In the 32- and 64-bit era of the late nineties, 3D polygonal graphics were the hot new thing and 2D sprites were seen as hopelessly antiquated. Sony in particular didn’t want 2D games to be released on the PlayStation, because they wanted to showcase the system as a 3D powerhouse. Some big 2D sprite-based games such as Castlevania: Symphony of the Night did still show up on the system, the Sega Saturn had a ton of excellent 2D fighters and shooters (mostly in Japan, though), and SNK’s Neo Geo was still going strong in the arcades with incredible titles such as King of Fighters and Metal Slug, but the message was clear: as far as mainstream gaming goes, the future is polygonal. If your game didn’t have those blocky 3D graphics in the late 90s, reviewers would sometimes complain that the game would be better if it did.
Naturally, all of this meant that previously successful game developers had to adapt for the changing landscape of the industry and bring their games into the third dimension, dragging them kicking and screaming if necessary. For some game series, it worked great. Titles such as Super Mario 64, Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Metal Gear Solid, and Final Fantasy VII are deservedly considered classics, and for some developers the move to 3D seemed practically effortless.
Other times, the transition did not go so well, which was especially true with fighting games. Street Fighter attempted 3D gameplay with the EX series, which was reasonably well received but nowhere near as acclaimed or popular as the classic 2D titles. King of Fighters tried with the Maximum Impact spinoffs, and fellow SNK fighter Samurai Shodown also had a release on the short-lived Hyper Neo Geo 64 system, but none of these made much of a splash in a fighting game scene now dominated by the likes of Tekken and Virtua Fighter. Midway themselves had their first 3D attempt with War Gods, (an MK clone starring, uh, warring gods) which bombed quite hard at the arcades and the ports did no better. The same Zeus hardware was used for MK4, and despite the failure of War Gods it was expected that the new Mortal Kombat would still be great.
Mortal Kombat 4 was released in October 1997. Prior to the full release, though, Midway went on a 35-stop road tour to show off an early version of the game. This version had nine characters and a metric ton of bugs since it was what would now be considered an early access build, but the reception was quite good at the time and the full arcade release was also popular.
I occasionally see people say that no one liked MK4 and that was one of the reasons the series declined so hard at the end of the 90s, but it actually was successful for Midway and the later home ports for the PlayStation, Nintendo 64 and PC were generally well received (the Game Boy Color port… less so). It didn’t get the kind of rave reviews and massive reception that something like Tekken 3 did and Mortal Kombat was no longer the king of arcade fighting games, but that did not mean it wasn’t a success.
The MK series’ transition to 3D was a bit of an odd one. Ed Boon did not want to create a full-fledged 3D fighting game like Tekken or Virtua Fighter, nor use motion-captured animations in gameplay because that would have changed the feel too much. Boon and his team believed that players wanted MK4 to feel just like the previous games. Fair enough, doesn’t sound like a bad idea. The way this was actually executed was to take the MK3 fighting engine and slap some polygon graphics on top of it, and your mileage may vary whether or not that is a good thing.
By this point, the MK3 engine was more than a bit long in the tooth, and changes as big as those between MKII and MK3 would have been welcome. But nope, it’s just the same gameplay from MK Trilogy (including the insanely fast game speed), except with the addition of the mostly useless sidestep and a new throw move (in which you break one of the opponent’s limbs or their neck, only for it to snap back into place — kinda like a precursor to the x-rays in the modern games, actually, despite not doing any more damage than a regular throw). And a “MAXIMUM DAMAGE” system that instantly stops a combo that is doing too much damage by pushing the kombatants apart, which is kind of a silly way to prevent infinites. Oh, and then there’s weapons.
Yes, someone at Midway apparently saw Samurai Shodown and/or Soul Edge (or Bushido Blade, one of my all-time favorite PSX games) and figured that MK needed weapon kombat. Unfortunately, much like the other additions to the gameplay, this is little more than a gimmick and feels very awkward and clunky compared to the actual hand to hand fighting. In order to pull out a weapon, you need to input a certain button combination (Scorpion’s, for example, is F-F-HK), and the opponent can knock it out of your hands at any point and grab it for themselves.
Each weapon has a special move of some type — Sub-Zero’s ice scepter can freeze the opponent, and Raiden’s hammer can send them flying into the screen which is pretty amusing. Most weapons are of the sword or mace variety, although Fujin gets a laser crossbow for some reason and Sonya has some sort of a spinning blade thing. The weapons can be pulled out during combos, which is a nice addition.
You can also do the weapon input again to toss the weapon into your opponent’s face, which is probably the most effective way to use them. There are items such as rocks and severed heads you can throw at people in the same way (except you press D+Run, which is also how you pick up dropped weapons), and the throw comes out so fast you can just spam it over and over if you feel like cheesing the fight.
The plot this time around centers on the fallen Elder God, Shinnok, escaping Netherrealm after Shao Kahn’s defeat and being an evil jerk who wants to conquer Earthrealm. Raiden summons the Earthrealm warriors once more to prevent this from happening, possibly remembering the fact he had to kill the dinosaurs to stop Shinnok’s plan last time.
The tone this time is a lot more serious than the MK3 games — Friendships, babalities and animalities are gone so the only finishers are the fatalities and stage fatalities, the stages are generally quite dark and desolate (the Living Forest and Goro’s Lair also return from the previous games), and the style is meant to be more akin to MKII than anything else.
Now, there is still plenty of goofy stuff going on, so the darker tone doesn’t quite work as intended. All the characters shout ridiculous gibberish during fights, and the stiff animation and overly fast game speed make MK4 look a lot sillier than they probably wanted it to be. The blocky graphics don’t help matters.
The cast, consisting of fifteen (seventeen including secret fighters, technically eighteen) playable characters is a mix of classic MK characters and new faces, although the new characters are very bland and in some cases simply half-assed reskins of existing kombatants. Apparently, MK4 didn’t have enough new characters, so the designers took some old ones and changed them up a little bit.
All the characters now have a fully voiced and animated ending cutscene, which is great because the writing, animation and voice acting in these sequence is hilariously awful and has to be seen and heard to be believed.
In 1999, Midway and Eurocom (who also worked on the home ports of MK4) released an updated version of MK4 for the western launch of the Dreamcast. This version, Mortal Kombat Gold, includes a bunch of returning characters from the old games, but other than that they didn’t add much except for a truckload of bugs and glitches, some of which they fixed with a revised (“HOT! NEW!”) version that is apparently also what the PAL release is based on.
I’m including MK Gold in this article simply because it doesn’t really deserve one of its own. Gold isn’t a great release by any means and even if it was, the Dreamcast has about a million other fighting games that are better, but at least it did bring back some characters people actually liked.
The chosen hero of Mortal Kombat returns, having won the first two tournaments and beaten Shao Kahn at the end of the third game. He still has the same moveset and is just as boring as ever. When the realm of Edenia gets wrecked by Shinnok’s forces (Edenia just can’t catch a break, they just liberated the realm from Shao Kahn and now this), Liu Kang tries to rescue Princess Kitana from Quan Chi but is unsuccessful in his attempt. When he returns to Earthrealm, he gathers the greatest Earth warriors to help out Raiden and defeat Shinnok and Quan Chi.
After Liu Kang does manage to beat up the bad guys and save Edenia in the process, Kitana (who is now in charge of the realm after the apparent death of Queen Sindel) makes him an offer to join her and rule Edenia together, which he declines because he has to protect Earthrealm as the Grand Champion of Mortal Kombat. In hindsight, he probably should have taken her up on that offer.
After Shao Kahn’s defeat, Johnny Cage is officially dead and his soul has gone to heaven. While looking down from a cloud or something, Cage notices that his friends are fighting Shinnok and proceeds to seek out Raiden, asking the thunder god to restore his life so he can join in the fight and help out his buddies. Raiden fulfills this request and surprisingly doesn’t cause any calamities in the process, and so Johnny is back in action. Those Netherrealm dickheads are gonna get Caged!
Above: A Netherrealm dickhead gets Caged
Johnny still has all of his old moves and MKII fatalities, and one of his alternate costumes is a pretty dapper tuxedo which also replaces his bowie knife with a pistol.
I’m not sure why he seems to have Raiden’s fighting stance. Maybe that’s a side effect of the resurrection process.
Now a member of the Outworld Investigation Agency branch of the Special Forces, Sonya goes on a mission to join Liu Kang in helping out Raiden and tries to stay alive long enough to warn the government of the threat posed by Quan Chi while also tracking the last living member of the Black Dragon. Sonya has all of her old moves and also gets a new air throw and cartwheel. This time around, she can slice you in half by blowing you a kiss. I’m still not sure how that works.
Jax heads after Sonya after she disappears while hunting down the Black Dragon member. Upon finding Sonya, he finds out about the whole thing with Shinnok trying to conquer Earthrealm, and he joins in the fight to stop the fallen Elder God and his cronies. Jax’s moves are the same as before and his MKII fatalities are recreated in 3D, and for some reason his weapon is a spiked club instead of something more suitable for a military officer.
He has the best ending in the history of video games. Don’t worry, I will get to that later.
Thousands of years ago, Raiden banished Shinnok into the Netherrealm and was responsible for the death of an entire civilization in the process. Whatever, the Saurians were just big dumb lizards anyway, right? Now, Shinnok is back and up to his old shenanigans once more, and with the heavens in disarray it’s up to Raiden to find a way to save the Elder Gods and the realms. When Shinnok’s menace is over, Raiden finally ascends to the pantheon of the Elder Gods himself and has to find a new protector for Earthrealm. By this point, I think he should tell them to make Liu Kang into a god since the guy has saved the Earth four times now, but instead he just chooses Fujin.
His moves are the same as MK1, so no more electric grab. At least he can pull out that giant hammer that totally isn’t the Mjölnir.
Kuai Liang, the younger Sub-Zero, managed to fend off the Lin Kuei cyborgs, and the clan was disbanded shortly after Shao Kahn’s defeat. Now that Shinnok and Quan Chi have returned, Sub-Zero puts on the outfit his brother Bi-Han wore when he fought the fallen Elder God and the sorcerer years ago (“Please buy Mortal Kombat Mythologies: Sub-Zero, out now!” -Midway), and sets out to do the same thing himself. Unfortunately for Kuai Liang, there is now an angry ninja spectre after his blood.
Scorpion: “FUCK! NOT AGAIN!”
The younger Sub-Zero takes his impression of his brother so far that he actually rips people’s spines off now despite still fighting for the good guys. His moveset is mostly the same as it was in MK3, although the ice shower move is gone.
After returning to the Netherrealm, Scorpion finds out his wife and son had been killed. In an attempt to get the spectre to fight for him and Shinnok, Quan Chi went and told Scorpion that the younger Sub-Zero was responsible for murdering his family. Understandably, Scorpion is pissed and heads out to kill another Sub-Zero sibling. He defeats Kuai Liang in kombat, but the former Lin Kuei swears he is innocent (which he is).
When Scorpion asks who was responsible for the murders, Quan Chi shows up and does a supervillain monologue for no reason, identifying himself as the killer of the ninja’s family and clan. As you may remember, the sorcerer killed the Shirai Ryu to pay the Lin Kuei for their services in Mythologies. Quan Chi gloats about how great he is and starts to send Scorpion back to the Netherrealm, but the spectre grabs him and they both find themselves in Scorpion’s lair.
Scorpion can now breathe fire during fights, which is a nice way to end combos. He also has the old fire breath fatality, which looks a bit lame since the opponent just gets set on fire and then walks around before falling down, no exploding skeletons or anything, but if you input a special combination you get to hear Dan Forden say “TOASTY! 3D!” Scorpion’s other fatality has him turn into a giant scorpion and rip off the opponent’s torso with his stinger. Almost like an animality that isn’t completely stupid!
He also has a cool alternate outfit with a grey costume and no mask. The regular yellow mask does appear in his hand whenever he does his fire breath, though.
Kung Lao was supposed to die in MK3, so Kai was brought in as a replacement White Lotus buddy for Liu Kang. That is really the extent of his character. In gameplay, he can shoot fireballs vertically and do an air punch similar to that of Sonya’s, and his weapon is a Gurkha knife which at least is pretty cool. Kai’s ending has Raiden give him his lightning staff for some reason.
Fujin was pretty clearly blown to gibs when Sub-Zero defeated him and his own tornado consumed him in Mythologies, but he’s gotten over that and is back to help out Raiden in the fight against Shinnok. When Raiden ascends into the Elder Gods’ pantheon in his ending, Fujin becomes the protector of Earthrealm although (spoiler) he won’t be seen for a few games because nobody cares about him. Being the god of wind, he has mainly wind-based attacks, and he also has the only ranged weapon in the game. (Well, there’s Johnny’s pistol, but that works the exact same way)
The last living member of the Black Dragon, who is hunted by the Special Forces but ends up fighting on their side against the greater evil of Shinnok. Jarek is, quite simply, a reskin of Kano. He has Kano’s moves and Kano’s fatalities, including the heart rip and eye lasers he can somehow shoot without having any cybernetics.
The only reason to care about Jarek is his role in Jax’s ending. Just watch.
This ending is proof video games are art, and I will not hear otherwise. Those subtitles are incorrect, though, he clearly doesn’t say AAARRRGHHH!
Now that Shao Kahn has been defeated, Reptile joins up with Shinnok and Quan Chi and acts as a general in their army while hoping that Shinnok would restore his race in exchange for his services. Of course, that never happens, and instead Reptile gets blown up by Shinnok in his (non-canon) ending. Reptile looks quite silly in MK4, at least if you don’t use his alternate ninja outfit, but his fatalities are quite good. In one of them, he chews the opponent’s face off, and the other one has him puke acid all over the opponent and reduce them into a bloody skeleton.
Hey, it’s that girl from R4: Ridge Racer Type 4, the one who was on all the gaming magazine covers at the time! Oh, wait, it’s just some dude who has a woman’s name (edit: there was a Boy Named Sue reference here, but it wasn’t funny so it’s gone now) because the MK team are bad at foreign names. Reiko was originally meant to be Noob Saibot, but with the whole “GOTTA HAVE NEW CHARACTERS” thing they reskinned Noob into this loser. He’s supposed to be a former general in Shao Kahn’s armies and now holds the same job in Shinnok’s.
The only interesting thing about Reiko is his ending in the CD versions, where he walks through a portal and ends up in Shao Kahn’s throne chamber. There, he sits on Kahn’s throne while the emperor’s helmet is lowered onto his head. Wow! Reiko is Shao Kahn? Well, no, he isn’t. His whole ending (which originally just had him go through the portal without any followup) is a joke, and later on it was stated he just likes to sneak into Kahn’s chamber and wear his helmet.
Tanya is the daughter of Edenia’s ambassador to new realms and invites a group of refugees from another realm to enter Edenia through a portal. Unfortunately for Edenia, Tanya is also a traitor. The portal leads to the Netherrealm, and the people she let through are none other than Shinnok and a bunch of his henchmen.
I will give you three guesses on who Tanya is a reskin of. Yep, Kitana’s model was completed and she even had her steel fans and everything, but ~new characters~ were needed and Tanya was added into the game. At least she has her own moveset, and her fatalities aren’t too bad. One of them is the good old Edenian kiss of death, which in this game snaps all of your limbs and then makes you explode, and the other one has her break the opponent’s neck using her thighs. The latter doesn’t have any blood so some players don’t like it, but the way the head flops around afterwards is pretty gross and cool.
The sorcerer makes his first appearance in the MK fighting games. He freed Shinnok from the Netherrealm and now works as his arch-sorcerer while still plotting his own evil schemes. Unfortunately for Quan Chi, he reveals to Scorpion that it was in fact him who killed the ninja’s family and clan, and ends up stuck in Scorpion’s lair for the next eternity or so. Good job.
I’m not really a massive fan of Quan Chi as a character, but in-game he’s quite fun. First of all, his fireball is a giant green skull that bites into the opponent, which is just metal as all hell. He has a teleport stomp as well, and the best of all is his fatality. No, not the one where he just copies the opponent’s fatality, that one’s dumb and low-effort. No, the one where he rips the opponent’s leg off and beats them to death with it. That is quite a hands-on approach for a guy who is meant to be this powerful sorcerer and necromancer, but I’m not complaining in the slightest.
The fallen Elder God and big bad of Mortal Kombat 4. Shinnok appears as the boss of arcade mode and is also a playable character, making this the first time (aside from Trilogy and cheat codes in some MK3/UMK3 ports) Mortal Kombat has a playable boss. Unfortunately, Shinnok is a very disappointing boss, as he just fights the exact same way as his playable version and is pitifully easy to defeat. I’m not asking for Shao Kahn AI here or anything, but this guy is just incredibly underwhelming. At least his face explodes and he falls down to hell when you beat him, so that is something.
Shinnok can sort of morph into other characters like Shang Tsung did in earlier games, but swapping the model each time would have been too much work and so he just changes between movesets instead. He has no special moves of his own, which is sad because even Shang Tsung in MK1 had his fireballs. At least his fatalities, in which he summons giant skeleton hands to pop the opponent’s head off or just crush them, are fun to watch.
There was no sub-boss in the arcade version of MK4, unless you count Quan Chi. Which you shouldn’t, because he doesn’t really qualify for that position. Goro was added into the home versions and shows up in the arcade ladder before Shinnok. He’s got that good old Mortal Kombat boss health and AI we all love so much, so you’ll most likely get pummeled a few times before you figure out how to take him down. Along with all his old moves, Goro is now able to do Kintaro’s teleport stomp, and the hitbox for that thing is utterly ridiculous — it’s nearly impossible to dodge the stomp by simply jumping away. He’s playable with cheat codes.
Story-wise, he is here to avenge his loss to Liu Kang in the first game but then decides to turn his attention to the matters of the Shokan race, eventually allying with Edenia.
Was removed from the arcade game and turned into Reiko, but is a secret playable character in the home versions. Still a member of Shinnok’s Brotherhood of Shadow, Noob Saibot returns to lead the army of Shinnok and Quan Chi (which, by the way, is called the Army of Darkness. Groovy). His weapon is a scythe, which is quite badass, although his moves are rather basic. He has a teleport, an air throw and a fireball. Woo.
Meat isn’t really a character, simply a model swap for your chosen character that you can play as by inputting a code. He’s a bloody skeleton, though, which I suppose is pretty cool. He finally gets a storyline in Mortal Kombat: Armageddon, where his ending reveals he’s a genetic experiment by Shang Tsung that escaped the sorcerer’s “Flesh Pits” before he was fully formed. In that game, he also looks like a skinless pro wrestler instead of a skeleton.
MORTAL KOMBAT GOLD EXCLUSIVE CHARACTERS:
The Shaolin monk turns out to be alive and well. Instead of dying of his injuries at the hands of Shao Kahn, he simply turned to a new life without violence. Of course, that doesn’t last very long, because he hears about Shinnok’s threat and the apparent return of Goro, and decides to join the fight to face his ancestor’s killer.
You would think Kung Lao would use his razor-rimmed hat as his weapon, and you’d be horribly wrong because his weapon in Mortal Kombat Gold is a battle axe. His moveset is identical to previous games.
When Quan Chi’s forces leave Edenia to fight against Raiden and the Earth warriors, Kitana escapes the remaining guards and joins the battle against Shinnok and Quan Chi in order to bring peace to her realm. Once the threat is over, she assumes the throne of Edenia.
Once again, her moves are the same as before. At least she uses her fans in this game and they didn’t give her a club or something, although that is probably because her model and weapons had already been created and just needed some tweaking.
Mileena was brought back to life by Shinnok (not Shao Kahn like her UMK3 bio stated, it was retconned for Trilogy) to serve him in battle, although she doesn’t really want to do so. Instead, she aims to escape Shinnok’s grip, avenge her death at the hands of Kitana, and assume the throne of Edenia from her “sister”. While she does escape Shinnok, her coup doesn’t go so well and she ends up imprisoned in the Edenian royal dungeons.
Her weapon is a longsword, because of course it is. She only uses her sais as projectiles and in one of her fatalities, which is a straight ripoff of one of Reiko’s (Reiko throws a bunch of shurikens into the opponent’s body and finishes with one into the forehead). Meanwhile, her other fatality is also a ripoff of that one, except instead of throwing sais or shurikens she spits nails at the opponent like in UMK3. Here, she doesn’t even take her mask off for that. In case you couldn’t tell, Mortal Kombat Gold is a bit of a low-effort release.
Baraka has been wandering the realms for a while and decides to join Quan Chi’s forces to get back into battle. Naturally, he plans to betray Quan Chi and Shinnok, but Liu Kang defeats the bad guys before the Tarkatan has a chance to enact his plan. In case you were wondering why he’s stapled together like that, at one point he was at the receiving end of Kung Lao’s vertical slice fatality.
Okay, this is a guy who has swords coming out of his fucking arms. Perfect for weapon kombat, there’s no way they are gonna screw this up. Except they did anyway. Baraka’s weapon in MKG is a “Razor Cane” which is sort of like a sickle.
Before the Lin Kuei were disbanded, they managed to rescue the cyborg assassin from his predicament in the desert. The damage has been repaired, but Cyrax seems different from what he used to be when they sent him out on the initial assassination mission. The clan (which really shouldn’t even exist at this point in the story if Sub-Zero’s bio is to be believed, but whatever, I’ll play along) sends him back to battle and assigns Sektor to monitor him.
After the defeat of Shinnok, Cyrax begins to experience flashbacks of his former life as a human warrior. Sonya and Jax take the cyborg to the Special Forces base and use the technology there to restore his humanity. Cyrax remains in his metallic body, but now he has his human soul as well and joins the Outworld Investigation Agency to work alongside his helpers.
Cyrax still has all of his moves from the MK3 games, and his weapon is a goddamn lightsaber. He also has Smoke’s old fatality where he drops so many bombs the Earth explodes, because why not.
His other fatality is the self-destruct move from MK3. That’s right, both of Cyrax’s fatalities in MKG involve him blowing himself up. Maybe he wants to free himself of his robot body by killing himself?
Sektor appears in MKG as a hidden playable character, unlocked with a code on the character select screen. The Lin Kuei send him on the mission with Cyrax in order to monitor Cyrax’s actions. Sektor is to report back to the clan, who will then decide what to do with Cyrax… hold on, what clan? The one that is disbanded according to Sub-Zero’s bio in this same game? Gah! At least Sektor’s bio states the Lin Kuei’s forces are “vastly reduced” so they seem to be paying some attention, but that’s still not the same thing. Would it have killed them to update Sub-Zero’s bio when they added the cyborgs?
Sektor has his moves and fatalities from MK3 (including the great Compactor one) and wields a laser pistol as his weapon. Oh, by the way, the cyborgs in MKG have red blood instead of the dark blue/black oil they had in MK3.
Mortal Kombat 4 is often considered one of the more disappointing games in the MK series, and while it does hit the so-called polygon ceiling quite hard (the graphics were considered pretty mediocre compared to games like Tekken 3 and Virtua Fighter 3 and they really haven’t aged well, although the polygon ceiling isn’t just about graphics and is more of a general term for games that didn’t make the transition from 2D too well) and the cutscenes are completely ridiculous, it still plays surprisingly well and feels like an MK game. The speed really should have been cranked down, though, because the gameplay sometimes looks and feels like a Benny Hill skit. The weapon kombat doesn’t work all that well either, but it can be ignored for the most part.
Having the fights take place on a 3D plane is really quite pointless, as the only things that gives you are some camera angle changes for various moves and the completely useless sidestep. In my opinion, this should have been a 2.5D fighter like the modern MK games, but those weren’t really a thing back in 1997.
Still, I will admit I genuinely had fun revisiting MK4 for this article, more so than I had imagined. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend playing MK4 today, but it does still have its redeeming qualities.
Unfortunately, Mortal Kombat as a franchise was suffering from overexposure in the late 90s, and lackluster releases such as Mythologies, the abysmal Mortal Kombat: Annihilation movie (which came out about a month after MK4 and bombed really hard) and the Mortal Kombat: Conquest TV series did quite a bit of damage to the brand. MK Gold’s poor reception didn’t help matters either, and so the series that had been the hottest video game property in the world just a few years earlier ended up falling into obscurity while other games took the spotlight.
Next: The lowest moment in Mortal Kombat history