Publisher: Midway Games
Platform: Playstation 2
Ah, Mortal Kombat. While the franchise has never really been synonymous with superiority in gaming, it’s still garnered quite the following in its 26 year lifespan. The famously gory and violent video game series has had its successes and controversies, and has managed to achieve good staying power because of its unique visuals and seriously-over-the-top finishing moves. Sure, the MK franchise has had its missteps in the fighting games arena (pun intended), but there was one specific offering from Boon, Tobias and company in 2005 that threw a lot of us fans for a loop while simultaneously pulling the Mortal Kombat games back to their…gory days.
That game was Mortal Kombat: Shaolin Monks.
I have no idea what made me want to delve back in to this title, but to be honest, I’m kind of glad that I did. With Shaolin Monks being one of the first Mortal Kombat action games (we don’t speak about that Sub-Zero travesty), you might expect there to be more kinks to get past than are worth it. That’s not really so with this game. The action is still fast-paced and fun for its era, and it’s something that you can enjoy in short bursts. Additionally, after having spent a lot of time playing huge-scale games like Assassins Creed Odyssey and God of War, I’ve gotta say that it is kind of nice to sit and play a game that confines things a bit – and not at all in a bad way. The stages are still fun to look at, and moving through them remains easy and fluid.
It may sound a bit silly, but another thing that keeps me coming back to Shaolin Monks every now and again, is the inclusion of what the developers over at Midway called “Multalities”. These really are exactly what you may think they are. Since the Mortal Kombat franchise is known for its gory and über-violent Fatalities in one-on-one combat, why not do the same thing, but with multiple enemies at a time? Yeah, these finishers are still a lot of fun to pull off.
The controls for this title still feel smooth and responsive, even to this day. With a game that’s built around fast-paced action and combat, that’s something that you want to have, and this one doesn’t disappoint. I never really felt like I wasn’t able to do something with my character that they should be able to do, given the control scheme that the game laid out. With the fact that Midway Games had worked on other MK titles in the past, it really felt like they took that knowledge of what worked and used the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” methodology with Shaolin Monks. That just adds to the enjoyment of this game.
One other thing that really made this one a unique experience is the ability to co-op in a Mortal Kombat game. There’s a lot to be said for being able to get in to a game with a friend (even if it’s in the same room), fight your way through enemies, and wreak all kinds of gory mayhem on your collective foes. Much like other more recent games (e.g. Little Big Planet), the co-op function also allows for access to areas of each stage that are inaccessible when playing solo; which gives the game a more finished feel to it.
You might also think that the gameplay here is all about bashing in faces with sweet, sweet martial arts moves, and splattering digitized blood all over every stage. Well, you’d be partly right. However, there are also puzzle elements to each stage, which – true to Mortal Kombat form – are typically solved by dispatching one or more enemies in gruesome fashion. The puzzles (unlocking gates, doors, and other barriers to progress) can involve tossing your enemies into a crumbling wall, onto catapults, and even impaling them on spikes. Sure, the game kind of plays show-and-tell with what to do, but accomplishing these things can be another matter entirely. With the action bouncing from one side of a room to another, it can be tricky to get a foe in the right position for dismembering – I mean disengaging a lock. Believe me, it can be maddeningly frustrating to breeze through the level without so much as a scratch, only to get slaughtered while trying to get your enemies to fall in a specific spot so that you can proceed.
Of course, this title isn’t without its faults – even for a PS2 era game. The character models feel and look a bit slapdash for a franchise that made a name for itself by using MoCap to get their graphics down pat. In Shaolin Monks, the models look overly blocky during gameplay, and only slightly less so during cut scenes. I’m not going to lie, this did get a bit distracting, but didn’t really detract from the enjoyment of revisiting this title.
In addition to all of that, while I know that this is an action/adventure game at its core, it’s still a Mortal Kombat title. That’s why it was disappointing that the team at Midway didn’t include any functionality for AI opponents in the vs. fighting mode. It would have been nice to be able to take a break from running, punching, kicking, and maiming my way through stages, and just go one-on-one against an AI opponent for some good old-fashioned Mortal Kombat fighting game mayhem.
Finally, the game itself is pretty short. While several other games of the era averaged in the 10-hour playtime mark, Mortal Kombat: Shaolin Monks clocked in at around a fairly paltry 6 hours. While that’s fine if you just want to play one game for an afternoon and then be done with it, such a short playtime makes the game feel a bit rushed, and the story not as developed as it could be. Full disclosure on that last point: I am one of those gamers who really likes a good narrative in the games I play, so that may be coloring my opinion on this one a bit.
All in all, Mortal Kombat: Shaolin Monks showed some real promise as a co-op action/adventure game in the MK franchise. I really wish they’d kept that going, as I feel like something like this would really succeed in today’s online gaming environment. There was talk of an HD remake back in 2013, but since then we’ve gotten nothing else. Still, it would be awesome to see NetherRealm Studios get in on this and make a current-gen MK adventure game.
Who among you are Mortal Kombat fans, dear readers? Did you ever play Mortal Kombat: Shaolin Monks? Let us know what you thought of the game by leaving a comment down below, or hitting us up on Twitter and Facebook!