The early nineties were a bizarre time in arcades worldwide. One-on-one fighting games reigned in the public eye thanks to Street Fighter II, but it acquired at least two notable rivals. One was SNK, whose success with Fatal Fury, Samurai Shodown, and The King of Fighters gave Ryu and the gang some stiff competition. The other major fight king was Midway with Mortal Kombat, a Bloodsport-inspired virtual tournament with some unorthodox controls but a rather distinctive visual style, to say the least. Mortal Kombat gained attention for two major factors: Its digitized actors and its extreme gore. While horribly dated and tacky-looking by today, using actual actors and converting them into video game sprites was considered incredible technology for its time, and it gave Mortal Kombat a kitschy appeal that was further augmented by the copious spurts of blood that would fly out of opponents every time they get hit. Mortal Kombat also popularized Fatalities, special finishing moves performed when your opponent loses all life to bring a flashy and gory end to their blighted lives. Mortal Kombat was a hit in North America, and its success became the flashpoint for a wave of violence-aligned imitators, all ranging from mediocre to abominable.
Survival Arts, a Japanese-made Mortal Kombat clone, was the creation of Sammy, a relatively unremarkable company (aside from the occasionally interesting title like Zombie Raid) which would eventually find success as the publisher of the Guilty Gear series and merge with Sega. Before all that, Survival Arts was all they had on their fighter resume, and there’s a fine reason why it’s relatively unknown today. Well, you could say there are several reasons within the game itself, but they all add up to the big one: It’s a bad game. Basically, 98% of all Mortal Kombat clones were derivative crap with sluggish gameplay and laughable aesthetics, and considering Mortal Kombat itself was actually a pretty stiff fighter (and arguably not a great one by modern standards), knock-offs of this formula were consistent turds. Survival Arts is in no way any exception to this expectation, and is perhaps the poster boy for all who failed to dethrone Midway.
There is a story that’s as basic as you can get about how there’s a tournament eponymously known as the SURVIVAL ARTS. Yes, it’s written in all caps in the attract mode text intro, which is laid out in terribly butchered English. Eight warriors come together, fight each other to the death, face the evil dude hosting it, blah blah blah and so on. It’s as textbook as a fighter can be, but the real meat of any such game is the cast. The contestants for SURVIVAL ARTS form a rather motley crew, to say the least:
A martial artist who fights in the SURVIVAL ARTS, not for pride or strength, but solely for the money. Your basic Ryu/Ken-type fighter, he has a ring projectile like Sonya. He also has an elbow dash, a Honda-esque multi-punch, and a stupid-looking spin that can be performed in the air or on the floor. There’s not a lot else to say about him except that he’s the average guy, though his personality is pretty obnoxious. He’s like Johnny Cage if the jerk dial was twisted up to 13 and broken off, though to his credit, at least he doesn’t wear sunglasses.
A cop who knows a dirty secret about Dantel, the SURVIVAL ARTS boss, and willingly enters the fight to uncover it. Predating Kurtis Stryker for the sparse “gun-armed cop” role in a fighter and looking somewhat like the Scout years before TF2, Gunner really only has one type of special attack: his gun, natch. He can fire it standing, crouching, and in three different directions in the air. Also, despite looking like a pistol, his weapon takes a cue from Men In Black‘s Noisy Cricket gun and fires ridiculously large projectiles. He is one of the most powerful characters if you know how to use him.
A desert nomad who enlists in SURVIVAL ARTS to take revenge on the scum who murdered her family. Why she’s dressed like a biker from Tron is something no one can fathom. Hanna is a weird character to play with the ability to toss people around without even touching them and can use dashing warps to get around the arena. These skills are tough to use properly, and the angle on her dive kick attack is pretty odd to land. The only attack of hers which is worthwhile has her vibrate quickly enough to generate deadly electric shocks.
A ninja of the Cobra clan of ninjas who warps into SURVIVAL ARTS to learn more information about his rival clan, the Tigers. The obligatory ninja, he has not been palette-swapped with five more characters based off of his original sprite. Hiryu has your standard bag of ninja tricks: Shuriken (which he can mentally control), ground and aerial sword spins, some sort of blue shadow dash, and the ability to crawl on walls and divekick off of them akin to the more famous Strider Hiryu. There is no relation between the two known at this time.
Another Cobra ninja who jumps into SURVIVAL ARTS for the same purpose as her compatriot, Hiryu. Because there’s never enough ninjas to go around, why not add a female one alongside the male? Granted, she looks like she’s ready for a day at the gym instead of clad in proper stealth gear. Tasha does not have too many moves, save for possessing the only actual “Shoryuken” vertical anti-air attack. Her katana also gives her great reach and power for her fierce punches, but she is unable to pick up weapons as a drawback.
A former soldier who blasts into SURVIVAL ARTS simply because he’s insane and wants to fight. Mongo is a balding dork who wears nerdish protection goggles. He is also the MOST BROKEN CHARACTER EVER. With a movelist twice the size of anyone else including machine gun fire, a flamethrower, a rapid combat knife and grenades, Mongo’s existence basically obliterates any paper-thin notion of balance this game may have ever hoped to have. His absolute worst (best?) move has him jump through the air and drop three nuclear bombs which take away half of his opponent’s life, and it can be done infinitely. As a caveat to his insanity, he can’t pick up weapons off the ground, but since he does not need them when he has flashbangs and a giant taser, this nerf is moot.
An alien who invades SURVIVAL ARTS with the belief that winning the respect of Earth’s inhabitants will earn him a place on our planet. His skin is gray, his blood is green, and he may or may not be a Japanese version of the Hulk. Kane is one of the more powerful characters with very fast dash punches and kicks, a multi-punch almost exactly like Viper’s, and a dash grab which is unblockable despite its slow startup. For no discernible reason, he melts when defeated in a non-gory fashion, and he also fathers two kids. Who knew.
A heel wrestler who rolls into SURVIVAL ARTS in order to push past his limit and become the strongest ever. He wears a rather… menacing mask, but he doesn’t know how to play guitar as his name may suggest. Naturally, Santana has a special grab attack, though instead of throwing his victim, he just pummels the crap out of them. He also has a strong rolling attack and the ability to squish other fighters under his heft, as well as probably the best jumping strong kick in the game. He’s incredibly slow, but he is pretty strong even if he’s not MONGO-strong.
The organizer of SURVIVAL ARTS who wishes to eat the flesh of powerful beings in order to remain immortal. Looking a lot like the bastard child of Shang Tsung and Ronnie James Dio, he is naturally insanely cheap as the final challenge in one-player mode. What’s the worst thing about him? Well, take your pick among his life-shredding multi-sword attack, morphing into a ball and bowling you over, fire breath, laser eyes, a psychic throw that processes far faster than Hanna’s, and probably some other arbitrary crap that shoves Dantel straight into SNK-tier territory. On the plus side, several ghostly heads of demons and Hitler fly out of his hunched body if you somehow defeat him.
So that’s our roundup of unusual suspects for this perp walk, and it ain’t pretty. The visual translation of the actors to virtual form comes off as incredibly grainy. The sprites themselves are stiffly animated and are quite large, more akin in size to Art of Fighting than Mortal Kombat. This makes the playing field feel a bit more constricted and does not usually give you ample room to maneuver around attacks. Each character does at least come in six different colors, but all of the outfits look horribly gaudy, as if they were plucked out of some Goodwill discount bargain bin and slapped with a thin coat of Vaseline to give them an inexplicable shininess. Seriously, most of the characters shine on a level comparable to David Lee Roth’s wardrobe. Perhaps this was deliberate to make them look better in front of the camera, but it does not help bolster anyone’s intimidation factor. Nobody in this game looks like a believable martial artist, and for all anyone knows, the actors were plucked out of a local restaurant or department store or whatever other public edifice was convenient.
The backgrounds aren’t much better either and generally look even worse than the characters, with lots of sloppily-placed pixels and clashing elements that don’t amount to a lick of sense. Why is Santana’s level an ornate hallway that’s sinking into deep underwater? Mongo’s level seems ripped right out from the futuristic parts of The Terminator despite the rest of the world not undergoing an apocalypse. Hanna’s desert level has several people from her clan cheering her on, but if you look closely, their torsos are separately placed from their legs, making it seem sometimes as if their bodies are being split in half in a hilariously disturbing fashion. The most baffling stage is Viper’s, which seems to be in front of some sort of Asian restaurant where two monks in sunglasses keep hopping up and down. It all has to be seen to be believed, and further “enhancing” the experience is the soundtrack… or whatever resembles a potential soundtrack anyway. The music is complete garbage, sounding like an incomprehensible mishmash of cheaply-recorded trumpets and bass drums performed by a coalition of rhesus monkeys. Whatever sound effects that exist are totally ridiculous, especially Mongo shouting out “KILL YOU!” in an anonymously foreign voice every time he fires his machine gun.
The game does not play too much better than how it looks, but the honest truth is that it is not absolutely unplayable. Whatever it does, nearly every other fighter does better, but its mechanics are at least not a complete wreck. It has six buttons a la Street Fighter, with three punches and kicks of varying strength. Combatants beat the pulp out of each other before their life drains within a time limit. Everyone can block by holding back, jump high through the air, throw out ducking attacks that need to be blocked low, and so on. It’s as basic as you can get for an early nineties fighter, but there are a couple of idiosyncrasies that give Survival Arts a faint semblance of individuality. Every character has a fairly distinctive movelist, with Mongo having the most blatantly gigantic arsenal at about eight moves and everyone else with around three to five. In addition to specials, there are also weapons lining the floor with a glowing green outline. There are usually one to three weapons per level, and holding down and pressing a punch button adds them to your character’s arsenal, although Tasha and Mongo are unable to pick anything up. The baseball bat, mace, and sword function similar to each other, where they replace your character’s hard punch button with a swing that does good damage. The handgun functions slightly differently where it fires out a bullet that shoots about a third of the way across the screen, though it has limited ammo.
Throws can be performed by holding forward and pressing the hard punch, but there’s an interesting mechanic in place to prevent throw damage. If you hold either left or right and press hard punch while sailing through the air, your character sprite will freeze as you finish your arc to the ground. If you time it so you stop while your feet are pointing towards the ground, you will land like a cat and take no damage. It can be hard to time at some points and the AI lands perfectly every time in the higher levels, but it’s an interesting spin on tech throws that no other digitized fighter seems to possess. That being said, that such a relatively specialized element of the gameplay is one of Survival Arts‘ greatest innovations as opposed to actually making the game not a total mess seems a bit of a waste. Speaking of “waste,” you can seriously waste opponents if you finish them off with a special move or a weapon strike. Hitting them hard enough on the final blow causes them to explode into multiple segments with gratuitous blood and poorly-drawn pulsating organs. You can blow their heads off with pistols or tear their bodies in half with bladed weapons, far simpler than performing a specific complex command when “FINISH HIM/HER!” flashes on the screen. It’s also much less interesting and almost feels forced in for the sake of being violent as every single dang Mortal Kombat clone was wont to do.
Honestly, Survival Arts would have been better off avoiding this superfluous gore, as that would have at least made it slightly more original by virtue of not aping Mortal Kombat‘s most infamous aspect. But nope, people have to die horribly for no good reason. The graphics are terribly overblown and sloppy, the music tries to be dramatic but misses the mark by a country mile, and the gameplay, while not technically awful, is massively broken ad offers very little for even most casual fighter fans to enjoy. Why is this wretched game even worth playing? There’s not really a sane justification, but the best reason is also the worst one: Survival Arts does nothing to distinguish itself from its contemporaries. It is perhaps the most shameless of all Mortal Kombat ripoffs, and that’s why it’s earned its place in kusoge history. It at least gets points via the so-bad-it’s-good factor, and it is a rather hilarious title for all the wrong reasons. Just face off against a friend, engage a Mongo vs. Mongo fight, spam his carpet bomb special repeatedly, and see who gets nuked first. In a way, Survival Arts serves as a good model for the cookie-cutter template of the failures which couldn’t match Mortal Kombat‘s success. It’s absolutely stupid fun for people who don’t mind playing a terrible game every now and again just for comedy value. However, those looking for an actual fighting game would best look elsewhere, unless you want to learn the science of weaving Gunner’s aerial projectile shots into 100% damage combos.