After over three decades, how many ways can you make the same game?

That’s a question NetherRealm Studios would need to ask itself when developing its follow-up to the ultrapopular Mortal Kombat 11. Its next installment would need to find a way to up the ante, both in terms of wild fatalities and its core fighting systems. It would require a lot of creativity, and that word is at the front of my mind while demoing Mortal Kombat 1.

As part of this year’s Summer Game Fest, I went hands-on with the upcoming fighting game, punching my way through a tower run and experimenting with its new systems. What I quickly found out was how much room it leaves for creativity in combat. That’s thanks in no small part to its Kameo system, a small but impactful innovation that seems like it’ll go a long way toward making Mortal Kombat 1 a bloody fun spectator sport.

Choose your Kameo

The bulk of my demo would have me completing four fights in a tower format. I’d choose Kitana, refamiliarizing myself with Mortal Kombat’s streamlined, dial-up combo system. The basics of battle are easy enough, with standard attacks, throws, and blocks. It’s all easy enough to grasp, requiring less explanation than Street Fighter 6.

There’s a big twist to all of that, though: Kameos. When I select a character, I’m sent to a second screen where I pick another character who I can call in to attack. It’s an easy system; all I have to do is press the right bumper and a direction to have them execute a move. I’d pick Sonya as my partner and get to toy around with a few of her assists. For example, one attack has her shooting a purple energy blast from a distance. Another input has her zipping through the air to dash into an airborne opponent.

It’s that aerial attack that made me realize the potential of the system. Say I knock an enemy into the air. If I time it just right, I can have Sonya intercept them out of the sky to extend my combo. Or perhaps I try to throw one of Kitana’s fans at my foe, but they jump over it. With the right timing, I could send in Sonya to punish them for that move. It’s a powerful system that allows players to get the most out of a combo. I imagine it’ll allows pros to pull off astonishing sequences that’ll wow crowds at Evo.

Mortal Kombat 1 – Official Gameplay Debut Trailer

I spoke to lead systems designer Derek Kirtzic at Summer Game Fest, who went into more detail about what makes the new system so special. Not only can they allow for more creative moves, but Kameos can even help balance fighters out and let players customize their playstyle.

“The freedom that you have in playing it … you’re able to select a Kameo that will either complement you or fill in a gap.,” Kirtzic tells Digital Trends. “Say that you want to play a zoning character, so you necessarily have a lot of up-close attacks. Your Kameo can fill in that gap where they are the thing you use up-close. The aerial combos … that’s the thing I’m most excited about. Aerial combos are back! You can bounce people off the ground, back up in the air … it’s so much fun and it feels so good. The pure amount of hits you can do throughout a combo feels so good. You can almost drop a combo and pick it up in the same beat.”

Though I only got to try out two character combos during my 30-minute play session, I can already see how deep that system could get. It’s a smart way to make fighters with established move sets more dynamic and unpredictable in battle, which should make for a less stagnant meta that’ll evolve significantly every time a new Kameo character gets added to the game.

Finish him

Of course, no Mortal Kombat game would be complete without some truly disgusting fatalities. I’d get to see a few stomach-turning finishers in action during my playtime. In one match, I polished off an opponent by throwing Kitana’s fans, which whirled around like buzz saws that turned my foe into a pile of flesh. It was absolutely grotesque and glorious.

Considering that Mortal Kombat 1 runs on new consoles, you can imagine how detailed the violence gets this time around. Fatal blows would show an X-ray view of me caving an opponent’s bones in, complete with sickening cracking sounds. In one match, Sub-Zero grabbed two icicles and jabbed them into my skull, prompting an X-ray view of them penetrating the bone on their way to my brain. Mortal Kombat has never been a game for those with weak stomachs, but the latest edition especially goes above and beyond.

As I played, I began to wonder if perhaps NetherRealm was close to going too far. What’s the limit to the series’ bloodlust? How realistic do graphics have to get before those moments become a little too real? After all, Mortal Kombat developers have shared horror stories of working on previous games, noting that it triggered “graphic dreams” and reportedly left one developer with a PTSD diagnosis.

When I spoke to Kirtzic, he talked about the over-the-top fatalities with glee, noting that they came out of that same playful creative spirit within the team. The developers do have a firm limit when it comes to violence, though.

“We never want to cross a line,” Kirtzic says. “We always want to make sure that there’s a level of tongue-in-cheek for fatalities where you’re not scarred. We want to make sure they’re still fun and goofy. We always keep that lighthearted feel with them. ‘This is impossible that this is happening’ versus trying to do anything that crosses a line that’s too realistic.”

Whether or not NetherRealm has crossed that threshold here will likely be up to individual players and their tolerance for gore. It’s certainly a lot, but many of the fatalities I saw did have that sort of Itchy and Scratchy quality to them, focusing on cartoony death animations. I saw Johnny Cage smash a fighter’s head into a Hollywood Walk of Fame star and saw another character turn into a giant and step on their opponent like a bug.

Though I’m not entirely sure where I stand on its hyperviolence, I’m already feeling won over by the creative energy at play in Mortal Kombat 1. Kameos genuinely feel like a game-changer, diversifying character move sets

Mortal Kombat 1 launches on September 19 on Xbox Series X/S, PlayStation 5, Nintendo Switch, and PC.

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