-wringing it deserved.
Mortal Kombat also got the imitators it deserved: garish, horribly made fighters that made even Mortal Kombat 3 look appealing. This also makes Mortal Kombat clones a bit more interesting than the even larger field of Street Fighter II knock-offs. Street Fighter II started the whole fighting-game craze, but it was a more sedate and cartoon-ish game, and its copycats were usually bland and forgettable. We’d much rather look at Mortal Kombat rip-offs, with their eye lasers and dismemberment and fireball-spewing crotches. One note: don’t look for Killer Instinct or Primal Rage. Next to what we’re covering, Killer Instinct and Primal Rage are high art.
11) Cardinal Syn
Cardinal Syn could be considered the swan song for Mortal Kombat copycats, or perhaps a dying gurgle emerging from a rotted, jawless corpse that never truly lived. The game speaks of Kronos Digital Entertainment’s bizarre trip through fighting games. The developer started with Criticom, a 3-D fighter full of inept Star Wars rips. Dark Rift came next and seemed a mild improvement. Then Kronos decided that there was still money to be made in the field of hyper-violent fighting games. So they added death moves to Cardinal Syn, an otherwise mediocre free-roaming 3-D fighter for the PlayStation which was full of blocky monsters.
Kronos learned two things the hard way: Mortal Kombat rip-offs were pass? in 1998, and gory deaths were unimpressive when the dying looked like boxy polygon mannequins. Realizing that fighting games weren’t their thing, Kronos turned to the anime-inspired exploitation of the Fear Effect games and was all the better off for it. Well, Kronos was better off until Eidos canceled Fear Effect 3. But you can’t blame that on Cardinal Syn, as much as we’d like to. Defining Moment: The Tinkerbell-like Juni messily slaughtering opponents, as though the game is some unlicensed Disney fighter.
10) Ultra Vortek
The Atari Jaguar was an unfortunate system, beleaguered by software droughts, rushed releases, and a lot of terrible, terrible games. Ultra Vortek (often mislabeled Ultra Vortex by people who want a title that makes marginal sense) is actually the most impressive original fighting game available on the system. Of course, that means it’s still a horrible wreck. Mortal Kombat and its sequels weren’t afraid to use clay figures and CG models to create intimidating, four-armed boss monsters, so Ultra Vortek‘s developers went even further down that path. In this game, you’ll see the usual roundup of grainy “actors” in spandex taking on shrieking robots and lumbering rock-men. You’ll also see the most hilariously overdone decapitations in a fighting game.
Ultra Vortek might have amused a few Jaguar fans while they held out for better fighting games that would never come (unless you bought the CD attachment to play Primal Rage, and even then, you were playing Primal Rage). Yet it’s still a prime specimen from the ugly, lazy realm of Mortal Kombat duplication. Like most of its kind, Ultra Vortek seems complicated only in its back story: archeologists unearth a tablet that refers to a powerful ancient relic called the “Ultra Vortek,” and society immediately collapses. In this fallen world of repetitively animated street crowds, armies of robots and marauding gangs vie for supremacy against a giant demonic martial artist. And then they turn their defeated opponents into feces. For some reason, Ultra Vortek is not often seen in high-level fighting game tournaments. Defining Moment: The above-mentioned “poopality,” which replaces a dazed character with a stack of turds, all while fart noises play.
Incredible Technologies’ arcade semi-hit BloodStorm may make a tasteless attempt to ride the Mortal Kombat wave, but there’s something fascinating about its scattershot ambition. It borrows Mortal Kombat‘s button configuration and slaps it onto a relatively approachable game engine, one that echoes Street Fighter II and seems a bit more fluid than the usual jerky MK retread. Using sprite graphics and computer renders instead of digitized ugliness, BloodStorm‘s cast features elemental warriors (the ice guy! the wind princess!) and such post-apocalyptic archetypes as a grimy cyborg smuggler and a cannibalistic amazon queen who lives in the Obsel Desert. Ain’t that clever?
Spelling slang backwards isn’t the limit of BloodStorm‘s creativity; the game actually outdoes Mortal Kombat by giving characters large arsenals of special moves and the ability to steal more from fallen opponents. These powered-up characters can even be stored with passwords, something few arcade games allowed. Naturally, all of these ideas are in the service of wanton violence; combatants have the chance to dismember, disembowel, or decapitate each other at any point during a match.
If its murders are mostly uninspired, BloodStorm compensates by having lots of them, with graphic demises awaiting players who wander into the wrong parts of certain levels. BloodStorm also loads itself with secrets: over a hundred messages can show up when you mash buttons after a fight, there’s a lineup of some two dozen big-headed characters (including the game’s programmers and game-hating U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman), and eight secret agents, sent by BloodStorm’s badly rendered boss, can be fought through various background tricks and special codes. BloodStorm failed in arcades, but it wasn’t for lack of trying.
BloodStorm is still full of shallow play mechanics, glitches, and laughably cheap visual shortcuts. Yet it’s understandable that some kids would be fascinated by it back in 1994. Should you think less of the author of this list if, for example, he spent mountains of allowance money trying to machine-gun opponents to pieces while impaling them on huge spikes? No, you shouldn’t. Defining Moment: Characters can still fight after losing their arms and legs, so it’s possible to win when your fighter is only a head and torso inching around atop a pile of entrails. Don’t worry, you’ll be fine in the next match.
8) Way of the Warrior
Way of the Warrior earned a favorable review or two back in 1994, perhaps because 3DO owners were desperate for anything that made the system seem like less of a $700 failure. If Mortal Kombat was the game equivalent of a cheap-but-enjoyable karate film from the 1970s, Way of the Warrior would be a rip-off of that film, shot in the 1980s with camcorders and half the budget. Way of the Warrior at least makes use of a soundtrack torn from a White Zombie album and an intro narrated by a skull whose voice buries the game’s idiotic backstory in waves of bass.
If this leaves you feeling sorry for the people who created, starred in,
and financed Way of the Warrior, save your pity. Naughty Dog, the developer, went on to create Crash Bandicoot, the generic yet highly profitable mascot of the Sony PlayStation. In later interviews, Naughty Dog’s founders looked back on Way of the Warrior and laughed, remembering how they’d motion-captured the characters in an apartment office while building costumes from bed sheets and Disney Princess dress-up kits. When you’ve given the world Way of the Warrior, you really need to laugh at yourself. Defining Moment: A character falls into a pit of lava and stumbles out as a skeleton, with eyes melting from its sockets. See, the eyes would be one of the first things to liquefy and…you know what? Never mind.
7) Bio F.R.E.A.K.S.
Saffire’s Bio Freaks… sorry, Bio F.R.E.A.K.S. committed a crime against taste not just by being a clumsy, ugly 3-D arcade fighting game which stumbled onto the PS1 and N64. More offensive was its insistence on being a Mortal Kombat rip-off in early 1998, when fighting-game fans dared to think they had finally crept out of Mortal Kombat‘s influence. Bio F.R.E.A.K.S. has all the traits of the typical gory ’90s fighter: a laughably overcomplicated backstory, the option to finish off opponents in gruesome ways, and a cast of characters that range from slavering mutants to escapees from any terrible, one-issue superhero comic of the day. It’s a game best explained by its title acronym: Biological Flying Robotic Enhanced Armored Killing Synthoids.
Bio F.R.E.A.K.S. isn’t without a few promising details. Like a version of BloodStorm where everyone’s made of bleeding cardboard boxes, it lets characters lose their limbs (and still win) when they’re hit by devastating attacks. Each warrior also gets a shield to block projectiles and…well, that’s about it. There’s no attempt at balance, the fights are repetitive, and even the dismembering moves are pretty boring. Defining Moment: Sabotage’s little boyfriend-impaling stunt. A middle-schooler’s idea of comedy, it perfectly captures why Bio F.R.E.A.K.S. was years behind the times.
6) Survival Arts
In the unoriginal world of fighting games, Sammy was a quick leaner, as Survival Arts arrived less than a year after Mortal Kombat‘s 1992 debut. While we’d like to give Sammy the benefit of the doubt, Survival Arts does little to counter the theory that Sammy’s Japanese offices threw the arcade game together in a few months after noticing that Midway’s gory, digitized fighting game was a hit. Survival Arts tried to match that success by making its grainy motion-captured actors extremely large and, in the process, making the game a clumsy, screen-choking mess. There’s no sense of balance among the character attacks, and the gruesome elements seem oddly out of place. Finish off an enemy with a special attack and he or she will burst apart or magically turn into a skeleton, but there’s little graphic bloodshed elsewhere.
Making the characters huge does them no favors. It fact, it only makes them look cheaper, whether the focus is on a doughy luchador or a ninja woman with a sports bra and terrible posture. At least the game’s designers pulled out a memorable costume when it came to the boss of whatever bizarre organization governed Survival Arts. Memorable Moment: Defeating the game’s grinning Vegas-magician overlord and watching him spew black-and-white busts of Hitler and other evil historical figures. In fact, he seems to contain a great quantity of Hitler heads.
5) War Gods
Mortal Kombat fans went through a lot after the series hit its peak with Mortal Kombat II. Scores of them lost interest after Mortal Kombat 3 debuted a Native-American shaman, a riot cop, an Elvira: Mistress of the Dark impersonator, and a pointless “run” button. Yet many who sat through the worst of Mortal Kombat drew the line at War Gods, Midway’s first attempt to spin off Mortal Kombat‘s success. A 3-D fighter, War Gods took Mortal Kombat‘s digitized-character style and applied it to a bizarre pantheon of deities. Only one of them, Anubis, seems to be a historically worshipped god. The rest are vague bastardizations, including a Roman gladiator, a cyborg, a voodoo priest, and an unspecified Norse war goddess. Then there’s the stereotypical Japanese mishmash of Kabuki Jo, who became a running joke among the Internet game nerds of 1997. That aside, War Gods failed to capture anyone’s attention with its flailing controls and grimy look. Even its attempt at duplicating Mortal Kombat’s fatalities falls short.
Some polite historians describe War Gods as a test of Midway’s 3-D arcade engine, which would later be used for Mortal Kombat 4. The game does indeed have the feel of something never intended for public consumption, but this doesn’t excuse Midway releasing it on the PlayStation and Nintendo 64. This is a particularly heinous offense when one considers how desperate for games Nintendo 64 owners were back in 1997. They bought Cruisin’ USA, they bought Yoshi’s Story, and a few misguided children paid as much as $75 for War Gods on a cartridge. Defining Moment: Midway’s commitment to depicting ancient Aztec culture shines through as aspiring god Ahau Kin pins an enemy to a stone altar and rips out his or her heart.
4) Kasumi Ninja
Hand Made Software’s Kasumi Ninja is not the worst fighting game on the Jaguar, as it was humbled by Fight for Life, a 3-D atrocity slapped together in the system’s dying days. Yet Fight for Life didn’t have enough digitized community-theater recruits or visceral finishing moves to scrape Mortal Kombat country. So, Kasumi Ninja, you at least stand as the worst Mortal Kombat clone on the Jaguar. Congratulations.
Aside from that dubious honor, Kasumi Ninja will always be remembered as the fighting game wherein an irascible Scotsman launches a fireball from under his kilt. There’s more to Kasumi Ninja, but not much. It bleeds constantly, and the designers even made the fighters’ health meters into swords that drip gore as a warrior’s energy dwindles. That’s a creative point for Kasum
i Ninja, which mimics the game engine of Mortal Kombat down to its damaging uppercuts. There are fatalities as well, and they’re all somehow completely boring. Defining Moment: Aside from the kilt fireball, there’s Alaric, a rotund barbarian warlord who looks perpetually on the verge of a heart attack.
3) Time Killers
Time Killers might not owe its entire existence to the success of Mortal Kombat, since the two games arrived in arcades around the same time in 1992. Yet it’s hard to believe that the developers of Time Killers didn’t use the MK template and throw in some of their own innovations. Those novel concepts include buttons to control each limb and a character’s head, all of which can be cut off during the game. With such creative touches, Time Killers didn’t need to refine itself beyond having a few figures from various historic periods (plus an alien, for good measure) slam into each other until one loses a head or just collapses.
Time Killers seems like a parody of the fighting-game craze, with its stiff combatants leaping around while screams, blood, and battle cries (“Excalibur!”) fly at random. Indeed, Time Killers (especially the Genesis version) makes Incredible Technologies’ later games, BloodStorm and the digitized Street Fighter: The Movie: The Game, look masterful by comparison. It also makes one thankful that the developer now fashions little more than arcade golf titles. The next time you see a Golden Tee machine in a bar, consider that, in some cruel alternate dimension, it’s a cabinet for Time Killers 4: The Revenge of Mantazz. Defining Moment: A computer-controlled foe chopping off your character’s head as soon as the match starts. Sure, you can do the same to them, but that requires playing Time Killers more than once.
2) Shadow: War of Succession
Tribeca Interactive’s 3DO game Shadow: War of Succession clearly wants to make a good first impression. Take a look at its opening cinema, in which a helicopter tears over motionless water, speeds past a mis-colored statue of liberty, and shreds a skyscraper apparently occupied by a lone tackling dummy.
Even for a no-name digitized fighting game on a system crammed with half-finished software, Shadow is astounding in its failure. The motion-captured cast is completely boring, with not a single neon ninja or awkward rendered monster for players to choose. Instead, you get a roundup of characters with atrociously acted voice samples and woefully unbalanced computer AI. But hey, at least they’re not aliens or demons. When you’re working at a game studio co-founded by Robert De Niro (yes, that Robert De Niro), your Mortal Kombat knock-off must retain a certain air of dignity. Defining Moment: Realizing that the helicopter scene is the high point of Shadow: War of Succession.
1) Tattoo Assassins
If there was a nadir to these terrible Mortal Kombat rip-offs, a defining moment of creatively retarded apathy, it came with the arcade game Tattoo Assassins. The entire project arose from a screenplay by Back to the Future co-writer Bob Gale, who envisioned a world where magical tattoos drive international martial artists to take on a razor-handed tattoo conqueror. Covered in computer-added body paint, our heroes are the usual roundup of tribal leaders, former Navy SEALS, gang members, and strippers, plus a hacker named A.C. Current and an injured figure skater in an armored hockey dress. Remember Nancy Kerrigan, folks? Well, they did in 1994. So shut up about it.
Tattoo Assassins was not content to ape Mortal Kombat‘s limited selection of death moves and occasional comedic interludes. While BloodStorm and its excess of side attractions had failed, Data East figured that BloodStorm just hadn’t gone far enough. Taglines for Tattoo Assassins promise over 2000 finishing moves, and it actually delivers a good number of them. Of course, only a few of these fatal maneuvers involve the assassins’ tattoos. Most of them feature characters farting, stripping naked, and turning into well-known works of art, animals, clowns or whatever objects the designers could show in pixelly digitized form.
Despite the hard months of nausea-inducing work that harried artists and programmers put into Tattoo Assassins, someone at Data East suffered a moment of decency and canceled the game. While technically a finished product, Tattoo Assassins never got the chance to fester in arcades across North America. Someone later dumped a nearly finished version of the game to be emulated, and only then did the now-grown Mortal Kombat fans of 1994 see what they had missed. Defining Moment: It’s hard to pick out the most fascinatingly hideous detail from Tattoo Assassins. There’s the character-select screen, superimposed on the naked back of Renee Hudson, ex-wife of former Guns N’ Roses guitarist (and current Velvet Revolver guitarist) Slash. There’s a procession of bosses that includes a rhino-woman, a moldering zombie, and a man made of new-age crystals. Most importantly, there’s a stink of rushed, desperate failure all about Tattoo Assassins. That’s why it’s the farting, vomiting, blood-spraying emblem of an age that the game industry escaped far too late.
Robert Bricken is one of the original co-founders of the site formerly known as Topless Robot, and its first editor-in-chief, serving from 2008-12. He brought the site to prominence with “nerd news, humor and self-loathing” as its motto, raising it from total internet obscurity to a readership in the millions, with help from his savage “FAQ” movie reviews and Fan Fiction Fridays. Under his tenure Topless Robot was covered by Gawker, Wired, Defamer, New York magazine, ABC News, and others, and his articles have been praised by Roger Ebert, Avengers actor Clark Gregg, comedian and The Daily Show correspondent John Hodgman, the stars of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and Rifftrax, and others. He is currently the managing editor of io9.com. Despite decades as both an amateur and professional nerd, he continues to be completely unprepared for either the zombie apocalypse or the robot uprising.