Long Live Mortal Kombat: Round 1 – The Fatalities and Fandom of the Arcade Era is the newest book by bestselling author David L. Craddock, and goes behind the scenes to reveal untold stories from the making of Mortal Kombat 1 through 4 and explores how the franchise impacted popular culture. In this excerpt from the book, funding now on Kickstarter, some of Ultimate MK3's best players break down the game's best characters, and how those killers rose to prominence over nearly 30 years of play.
Every fighting game has a tier list. Sonya and Johnny Cage dominated Mortal Kombat 1. Jax, Mileena, and Liu Kang stood at the top of MKII's food chain. In vanilla MK3, Cyrax, unmasked Sub-Zero, and Jax were inordinately strong thanks to imbalanced move sets. Ultimate MK3's hierarchy is at once simpler and more complicated to sort out.
At a glance, Kabal and Human Smoke are the undisputed best characters in UMK3. "They played the meta the best," says Ryan Neal, an accomplished pro player who became the first European champion in 2011's Mortal Kombat. "A big part of that is the combo strings they have to interrupt low kicks to get out of the run-jab pressure."
Most characters have a combo string that begins with a kick, animated as a knee, and is your best tool for catching turtlers off-guard. However, not every character has a launcher, a combo string that pops opponents into the air. "If you have a kick string that ends in a launch with big damage potential, you are good on offense," Ryan says. "You can go for run-jab pressure, and if they let go of block, you can launch them for big damage."
Human Smoke and Kabal have launchers that let you get creative by combining those launchers with special moves, juggles, and more dial-a-combos. "I'm talking gargantuan damage," Ryan says of Human Smoke's toolset. The gray-clad ninja has an advantage on the ground, but Kabal's air fireball can be entered so quickly, you can throw them almost instantly from any position above the ground. "'Instants' is what it's called," Ryan says of Kabal's air projectile. That gives you options: bait players into jumping at you and blast them out of the air, or leap backwards and cover your escape with fireballs to keep them from following. "Instant-air blasts can be done faster than almost any projectile in the game. That shuts down a tremendous amount of characters."
Human Smoke has no air projectiles, but his teleport punch can be performed while standing or jumping. It hits opponents from behind, though, making Kabal's forward-facing air projectile more dynamic. And if those characters try to fight back once you, as Kabal, are on the other side of the screen? Use his spinning dash to stun them, jump at them with a linker, connect it to his dial-a-combo launcher, and bat them around with kicks and fireballs.
Ermac falls just below Human Smoke and Kabal. He possesses a bevy of tools such as launchers and special moves that you can convert into high damage, but lacks an air fireball. Kano and Jax are one rung below Ermac thanks to special moves such as Kano's knife throw and Jax's missiles that can smack opponents from a variety of locations of the screen, and others, like Jax's dashing punch and Kano's cannonball roll, that allow them to control positioning.
Most characters occupy the next tier down, and the largest. They're viable, Ryan says, but you wouldn't want to play them at a tournament with big money on the line. Cyrax went from one of the best characters in vanilla MK3 to one of the worst in UMK3. Sektor, his fellow cyborg assassin, joins him at the bottom. Sheeva, the four-armed female Shokan, is widely considered Ultimate's worst character. "Her collision boxes are too large," explains Andrey "ded" Stefanov, considered one of the best classic MK players in the world, who says Sheeva has slower recovery times compared to everyone else. "Even when she crouches in block pose, when you hit her, she stands up for a few frames, then ducks again. I don't know if it's a glitch or intentional, but that's one of her main issues."
Despite YouTube videos showing hierarchies, UMK3's tier is quite elastic. Almost every character has the potential to win any match, but some characters are scientifically proven—literally, as the subjects of countless tests by high-level players—to be better. "In Kabal versus Sheeva, there's just no way Sheeva can win," Stefanov says. "Two equally skilled players, even when playing great mind games, the Sheeva player will not win a single game out of 10," Stefanov says.
Kabal is statistically more likely to prevail against Cyrax, but there are exceptions to most rules. The cyborg's strategy of juggling opponents to death using bombs, high punches, and jumping kicks isn't as effective as it was in vanilla MK3, but one bomb is all it takes to turn the tables against the most adept Human Smoke or Kabal players. Everything comes back to mind games. "This is going to sound arrogant, but I've always believed I have the strongest Sektor in Ultimate MK3," says Ryan.
Ryan Neal's Sektor is a sight to behold. He plays the red robot much the same way Bhutani plays Cyrax, but instead of juggling with bombs and strikes, he launches a flurry of missiles—one type flies straight as an arrow, the other homes in on opponents—teleport punches, throws, and pressure. Sektor's homing missiles take a few seconds to find their target. If they hit when opponents are airborne, Ryan is ready with a juggle. "To do well with Sektor, you need to understand you're playing as a weak character, but his homing missile game is something no one else has," Ryan explains. That means learning how to time straight and homing missiles to annoy opponents and bait them into making a mistake. "If the homing missile is about to get blocked, fire off another one and repeat the situation. At a higher level, he's got difficult re-launch combos, which I've been dedicated to learning," he says.
Another fundamental of winning with low-tier characters is understanding the game's meta, the play that occurs outside of combos and special moves, and depends on quirks in UMK3's code. An infamous bug prevents Sektor from firing a straight missile while he has a homing missile in play, but only when player two is controlling him. "On vanilla MK3, neither player can do it, so I think what happened there is Midway must have tried to fix it in Ultimate, but they only fixed it for player one," Ryan speculates. "That's a huge part of his ranged game, and player two can't do it."
Ryan's understanding of meta informs his character selection. If he's player one, he'll choose Sektor. If he's player two, he'll choose someone else, often Robot Smoke. "He's similar to Sektor, but he has other strengths. He doesn't have zoning, but he's got damage, he's got setup, he's got invisibility and he can hit really hard in matchups where Sektor gets no damage," Ryan says.
Another aspect of meta is the hit box, the area around a character susceptible to attacks, and one of Sheeva's biggest weaknesses. Some weaknesses can be turned into strengths. Stryker, for instance, is not in the game's top 10, but skilled players can exploit his moves to win. The first step is to use his launcher. From there, fire a volley from your gun—a weapon that was a prop in vanilla MK3—then get up close by inputting his dashing throw to close the distance. Now you're close enough to throw a few high punches to juggle them, then open fire with your gun, then get close with another dashing throw. Rinse and repeat. The combo can be repeated from one side of the screen to the other.
Other characters can rise above their station. Kung Lao can launch opponents, then use his diving kick and high punches to create lethal juggles. His teleport positions him behind players, and if they're vulnerable, you can press high or low punch for a linker and then transition into a string. Reptile's forceball comes in fast and slow varieties, and as in MKII, it acts as a launcher. In UMK3, you can hit opponents with a forceball, tap them with a couple of high punches to boost him higher, then enter Reptile's dashing elbow to run to their other side. Keep alternating between high punches and dashing elbows until they're dead.
Another strength of Reptile's is his zoning, also known as positioning. Stefanov believes Reptile is the best zoner in UMK3. "What that means is that you keep your distance from the opponent's character," he says, "but I don't see many players using Reptile, Kung Lao, or Robot Smoke."
Those characters, along with Stryker, Cyrax, and Sektor, are weak on paper, but can win if you outsmart your competition. "For me, the highest level of the game is playing mind games," Stefanov says.
Long Live Mortal Kombat: Round 1 – The Fatalities and Fandom of the Arcade Era goes behind the scenes to reveal untold stories from the making of Mortal Kombat 1 through 4 and explores how the franchise impacted popular culture, and is funding now on Kickstarter.
Disclosure: David L. Craddock is the author of the Long Live Mortal Kombat series, and the longreads editor at Shacknews.com. This post is not considered an endorsement of his book or its crowdfunding campaign.
David Craddock posted a new article, How Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3's Tier List Determined the Best Fighters
Interesting article David, thanks! The level of detail that top level players drill into every aspect of a game is pretty amazing.
Thanks! I was good at UMK3 in my day, but after interviewing some of these folks, I developed a severe case of "big fish in little pond"-itis.
I liked Sheeva!
Sheeva can be great! Here are some of the best UMK3 matches you'll ever see, and Sheeva is involved in a few of 'em: https://youtu.be/TBm4nbQ4ZuQ
I didn't play 3, but in 2 I was either Liu Kang (loved that 1000 foot kick) or Kung Lau. I played a little Raiden. None of them could be my friend the One Character Specialist (Jonny Cage). He was Chun in SF, King/Armor in Tekken.