Back in 1992, Mortal Kombat hit arcade floors with a resounding thud, quickly becoming a must-play for any fighting game enthusiast. However, the game received just as much controversy for its over-the-top depictions of violence as it did quarters from rabid fans. Now, two decades later, the game has survived the wrath of politicians and potential cancellation, leading to a prolific and much-beloved franchise.
Although the series has persisted in popularity since its inception, there’s something notably special about retro Mortal Kombat games. Between the classic 2D trilogy, sequels that dabbled with 3D graphics, and an assortment of spin-offs, retro Mortal Kombat games always maintained a palpable sense of entertaining brutality. With the highly anticipated reboot, simply called Mortal Kombat 1, having been released recently, we thought this would be a good time to take a look at the series’ past and pay respects to the best of the bunch. Listed in no particular order, here are our picks for the best retro Mortal Kombat games of all time!
The Best Retro Mortal Kombat Games of All Time
1. Mortal Kombat II
Sure, gamers were ecstatic over the original Mortal Kombat, but nothing could prepare them for the sequel. Bashing its way onto the scene with better and bloodier action than ever before, Mortal Kombat II was the hottest game in town when it arrived in arcades in 1993. This extraordinary sequel was more fleshed out than its predecessor, containing a refined fighting system and several excellent gameplay features.
Iconic characters like Kung Lao, Mileena, and Jax got their start in MKII, and have remained fan favorites to this day. In addition to a bounty of new fatalities, players could also befriend their opponent with a “friendship” finisher, or turn them into babbling infants with a “babality”. While there weren’t any radically new modes to try out, Mortal Kombat II expanded the in-game lore, added some awesome new features, and kept the blood gushing in glorious fashion.
2. Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance
In the late 1990s, the Mortal Kombat franchise had a bit of an identity crisis as the developers tried to transfer the beloved fighting series into 3D. While previous attempts like Mortal Kombat 4 were lackluster at best, everything seemed to click with the release of Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance in 2002. With an interesting story centered around sorcerers Quan Chi and Shang Tsung, it was an intriguing game lore-wise, but the extra gameplay elements really sold the experience.
The series received a total overhaul in Deadly Alliance, featuring more gruesome gore, realistic character models, the return of mini-games like “Test Your Might”, and more. 11 new characters bolster an already excellent roster, but to make things even better, each fighter now boasts three unique fighting styles. With fluid combat, incredible fatalities, and a wide variety of gameplay modes, Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance was where the franchise found its groove once again.
3. Mortal Kombat: Shaolin Monks
Out of all of the Mortal Kombat spin-offs, Shaolin Monks is by far the best, holding up to this day as an exhilarating action game. Better yet, while Mortal Kombat super fans were appropriately enamored with Shaolin Monks when it was released in 2005, even franchise newcomers found the game exciting and enjoyable.
As the title would imply, Shaolin Monks focuses on Kung Lao and Liu Kang, and tells the story of Mortal Kombat II from their perspective. Inspired by games like God of War, Shaolin Monks encourages players to beat up hordes of enemies as they explore mostly linear levels, upgrading their powers and fighting the occasional boss. Shaolin Monks is not a traditional fighting game, but that doesn’t stop it from being one of the best retro Mortal Kombat games ever made.
4. Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3
In all honesty, the original Mortal Kombat 3 wasn’t the best follow-up to Mortal Kombat II, but that all changed when developer Midway released Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 in 1995. Similar to Capcom’s Super Street Fighter II update to their iconic fighting game, UMK3 tightened up the fighting systems and addressed the majority of fans’ gripes with the original.
Many characters who were omitted from the original roster, including Scorpion, Reptile, and Jade were now playable, while various special moves were added and modified for better gameplay balancing. Multiple new game modes were also introduced, including the Master difficulty setting, an expanded tournament mode, and more. Extra stages and fatalities sweetened the pot, but at the end of the day, Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 turned a mediocre sequel into one of the best retro Mortal Kombat games of all time.
5. Mortal Kombat: Armageddon
Armageddon is easily the most ambitious retro Mortal Kombat game, packed with more modes, mini-games, and features than you could ever imagine. As the climactic finale for the entire Mortal Kombat story (up to 2006, at least), Armageddon held back nothing, and delivered an all-out buffet of 3D blood-soaked goodness.
For starters, Mortal Kombat: Armageddon features every playable character in the entire franchise, with a roster of over 60 fighters to choose from. If that’s not good enough, you can even make your own fighter, altering their appearance, fighting style, and more. The story campaign-style Konquest mode ensures hours of interesting battles, and feels reminiscent of Shaolin Monks at points. I haven’t even mentioned the entire racing mode inspired by Mario Kart, appropriately dubbed “Motor Kombat”. Simply put, Armageddon is absolutely one of the best retro Mortal Kombat games, even with some of its notably atypical creative choices.