It's a strange thing tracing the lineage of the scrolling fighter. With the possible exception of the point 'n' click adventure, few genres have suffered such a decline in the last decade. From blessed beginnings to Devil May Cry, two console generations have more recently seen the genre descend to a set of sequels and clones based on Konami's single defining title.
Dante's shoulders may be broad, but they carry a hybrid style of gaming; a brand of duelling, gunplay and puzzle-solving that suits the title of 'Gothic Action' better than 'all-out brawler'. Which leaves the pure scrolling beat 'em where all fighting game foes belong: dead. Thankfully, the recent demand for 'pick up and play' games has proven a vehicle for change. And, like buses, it would seem that genre revivals come in twos.
Gracing these pages earlier this month was Quantic Dream's adventure Fahrenheit - a title adopting the earliest of Lucasarts' sensibilities. Following the trend comes Mortal Kombat: Shaolin Monks, a game that unashamedly wears its Golden Axe heritage on its beaten, bloodied bonnet.
It is perhaps fitting that a title looking to breathe new life into the scrolling fighter belongs to a retro fighting franchise itself only recently reincarnated. The fact that 'serious' fighting fans already discount the series also makes it perfect for adventure adaptation, with no hardcore fan base to alienate. It's a marriage made in, well... Outworld.
And that's exactly where the game picks up. Following a narrative set between the events of MK1 and MK2, players can choose to control Liu Kang or Kung Lao in a linear fighter spanning a variety of otherworldly hotspots and a full quota of classic MK characters.
Before we go any further, we should probably set to rest the obvious fears: the laudable MK Mythologies this is most certainly not. Like most, we were sceptical hearing about another scrolling MK game, but, iconic imagery aside, Shaolin Monks bears little resemblance to the title dubbed one of the PlayStation's worst ever games.
Shaolin Monks is a scrolling beat 'em up in the most traditional of senses. Players enter a room, which fills up with enemies, who then get the living hell knocked out of them. Rinse and repeat several screens over, add a few platforming sections and an end of level boss, and you've got the recipe for a fairly formulaic fighter.
Luckily, things aren't quite that cut and dry, with a combination of interesting play mechanics and varied level design making the game more enjoyable than it really has any right to be. Unlike similar titles, this is definitely more than the sum of its parts.
As far as parts go, with this being a Mortal Kombat game, a large slice of the gameplay involves chopping them off other fighters. And thankfully ways to wreak such damage are as gratifying as they are widespread.
Beginning in an impressive looking reworking of the original's Goro's lair, our hands-on with the latest MK introduced us to the new multi-directional combat system, which allows players to fight multiple foes without any of those annoying manual switching lock-on issues usually present in 3D titles.
Twinned with this was a pleasantly complex fighting engine, using a couple of attack buttons for standard attacks, with special moves activated by pressing these while holding R1. In stark contrast to the one-on-one MK titles, specials activated by specific button combos wouldn't have worked in the new frantic forays of Shaolin Monks, and this proves to be a balanced change.
Another essential addition to the MK fighting fabric is the new improved throw button, which now acts as more of a grapple. Playing as Kung Lao, for instance, we were able to perch on enemy shoulders and then throw them - the animation being one of the monk falling forward and using his momentum to send opponents flying.
'... key to the new combat system are air combos...'
Also key to the new combat system are air combos, initiated by the Launch button. This can be used at the end of a series of attacks to launch enemies into the air and continue the onslaught, or in a more supercharged version, when used in conjunction with the R button, that launches enemies higher, but also leaves the player open to attack in the charging-up stage. At present the air combat is the weakest of the fighting elements, with player-controlled characters tracking air bound enemies poorly, making it hard to connect with midair attacks.
The same lack of solidity could not be said of using weapons, which proves both satisfying and meaty. They can be thrown or used to slash at foes, and produce a satisfying squelch when contacting enemy flesh. Our only gripe would again be with the tracking - we had to stand in exactly the right place to pick up a sword, for instance, or our character wouldn't register its presence. In a game of this type using weapons should be an option that does more help than harm, so we hope this irritant is ironed out for the final build.
The new emphasis on multidirectional fighting would seem to be enhanced by some intriguing level design. In the demo we played, Goro's lair quickly gave way to an outdoor area with a spiked pit, and platforms to negotiate in order to make our way up to the next level. Jumping up between these, we finally found ourselves on a bridge, surrounded by enemies. Using the throw button we were able to send them flying into the pit below, impaling them on the spikes: the classic MK pit Fatality.
Fatalities, of course, have always been a key part of the MK franchise, and Shaolin Monks will apparently offer ten per character. How this will work was made clear to us during our hands-on: a Fatality bar is built up through combos, and when full, a fatality can then be initiated. In doing this, the game pauses and the traditional button combo must be inputted for each move. We saw two Fatalities on show: one involved Liu Kang decapitating a foe, then kicking their head back at them, making the body explode; the other was Kung Lao's classic vertical hat slice Fatality from MK2.
In the final part of the demo, we were treated to a boss fight with MK2 debutant Baraka. The first phase revolved around us pummelling him in a straight-up brawl, before he retreated to the other side of a pit. Following this we traded fireballs: Liu Kang and Kung Lao used their projectile special moves (Kang's fireball, Lao's hat) while Baraka threw flaming Monks that had to be avoided - a fairly tricky boss fight, but after a few tries we eventually prevailed, and were left pleased at the inventiveness of the battle.
Despite our hands-on, there is still much of the game that we have yet to play. Videos of wall running, double jumping and the like all hint at a wealth of skills obtainable throughout the adventure, along with the total list of special moves and Fatalities. We are also promised a number of classic MK characters for the final game, with Johnny Cage and Baraka the only ones on show in the demo.
However, what we did see was encouraging, and the two-player aspect was a particular highlight, especially the option for both players to play as the same character, with respective blue and red outfits. Again, there are drawbacks with this: Kung Lao's outfit is less coloured than Liu Kang's, meaning players will be confused easier between two Laos than two Kangs, but overall it's a small gripe with a title looking vastly more impressive than we'd ever have hoped.
Overall, Shaolin Monks may prove to be something of a retro fix, and a somewhat simplistic button basher at times, but along with Rockstar's The Warriors, this latest Mortal Kombat could be the spiritual successor to Streets of Rage. And, like the MK franchise in the early days, that can only be a bloody good thing.