Back in 2005 – when Mortal Kombat had admittedly fallen on harder times – Shaolin Monks surfaced as a surprisingly good spin-off for the ultra-violent fighting game series. With NetherRealm’s 2011 reboot of the franchise being such a huge success, followed by Mortal Kombat X, Shaolin Monks is still looked back on fondly today, though it is remembered by relatively few.
What set it apart was a shift away from the traditional 2D-style of its fighting game forebears – an action brawler that would pit you against multiple opponents, these combat encounters sandwiched between platforming sections and even the occasional puzzle. Namco did something very similar with Tekken 3’s “Tekken Force” back in 1998, creating an experimental game mode that echoed arcade favorites such as Golden Axe and Streets Of Rage.
It sounds like a novel concept though one that worked surprisingly well in Shaolin Monks. However, let’s not forget that Midway had attempted something very similar before and failed. Twice. Both Mortal Kombat Mythologies: Sub-Zero and Mortal Kombat: Special Forces were blasted by critics for their lazy attempts at transplanting 2D fighting game mechanics into a bareboned action platformer.
Midway finally got it right the third time. Shaolin Monks featured proper multi-directional combat, giving characters the kind of actions and movability you might expect to see in your typical brawler of the PS2/Xbox/GameCube era. Choosing either Liu Kang or Kung Lao, the game had you playing through an alternate series timeline, picking up immediately after the original Mortal Kombat tournament. It did a great job of weaving together familiar elements from those past games, repurposing notable characters and stages while digging deeper into MK’s bizarre yet extensive lore.
The fact that you could play through Shaolin Monks with a friend was another major point-scorer, the combat itself being swift and brutal. Liu Kang and Kung Lao (as well as the unlockable Sub-Zero and Scorpion) used the same moves you’d expect from a mainline Mortal Kombat game – complete with fatalities – cleverly adapted for this fun 3D spin-off. Shaolin Monks avoided the pitfalls Midway had fallen down previously but is perhaps one of the least known installments in this franchise, despite being one of the best.
Ultimately, it came at a strange time for Mortal Kombat. After the rapid decline of arcades and its clumsy transition into 3D with Mortal Kombat 4, the series still had no shortage of fans despite the trilogy of games that followed (Deadly Alliance, Deception, and Armageddon) not exactly being looked back on with adoration. The overarching storylines grew dull and convoluted, the new fighters less memorable. Of course, MK wasn’t the only fighting game franchise struggling to stay relevant during the early to mid-00s – it was a comparatively dark era for the genre, especially when you look at some of the top tier titles it’s been producing as of late. It was a dark time for Midway too: once a mainstay of the arcade age, the company failed to find a foothold in the ever-changing industry landscape.
With Mortal Kombat 11’s big reveal just around the corner, fans are theorizing what change this new installment will bring. Aside from astounding visuals and presumably even more bloody carnage, there’s speculation that the sequel will usher in more ways to customize your fighters similar to Injustice 2.
Naturally, we’re praying for a Shaolin Monks inspired mode to find its way into the mix. From kart racing and chess to a plethora of mini-games, it would be great to see Mortal Kombat inherit some of that past zaniness. We won’t hold our breath though – as always, NetherRealm will be gunning for the most fluid, polished fighting game experience on the market and if that means dropping any bonus diversions then so be it.