After my release from school in the afternoon, I would march into the mediocre mall arcade with an earnest intent to learn. Rather than claiming the Mortal Kombat 3 machine with a coin, I'd drop a thick, stapled stack of A4 pages in the middle of the counter to signal my impending occupation -- and preliminary preoccupation with memorized violence.
Starting with Shang Tsung in the top-left corner of the character select screen, I'd read and execute every move and combo for each fighter, line by line, glancing at the pages as I made my way through the arcade mode. If I could pull off every attack sequence for the active character, I'd allow myself to graduate to the fatality list and then cap my progress with a gory reward. This formulaic approach wasn't really born from any desire to be competitive -- rather, I envisioned defeating the game by seeing and knowing every attack, combo and piece of content. Victories against human opponents felt almost incidental.
If you're the kind of player who enjoys the solitary, methodical act of executing and learning moves, you should know that April's Mortal Kombat reboot is very happy to show you the ropes, provided you're eager to strangle someone with them afterward.
It's not quite right to characterize Mortal Kombat as "friendly" while it's busy ripping Sonya Blade's arms out of their sockets, so "forthcoming" might be a more apt descriptor. The Fatality Mode is essentially a niche training session, allowing you an unlimited amount of time to fiddle with the franchise's revitalized (and incredibly M-rated) finishers. After selecting the fatality you'd like to attempt (certain characters can have up to four), the required button sequence is displayed at the top of the screen, and it's underlined by a real-time comparison of what you're pressing. If distance from your stunned opponent is crucial, an outline will be projected on the stage floor, turning green when you're in the right spot and red when you've stepped out of bounds. (Also out of bounds: Scorpion's fatality, which sees him slicing his former opponent's decapitated, airborne head in two.)
Mortal Kombat is a simple, straightforward teacher, with a brief and bearable loading penalty should you mess up and restart. A move list is instantly available via the pause menu, and is also displayed partially within the game's 300-level high Challenge Tower. The lower level challenges serve as an easily decipherable tutorial on special techniques, and stoop even lower to guide you through some basic actions like blocking. (Just how rusty are you, anyway?)
You'll encounter several minigames on your way up the Challenge Tower, including a gruesome return of "Test Your Sight," in which you get an axe in the forehead if you fail to find a hidden object underneath one of several shuffled skulls. "Test your Luck" is the most interesting event, as it introduces random modifiers into battle, possibly pitting you against a headless Baraka in an upside-down stage, for instance, or Kano and Ermac on an electrified floor. Some of this stuff falls under filler (like a tedious mission where you have to fling projectiles at encroaching zombies), but most of it reminds me of the Mission Mode in the Dreamcast version of SoulCalibur -- a generous mix of training tasks, difficult combat encounters and clearly bizarre experiments within the fighting engine.
There's value and entertainment in that assortment, and it's certainly more engaging than a stack of move lists printed in massive, wasteful font. There's also a big, unknown reward waiting at the top of the tower, implicitly promising to make it all worth it. We'll just check Youtube about an hour after the game comes out to learn what it is.
The Challenge Tower and the accompanying Fatality Mode open up Mortal Kombat as an escalating single-player experience, without impeding its success as an instant participate-and-decapitate party fighter. Repeating the experience I had during E3 (you can read more about how the combat feels in my earlier preview), Mortal Kombat is so steeped in nostalgia and so visually arresting -- without resorting to pure visual chaos -- it seems ready to reignite old rivalries and steep us all in that fine, matured cheese from the '90s.