How Mortal Kombat 1 Reboots The Franchise’s Signature Action

During a hands-on session with Mortal Kombat 1 at Summer Game Fest, we learned how going back to basics refined the game's core kombat.
Mortal Kombat 1 Preview Summer Game Fest 2023

While the Mortal Kombat franchise has experienced a reboot before, Mortal Kombat 1 truly brings things back to the real roots for something different. As a simultaneous reboot and sequel to Mortal Kombat 11, (which saw Liu Kang ascend to Elder God status and remake the universe) MK1 freshens things up for an entirely new story, which welcomes back the original setting of a B-movie-inspired fighting tournament.

At Summer Game Fest 2023, I went hands-on with the franchise’s new beginning, which streamlines and enhances the core fighting mechanics, while buffing the game’s ruthless aggression and signature killer moves. I also spoke with lead art developer Thiago Gomes and lead systems designer Derek Kirtzic from NetherRealm Studios, who shared insight into exactly what it took to reboot Mortal Kombat.

Read: Mortal Kombat 1 gameplay mechanics, explained

A Bold, Brutal New World

The demo at Summer Game Fest focused on a short slice of the game, with four playable characters (Fire God Liu Kang, Kenshi, Kitana, and Sub-Zero), along with three Kameo fighters (Sonya, Kano, and Jax) who all sport their classic ’90s outfits from the first two MK games. It was an interesting and detailed look at the more prominent vibe and approach with MK1‘s fresh start – which is all about reinterpreting the classic era of the series in ways that cut deeper than Mortal Kombat (2011) did.

Image: NetherRealm Studios

Liu Kang assumes the role of the wise and powerful leader who must unite Earthrealm’s mightiest heroes to face off against Outworld in Mortal Kombat. Familiar characters like Sub-Zero, Scorpion, Sonya, Kano, and Kung Lao return, but we also see other fighters who’ve been absent from the series for a while, such as the blind, mystical swordsman Kenshi.

While the franchise’s familiar revelry in gore and the grotesque is still centerstage, I did get a sense that Mortal Kombat 1 is a bit more optimistic in tone, and more visually vibrant compared to the darker energy of Mortal Kombat X and Mortal Kombat 11 – and that was intentional, according to the developers.

‘It was important for us to paint this new universe in a different light. Liu Kang created this new universe in a new way, and we wanted to make that feel like a completely different universe,’ said Gomes.

MK1 continues to focus on providing a more brutal and campy take on fighting game action, compared to its genre contemporaries like Street Fighter 6 or Tekken 8. The newest entry largely iterates on MK11‘s fighting mechanics, but also streamlines some of the systems in an effort to make them more clear and approachable.

Along with the removal of Crushing Blows and the Run button, the most significant change is that the Variation system – which offered each character alternative movesets – has also been entirely removed from MK1. This change resulted from the developers not wanting players to lose out on key moves when building up characters.

Image: NetherRealm Studios

On the surface, this is a massive and bold departure from MK11 and MKX – Variations had become a staple among the community in recent years. However, when I got to engage with what remained, I came to really appreciate just how streamlined and to the point everything is now.

Five matches in, I found myself not missing the Variations much, especially when I had a whole new mechanic to play with – Kameos.

Call in the Assist

The true game-changing element of MK1 is the much-discussed Kameo system, allowing you to call in an assist from a supporting fighter of your choosing. At first glance, it definitely reminded me of Marvel vs. Capcom’s assist system, but the Kameos go further than that.

These assists can come in the form of different signature moves from each character, such as Jax’s ground pound or Kano’s eye laser, though you can mix up the techniques by pressing different directional inputs together with the Kameo assist button. This creates a flow that’s more unique than your typical Mortal Kombat-style fight. You now essentially have a whole other moveset to call upon, allowing you to compliment or diversify your main fighter’s skills with your chosen Kameo fighter. 

According to MK1‘s Lead Systems Designer, this pivot to more defined character and sub-fighter combat was an attempt to find the fun of Mortal Kombat’s action.

‘The goal for MK1 was to make sure players had fun engaging in free-flowing combos and the expanded aerial combat, which is something I’m extremely excited about,’ Kirtzic explained. ‘The new Kameos allow people to explore this game more – to give them more freedom with mixing things up and finding that fun.’

Image: NetherRealm Studios

‘In MKX and MK11, there was a whole suite of moves to choose from, but in this game, we wanted to give you the full kit for each character without sacrificing anything. For instance, if you’re a zoner character, you can bring in an assist character that complements that or go even in another direction.’

Coupling the variation-less character move sets and the added layer of tactics with Kameo fighters allowed me to get into the thick of fights much more quickly, and revealed just how hectic and brutal the action can get. Some of my favourite moments came from finally nailing down mix-ups and launches against opponents, and then landing a successful hit with my Kameo fighter.

Another favourite moment of mine was finally nailing the timing for Sonya Blade’s Kameo leg grab move after staggering my opponent with Sub Zero’s move set. It was a satisfying little victory, and it showed just how complex tactics can get when you pair your main fighter with the right Kameo character.

Defining The Violence

Mortal Kombat 1 is a brutal fighter, and with the game’s improved visual effects, it’s somehow even more grotesque, and looks even more realistic than MK11. Even though the game’s violence is totally cartoonish, there were definitely moments where I winced a bit – the action can get quite brutal. According to the developers, this was an aspect that they were mindful of, so as not to go too far with unsettling players.

Image: NetherRealm Studios

‘It’s about making sure that the [violence] feels impactful and that you’re doing real damage, but it’s intended to be at the level of something that’s super gross to look at,’ said Gomes.

‘It is meant to be so campy and weird that it’s over the top. We don’t aim to offend; it’s never too realistic. It’s always tongue-in-cheek and so ridiculous that you just have to laugh at it. We have a great group of people that work on this, and we just kick around ideas, and we always make sure never to cross the line and to make sure that players will be able to laugh at it.’

So far, Mortal Kombat 1 is an intriguing take on revisiting a quasi-classic era of the franchise. With the new combat mechanics and Kameo system, this game, so far, feels like the most significant change that modern MK games have received in some time, and that has me very interested.

I admired Mortal Kombat 11 and its massive scope, but I’m definitely not opposed to NetherRealm Studios taking the time to refocus the flow and style of its character-defining combat.

Mortal Kombat 1 releases on 19 September 2023, and will be available on PC, PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X/S, and Nintendo Switch.

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Alessandro Fillari is a writer/editor who has covered the games, tech, and entertainment industries for more than 11 years. Based in the San Francisco Bay Area, he previously worked at GameSpot and CNET as an editor specializing in games coverage. You can find him on Twitter at @afillari