The Mortal Kombat franchise is iconic not only for its unique brand of violence, but also due to its character designs and lore. What were once little more than cardboard cutouts of movie tropes, such as magical ninjas, angry gods, and modern soldiers, have transformed into fully realized characters with their own histories and agendas.
These evolutions are made even more apparent with Mortal Kombat 11’s timeline-altering plot, which pits each character’s former self against their modern counterpart. This concept allows each of the classic heroes to examine who they used to be and, by extension, how far they have come.
It’s an interesting question: What would you notice about yourself if, for some reason, you had to fight the you that existed 20 years ago?
The world has changed
The events of Mortal Kombat X turned the usually level-headed Raiden into a more strict and violent version of himself, which draws the attention of franchise newcomer Kronika. This mysterious new villain specializes in controlling time, and she uses her powers to merge the past and present in an effort to both rebalance history and destroy Raiden. This creates a crisis that forces many classic Mortal Kombat characters to team up with, or fight, themselves, pitting the past and present against one another.
It’s fun to see the early ’90s aesthetics of the original characters modeled with modern technology; it shows just how goofy some of the original designs look in 2019. But the more important contrast is how the personality and goals of each character have changed through the years. The characters have turned into something more than the archetypes from which they started, and now they have to face what those changes mean in the world of Mortal Kombat.
One of the best examples is Johnny Cage, a character who poked fun at the sexist, egotistical action stars of the early ’90s. All of these traits are dialed up ... well, to 11 in Mortal Kombat 11: His coiffed hair defies gravity, his clothing is distractingly neon, and his demeanor is even more smugly represented through the game’s fantastic facial mocap.
The modern take on the character, in comparison, is a battle-hardened father who has a more serious outlook on life. Those changes are put into sharp contrast when the two versions of the character come to blows with each other.
But the game doesn’t just rely on its visuals to get its message across. Retro Johnny Cage makes a sexist remark about Sonya Blade, his future wife and mother of his child, a few chapters into the story mode. The dialogue appalls today’s modern, progressive Johnny.
This situation leads to a battle which ends with the original Johnny sulking in defeat, seemingly more hurt that his actions and attitude weren’t welcomed in this version of the world instead of focusing on the beating he just took. The message is pretty clear: These original characters are out of their time, and it’s good that they have since “grown up.” So has the game.
These updates extend beyond the classic characters like Johnny Cage. The entire female cast of the game has been updated to lean less on their stereotypical sexualized designs, instead emphasizing looks and personalities that complement and help drive the modern story.
Some of these characters have nearly 30 years of history (Mortal Kombat was first released in arcades in 1992) and baggage associated with them, but Mortal Kombat 11’s plot attempts to comment on that history while updating what it can. The gore is still here, you don’t have to worry about that, but the development team seems to have realized that Mortal Kombat needed to both own its checkered past and find a way forward for the series.
Mortal Kombat 11’s time-twisting plot is a clever — and convenient — way to reset the franchise. The game’s story and design make ample nods to the past that built its foundation, while at the same time designing a new future for itself.