Pocket Power: Mortal Kombat Advance

Handheld gaming is more than a compromise of power and portability. Whether it’s the ability to play anywhere, multitask or hold an entire console in your hands, it’s a special experience consoles have never replicated. In a world where high resolutions and teraflops reign supreme, we take a look at a portable relic every month and reflect on what makes it memorable.

Even though the year has barely started, Street Fighter V: Arcade Edition and Dragon Ball FighterZ have already cemented 2018 as being a good year for fighting fans. Once upon a time I was a huge fan of the genre, but not surprisingly became burnt out and bored of fighters due to obsessively playing a few of them. Quite a while ago I went bargain bin pillaging at a mom and pop used game store and alongside random titles I would never normally play I encountered a familiar name: Mortal Kombat Advance. Due to personally preferring Mortal Kombat II to Mortal Kombat 3, Mortal Kombat Advance never seemed like a must-have title, but four bucks is hard to say no to. Since its acquisition, Mortal Kombat Advance was sitting in the stack with the other games, waiting until I needed a game to write about for this column and since I have been on a fighting game kick lately now seemed like as good a time as any to give this one a go. This is a case where checking the Metacritic scores before purchase would have been wise.

For a game that had a sticker price of $3.99, I think I overpaid five bucks more than it was worth. It’s commonly accepted that certain concessions need to be made when a game is ported to less powerful hardware. Converting a game designed for a coin operated arcade cabinet or the ridiculously expensive Neo Geo system is not going to be as glorious when it finds itself on an SNES or Genesis. When these games get further broken down, it’s like the copy of a copy phenomenon, where there is further degradation. In many cases the final product is still something that has some merit to it, granted how much varies on a case by case basis. To continue with the copy of copy analogy, Mortal Kombat Advance is the equivalent of reaching this level of replication.

At its initial release the appeal of digitized humans ripping each other’s body parts off was starting to get stale while more attention was going to arcade fighters that had 3D rendered pugilists, but Mortal Kombat 3 did achieve a high level of popularity and was a solid game in its own right. The Game Boy Advance was an impressive handheld for its time and delivered several games that boasted respectable ports of SNES games or original games that replicated the SNES feel, so Mortal Kombat Advance seemed like it would be a no brainer, especially for the price. This is where that phrase about the word assume is applicable.

At first glance this seems like a respectable port of the SNES Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3. The graphics look like they took a minor hit and the sound production wasn’t quite on par with the home console, but the small screen of the Game Boy Advance wasn’t exactly paired with a Bose sound system so some minor concessions in those areas are to be expected. While taking in how well the graphics translated to the tiny screen, something that was problematic entered my visual field, which was the limited number of buttons on the GBA. Mortal Kombat 3 controls had high punch, low punch, high kick, low kick, run and block which makes the handheld two buttons short. But the Sega Genesis Mortal Kombats were able to make the three button ABC controllers work so I figured we could give this a chance.

Wrong again. Somehow the relatively simple Mortal Kombat 3 kontrols did not translate well to this handheld format. Doing anything properly in this port is difficult, whether it’s trying to pull off an elaborate 27 combo or something much more simple like executing a standing roundhouse kick instead of a leg sweep. Controlling any one of the kombatants is done with the same ease as instructing a cat to complete an obstacle course, though slightly more frustrating.

The enemy AI is another point of contention, where for the first four fights or so the opponents are afraid to throw a single punch while perpetually blocking every attack thrown their way as if they are cowering in the corner screaming “not in the face!” After gradually beating them into submission whenever you can sneak a blow past their cowardly defenses, the remaining opponents get loaded up on PCP and cocaine, turning hyper aggression and able to pull off special moves and combos at such a speed no human could ever pull off. The computer goes from complete pacifist to unstoppable death machine.

Trying to find something positive about this travesty of a port wasn’t easy, but they did have a cool idea for some secret characters. Completing towers other than novice will unlock a different secret character, and the characters are Human Smoke for the Warrior Tower, Motaro for the Master Tower and Shao Kahn for the Grand Master Tower. Playing as centaur demon Motaro sounds the most appealing, but taking a good idea and screwing up beyond all recognition is the theme of Mortal Kombat Advance so this cool idea suffers from garbage execution. Only one of these characters can be unlocked at a time, and there is no battery save function, so each time the game is turned off the character you worked so hard to unlock is gone. So each time you want to play as Motaro, you need to slog your way through the Master Tower, and most likely if you manage to stomach the game long enough to unlock him, you’re sick of the game by the time that happens.

Mortal Kombat Advance is one of those instances where we look at the source material and the handheld port and wonder how in the world things could get so bad. It turns out that Virtucraft handled the development instead of Midway, which had the mom and pop store had the original box this might have been noticed and I could have saved myself four bucks. There are many great games for the Game Boy Advance and many entries in the Mortal Kombat franchise that are an absolute joy to play. Mortal Kombat Advance fits neither category.

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