*Review based on the Nintendo 64 version.*
Though the Mortal Kombat franchise has seen something of a resurgence in recent years, the storied fighting franchise saw its heyday during the mid-90s. It makes sense that the creators of Mortal Kombat would want to capitalize on its popularity and branch the franchise out. Along with movies and an animated series, the video games themselves sought some variety and deviated from their fighter origins in a string of spinoffs. Perhaps the most notorious of these Mortal Kombat spinoffs is 1997’s Mortal Kombat Mythologies: Sub-Zero.
Originally planned to be the first of a series of “Mythology” titles that would have encompassed many of the different Mortal Kombat characters, the debut outing for Sub-Zero was so poorly received that the idea for future installments was scrapped entirely. Playing it today, it’s not hard to see why. Mortal Kombat Mythologies: Sub-Zero is poorly executed on just about every level.
Whereas most Mortal Kombat titles are fighting games, Sub-Zero is a side-scrolling beat-em-up with platforming elements. That’s certainly not a doomed setup from the start, but the game is plagued by so many fundamentally broken mechanics that it just can’t stand on its own feet.
You can just about sum up the game’s flaws with a single mechanic: you have to press the B button to change directions. That alone makes things feel incredibly awkward and stiff, ruining whatever potential for fluid controls the game may have had all on its own. But that’s just the beginning. There are times when Sub-Zero seems to change direction for no reason. You’ll jump towards an enemy after facing the opposite direction, then hit the B button to face the enemy, only to realize too late that Sub-Zero decided to face the enemy instantaneously upon hitting the ground, so you just switched him back to the opposite direction. There’s no consistency.
Players can use both the D-pad or joystick to make Sub-Zero move. You can either walk or run with the joystick, while the D-pad is exclusively used for walking. You may think the fact that the joystick does both means that it renders the D-pad movements pointless, but the joystick controls are way too sensitive. Chances are you’ll end up running when you just need to walk. So you’ll be swapping between the joystick and D-pad depending on the pace you want to be moving. Not to mention that jumping is performed by pressing up on either control method – which makes sense for a fighting game, but is nothing but cumbersome in a game with platforming elements – which can (and will) lead to countless accidental deaths when trying to make an overly precise jump.
Combine that with the B button being used to switch your directions, and the fact that Sub-Zero’s moves are performed with the four C buttons, and it becomes clear that these are some of the most awkward and clunky controls imaginable in a video game.
There are some RPG elements added to the mix, with Sub-Zero earning experience points and learning his iconic ice moves as he advances. It’s a nice touch in concept, but considering how fundamentally flawed the gameplay is, it hardly matters.
Perhaps worst of all is the level design. There are so many cheap, one-hit kill traps that, when combined with the aforementioned dreaded controls, make the experience agonizing. The first level alone has cheaply-placed stone pillars that can crush Sub-Zero instantly if he walks under them. In more than one instance, these pillars are placed in such a way that if you run too fast, you’ll immediately run through one pillar and get squished by the next. Simply trying to walk passed a pillar is too slow, and you’ll get squashed no matter what. So you’re basically left to test a clunky stop-and-go strategy that only works if you get lucky. And this is just the first level.
The second stage really emphasizes the platforming mechanics, and they’re dreadful. There are a number of moments that require blind jumping to the next platform (along with the presence of the bad jumping controls, this means that Sub-Zero breaks the two most basic rules of a platformer). You often need to ride gusts of wind to reach higher or farther platforms, but these gusts of wind seem to show up at random. And many of the platforms fall after a brief second, with more than a few of them having enemies on top that are hard to avoid. The stage design is so unfair it goes from laughable to depressing all too quickly.
Mercifully, the levels are on the short side of things, and there aren’t a whole lot of them. On the downside, you start with only three lives, and have only one continue. If you get a game over and don’t have the N64 controller pak to save your progress, you have to start over from the beginning of the game!
There is a silver lining, however, through the use of a password system. I hate to admit that I was reduced to looking up some of these passwords online just because it was taking me so long to get through the game. I was looking up passwords by the time I was on the second level. The second level!
The game was also available on the Sony Playstation, with the only real notable difference being that it featured full-motion cinematics with live actors, while the N64 version uses stills from said cinematics accompanied by on-screen text. You may think the N64 limitations on the cinematics make them inferior, but if you watch what the Playstation version had to offer on YouTube, then the claim as to which option is worse seems like a moot point.
While it’s commendable that the Mortal Kombat series sought to experiment with different genres, the end result of Mortal Kombat Mythologies: Sub-Zero is an experiment gone horribly wrong. Its broken mechanics and infuriatingly unfair level design make it more painful than a Fatality.