The first teaser trailer for Mortal Kombat X, the 10th chapter of the 22-year-old Mortal Kombat fighting franchise, has just been released.
NetherRealm Studios -- which is comprised of the former assets of Midway Games (which filed for bankruptcy in 2009) and WB Games Chicago -- is developing the game, which will be published by Time Warner's (NYSE:TWX.DL) Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment. NetherRealm has released three main titles so far -- Mortal Kombat (2011), Mortal Kombat Arcade Kollection (2012), and Injustice: Gods Among Us (2013).
Although Mortal Kombat X won't arrive until 2015, Warner has already opened pre-orders and unveiled the game's box art, which features Scorpion wielding his trademark kunai. For any kid who grew up in the 1990s in America, that image will probably conjure up gruesomely fond memories of Scorpion impaling his enemies and screaming, "Get over here!"
The business of Mortal Kombat
But looking past the nostalgia, is Mortal Kombat actually as profitable as it used to be?
The original Mortal Kombat (1992) was defined by two things -- digitized real-life actors and over-the-top violence. Scanning real people into a game seemed revolutionary at the time, but the game was actually slower and choppier than sprite-based games like Capcom's Street Fighter II. Midway eventually replaced the digitized characters with 3D models in 1997.
Mortal Kombat's bloody decapitations and disembowelments were shocking in the 1990s, when most gamers were still playing Mario and Sonic games. But after playing gruesome modern games like Bulletstorm, God of War, and Manhunt, Mortal Kombat's cartoonish "fatalities" just aren't that shocking anymore.
When we strip away those two defining qualities of Mortal Kombat, we're left with just another fighting game comparable to Street Fighter, Tekken, or Dead or Alive.
The decline and rebirth of a franchise
In the late 1990s, Midway feared that Mortal Kombat was losing momentum, so it launched poorly conceived, critically hated spinoffs like Mortal Kombat: Special Forces (1997) and Mortal Kombat Mythologies: Sub Zero (1997) to cash in on the fading franchise.
Midway eventually got back on track with Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance in 2002. Deadly Alliance sold 3.9 million copies and brought the franchise back to its arcade-style fighting roots on home consoles. Unfortunately, that renewed interest didn't last very long -- its sequel, Mortal Kombat: Deception (2004), sold 2.75 million copies, and the following game, Mortal Kombat: Shaolin Monks (2005), only sold 1 million.
When NetherRealm took over the Mortal Kombat franchise, it wisely rebooted Midway's fragmented world of 2D games, 3D games, and spinoffs with the aptly named Mortal Kombat in 2011. It was a brilliant move -- the game became the highest-selling fighting game of 2011 and went on to sell 4.8 million copies worldwide. Critical reception was also highly positive, with the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions respectively earning scores of 86% and 84% at review aggregator site Metacritic.
The business of fighting games
Fighting games like Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter have always occupied a niche market, for a simple reason -- many casual gamers feel that the controls, which usually consist of complex button combinations, are too hard to memorize.
That's the reason Nintendo (NASDAQOTH:NTDOY) launched Super Smash Bros. -- a casual fighting series that has sold nearly 25 million copies over the course of three games. By comparison, the first three installments of Capcom's Street Fighter IV (Street Fighter IV, Super Street Fighter IV, and Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition) have sold 7.7 million units.
Although those numbers indicate that party-style, button-mashing fighting games are more popular, the market for hardcore fighting games like Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter won't fade away anytime soon.
The Foolish takeaway
In closing, it's amazing that Mortal Kombat is still going strong after more than two decades. It's a symbol of the 1990s that logically should have faded away along with Beanie Babies and Reebok Pumps. Plenty of similar games of that era, like Atari's Primal Rage, have long been forgotten.
Yet Time Warner certainly seems interested in keeping the Mortal Kombat legacy alive. In 2011, Time Warner's New Line Cinema greenlit production of a new Mortal Kombat movie -- which would be the first new film since Mortal Kombat: Annihilation in 1997.
Updates have been sporadic regarding the film, but Time Warner could have a unique opportunity if Mortal Kombat X is a hit next year -- it could follow the game up with a new film franchise that would teach the series catchphrase "Finish him!" to a whole new generation of gamers.