Street Fighter vs Mortal Kombat

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Last month we celebrated the 25th Anniversary of Street Fighter II where I briefly broke down the impact the historic game had on the genre as well as the various clones that were inspired by the game’s success.  Not long afterwards my pal Travis posted a feature on Street Fighter’s most famous clone Mortal Kombat.  Invariably the mention of both Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat together on the first page of the site warranted a comparison article pitting the two most famous fighting franchises of all time against each other while also allowing me to link to as many of my own pages as possible in the opening paragraph of the feature.

When Street Fighter II was released in 1991 it transformed the genre from a collection of mostly bad and bland karate tournament games into something that was highly competitive between players and also extremely fun and addictive.  As anyone who’s played monstrosities such as Karate Champ knows, fighting games before Street Fighter II were hardly worth the 45 seconds it took to complete a match.  Street Fighter II laid the groundwork for how a fighting game should play and other games have refined the formula in the 25 years since.  It’s fair to say that although fighting games existed prior, SFII was the game that shaped and molded the genre into what it should be and as a result it can be considered the starting point.

A year later in 1992 Midway released Mortal Kombat into arcades to the shock of parents and the delight of children and teenagers looking to drop their quarters into a game considered dangerous and forbidden.  Mortal Kombat differentiated itself from the other fighting games on the market with it’s excessive violence and finishing maneuvers known as “fatalities”.  After an opponent was beaten they would stand in a daze as the announcer shouted out “finish him!” at which point a player could input a series of joystick taps and button presses that would perform their fatality murdering the opponent in a variety of colorful and imaginative ways.  By today’s standards there’s very little here to get upset about but back in the day these moves were considered so violent and corruptive to youth that they helped initiate a series of hearings in congress about video game violence being marketed to children.

Inevitably fans of each franchise began debating the merits of their preferred fighter and playgrounds worldwide erupted into arguments about which franchise was better: Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat.  These were very reminiscent of the more heated debate between Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis with most gamers falling into the camp of defending the console or game they happened to own and maintaining that it was “superior” for no reason other than that it was the one they had.  That said, I certainly did have a preference and I still maintain the same stance today which is what this article will be about: a completely biased and uneducated rant about why my game is awesome and the other sucks!  Actually, I don’t plan on being that ridiculous but I do have my own opinions which I will share.  Before I begin breaking each franchise down however I would like to go into a bit of detail about what makes each game unique.

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Street Fighter has a cartoonish style where the backgrounds and characters are bright and colorful.  Each frame is hand drawn and the characters look like flat cartoons against a bright and exotic backdrop.  The art style could best be described as distinctly Japanese and a lot of care and time was obviously invested in crafting each frame of animation for all of the characters.  Although the game involves two fighters going up against each other in one on one competition in an effort to knock their opponent out cold, the game doesn’t come across as very violent.  Kicks and punches land without appearing to seriously injure and the most gruesome action seen in the game is an animation where one of the fighters vomits.  Even that happens so quickly it’s barely noticeable.

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Tight controls have defined the Street Fighter series.  The player has access to 3 punch buttons and 3 kick buttons.  Weak punch, medium punch, strong punch, and weak kick, medium kick, and strong kick.  Tapping the button while standing executes a “high” version while ducking and pressing a button executes the “low” version.  To block, the player simply presses back on the control stick.  To jump they tap up.  A variety of special moves can be performed by pressing certain button combinations which typically involved going in moving the joystick in quarter circles followed by a button press.

Lastly each character controls and plays very differently with the exception of Ken and Ryu whom are essentially mirrors of each other both in move set and control.  Not only does each character have different special attacks but their speed, reach, and in cases even the standard attacks feel vastly different.  For instance, Dhalsim moves fairly slowly and has a very “airy” feeling to his jumping but his range is much greater than other fighters due to the fact that his appendages can stretch.  By contrast Chun-Li is more of a close range fighter that is very quick and agile and can jump and bounce all over the screen.

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Mortal Kombat’s visuals were more dark and dank with backgrounds consisting of night time fights over canyons, dark forests, and dungeons.  The characters weren’t animated but were instead digitized sprites of actors.  The use of actors resulted in a game where the violence seemed more graphic.  Two combatants went one on one in a duel to the death where the warriors were frozen, burned, and bloodied during the brawl itself and then afterwards any number of horrors awaited them ranging from decapitation to falling to their demise.  Even the basic moves such as uppercuts were accompanied by gallons of blood and the victim being sent soaring across the screen.

Controls were also precise however the system was entirely different.  There were five buttons used, one for high punch, one for low punch, one for high kick, one for low kick, and a block button.  Blocking any attack in this game actually drained a bit of health, however the fighter blocking the attack would not surrender any ground priming them for counter attacks.  Jumping was also accomplished with the up button but most special moves were executed with taps of the joystick followed by an action button.

Aside from those special moves, each character pretty much controls the same.  Jump height, speed, and basic punches and kicks are all pretty much the same from character to character.  In essence the only thing that actually differentiates any of the fighters in this game are the special moves because they all possess the same stats and basic skill set.  Perhaps this creates more of a level playing field as there are no inherent advantages or disadvantages when selecting a character the first time playing through the game.

Now with the basics of each game broken down, lets delve deeper and compare them in the ultimate duel one on one.

Graphics

The bright and colorful hand drawn sprites of Street Fighter II are very appealing and well done and Capcom didn’t skimp.  Although the home console versions had to cut some of the frames due to cartridge limitations the arcade version was very detailed with fighters even having a different set of animations for walking backwards than they did forwards.  Backdrops were lush and colorful with great care and attention to detail with some stages also including foreground objects.

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Mortal Kombat was not the first game to implement digitized sprites but they did perfect the method.  Each actor was spritzed with water to give them a glistening sweaty appearance and their musculature was also accentuated.  The backgrounds were detailed but rather than being bright and full of character they were atmospheric and frightening.  As a child I distinctly remember a sense of dread while playing in the living forest stage.

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Verdict: Although I really love the look of Street Fighter II I give the nod to Mortal Kombat on this one.  Street Fighter’s cartoon graphics do give it a more timeless feel, and I believe the backgrounds in Street Fighter are of overall higher quality.  However, the digitized sprites of Mortal Kombat were extremely impressive at the time and were uncommon in video games.  Most games of the era used hand drawn sprites so the graphics in Street Fighter don’t stand out from the crowd whereas Mortal Kombat has a uniqueness to it.

Sound

Each game is filled with voice samples which were more rare in those days.  The voices in each game are of a high quality.  Punch and kick effects are pretty standard so it’s going to be music which separates these two games.  Mortal Kombat’s music has an oriental feel to it but a lot of it just seems to drone on in the background without really standing out.  Street Fighter II has atmospheric tracks for each stage that appropriately match the scenery and capture the feel of each country.  Each piece of background music is well done and memorable.

Verdict: Street Fighter wins this one by a long shot.  Although the voice samples and fighting effects are equal, the music in Street Fighter is classic and stands out whereas I can’t recall a single tune from Mortal Kombat.  You might find yourself humming a tune from the SF series, the background themes of the Mortal Kombat series won’t aren’t good enough to recall a solitary note.

Control

Street Fighter II allows a degree of control that MK simply does not have.  While backing up your opponent with a barrage of fireballs it’s possible to throw off the timing of your opponent with fast moving, slow moving, or intermediate projectiles simply by changing which of the three punch buttons you press to execute the maneuver.  In contrast, the special moves in MK are always the same speed as they can only be performed with one combination.  There is a lot more depth with the Street Fighter control which is a lot more flexible and in my opinion most of the moves seem a bit more intuitive.  MK to me was always a bunch of random d pad or joystick bumping.

Verdict: Street Fighter wins this one due to the scheme allowing for different speeds and impact strength of the blow with it’s 6 button combination.  I also feel it’s more user friendly tapping back on the joystick to block rather than having to press it’s own button although that’s a minor issue.

Story

Midway created a universe to explain the concept and background of the Mortal Kombat tournaments.  Each fighter had a backstory and a motive for entering and winning the competition.  Eventually the mythology would be expanded through movies, TV shows, printed media, and sequel video games.

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Street Fighter’s characters had motives for winning but they weren’t particularly expounded upon.  Although the characters were given their own personalities I can’t honestly say that I knew why these guys were fighting each other besides winning a tournament.  Perhaps the backstory has been fleshed out with some of the more modern games but early in the series when I was playing in the 90’s there wasn’t much of a universe beyond the tournament itself.

Verdict: MK easily wins the story category as the designers took the effort to actually create a universe surrounding the tournament and a reason for these people to be killing each other.  Street Fighter was just a really good game.

Presentation

Street Fighter II had an awesome attract mode with the two guys fighting in front of a high rise.  It then led to bio’s of each character which mentioned their blood type for some reason.  The locations were unique and interesting and the map screen with the announcement of the next country always made me smile.

Mortal Kombat was shrouded in darkness although there was humor mixed in as well, especially with Mortal Kombat II.  The game itself had a sense of danger about it and successfully executing a fatality escalated the feeling of dread the game instilled in players.  I vividly recall standing with a crowd of younger kids my age huddled around an MKII machine in the arcade while the “old kids” engaged in heated fights.  Most of the younger group considered it dangerous to even be watching these battles as a number of our parents had expressly forbidden us to play the game.  It was like sneaking out to the living room after your bed time to watch a show you weren’t allowed to view.  The game had an aura surrounding it that simply cannot be accurately conveyed unless you lived through those times.  If one of the players pulled off a fatality they were cheered and applauded by the audience that had gathered.  Failure to execute however would result in boos and cat calls.  By their nature fatalities existed only for the presentation.  The fight was already over by that point.  Fatalities were included to show off the knowledge and skills of the player as well as to set the game apart from the other more tame fighters on the market.

Verdict:  The MK series was all about the presentation.  The brutality, the bloodshed, and the killing led to a reputation for the franchise that had even non-gamers talking about it.  Parents were duped into believing that the gratuitous violence was going to corrupt a generation of children leading to several households barring their offspring from even watching the game in action let alone playing it.  The atmosphere fostered a genuine sense of foreboding as fighters perilously battled over a pit where a wrong step would lead to the unlucky combatant plummeting to their death (which was the most memorable fatality in MKII and the early part of the series in my opinion).  Street Fighter was just a really good game.

Gameplay

Mortal Kombat was chock full of secrets and special moves but the fighters all controlled exactly the same outside of these special moves.  Kicks, punches, speed, jump height… everyone was equal.  Although this meant that there was a certain balance built into the core of the gameplay, it also meant that the character selection was pretty much cosmetic only.

Street Fighter however gave every combatant it’s own feel with each character possessing entirely different attributes such as jump height, speed, and reach in addition to their own set of special moves.  Character selection didn’t mean you simply controlled “generic fighter with different skin” like in Mortal Kombat.  Some fighters required an advanced player to become skilled with their control style whereas others were more friendly for beginners.  When combined with the control, Street Fighter was a much deeper game that allowed for more strategies and styles to be developed.

Verdict: What Street Fighter lacks in presentation and story it makes up for in depth of gameplay as the game yields more and more strategies and concepts for players that put in the time to discover them.  MK on the other hand took the approach of throwing some different special moves at characters and giving them all the same base skills.

Characters

Street Fighter II really began the concept of creating a pool of unique fighter for the player to choose from and giving each character their own presence with a brief backstory, set of moves, national heritage, and distinctive appearance and feel.  Aside from Ken and Ryu who were practically the same fighter, each character was lovingly crafted by Capcom and given an interesting personality to set them apart.

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Mortal Kombat II picked up on this formula with their own roster and they improved the practice of giving each character a unique backstory by developing in depth bios of each fighter and giving them all a place in the created Mortal Kombat universe.  However, Midway took a lot of shortcuts in creating their characters by using the cheap palette swap technique.  Scorpion gave birth to Reptile, Sub-Zero, Smoke and a myriad of other ninjas just as Kitana was the basis for Mileena.

MK3

Verdict:  Street Fighter may not have had as large of a roster as Mortal Kombat would eventually field by the 3rd entry of the series but the characters were vastly different from each other both in appearance and in play style.  Although the various ninjas would receive their own identity through unique special moves and developed backstories, they were still only created as a short cut to boost the game’s total number of fighters without having to hire different actors to play the parts.

Final Conclusion

Both of these franchises have their place in history and each has developed rabid and devoted fanbases for a reason.  They both have their own set of strengths and weaknesses that appeal to different gamers and different types of people.  Personally I consider Street Fighter to be the better fighting game franchise because of the depth of control and gameplay.  To me, Street Fighter became popular not because of flashy fatalities or gratuitous violence but because it is a solid and deep game.  That’s all that the it focused on was the strength of the gameplay itself and the fun you could have perfecting your strategies.  Mortal Kombat was all about flash and style over substance.  By developing interesting backstories, throwing in buckets of blood, and extremely graphic murders they attracted an audience that wanted to rebel against their elders.  I’ve found that MK appealed more to an audience that is more interested in being visually entertained whereas Street Fighter perhaps appealed to a more cerebral audience that was focused on in game action and having fun as opposed to trying to make a statement or rebelling.

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