Saturday, August 14, 2010

VGBC #1: Mortal Kombat

Title: Mortal Kombat
Author: Jeff Rovin
Published: 1995

I don't want to say Jeff Rovin's Mortal Kombat is the worst book I'll ever read, mostly because I've just started a project in which I'm going to read a lot of really shitty books. But for this, the inaugural edition of the Video Game Book Club, I've picked a doozy. Allow me to summarize my experience with this novel with a quote from the text itself:

It was one of the most idiotic stories Kano had ever heard. Maybe that’s why the damn thing made no sense.


Mortal Kombat is an original story set in what I suppose is a possible MK universe. I've played most of the MK games over the years, and while the franchise has never had the most plausible or consistent canon, you ought to win some kind of absurdity Pulitzer if your book can make an arcade fighting game's story seem as layered and pithy as Hemingway.

Put another way, if you were to stuff a hydrocephalic four-year-old with vertigo swollen-head-first into an oil drum and roll him down Lombard Street, he could still pop up and deliver a more coherent narrative than this one.

Mortal Kombat tells the story of a mystical amulet that grants the user the godly power to dominate enemies in Kombat, or something like that, probably. Evil wizard Shang Tsung sends the mercenary Kano to Kung Lao's humble Chinese village to retrieve it in order to open a portal to Outworld for his master Shao Kahn, the demonic king of demons, to tear the barrier between the Realms asunder and wreak deadly ah screw it I already don't care. But first, there's a 75-page introduction featuring the elder Kung Lao, because apparently he is important, and his meeting with the Thunder God Rayden, which provides ample opportunity for entirely irrelevant exposition about an ancient Chinese(?) creation myth that evidently necessitates a yearly kung fu tournament where dudes rip out each other's spines barehanded.

But back to the main(?) story: A bunch of incomprehensible stuff happens, your favorite characters from the first two games appear and do their special moves while delivering oppresively stupid one-liners in a series of unconnected skirmishes, and evil is defeated. Actually, evil is just kinda postponed, or given a half-assed talking-to and sent off to take a nap. Seriously, at the end Shang Tsung gets the giant four-armed Goro and the acid-drooling lizard ninja Reptile to carry him off for a nap.

Since I've already lost at least 20 IQ points writing this summary, let's just get to the review criteria.

Fan Service Rating: FATALITY out of 5 Stars
Mortal Kombat the novel is a pretty remarkable achievement in that it is a Mortal Kombat story that has almost nothing to do with Mortal Kombat. For a book so concerned with explicit callouts to gameplay (see below), it takes a giant crap on whatever shreds of canon the MK franchise retained after the first two games and their other associated spinoff products. Liu Kang is apparently a Special Forces agent in Sonya's squad; Sub-Zero lives in a cave and can walk on water with his special inflatable ninja footbags; and Scorpion is a good guy, the spirit of a murdered father joined with the living body of his wussy artist son driven by an unending quest for revenge and whining. Oh, and Johnny Cage is never mentioned. At all.

Explicit Callouts to Gameplay Rating: FLAWLESS VICTORY out of 5 Stars
Pretty sure I can describe Jeff Rovin's writing process for fight scenes in two simple steps:
1. Play a couple rounds of Mortal Kombat
2. Pretend the characters are talking to each other while they do their special moves

The text speaks for itself here, so I'll let the characters elaborate:
  • “That was not sporting,” Shang Tsung remarked. “Had you used a special move from high ground in Mortal Kombat, you would have been disqualified.”
  • “Not retreating—” Rayden said. […] “Just using a Torpedo and Throw combination.”
  • “You may be able to teleport,” [Reptile] said in an eerie, aspirating voice, “but can you make yourself invisible?”

I mean, they literally say "special move." It doesn't get much more explicit than that.

Also, I need to give some bonus points here for unintenionally(?) homoerotic description:

  • The faces of both men turned red as they lay there, locked together.
  • [Goro’s] stiff limb blocked the kick while his other three arms reached for his quarry.
  • Shrieking pain shot through Kung Lao’s inner thighs.
Awesomeness of Front Cover Rating: LOW PUNCH out of 5 Stars
It's the MK dragon. They put it on there.

Guilty Pleasure Rating: JUMP KICK TO THE FACE out of 5 Stars
The ratio is pretty heavily slanted toward the former. Reading this book is like voluntarily seeing a Larry the Cable Guy movie: you can't help but feel you are personally accelerating our culture's downward spiral into mouth-breathing idiocy.

Ridiculousness Rating: DOUBLE FLAWLESS out of 5 Stars
Because there is no possible way to make a joke funnier than the relentlessly ludicrous text of the book itself, I'm just gonna throw some quotes at you without comment.
  • “I hear you, Rayden,” said Kung Lao, his voice heard yet unheard, like the sound of reading.
  • “You cannot die, Thunder God,” said the Outworlder, “but even immortals can be killed.”
  • “You know,” [Sub-Zero] said, “it’s refreshing to make an entrance like that, rather than sneak and skulk as I am wont to do.”
And perhaps the most baffling sentence I've ever read or will ever read:

“Didn’t I just say that, Shang-a-lang? That’s why I need you. We’ll be a team, like Nelson.”

Wait. Did Kano just make a reference to early-90s hair band Nelson? As in, these guys?

Even more perplexing than the fact that Nelson exists and is culturally relevant in the Mortal Kombat universe is the fact that Matthew and Gunnar here are apparently the de rigeur living illustration of the power of teamwork.

But even this absurdity was eclipsed by the groan-inducing last line of the novel:

Shao Kahn’s ferocious teeth were visible as his mouth pulled into a smile. “Ruthay,” he said, “I look forward to such a Mortal Kombat…too."

Aaaaaaaand there goes the last of my dignity. Thanks, book.

Official Infinite Lag Rating for Mortal Kombat: WOULD RATHER BE UPPERCUTTED INTO A POOL OF ACID out of 5 Stars

Jeff Rovin, if somehow you're reading this, please know I have mad respect for you. After all, according to Wikipedia, you've authored or co-authored 120 books, which is appoximately 120 books more than me. Your How to Win at Nintendo Games books kept me from stuffing Mighty Bomb Jack into the garbage disposal as a kid. Also, you were once EIC of the Weekly World News, so I probably have you to thank for the awesome Bat Boy poster I had on my dorm room wall all four years of college. But this book was painful, man. Like, Johnny Cage nut-punch painful. So let me close with just one final quote from Mortal Kombat:

But this story…this one took the Nutburger of the Year award.

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