In the original "Mortal Kombat," published way back in 1992, there was a fighter called Sub-Zero who had an inelegant yet effective signature move: At the climax of a battle, he would rip out his opponent's head and spine.
That got the attention of Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., who led Senate hearings into video games and their pernicious effect on America's youth. The hearings led eventually to the establishment of the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, an industry panel that evaluates the levels of violence, sex and profanity in games and advises parents on which games are appropriate for which age groups.Lieberman remains one of the video-game industry's most persistent critics, but "Mortal Kombat" is no longer the flashpoint of the game violence debate. Its brand of mano-a-mano brawling is seen as kind of old-fashioned today, now that the likes of "Grand Theft Auto" are serving up the indiscriminate slaughter of innocent civilians.
"Bully" (Rockstar, for the PlayStation 2, $39.99): The latest production from "GTA" publisher Rockstar Games drew immediate criticism (and publicity) because of its name: "Bully," a clearly inflammatory title in this sensitive post-Columbine era. Thankfully, Rockstar resisted the impulse to re-create a high school bloodbath; there isn't a gun or knife to be found in "Bully," although you can kneecap your foes with a baseball bat. You play Jimmy Hopkins, a 15-year-old skinhead who's dumped off at Bullworth Academy, America's worst boarding school. Your goal is to survive the gauntlet of thuggish jocks, greasers, preps and other high-school cliches who are out to make your life miserable. There's a ton of things to do, from random acts of vandalism to full-scale brawls with various cliques, but none of the missions are particularly clever or challenging. And Jimmy himself is such a thoroughly unappealing antihero that it's almost more fun to let him get his tail kicked by the football team. At least now we know where the miscreants who populate "GTA" came from. Two stars.
"Mortal Kombat: Armageddon" (Midway, for the PlayStation 2, Xbox, $39.99): "Mortal Kombat" has survived its initial notoriety to become one of the most prolific franchises in the fighting genre. "Armageddon" is the culmination of the series, bringing back dozens of the most popular brawlers in its 15-year run. The essence remains the same: Two fighters enter, one fighter leaves, usually after executing a baroque finishing move (or "Fatality") that leaves his disemboweled opponent writhing on the floor. Besides the 62 classic characters, you can also create your own fighters with their own Fatalities. "Armageddon" includes a new "Konquest" mode, a desultory effort to provide some sort of story line for all the mayhem, as well as a ridiculous kart-racing game. True fans will ignore those distractions and get right to the beatdowns. While "MK" is showing its age, it's still a lot of fun to get together with your loved ones and pound each other senseless. Two stars.
"God Hand" (Capcom, for the PlayStation 2, $29.99): There has to be an intriguing story behind the production of "God Hand," a willfully perverse brawler that doesn't realize the potential of some clever ideas. Developer Clover Studios (who also created the exquisite "Okami") was disbanded shortly before its publication, and "God Hand" looks like unfinished business. As a drifter named Gene fights his way across the Wild West, he develops an arsenal of exotic techniques that can destroy opponents with one blow. If he unleashes the God Hand, all heck breaks loose. Gene has a score to settle with a group of demons who want the power of the God Hand, but to get to them he has to fight hundreds of desperadoes. Those fights become tedious after a while, and it's not worth plowing through them to progress through the bizarre story. Add boring level designs and irritating graphical glitches and you have a big disappointment. One star.