The modern mortal combat The trilogy of ninth, tenth, and eleventh numbered entries in the series is a triumph in many ways – but best of all is how it treats its aging cast of beloved characters.
According to official Street Fighter lore, Chun-Li was born on March 1, 1968. This date was established in Street Fighter 2, the birthday of the world’s strongest woman listed alongside other relatively frivolous statistics in the game. These kinds of data extracts were quite common in the 90s, with games and their manuals stuffed with extra information to add color to their characters and world. Did you know that Knuckles the Echidna’s favorite food is grapes? I did, after religiously reading the Sonic the Hedgehog 3 instruction manual as a kid. Did you know that Cloud Strife has two anniversaries – one from the original game and one featured in more recent FF7 media – because the team apparently couldn’t agree on a date? Do it now.
This stuff is cute, obviously, but I can’t help but feel like the team behind Street Fighter and many other video games are missing a trick. Based on that first encounter, Chun-Li should be in her 50s by now, but in the world of Street Fighter, she’s been frozen in time. The world is always moving forward: in story modes we see new inventions like touch screens, cell phones and modern settings, each game being contemporary with its release period, but the characters remain as they are.
“I am the strongest woman in the world.”
Happy birthday, Chun-li! ? pic.twitter.com/cQq84kzIoF
— Street Fighter (@StreetFighter) March 1, 2019
It makes sense, of course. Chun’s updos and blue dress are iconic. The same goes for Ryu’s gi and red headband. Keeping these elements steadfast over the past nearly thirty years makes a lot of sense – but the team behind Mortal Kombat deserve credit for breaking the mold and doing the unthinkable – letting their most iconic fighting game superstars age. .
It’s something we don’t see in games at all in general, but the last two versions of Mortal Kombat have made it a key pillar of their world. What happens to a Hollywood action superstar like Johnny Cage when he’s no longer in his cocky twenties? Which of the original MK trilogy actors would have children and what would they look like? These games offer answers to these questions, and they are surprisingly satisfying. Games as a medium have more and more to say and present about a variety of things – but I’ve seen few people happy to take young actors and age them as much as the show they’re from. derived.
In Mortal Kombat 11, these changes are played for maximum impact. Some characters have simply aged, while others have undergone irreversible changes through the ebb and flow of MK’s brutal storylines. Some died, resurrected by the forces of evil as pale-skinned zombies. Some are less cavalier, worried about their children. Some of these kids embody the best of their parents, a weird crossover of characters you loved in the ’90s. It’s just inherently interesting. Much of this was present in the previous game as well, but the eleventh entry seems to be much more confident with its returning superstars and their new offspring playfully dubbed the “Kombat Kids” by fans.
As is fighting game tradition, each character has a range of costumes and skins (which are admittedly hidden behind a horrible grind, though that’s a review for another time) – and through that, the classic versions of each character remain present. If you want to play as a 90s Sonya Blade, belly exposed and all, you can. These skins are also put to good use in the twisty, convoluted narrative of time travel – so old and new versions of characters meet and trade blows, young people are saved by their elders, or children are forced to fight the juvenile forms of their parents, who do not know their identity. It’s cool.
That’s what it all is, to be honest – it’s cool. It’s not revolutionary or anything; Mortal Kombat is too campy and silly to have anything real to say about aging, although there are thematic hints at more here and there. What it does do is offer new and intriguing perspectives on characters – characters who, over nearly thirty years, have grown. In many cases, this growth is within the strict confines of their existing caricature, which the unshaded MK series structure really demands – but it still looks surprisingly honest.
There’s also a real sense of progress and consequence. For some characters, this means an appearance as an undead and vengeful after a sudden demise in a previous game. For others, it’s a sense of the inevitable passing of the torch – that eventually, as MK grows and changes, Sonya and Johnny could very well be replaced by their daughter Cassie, and Jax by Jacqui. Either way, it gives this whole narrative a bit more weight despite being filled with time-traveling retcons and resurrections.
It’s not just a matter of age either. There are perspectives in modern MK that could never have been expressed in previous games thanks to the cast’s range of voices. This in turn has allowed the series to deliver more tone, and of course it’s thought-provoking for other games. What would a Zelda world look like from the perspective of a Link who is not a brave child or teenager, but a grizzled knight? A world where Zelda is an experienced queen rather than an uncertain princess?
When games with well-established worlds and characters play with ideas like this, the result is almost always interesting to say the least. The best thing about Metal Gear Solid 4 is its aged and ruined snake. The same goes for the sturdy, older Marcus in later Gears of War games. It would also be remiss not to mention the third stalwart of the ’90s hunter trio, Tekken – which kind of sits between MK and SF in the way it embraces aging and character change as a way of representing the ongoing war for the Mishima Zaibatsu – but it fails to enjoy as much as the Netherrealm effort. In general, I would like to see more games experimenting with this kind of travel.
I’ve always enjoyed MK very much, but any regular reader of the site will know that Street Fighter is my one true love for fighting games. I’m raising my hand here, though: In cases like this, MK clearly has the advantage. Of course, Street Fighter 5 had Ken drop his crimson gi, broke Cody out of jail, and gave Gouki this ‘Akuma Matata’ haircut, but the world of this series has – like so many others – felt static, with each entry a closed time capsule. I imagine a middle-aged Chun-Li much like today’s Michelle Yeoh, and that concept is too good not to cry. Bless Mortal Kombat for fully exploring and leveraging its history and age – it definitely works.