Retro Review: “Mortal Kombat” (Nintendo Game Boy, Monochrome May Special)

Welcome back to Monochrome May, The Splintering’s month-long celebration of black and white entertainment!

Given the recent release of the latest Mortal Kombat feature film, we thought we’d take this opportunity to look at another abysmal MK abortion in the form of Mortal Kombat for the Nintendo Game Boy!

Released by Acclaim on September 13, 1993 (aka “Mortal Monday“), the Game Boy port of Mortal Kombat hit the shelves at the same time as the SEGA Genesis, Super NES, and Game Gear versions of the game. It was intended to be a replication of the Midway’s hit arcade fighting game squeezed into the palm of your hand, but the developers at Probe and the Game Boy hardware just didn’t have the guts to get the job done.

“Smell it, Ice Boy!”

Never send send a boy to do a man’s job

At the outset, many of the core elements of the Mortal Kombat arcade game are present. Characters? You can choose from six of the seven original arcade fighters, with Johnny Cage being noticeably absent (Hey! – Just like the new movie!). Stages? Three of the arcade stages make the cut: The Courtyard, Goro’s Lair and The Pit. Bosses? Yep – both Goro and Shang Tsung are here, and Shang Tsung still has his morphing ability which is a neat trick for such a primitive platform. There’s still a high score/win streak screen, too, but why any games without battery backup include this feature, I’ll never know. The Game Boy version even included the character bios from the arcade game’s attract mode, as well as the iconic “Goro Lives” story screen. Keen. It’s too bad the ending sucks. Yes, I said “ending” – singular.

Like I said, many of the pieces are in place, but the execution is a nightmare. Your characters, while large, are stiff and animate poorly. The controls are terribly non-responsive, which not only makes pulling off special moves extremely difficult, but even some of the normal movements and attacks don’t seem to work half the time. The collision detection is so wonky that it’s hard to know if you are missing attacks due to poor timing or if there is a glitch at play. For instance, I can’t seem to land a jump kick on Liu Kang when playing as Rayden (Raiden). It’s like Liu Kang is too short to hit, or something.

Much like its Super NES counterpart, the Game Boy version is also light on violence and the “fatalities” are replaced with “finishing moves”. Pretty damn lame, but that’s the least of this game’s worries, though. It’s also worth noting that Mortal Kombat is Game Link Cable compatible, so if you have a friend willing to undergo the torture of playing the game with you, that’s a possibility.

Kano is ready to pummel Sonya’s lair

“Are-you-a-man-a-lay?!”

Aesthetically, Mortal Kombat isn’t a terribly ugly game despite having only four shades of green to recreate the digitized graphics of the arcade original. Despite their clunky animations, the characters have a solid enough outline to keep track of them easily enough. There is some decent detail retained in the stages, too, such as the ominous eyes watching from the background when you fight in Goro’s Lair.

The soundtrack is more than passable. Each stage has its music recreated in 8-bit, chiptune form, and I actually really like the sharp percussion that drives the game’s main title theme- it’s one of the catchiest renditions of the tune I’ve heard. There isn’t much to speak of regarding sound effects and voices, though. The punches and kicks all produce a basic “crack” sound, and the only attempt at a voice is an indistinct, garbled sound effect when Rayden executes his torpedo special move. Sure, that’s a nice touch, but why make the effort there and not with Scorpion’s spear attack? “Get over here!” Anybody? Anyone?

“Smell it, thunder god!”

Battle of the Battery Vampires

Upon its original release in 1993, one of the more important questions surrounding the Game Boy port of Mortal Kombat was “Is it better than the SEGA Game Gear version?” Surprisingly, in some ways it is. The Game Gear version only has two stages (the Courtyard is absent), and there is a code that can be entered on the Game Boy port that allows you to play as Goro, which was a feature not seen even on the console releases at the time. When successfully entered before the game begins, the “Goro Lives” screen changes to “Goro lives… as you!” Neat.

The Game Gear version however, has the blood code, fatalities, and most importantly, the color screen to bring the digitized graphics of the arcade game to life. It also plays quite a bit more smoothly, for my taste, and pushing start to block is easier than pushing both A&B together. While the Game Gear version does include Johnny Cage as a playable fighter, the tradeoff is that Kano is missing, which simply doesn’t make sense with the larger Mortal Kombat lore. If Kano isn’t at the tournament, then why is Sonya Blade there? I demand consistency, dammit!

For my retro handheld dime, the Game Gear Mortal Kombat edges out the Game Boy version. However, if you’re a Kano super fan, or if the prospect of playing as Goro is remarkably enticing to you, then of course the Game Boy version might be a better bet.

“I’ll tell you what I’d do with four arms, man. Two chicks at the same time, man”

Fatality?

When I was a kid in the 90s, I dropped my older brother’s Game Boy on the corner of his dresser, shattering the screen beyond repair. Its days of playing Tetris and Kirby’s Dream Land were over, but not Mortal Kombat. You see, the CPU in Mortal Kombat is so dumb, and so predictable, that I eventually found a pattern that allowed me to complete the game by sound alone. I tried to rediscover this pattern when playing Mortal Kombat for this review, but I couldn’t quite lock it down. Suffice to say that your opponents will almost never block an incoming jump kick, so that’s a place to start. In any case, this “blind” challenge still made my brother’s broken Game Boy worth firing up from time to time, but I was a hopeless dork at the time, so that’s worth keeping in mind.

“Get away from here!” ~~~~~~–>

In 1993, Mortal Kombat fever was probably strong enough that gamers were able to overlook the Game Boy port’s most glaring flaws. While not quite up to snuff compared to the Game Gear version, the Game Boy port at least fared better than a Tiger handheld unit. But is Mortal Kombat for the Game Boy worth picking up today?

Hell no! Aside from Mortal Kombat purists or those retro gaming aficionados looking for a quick novelty, Mortal Kombat for the Game Boy is a chore – handheld drudgery in black and white. It’s just too unresponsive to play. The only real enjoyment I got out of it was listening to that main theme repeat for a few minutes.

If you do choose to try Mortal Kombat for the Game Boy, it’s a very common game and not an expensive pickup for a loose cartridge. Just go in with your expectations set accordingly, and have a copy of the SEGA Genesis version close at hand. After 20 minutes playing Mortal Kombat on Game Boy, booting up the Genesis port will feel like the video game equivalent of driving a Ferrari.

Have a nice day.

Thanks for reading!

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