I'm playing Mortal Kombat 1 for the first time, and have the same chills running down my spine as I did 30 years ago. I almost certainly shouldn't have been playing the ultra-violent beat 'em up in the early 1990s, granted, but the arcade cabinet at my local bowling alley was too enticing to resist when my parents weren't looking.
Fast forward three decades, and as I feel my way into my Mortal Kombat 1 hands-on session at Summer Game Fest 2023, my experience is similar to that of the one I had at seven years old. For one, the game itself still looks drop-dead gorgeous. Sub-Zero still oozes cool (literally), and Sonya Blade is still as badass as ever, spandex and all. What makes this break-neck, bone-shattering, blood-spilling affair more distinguishable, however, is the fact that Sub-Zero and Sonya are fighting side-by-side – with Kitana and Jax sharing their portion of the screen simultaneously opposite.
With brutal tag-team assists, air combos, and devastating organ-puncturing special moves, what unfolds on-screen has flavors of Marvel vs. Capcom, but with the finesse of a dynasty that's incrementally improved itself over 11 mainline games and six console generations, with the inclusion of more than 80 characters over the course.
The Mortal Kombat 1 beta takes place in August for pre-order players only
Our Mortal Kombat 1 characters roundup lists every confirmed combatant we know of at this stage, but the demo portion I played included just four fighters and three support characters – known in Mortal Kombat 1 as the 'Kameo' system. In the former camp is Kenshi, Kitana, Sub-Zero, and Liu Kang; while the latter boasts Jackson "Jax" Briggs, Kano, and Sonya. In the aforementioned scenario, it's me as Sub-Zero with the computer's AI as the razor fan-wielding Kitana.
In the first tier of a Klassic Tower Kampaign – a stage-by-stage-style competition – we waste no time in tearing each other apart. In the opening stretch, I've got my opponent on toast, unleashing a flurry of ice clones and ice blasts, uppercuts and leg-sweeps, as Sub-Zero's long-standing and mostly unchanged moveset button combos come flooding back to me. I don't want to toot my own horn, but I'm killing it – that is, until Kitana lands a 'Fatal Blow,' a crippling tag-team special maneuver that invites Jax into the mix as backup. I won't spoil the specifics here, but, while not actually fatal, the dual-move involves my skull being cracked, my ribs smashed to pieces, and, crucially, my health bar being drained at worrying speed.
In a rash reaction to this, I bash R1 on my control pad to summon Sonya, but an expertly placed razor-fan smacks my pal between the eyes, forcing her to immediately retreat. Bear in mind all of this occurs in the space of several seconds, and with my head spinning and mind whizzing, Kitana strides forward, dips low, rises like a bloody phoenix, and chops my head clean from my shoulders. It's not quite a fully blown series-signature Fatality – these are depicted as graphic, seamless cutscenes – but it is brutal, as blood spouts from my severed neck like a leaky tap.
"We're giving players more tools than ever before," said a NetherRealm Studios and Warner Bros. representative in a pre-brief demonstration ahead of my time with Mortal Kombat 1, and even in the short time I've spent with the fighter, I think that's bang on. I was thoroughly impressed by the amount of experimental combinations I was able to unleash – both on the fly and when studying specific combos on the pause menu – in such a short space of time, and while I'm far from a genre expert, this does feel like a good jumping-on point for anyone who's fancied Mortal Kombat over the years, but found the stature of the longstanding series too intimidating.
Don't get me wrong, the careerist fighting game enthusiasts out there will devastate relative amateurs like myself far more than a demo session's forgiving Medium-settings AI ever could, but my first impressions of Mortal Kombat 1 are that it projects a far more patient learning curve than other games gone by. During the rest of my session, I had Jax suplexing enemies meters high into the air, Kano throwing daggers at range and shooting laser beams from his eyes, Liu Kang manifesting fire dragons from his palms, and Kenshi calling on an ethereal sword-swinging spirit doppelganger to help me get especially close-fought rounds over the line. From here, the scope for experimentation using the Kameo system among different fighters and partners really excites me.
With Tekken 8 showing promise, and Street Fighter 6 already having delivered a near-perfect blow to the fighting game genre, Mortal Kombat 1 is under a degree of pressure to deliver. I've barely scratched the surface so far, but the latest from NetherRealm has the potential to stand shoulder to shoulder with the best in the business. In short: it's a great time for fighting games, and it's a great time for Mortal Kombat – now celebrating its 30th anniversary, and preparing for its next three decades.
Mortal Kombat 1 is due September 19, 2023. Can't wait? Here are some of the best fighting games kicking ass right now