“Mortal Kombat!” From its iconic opening battle cry to its ultra-violent finishing fatalities, there’s nothing subtle about Midway’s Mortal Kombat (or the 14 sequels released since the original debuted in arcades 25 years ago). Controversial with parents, politicians, and fighting game fans alike, the gory franchise became infamous for showing players’ beating hearts ripped from chest cavities, spinal columns torn from torsos, and buckets upon buckets of pixelated blood, and the original is often cited as an impetus for the creation of the Entertainment Software Ratings Board. Of course, Mortal Kombat is also one of the most successful and profitable names in fighting game history, inspiring comic books, two film adaptations, a toned-down children’s cartoon, and even a live touring stage show.
Mortal Kombat has also inspired innumerable imitators, some of them (Killer Instinct, Primal Rage) influential or at least enjoyable in their own right. Many, many others, however, copied only the most offensive and over-the-top elements, attempting to satiate gamer bloodlust with cheaply produced digitized graphics. These titles often added elements of racism, sexism, and other insanity to the gratuitous violence to create rotten low-hanging-fruit salads left to rot in the darkest corners of video game history. To play them is to fight a mirror match vs. some of the ugliest aspects of the human psyche.
Face off against badly rendered full-motion video, poorly conceived characters, and failed and forgotten consoles in these 15 Worst Mortal Kombat Ripoffs.
15. Thrill Kill
Canceled by EA just before its scheduled release date in 1998, Thrill Kill received an “Adults Only” rating from the ESRB for its graphic violence. Characters fighting to the bloody death for a chance to escape eternal damnation (an overly complicated backstory seems essential to any terrible Kombat clone) included a redneck cannibal, a pair of conjoined twins, a cattle-prod-wielding dominatrix, and other nightmare-inducing misfits that IGN described as “the Rocky Horror Picture Show gone bad.”
For anyone wanting to witness the insanity of a four-way deathmatch between a straitjacketed serial killer, a teenaged contortionist, a psychotic postal worker reincarnated as a feral primate, and a little person on stilts can dig up a bootleg copy of the game for PlayStation emulators. Parts of the game’s 3D fighting engine (minus the circus freaks, gimps, and other hellions) can be seen in Paradox Development’s Wu-Tang: Shaolin Style, which released the following year.
Billed as “The Fighting Game for Real Fighters,” BloodStorm is mostly notable for an ad campaign featuring Daniel Pesina (the actor motion-captured as Mortal Kombat‘s Johnny Cage) playing the arcade game while dressed in decidedly Johnny-like attire — a dalliance rumored to have caused Midway to kill off the popular character prior to Mortal Kombat III.
BloodStorm challenged players to perform hasty limb amputations that would make Civil War battlefield surgeons cringe. Despite the egregious injuries, characters would go on fighting, a la the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, even after a “flesh wound” separated them from the lower half of their bodies, but several scene-specific hazards could cause instant death in a single blow. The large number of unlockable secret characters included Blood — an all-red character with an inexhaustible fountain of gore spewing from its neck hole — and a big-headed caricature of former United States Senator (and critic of video game violence) Joe Lieberman.
13. Way of the Warrior
Released only on the largely forgotten 3DO console, Way of the Warrior featured FMV characters wearing cheap thrift store costumes and reportedly filmed in a small Boston apartment. Naughty Dog developers Jason Rubin and Andy Gavin (who would later release better-remembered games like The Last of Us and the Crash Bandicoot and Uncharted series) programmed the game on two Macintosh computers and paid actors $25 apiece for appearing as digitized characters. Such brawlers included ‘roid-raging British Special Air Service soldier Major Gaines, business-suit clad bodyguard Malcom Fox, alcoholic Aussie Shaky Jake, the imaginatively named Ninja, and above-pictured Gulab Jamun, a diapered swami type named after a dessert dish who makes Street Fighter‘s Dhalsim look downright dignified.
Naughty Dog’s original website called Way of the Warrior “one of the most complex, intricate fighting games of all time” and its CD-ROM-based graphics were state-of-the-art for the mid-1990s, but the heavy metal soundtrack — featuring tracks from White Zombie’s La Sexorcisto — has aged like fine wine in comparison to the game itself.
12. Time Killers
Preceding BloodStorm by two years, Time Killers — also made by Golden Tee developers Incredible Technologies — featured even worse graphics and clunkier gameplay. Amputation is still the main mode of attack, but pressing all five buttons at once results in a special “death move” that decapitates an opponent and instantly ends the round, rewarding rudimentary button-mashing over strategic surgical precision. Surprisingly, quadruple limb loss doesn’t result in immediate defeat — headbutting an enemy to death is always an option. Playable characters come from Earth’s past (a caveman, a samurai, a medieval knight) and future (a cyberpunk from Neo-Chicago, an insectoid alien invader) wielding era-appropriate weapons in a fighting tournament culminating in an ultimate battle with Death itself.
Though the Grim Reaper’s competitive nature was previously detailed in 1957’s The Seventh Seal, the Ingmar Bergman masterpiece failed to give viewers a vital bit of information about engaging the Specter in sword-to-sickle combat: Death cannot be dismembered, only decapitated. Also: Death sports neon spandex and a glorious flaming mullet.
11. Shaq Fu
Not to be confused with his gold-record hip-hop album of the same name released in the same year (Shaquille O’Neal was a really big deal in 1994), the multi-platform video game Shaq Fu features the 7’1″ NBA center locked in supernatural martial-arts combat against hellbeasts, monsters, and, at one point, a small child after visiting a Japanese dojo. (Fun fact: Kung-fu is Chinese, but one of the game’s primary villains is a mummy named Sett Ra, so this game may not have been designed to teach geography.)
Where most games named after NBA players (Michael Jordan: Chaos in the Windy City, Barkley Shut Up and Jam!) feature hella basketball and basketball-related activities, Shaq Fu yanks its star player off the court in an opening cut scene and sends him on a mission to rescue young Nezu from the forces of evil by schooling all eight of them in the his own personal brand of Budō — without ever changing out of his non-team-specific uniform. At least he doesn’t follow up the fights with a freestyle diss.
A sequel, Shaq-Fu: A Legend Reborn is promised/threatened, despite the protests of the Shaq Fu Liberation Front, a movement collecting donations to purchase copies of the original to “remove it from public display so that people will not be reminded of [its] existence.”
10. Bio F.R.E.A.K.S.
Even Mortal Kombat developer Midway got in on the Mortal Kombat ripoff game with 1998’s Bio F.R.E.A.K.S. — a PlayStation and Nintendo 64 game set in a future dystopia where corporations battle for control of the former United States, deciding territorial disputes in (what else?) a bloody underground fighting tournament. Pitting genetically modified cyborgs, or Biological Flying Robotic Enhanced Armored Killing Synthoids, against one another in battle to the gory death, Bio F.R.E.A.K.S. arms combatants with personal jet packs and projectile weapons in a booby-trapped arena, but even the sci-fi backstory and characters like the sledge-hammer-wielding Psyclown weren’t enough to set the game apart from an overpopulated genre.
GameSpot’s review called it “just one of those fighting games” and concluded that “most will probably tire of Bio F.R.E.A.K.S. fairly quickly.” The game might offer a chilling view of a possible future corporatocracy, but for a sobering glimpse of gaming’s past, consider that GameSpot also described it as, “visually, one of the most impressive fighting games on the Nintendo 64.”
9. Kasumi Ninja
Marketed as “the world’s first 64-bit interactive multimedia home entertainment system” in 1993, the Atari Jaguar boasted an unwieldy 17-button controller and difficult-to-develop-for multi-chip hardware configuration that resulted in just 67 officially licensed games being released in the console’s brief history, very few of which came close to harnessing the supposed 64-bit technology. And, not surprisingly, only one of these games allows players to control a Scottish man who could shoot fireballs from under his kilt.
Kasumi Ninja features yet another brutal fighting tournament hosted by an evil warlord on a secret magical island, but the customizable “gore level” only allows players to execute finishing fatalities (referred to in the game’s manual as “death moves“) if the parental controls are turned off. Otherwise, the blood level could not exceed “disturbing,” and “Comanche Chief” Pakawa, for example, wouldn’t be able to scalp his opponents. Kasumi Ninja did not offer players the option to turn off racial stereotyping.
8. Survival Arts
Converting live-action video to digitized gaming sprites was cutting-edge tech back in the early ’90s, but the visuals of the original Mortal Kombat look extremely dated by today’s standards. The only way to make the clunky, pixelated FMV look worse would probably be to enlarge the fighters to show the blocky lack of detail in all its non-glory, as seen in Sammy’s 1993 arcade fighter Survival Arts.
Other than bigger, uglier, more forgettable characters like the luchador Santana, the gray alien Kane, and, of course, various ninjas, cops, and soldiers, Survival Arts offered little to distinguish it from Mortal Kombat. Fighters can pick up weapons and use them to dismember each other, Time Killers-style, and defeating the final boss Dantel (an undead flesh-eater who looks like the lead singer of a forgotten hair-metal band) causes a couple of disembodied Hitler heads to fly around the screen momentarily, for seemingly no good reason. Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis ports were planned but then canceled, for any number of good reasons.
7. War Gods
Another Mortal Kombat style fighter from Midway, 1996’s War Gods seems to exist purely as a test platform for the 3-D fighting engine later utilized in Mortal Kombat 4. Considering MK4 is often considered the worst fighting game in the history of the franchise, the bastard beta version is entirely skippable, even if one of the character’s fatalities causes his opponent to be vaporized by a UFO. Other immortal fighters battling over fragments of a magical space ore include living stone idol Tak, samurai Kabuki Jo, Egyptian deity Anubis and the Viking princess Vallah, played by actress Kerri “Sonya Blade” Hoskins.
Reviewing the Nintendo 64 version, IGN criticized War Gods for its “comical character design and sloppy graphics” marred by “poor animation and glitchy texture mapped environments.” GameSpot’s review was a little bit nicer, calling the game “an interesting (albeit unrelated) footnote to the MK legacy.” An “interesting footnote,” would be faint praise for a college term paper, let alone a gore-filled fighting game.
6. Shadow: War of Succession
Kincaid Storm, the leader of criminal organization S.H.A.D.O.W. (Syndicate of Hate, Anarchy, Destruction, and Organized Warfare) has been killed, and the only way to choose his successor is — you guessed it — a Bloodsport-style fighting tournament pitting all the underbosses in ultra-low-frame-rate death matches. Another game released exclusively for the 3DO, Shadow: War of Succession is as clunky as its title, featuring hideous “photorealistic” graphics (even by 1994 standards) and monotonous gameplay.
The seven playable characters (played by four digitized actors) include sword-wielding assassin Erika Storm (seeking revenge for her father’s murder), undercover federal agent Carlos Cortez (brilliantly hidden in a trench coat and sunglasses), Navy SEAL Anvil Stiles, and Viper (some guy in a ski mask whose motives go unexplained even if he wins the entire tournament). In addition to hokey disguises, the majority of fighters boast a special move that allows them to momentarily disappear from the screen, maybe because they’re ashamed to even be seen in such a terrible game.
5. Xenophage: Alien Bloodsport
Originally released in 1996 as shareware by Duke Nukem and Wolfenstein 3D creators Apogee, Xenophage harnessed the power of the MS-DOS operating system to present alien combat in “high-resolution” 640 x 480 SVGA. Featuring only two human characters, Xenophage fills its roster with odd-looking alien species like the squat blue “Mouth,” the bug-like “Spike,” and the aptly named “Squid” and “Worm” — all abducted and forced to fight to the death for the honor of not watching their homeworlds destroyed by a mysterious “godlike” race. Further dating the game is the hidden character “Blarney,” clearly modeled after the kid-friendly purple dinosaur everyone loved to hate in the mid-’90s. The fatalities, here referred to as “Meat!” moves, mostly consist of blood-spurting decapitations.
In an interview published by Apogee 10 years after the game’s release, even developer Jason Blochowiak agreed that the game’s characters were “too big, and too weird” adding that “We’re probably not going to be seeing Xenophage II.” The original has been released as freeware and can even be played in an internet browser.
4. Street Fighter: The Movie
Released in 1995, the deceptively named Street Fighter: The Movie arcade game further confuses matters by forgoing the franchise’s famed animation for Mortal Kombat-style digitized sprites of the 1994 live-action film’s actors (or, in the cases of Raúl Juliá and Jean-Claude Van Damme, their stunt doubles). Developed by Incredible Technologies of BloodStorm/Time Killers infamy, the video game adaptation of the film adaptation of the video game Street Fighter struggled with weak source material (the movie has a 15 percent Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes) and technical limitations. (According to a lengthy forum post from programmer Alan Noon, the actors had to be captured making their moves in slow motion to prevent the hardware from crashing, which no doubt contributed to the game’s awkward graphics.)
Noon went so far as to call the game “a grave personal tragedy.” “Nobody loved Street Fighter more than me,” he writes, “and there I was: partly responsible for one of the most reviled games in history. I’m not proud of the game by any means, and the wasted opportunity truly does haunt me to this day.”
3. Tattoo Assassins
Canceled before its release, Tattoo Assassins boasted a mind-boggling 2,196 finishing moves and a backstory written by Back to the Future co-creator Bob Gale, but only a few cabinets were ever constructed by Data East, a company mostly known for making pinball games. While many games attempted to recreate the success of Mortal Kombat, few managed to make their controversial inspiration seem tame in comparison. Among Tattoo Assassin‘s almost mathematically impossible number of finishers are moves that strip opponents bare (making good on the untrue rumors that Mortal Kombat II contained a hidden “nudality” for Sonya Blade) and many, many others that involve butt stuff. “I think it had the first deaths by diarrhea or farts ever in video games,” boasted lead engineer Joe Kaminkow in a 2013 interview.
Playable characters included the apparently requisite Native American stereotype Billy Two Moons, vengeance-seeking stripper Hannah Hart (played by former Raiders cheerleader and future OJ Simpson trial witness Gretchen Stockdale) and injured figure skater Karla Keller (an obvious parody of Olympian Nancy Kerrigan). Though Tattoo Assassins was 86’d before its release, gamers looking to kill opponents with tattoos come to life, or, um, farted-out Thanksgiving dinners can easily play the game with a MAME emulator.
“Let’s just get right down to the nitty gritty,” begins GameSpot’s scathing review of this 1996 decidedly un-PC PC fighter, “Catfight is, without a doubt, the worst computer game ever released.” The game — designed for the Windows 3.1 operating system and published by Atlantean Interactive Games, a subsidiary of pornographic filmmakers Vivid Entertainment — is included in several lists of the worst video games of all time due to its faulty hit detection and blatant sexism. (For starters, none of the scantily clad playable characters seem to even have names, despite the credited appearance of Mortal Kombat II actress Katalin Zamiar.)
For a Mortal Kombat ripoff made by a porn company, Catfight offers very little sex or violence, let alone decent fighting action. Setting the game’s difficulty to “easy,” which completely disables the computer-controlled opponent, is the only reliable way to win a match. Little wonder the game’s designers reportedly used pseudonyms in the credits.
Featured as the hot new Christmas video game in the season seven Simpsons episode “Marge Be Not Proud,” Bonestorm tops the list of terrible Mortal Kombat ripoffs for two very good reasons. First, its deceptive advertising campaign (advising children to tell their parents “Buy me Bonestorm or go to hell!“) leads Bart to attempt to shoplift the game, nearly resulting in him breaking his mother’s oversized heart in this uncharacteristically sincere episode. Try-N-Save security guard Don Brodka (voiced by movie tough guy Lawrence Tierney) catches Bart “violating the 11th commandment” and eventually rats him out to Marge, nearly spoiling the holiday season for the whole family.
Secondly, Bonestorm‘s replay value is apparently very low. Milhouse, who succeeds in getting his own copy of the game through legitimate means, is initially so impressed with it that he falsely accuses Bart of swearing so he’ll be kicked out of the Van Houten house and Milhouse can continue playing by himself. The next time Bart stops by, however, Milhouse is bored of Bonestorm and is apparently having more fun playing with a cup-and-ball toy. Clearly, Bart is better off playing Lee Carvallo’s Putting Challenge instead.
Did we miss any of the Mortal Kombat knockoffs you love to hate on? Pick your fights in the comments!
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