Review: Mortal Kombat Vita

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It used to be that handheld ports suffered from a serious condition of what George Costanza would neurotically have described as “shrinkage.” The price of being able to play your favorite games on the go usually meant a certain level of sacrifice—maybe the multiplayer went MIA or the controls had to be painfully stripped down to accommodate a stylus or that less-than-functional PlayStation Portable nub.

The PlayStation Vita port of Mortal Kombat spin-kicks in the opposite direction altogether. With deft and sensible touch controls and enough bonus content to choke Shao Kahn several times over, this game actually sports more features than its big console brothers. Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 homers with a reason to envy Vita owners? That’s as unexpected as Mileena throwing down in a bulky winter snowsuit.

If you’re not already familiar with the awesome ways in which NetherRealm resurrected the moribund Mortal Kombat franchise from the necropolis of self-parody and irrelevance last year, well, maybe you should stop pondering Justin Bieber’s transformation into Justin Timberlake 2.0 and get your fatality back up to speed. (Go on, we’ll wait.) Everything—yes, everything–you enjoyed on the bigger screen is here, starting with the wacky but worthwhile story mode, complete with its goofball voice-acting and time-travelling Raiden plot device that riffs its way through the first three Mortal Kombat games. It’s cheesy, yes, but in a good and self-aware way that’ll keep you battling through it, even if you already survived the console version.

For my money, the best feature of Mortal Kombat’s latest iteration wasn’t even the traditionally gruesome fatalities—although those were suitably horrific by the series’ gore-soaked standards—but the X-ray moves, those in-battle specials that gave you CT-assisted closeups of bones being shattered and eye sockets being pin-tailed with knives. The X-Ray moves have survived intact, while the fatalities now sport a new wrinkle: You can unleash them using swipes of the touch screen, which is a welcome addition for those who didn’t appreciate having to execute speedy D-pad combos. Like it old-school? The D-pad remains available as well.

Thanks to the Vita’s dual sticks, the controls are tight and responsive, although the game sometimes struggles to recognize the difference between wanting to unleash a special attack by moving the left analog stick left and wanting to unleash a backflip. In some battles, it felt a little like Subzero had accidentally morphed into Batroc the Leaper or joined the freaking Cirque du Soleil. And of course, the AI has its issues with wanton cheapness, especially when it’s time to throw down with Shao Khan. When you port literally everything over, apparently you have to take the good with the quick-kill spam-combo.

In addition to the console version’s challenge tower, there’s also a deep bonus tower packed with challenges that key in on the Vita’s touch-screen and accelerometer features. Some are more than a tad derivative and gimmicky (a Fruit Ninja knockoff featuring decapitated heads? Really?) but most are either humorous or useful ways to teach strategic moves and defense. Swiping the screen to unleash a torso-splitting fatality on Johnny Cage—take that, you bombastic buffoon—is a truly touch-tastic experience you’ll want to repeat at least 10 times. So is having to swab the blood from the screen to avoid having your vision obscured during a battle. It’s clear that NetherRealm really gave maximizing the Vita’s potential some serious thought. The bonus tower nearly justifies a purchase on its own merits.

Unlike Marvel Vs. Capcom 3, the Vita’s other big-studio fighter port, Mortal Kombat isn’t parsimonious with the downloadable content. All the DLC from both console versions is here, which means that in addition to Skarlet, Rain and Kenshi, you’re free to strap on Kratos’s Blades of Chaos or Freddy Krueger’s slasher-gloves; in fact, you’ll have to go all Nightmare on Elm Street if you want to survive the new Challenge Tower. Earn enough koins along the way, and you can unlock bonus costumes and artwork for these characters that are entirely new. Nice.

Four months after its release, the Vita’s still waiting patiently for its definitive killer app to arrive. A console port, even as one as brilliantly deployed as this one, can’t entirely fill that bill. But there’s no question that Mortal Kombat Vita has whipped up the fan-service template for the way all future ports should be handled. Finish him, already.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Near-perfect port that adds a ton of bonus content? Yes, please.
+ Touch fatalities are a nice alternative for the combo-challenged
+ New challenge tower breaks up the beatdowns

Cons:
– Left-stick controls sometimes go flip-happy
– AI is still cheaper than a thrift-store T-shirt

Game Info:
Platform: PlayStation Vita
Publisher: Warner Bros.
Developer: NetherRealm Studios
Release Date: 5/1/2012
Genre: Fighting
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1-2
Source: Review code provided by publisher

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About the Author

Aaron R. Conklin has been writing about games and games culture for more than 15 years. A former contributor to Computer Games Magazine and Massive Magazine, his writing has appeared on IGN.com and in newspapers and alt-weeklies across the country. Conklin's an unapologetic Minnesota sports fan living in Madison, Wisconsin, home of the Midwest's most underrated gaming vibe.