Platform: PlayStation 2
Developer: Midway Studios Los Angeles
Publisher: Midway Games Inc.
ESRB Rating: Mature

Pros: Responsive controls; fast-paced action; creative boss fights; co-op mode
Cons: Blocky character models; short length; few playable characters; no AI opponents in versus mode  

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Mortal Kombat has never been synonymous with excellence, but it has endured long enough to become one of the industry’s most famous and controversial franchises. While other games have enjoyed deeper fighting mechanics or more innovative features, it was Mortal Kombat’s distinctive visuals and over-the-top, so-nasty-they’re-funny finishing moves that first endeared it to the coin-op crowd. Yet violence alone cannot entirely explain Mortal Kombat’s longevity, or else games like Pit Fighter and Time Killers would still be spilling blood today. Graphic violence in an arcade game draws quarters, but if the settings and characters aren’t appealing, the game will be drawn and quartered. That has yet to happen with Mortal Kombat, though it has come perilously close a few times. Mortal Kombat: Shaolin Monks returns the series to its “gory” days, proving the franchise has enough backbone to make Sub-Zero want to reach out and yank it. 

Repairing the Legacy

If you’re skittish about the thought of a Mortal Kombat action game, you’re not alone. After all, there were two notoriously poor attempts on both the Nintendo 64 and PlayStation, and bad things supposedly come in threes. In this case, however, the third time’s the charm. Fans of EA’s Lord of the Rings beat-'em-ups will find a lot of similarities in Shaolin Monks' gameplay. Players advance their character through pre-defined pathways while pummeling two to three enemies at a time. Each kill nets players experience points, which can be exchanged for new special moves and combos. The wonderfully forlorn areas all have branching paths that can be revisited once players acquire new techniques. Along the way are combat-oriented puzzles, light platforming elements, and a cache of unlockable secrets.

Choose Your Destiny

Mortal Kombat: Shaolin Monks Shaolin Monks’ combat engine shines more brightly than Baraka’s toothy smile, which is no small feat. Some fighting games offer only a handful of moves, while others are mired in sluggish control. Shaolin Monks has neither problem. Playing as either Liu Kang or Kung Lao, you will effortlessly string together flips, punches, and kicks without a hitch.

The speed, fluid animation, and variety of cool moves impress from the word “fight”. Kung Lao can jump kick an enemy to the right, spring to an enemy on the left, and then return to the stunned foe on the right--all without touching the ground. Each character’s trademark special moves are here as well, from Liu Kang’s fireball to Kung Lao’s razor-sharp hat, which can be thrown like a Frisbee to wound or to decapitate anything in its path.

Please, Sir, I Want Some Gore

Stringing together combos earns you experience points and pleases the deliciously evil announcer (yes, his motivational words of “excellent”, “outstanding”, and “finish him” are back). It also fills a fatality meter, which, when maxed, allows you to one-shot an enemy in classic Mortal Kombat fashion--giving your enemy an “extreme” makeover in the truest sense of the word. Triggering a fatality instantly turns the screen black with only your character and the enemy visible. You then have a limited time to key in a string of directional movements and button presses to complete the fatality. While they really aren’t shocking anymore (some are more corny than gruesome), the finishing moves are still a hoot to perform. Shaolin Monks also adds “multalities” into the fray, allowing your character to slice and dice multiple opponents instead of just one.

Waiting to Impale

Mortal Kombat: Shaolin MonksPuzzles in Shaolin Monks generally involve unlocking gates, doors, and barriers, which typically require impaling your enemies onto spikes, tossing them onto catapults, or giving them the heave-ho into a crumbling wall or pile of boulders. Figuring out what’s needed is often easy enough, but the execution can be another thing entirely. It’s not uncommon to breeze through a level without a scratch only to come within an inch of your life trying to complete a throwing puzzle. Too often an enemy will sail over the item or fall just short, testing your patience more than your skill. Other “puzzles” involve finding one of the game’s 68 secrets, each represented by a carefully positioned token, but the best secrets (characters and stages for versus mode) can be solved only with the help of a friend. The rest consists of concept art and other meaningless fluff.

Not-So-Flawless Victory

Mortal Kombat: Shaolin MonksShaolin Monks’ replay value could use a jump-start or two from Raiden’s fingertips. Despite an arcade port of Mortal Kombat II and a two-player versus mode, there’s simply not enough “kontent” to justify a purchase for most. The problem is that the single-player mode can be easily completed within six hours, and while finishing the game as Liu Kang and Kung Lao unlocks both Sub-Zero and Scorpion, the storyline is exactly the same. To get the most out of Shaolin Monks, you’ll want to play cooperatively with a friend to unlock the versus characters and experience the great team-up moves. Yet even that is short lived. The alluring environments, subtle references, and the immensely satisfying combat will tug at the heartstrings of any true fan of the series--right before their heart’s ripped clean out of their chest. How befitting!