Mortal Kombat Retrospektive #11: Mortal Kombat: Shaolin Monks (2005)

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After the disasters that were Mortal Kombat Mythologies: Sub-Zero and Mortal Kombat: Special Forces, I don’t think anyone would have blamed Midway for never attempting a Mortal Kombat spinoff again. However, in 2005 they did give it one more shot. Co-developed by Midway Chicago, Midway San Diego and Midway Los Angeles (formerly Paradox Development, creators of such renowned titles as Thrill Kill and Backyard Wrestling, not to be confused with the strategy game company), Shaolin Monks surprised everybody by actually turning out quite good.

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While Shaolin Monks is pretty good, it does not look anywhere near this nice unless you’re playing it on an emulator.

Shaolin Monks is a beat ’em up/action adventure starring Liu Kang and Kung Lao, the White Lotus warriors we all know and love. The storyline begins at the end of the first Mortal Kombat game and covers the entirety of MKII, although this game takes a rather broad strokes approach when it comes to canon. In Shaolin Monks, Liu Kang and Kung Lao are allowed to fight all the bad guys and murder them in horrible ways without any effect on the canon storyline.

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FIRE IN THE DISCO.

In case you forgot how the storyline went, here’s a summary: Liu Kang wins the Mortal Kombat tournament and saves Earthrealm, escaping Shang Tsung’s island with Kung Lao (who wasn’t there in the original story). The monks and the rest of the Earth warriors return to the Wu Shi Academy for a celebration, but the academy is burned to the ground by Outworld’s forces and Sonya Blade is taken away to Outworld. Liu Kang and Kung Lao head to Outworld to beat up all the bad guys and save Earthrealm once more.

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Three on one is hardly fair, now is it? Come on ladies, one at a time. Please form an orderly queue.

Liu Kang and Kung Lao’s personalities are rather different from their previous depictions. Both of them act like slightly dim and naïve teenagers who constantly bicker about everything (“Kitana is NOT my girlfriend!”), and Kung Lao’s characterization in particular has been changed completely. Formerly a peace-loving monk who didn’t care about glory and only fought when he had to, Kung Lao is now jealous of Liu Kang’s success in the Mortal Kombat tournament, wants to be Grand Champion himself and will not shut the hell up about honoring his ancestors.

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Most cutscenes are in-engine (and unskippable), but occasionally you get a CGI scene like this. The CGI intro looks fantastic, this one… not so much. Oh my god Raiden what’s wrong with your face

Not all the other characters are quite acting like themselves either. Scorpion tries to kill Liu Kang and Kung Lao despite originally being a decent guy in MKII, and Mileena and Reptile are described as “inseparable”. As far as I know, those two have never interacted at all in the official storyline.

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Seriously, did anyone ever fall for blatantly obvious bullshots like this one? That’s like 3x native resolution!

The gameplay of Shaolin Monks is rather simple. Liu Kang and/or Kung Lao runs through levels based on MK/MKII stages, avoids traps, does a decent amount of platforming and beats up a ton of demons, Tarkatans, Shang Tsung’s Shadow Priests (who are total asshats, as they can’t be thrown and fatalities don’t work on them), zombies and other ugly bastards. Killing enemies restores your health and nets you EXP for combo and special move upgrades, and the longer your combos are the more EXP you get.

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Occasionally there’s a boss fight, and if you survive you earn a new skill that lets you progress to new areas. These skills include things like long and double jumps, wall climbing and “Fist of Ruin” which lets you smash through these giant statues you see all over the place or break through enemy shields. As Mortal Kombat tradition dictates, most of these boss fights are pretty goddamn hard.

So that things don’t get too easy, each boss has some kind of gimmick. To list a few: Mileena and Jade can be pushed into traps around the arena, Reptile can turn invisible, and Baraka becomes immune to all attacks unless you manage to stun him with a weapon, do a Test Your Might sequence, and then throw said weapon through his face. At the end of the game, you fight Shang Tsung, Kintaro and Shao Kahn one after the other, and it probably goes without saying that that is no picnic.

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The checkpoints can be rather unforgiving as well. For example: when you reach Reptile’s lair, you need to kill a giant snake by using the power of platforming (which in itself is rather awkward but fairly forgiving) before you get to fight Reptile himself, and your health isn’t refilled in between. If you lose to Reptile — which is not entirely unlikely if it’s your first time playing — you have to kill the snake all over again. Oh, and those fights against Shang Tsung and Kintaro before Shao Kahn? That’s right, if (when) Shao Kahn beats you, you’re starting over from Shang Tsung!

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If you ever wondered what Shao Kahn looked like behind his mask, this game answers that question. His face is modeled after John Tobias’ depiction in the official MKII comic.

This game did come out ten years ago and most developers hadn’t quite figured out checkpoints yet (some developers still haven’t), but having to repeat the same section is still quite annoying. Save points are also few and far between, although nothing stops you from running back to the previous save point if you want to quit playing.

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Protip: When “TOASTY!” appears, press Start for instant 1,000 EXP.

While there are complaints to be made about some of the other facets of the gameplay in Shaolin Monks, the actual fighting system is a ton of fun and extremely satisfying. You can attack in any direction, pull off juggle combos, bounce an enemy between Liu Kang and Kung Lao for even bigger combos, and throw enemies into various environmental hazards. Occasionally the monks can pick up weapons, which ignore blocking and do a ton of damage but break after a short while.

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Environmental kills award no EXP, but they are a good way to thin out enemy numbers and are often used for puzzles and secrets. Some of them are also quite funny — the catapults outside the Wu Shi Academy can shoot Tarkatans into orbit, and the trees in the Living Forest will eat zombies or toss them (or you!) around like rag dolls. At one point, you slow down a giant fan by tossing enemies into the blades, breaking them.

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Throwing an enemy onto these spikes lets you jump onto his body and reach the upper platform. The puzzles in Shaolin Monks usually aren’t too hard, but they can be quite imaginative.

The face buttons are used for basic attacks and jumping, and you can pull off special moves by holding R1 (RT on Xbox) and pressing one of the attack buttons. Special moves use up the blue energy meter just like in Special Forces, but this time the energy refills automatically. Blocking, done with the left trigger or L2, also uses up energy. R2 or the black button is used for throws, and L1/white button is the stun move that lets you pull off a Fatality once your Fatality gauge is filled.

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This game has a lot of motion blur, which doesn’t really affect gameplay but makes 90% of my screenshots look like shit.

Each character has several Fatalities, although the game is quite stingy with giving them out and you’ll most likely be using the one that takes up the least amount of time anyway. Some of the more elaborate ones are fun to watch once or twice — such as Kung Lao’s killer rabbit, and Liu Kang breaking all of the enemy’s limbs — but especially in co-op you’ll want to get on with the game as quickly as possible, as the action stops during fatalities.

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Shaolin Monks also introduces the Multality, which is an instant kill on multiple opponents and restores a good chunk of your health (Fatalities give good EXP but don’t restore any health). Brutalities are in the game as well, albeit with a different function; doing a Brutality will make your attacks more powerful for a short amount of time while turning the screen red.

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Everyone in this game calls Raiden “Master Raiden”, which annoys me far more than it should. It’s supposed to be LORD Raiden, dammit!

While you can play Shaolin Monks alone and have a good time, it is very clearly designed for co-op — excuse me, ko-op — and that is the key to truly enjoying the game. The single player mode can get rather frustrating since you don’t have a buddy keeping some of the enemies off you, and the fighting system gets a lot more fun when you can toss enemies at each other and build huge combos, earning extra EXP for ko-op hits. Liu Kang and Kung Lao can even team up for extra-damaging special attacks.

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Anytime you activate a lever or something similar, you get to Test your Might. Here, Kung Lao is about to use some spikes to skewer Jade.

In ko-op, Liu Kang and Kung Lao have a shared health bar that takes up the top of the screen, and both die if it depletes completely. For some reason, when you first learn to do Fatalities, only the first player to actually pull one off will “get” it (as in, the input only shows in that player’s move list afterwards) and the other will have to look up all their fatalities. There are also switches all over the place that can only be activated with two players. None of the areas accessed via these switches are necessary for progress, obviously, but you will miss a ton of unlockables if you’re on your own.

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The Portal is the main hub area of Shaolin Monks. Different portals will take you to different levels, and as you learn new skills you can access more of them.

Speaking of unlockables, there are a lot of them. Of course there are, this is a Mortal Kombat game. There is a secret in every single area of the game, generally showing up as a collectible red yin-yang coin. Uh, koin. Reaching most of these requires various tricks, like throwing enemies into certain environmental objects or shooting projectiles at the moon (seriously) or simply coming back when you have learned new skills.

Most of the unlockables are just concept art or some other crap nobody cares about, but some koins contain stages or characters for Shaolin Monks’ versus mode, or new fatalities. On occasion you might run into other MK characters such as Kabal (pre-mask and respirator), who is being held prisoner by a bunch of boulder-tossing Shokans in the Wasteland, and is apparently Danzig in this game.

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I DON’T WANNA BE HERE IN YOUR SHOKAN DUNGEON, I DON’T WANNA BE HERE IN YOUR OUTWORLD HEE-EELL

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Beating the game as Liu Kang or Kung Lao unlocks Scorpion or Sub-Zero respectively. Yes, you can play through Shaolin Monks as Scorpion and/or Sub-Zero, and they have their own movesets and fatalities. They don’t have their own dialogue, though, so you’ll get to hear them bicker like high schoolers as well. This may or may not be a bad thing. Sometime after the release of Shaolin Monks, there were talks of a sequel starring Scorpion and Sub-Zero (apparently called “Mortal Kombat: Fire and Ice”) but that never materialized as Midway closed the LA studio in 2008.

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If you’re impatient, the ninjas are also unlockable with cheat codes, as is pretty much everything else in the game including the Midway Arcade Treasures 2 version of Mortal Kombat II. Remember when you didn’t have to pay 20 bucks or your local equivalent for a cheat to unlock everything in a game? Good times. Anyway, to unlock MKII the harder way, you go through a series of sidequests for Smoke in the Living Forest and are rewarded with the game appearing in the Kontent menu.

Since this is the Midway Arcade Treasures 2 version, it has the same control mapping issues as it did on that compilation — pressing Start will pause the game, so you’re not fighting Smoke or selecting a random character. You also can’t adjust the difficulty, which can be a bit of a problem considering how brutal the default setting in MKII is. There are apparently some graphics and sound bugs as well, but unless you have the original arcade version right next to this one you probably won’t notice.

For whatever reason, the PAL PS2 release omits the unlockable Mortal Kombat II altogether and you simply get 50,000 EXP. The code doesn’t work either. I’m assuming they must’ve run into a technical snag of some sort, possibly something to do with PAL-50 mode. Contrary to what the internet says, however, the PAL Xbox version does include MKII and the cheat works just fine. I tested it myself and played a couple of rounds of Mortal Kombat II.

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I’m not sure why you would want to play it considering the fact Mortal Kombat II is on the disc (well, on most discs), but Shaolin Monks includes a 2-player versus mode. It’s a simple 3D fighter with some powerups and hazards scattered around the arenas, and it’s not really worth playing. Has there ever been a beat ’em up game with a good 2-player versus mode? The way I remember it, those have been crap since the days of Double Dragon and Golden Axe, and this game is no exception. At least you can unlock some of the characters from story mode to play as.

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The PS2 and Xbox versions of Shaolin Monks are both very good and you can’t really go wrong with either one. The Xbox has a fairly noticeable graphical advantage, as was usually the case with multiformat games of that generation, but the controls on Microsoft’s controller are slightly more awkward than its Sony counterpart. The black and white face buttons aren’t as easy to use as the shoulder buttons on the DualShock 2 (except maybe if you’re using the old “Duke” controller, which has the buttons arranged differently) but the gameplay doesn’t really suffer too much.

Now of course, all this guff about the old Xbox buttons is irrelevant since you can just play on Xbox 360 and use that controller, right? Wrong. For some dumb reason, Mortal Kombat: Shaolin Monks has never been and never will be compatible with the 360. People complained about this back in 2005 and still occasionally complain about it ten years later, but Microsoft has never added Shaolin Monks to the backwards compatibility list.

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Shaolin Monks was well received, although it didn’t quite become the huge hit Midway had hoped. Three years after its release, the game had sold a million copies. It has, however, become something of a cult classic, fondly remembered by players and creators alike. Ed Boon has stated multiple times that he loves Shaolin Monks and would like to see an HD re-release, so perhaps there is still a chance for MK fans to see a version of this game that does not require you to use a PS2 emulator or dig your old consoles out of the closet.

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Next: The end is here. The game is over. No more pretending. No more. NO MORE.

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