Mortal Kombat has provided shocking delights since 1992. The over-the-top fighting series is known for its copious amounts of blood and gore, cheekily dark atmosphere, and of course, the signature fatalities which seem to get more inventively disgusting (read: AMAZING) with each new entry.
You could make an argument for Street Fighter, but in our view, Mortal Kombat is the most recognizable and iconic fighting game franchise of all time. From its early rise as a 2D fighter to its questionable turn to 3D to its triumphant return to form, Mortal Kombat certainly has an interesting history.
With Mortal Kombat 11 arriving on April 23, we decided to rank the Mortal Kombat mainline series from best to worst. Non-fighting game entries in the franchise, such as Mortal Kombat Mythologies: Sub-Zero and Mortal Kombat: Special Forces, aren’t eligible (and they’re largely terrible, anyway).
Mortal Kombat X may feel like a safe choice for the top spot, given it’s the most recent entry in the franchise. But it’s simply the deepest, most satisfying iteration of Mortal Kombat yet. With the power of current generation consoles, Mortal Kombat’s over-the-top fighting gameplay could finally be rendered in all of the intricate glory that it deserved. Featuring the most creative and spine-crawling fatalities yet, Mortal Kombat X further proved that NetherRealm Studios was more than up for the task of carrying on the legacy of the iconic franchise. The new characters added to the roster, especially Cassie Cage and Erron Black, felt like fully fleshed out fighters who compelled you to switch up your main.
Mortal Kombat X also benefitted from the current delivery system of games, with worthwhile DLC characters and flourishes like new costumes releasing steadily post-launch. A definitive version of the game, Mortal Kombat XL, includes all of the DLC. The story mode may not have been as well-told as our second ranked game, but the fighting reached a level of nuance the series hadn’t seen thus far.
Read our full Mortal Kombat X review
The ninth game in the mainline series and the first to be developed by NetherRealm Studios, Mortal Kombat earns the second spot on this list for a variety of reasons. First, it successfully rebooted the franchise for both longtime and new audiences. Featuring iconic fighters from the first three games in the series, Mortal Kombat felt like both an homage to the longtime fighting franchise and a new beginning. Sure, Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe had released years earlier on Xbox 360 and PS3, but Mortal Kombat was the first true MK experience running on drastically more powerful hardware.
Mortal Kombat’s return to 2D fighting planes showed that the franchise probably should’ve never even tried 3D environments, and NeatherRealm showed signs of the juggernaut it’d become in the fighting game space by creating the best MK story mode to date. Mortal Kombat ushered the franchise into a new era, reminding us why we fell in love with the over-the-top series to begin with.
Read our full Mortal Kombat review
Mortal Kombat II had big shoes to fill following the breakout hit that was the original. It filled them and then some, making critical improvements on the mechanics that made combat easier to pick up but also harder to master. Mortal Kombat II saw the return of beloved characters from the original like Sub-Zero, Johnny Cage, and Raiden, but it also introduced a handful of new fighters who are now amongst Mortal Kombat’s most famous. The mutant Baraka, the brash Jax, Kung Lao, Kitana, and Mileena all joined the fight in MKII. Mortal Kombat II is the best 2D entry in the series.
Mortal Kombat 3 is not one of the best MK games, but Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 certainly is. Mortal Kombat 3 inexplicably dropped Kitana and Scorpion and was light on gameplay modes when it launched in 1995. But just six months later, Midway released Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 as a standalone “update.” It included a 2v2 versus mode and a tournament mode to beef up the package. Characters’ movesets were also expanded and tweaked, with important improvements to the way combos worked.
Following Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3, Midway released yet another updated version of the game dubbed Mortal Kombat Trilogy, which included some new characters and stages. However. Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 always felt better in motion, so it wins the war of the MK3s for us.
Mortal Kombat‘s placement on this list is largely due to importance. It was the first entry in the series after all. Without it, none of the other games would exist. Mortal Kombat is still playable today, decades after its initial launch, but if you return to it, you’ll notice that it’s missing a lot of key features that were added over time. Namely combos, but also the roster, though excellent in terms of quality, lacked in quantity.
There’s no doubt that Mortal Kombat altered the way we perceived fighting games. Its approach to violence, the animated globs of blood spewing from the fighters, was bold, daring, and shocking in 1992. So, yes, Mortal Kombat was an incredibly influential game. It holds up today, though is not nearly as dynamic as most other entries in the series.
Mortal Kombat: Deception, the sixth mainline entry in the series, introduced an important addition to the MK formula: Interactive stages. From destructible objects to traps, Deception made each stage standout. On top of a refined fighting system with 26 3D fighters, Deception had a treasure trove of interesting game modes. The Konquest RPG mode gave us the history of Shujinko. Sadly, he was a poorly developed and bland character that has been long forgotten.
Two other modes added surprising replay value, though. A chess mini-game replaced chess pieces with MK fighters who would fight traditional battles to claim spots on the boards. A puzzle game called Puzzle Kombat was a battle-infused grid-based puzzler. Deception may not be among the best MK games, but it experimented with the formula in surprising and fun ways.
Though the 3D era MK games aren’t highly regarded, Deception definitely came the closest to capturing MK’s magic inside 3D arenas.
Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe is weird, right? Not because it’s a crossover event we never expected to happen, but because it’s technically considered the eighth mainline entry in the franchise. Strange, huh? Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe was the first MK game developed for Xbox 360 and PS3, and as such, it showed off some great visuals. It’s also just a ridiculously cool game. Who doesn’t want to see Sub-Zero to square off against Batman? It was neat to play from both the MK and DC perspectives in the world-colliding story mode.
Unfortunately, not all of the DC heroes had cool movesets that seemed to gel with the established MK roster. As it was rated T for Teen, the violence was significantly toned down in a way that ultimately felt like it restricted MK’s core identity. Still, it was a fun experiment from Midway that undoubtedly paved the way for NetherRealm’s Injustice franchise.
Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance begins our descent into the less than good MK games. It was markedly better at delivering a 3D fighting game that worked than Midway’s first attempt (hint hint). But Deadly Alliance, today, looks like a failed attempt at a much-needed reboot that wouldn’t come to fruition until Mortal Kombat (2011). The mechanics worked well, but the story choices — such as killing off longtime favorites — failed spectacularly. To be clear, the story itself wasn’t terrible, and we appreciated the risks it took, but it went on to prop up a new collection of fighters that weren’t very interesting at all. In fact, there were almost as many new characters as returning characters, and the vast majority of them felt underdeveloped.
Mortal Kombat: Armageddon is proof that you can most certainly have too much of something. In Armageddon‘s case, it was fighters. Armageddon featured every single MK character to date, boasting a daunting roster of 62. That seems impressive on the surface, but the task of making 62 characters interesting appears to have been too much. Many of the characters, even longtime favorites, lacked the distinctive personality. Reused movesets and a bizarre choice to let you assign fatalities to each character made many fighters feel more like skins than anything else. You could even add to the lengthy but uninspired roster by creating your own characters. In the end, Armageddon became one of the most forgettable 3D entries in the franchise despite bringing the whole crew to the party.
Midway’s first attempt at bringing the franchise to the 3D era wasn’t a complete disaster, but it wasn’t great either. Blocky visuals, poor voice acting, and a move away from the dark comedy that felt like an important part of MK’s identity hurt the overall presentation. It also just didn’t feel that great in motion, with clunky combat and a bland roster of new characters. At least Mortal Kombat 4 gave us Quan Chi. It’s hard to knock Mortal Kombat 4 too much considering it was the first game in the franchise rendered in 3D. It’s not entirely bad. Like many early 3D era games, however, Mortal Kombat 4 understandably missed its mark in a lot of areas.