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Thursday, October 13, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Video Battles -- The Hottest Games Hitting The Markets All Share The Same Weapon: Violence

As video-game and software stores gear up for the Christmas season, game manufacturers are releasing the hottest games of the year. Nintendo has several big releases planned for the upcoming months, including Donkey Kong Country, the most graphically advanced video game ever released for home systems. Sega is releasing Sonic and Knuckles, an innovative addition to the Sonic the Hedgehog games.

Yet with all of the biggest companies releasing blockbuster titles, many analysts are convinced they already know which game will be the biggest seller: Mortal Kombat II, published by Acclaim Entertainment for the Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis, Sega Game Gear and Nintendo Game Boy entertainment systems.

For anyone who was hibernating last winter and missed the controversy, Mortal Kombat is the fighting game that touched off a major debate and congressional discussions about the effects of video-game violence. It featured seven warriors competing in a fight-to-the-death tournament. While the martial-arts-tournament theme is nothing new, two facets of the game disturbed many educators, civic leaders and psychologists.

The first was that Mortal Kombat had digitized characters instead of the animated fighters found in other games. These characters looked like real people instead of cartoons. Critics worried that digitized graphics blurred the lines between game violence and the real thing.

A bigger problem was that Mortal Kombat accelerated the level of violence in popular video games. Parents may have become acclimated to the punching, kicking and flipping exhibited in games like Street Fighter 2 and Eternal Champions, but nothing prepared them for the fatality moves in Mortal Kombat, in which victorious fighters earn extra points by killing their victims. These moves include such techniques as ripping opponents' beating hearts out of their chests and tearing out their spines. Previous fighting games seemed gentle by comparison.

The latest edition of Mortal Kombat is far more violent than the original. One character in Mortal Kombat II has long blades in his arms. His fatality move involves skewering his victims and dangling their twitching bodies in the air. A female combatant cuts off her opponents' heads with razor-sharp fans, and the game's villain sucks his opponents' souls out of their bodies.

Another new feature of Mortal Kombat II is that the game's developer, Acclaim, also has included "friendship" moves. After winning a match, players can use special codes to cause their characters to befriend fallen foes rather than administer fatal attacks. Johnny Cage, a movie star competing in the tournament, will give his victim an autographed photo of himself. The woman with the fan bakes losers a birthday cake rather than slicing off their heads.

DEFINING GAME VIOLENCE

Thanks to a flood of media attention, violent video games became a hot topic last fall. As the discussions raged on, two video games were always at the forefront of the controversy: Mortal Kombat and Night Trap.

Critics complained not only about the brutality of these games but the fact that they featured lifelike actors instead of cartoon victims, so that the violence seemed worse. What many critics overlooked was that Nintendo had voluntarily imposed restrictions on Acclaim, requiring the company to tone down the violence in the Nintendo version of Mortal Kombat. Also generally overlooked in the crusade against violent video games was that Night Trap, made only for the Sega Genesis CD system, never was popular. By the time the congressional hearings dredged Night Trap out of the video game backwater, most game players had forgotten it.

The result of the congressional hearings and media scrutiny was a video game rating system similar to movie ratings. The Mortal Kombat II box has a rating sticker warning that the game "may not be appropriate for players under 17 years of age; parental discretion advised." Whether because the warning label has satisfied critics, or the content of the games is no longer a hot issue, the increased violence in Mortal Kombat II has received little attention.

NINTENDO JOINS THE KOMBAT

According to Perrin Kaplan, communications manager at Nintendo of America, reducing the violence in their version of Mortal Kombat cost Nintendo approximately $10 million in lost software sales. In addition, many potential customers purchased Sega hardware so they could have the full effects of the Sega version of the game.

"We were surprised by the business reality - people wanted the full game," Kaplan says. "We received letters from parents and kids telling us not to censor our games."

Now marked with the game rating label, the Nintendo version of Mortal Kombat is just as violent as the Sega game. "The rating system gives consumers what they want," said Kaplan. "It puts the responsibility of choosing what children play in the parents' hands."

It has also helped Nintendo regain its edge in the video game market. Though many more copies of the original Mortal Kombat were sold for the Genesis system than the Super Nintendo, the Nintendo version of Mortal Kombat II is outselling the Sega version by a 2-to-1 margin.

"Cutting the violence out of Mortal Kombat worked against Nintendo in two ways," according to Steve Baxter, a video and computer game reviewer for CNN Future Watch. "They lost sales from interested consumers, and they didn't receive credit for making the changes from consumer watchdog groups.

"The rating system has allowed Nintendo to release uncensored games without appearing to abandon their high-road stance," Baxter adds. "When you consider the fact that neither of last year's controversial games played on Nintendo equipment, the rating system shouldn't have affected them greatly. Instead, it's worked to their benefit."

ALTERNATIVES TO THE FIGHTING

According to Arnie Katz, assistant publisher of Electronic Games, all video games include some form of confrontation; violence happens to be one of the easiest and most appealing confrontations to produce.

"There are games that are resolved through discussions or verbal confrontations, but the most popular games include some form of violence," Katz says.

Way of the Warrior, a game published by Universal Interactive Studios for the 3DO entertainment system, emulates Mortal Kombat's form of resolution. Featuring digitized martial artists and street fighters, Way of the Warrior looks like Mortal Kombat II. Unfortunately, the animation is extremely choppy and the characters are harder to control. Way of the Warrior is sort of Mortal Kombat-Lite with all the gore but only half the production value.

Two newer games provide a less violent approach to fighting that both parents and younger children may enjoy. ClayFighter, by Interplay Productions, is a comic parody of other fighting games featuring claymation combatants. Though it's nowhere near as exciting to play as Mortal Kombat or Street Fighter 2, ClayFighter's good-natured approach to violence makes it an excellent compromise for parents who want to avoid more controversial games. ClayFighter has an odd assortment of cartoonish fighters - a deranged snowman named Bad Mister Frosty, a shape-shifting blue lump called the Blob and a pumpkin-headed ghost named Ickybod Clay, to name just a few.

When these characters fight, they are just as determined as any video game fighters, but it's hard to take them seriously. When the Blob throws a punch, his whole body turns into a boxing glove. When he kicks, it turns into an old shoe. Learn a special command, and he turns into a flying saw blade. Other characters have equally farcical maneuvers.

Ballz, by Accolade, Inc., features three-dimensional warriors with bodies formed out of balls. While these characters have fairly realistic-looking punches and kicks, they look like aggressive strings of beads rather than people. Instead of being knocked out, losers in this game become unstrung, literally.

Neither of these games is as fast or fun as Mortal Kombat II.

"Mortal Kombat II is colorful and exciting to watch," says Katz, whose magazine offers an in-depth view of the gaming world more targeted at adults than children. "Nobody buys this game just because it's violent. People aren't looking for violence, they're looking for a game they will enjoy."

According to Katz, too much attention has been paid to video game violence.

"It's not a new thing. Comic books were considered a bad influence shortly after World War II. There were articles pointing out the high incidence of juvenile delinquents who read comic books. Later, rock and roll became the focus of delinquency. In 1977, there were a lot of complaints about a game called Death Place 2000, in which players tried to run over pedestrians. Now the big concern is fighting games."

Katz, however, is not worried.

"I have yet to meet a gamer of any age who cannot differentiate between a video game character and a real person," said Katz. Having monitored the video game industry since its infancy, Katz is not necessarily a fan of violent games. But the reality, he notes, is that a large portion of game buyers are attracted to what he calls "personal fighting games."

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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