As if there were not enough hostility and mayhem everywhere else these days, it seems that hand-to-hand, no-holds-barred combat has become the dominant genre in video games. Fighting games have in fact been hot since the summer of ’92, when the first of the monster brawlers, Street Fighter II, made the jump from arcades to home systems. Since then, there’s been an explosion of copycat slugfests, generally featuring robots, dinosaurs, even Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles having it out one-on-one. And as players have become more sophisticated, so has the software: Last year’s home edition of Mortal Kombat shocked many parents and politicians with its digitized combatants and realistic-looking gore.
Just what is it that makes these games so popular? Obviously, they’re a relatively safe way to blow off steam-there’s a certain perverse thrill in executing a triple-spin, head-in-the-ground piledriver on that Street Fighter II guy who looks like your boss. You can’t overlook the social element, either: Fighting games are always more fun when you square off against a human opponent instead of a computer.
Depending on your stomach for violence-and, assuming you’re not buying for yourself, how permissive you are with what your kids play-these explanations may or may not justify a game like Mortal Kombat II (Acclaim Entertainment, for Super NES and Genesis, $59-$79). In a stroke as harsh as one MK II character’s ”kiss of death” (which causes opponents to swell up and explode), MK II is not only more explicit than the original, its home versions are as gory as the arcade version. (Last year, striving to maintain its Disney-like image, Nintendo ordered Acclaim to remove the notorious ”finishing moves.” But there are new moves this year, and they’re bloodier than ever: Check out the ”pull off the arms” move and the ”upper cut decapitation.”) If you go for this sort of thing, though, MK II is a solid game: The combatants are larger, the moves are more varied, and the voice sampling (”Excellent!” the basso- profundo announcer booms as you shatter an opponent) is downright chilling.
Then again, this is kid stuff compared with other games. If you really like digitized mayhem, you may want to invest $400 in a 3DO player and grab a copy of Way of the Warrior (Universal Interactive Studios/Naughty Dog, $55-$59), an unapologetic Mortal Kombat rip-off that actually improves on the original. Thanks to the raw processing power of the 3DO, Warrior‘s mano-a-mano matchups are introduced by superb computer animation (including a spinning skull and a dizzying zoom into a Himalayan fortress) and accompanied by a heavy metal soundtrack. Best of all, the digitized combatants actually restrain themselves from some of the ultraviolence, though this may be because I have yet to figure out all of the secret moves.
This kind of verisimilitude does reach a point of diminishing returns, though: No matter how real the characters look, you know you’re still playing a game. For a quite different and truly sublime fighting experience, try the new game Ballz (Accolade, for Genesis, $59.95), in which the combatants are composed of elastic, spherical globules. Paradoxically, Ballz’s faceless fighters (including a sumo wrestler, a clown, and a ballerina) are endowed with more personality than any of the brutes in MK II or Warrior—and this game’s 3-D scaling effects and hip soundtrack make the competition look like a kindergarten hair-pulling match. Mortal Kombat II: B Way of the Warrior: B+ Ballz: A