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By Thomas Wheeler

Something that has always been extremely elusive to me, is trying to figure out what makes one video game concept more popular than another. There are hundreds if not thousands of video games in existence, across a wide variety of genres. Why do some succeed, and others fail? It's not like the designers and programrs of any video game set out to make a turkey. They don't want to end up in the clearance bin.

And yet, it cannot be denied that some concepts have certainly prospered far more than others. If I asked you to name the most popular tournament-style fighting video games of all time, two names right out of the gate would have to be Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat. But what set these apart? It's not as though there's been a lack of such video games. It's not as though the only competition was "How to Memorize the Phone Book" or "Knitting II: The Wrath of Yarn".

I suspect one of the major factors would be extremely well-defined characters and overall story concepts. In Street Fighter, we have the backdrop of Shadaloo, and the global ambitions of its tyrannical leader, M. Bison. We have visually dynamic and well-defined characters throughout. In Mortal Kombat, we have similar dynamic and well-defined characters, set against the backdrop of the Mortal Kombat Tournament and the ambitions of those in Outworld who wish to conquer the Earth Realm.

This has enabled both of these concepts to reach beyond their video game roots. Both have had live-action movies. Both have had animated series. Both have had comic books. And both have had action figures, initially by the same company, Hasbro, who used their popular 3-3/4" G.I. Joe motif to bring both Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat into the action figure world in the 1990's.

Since that time, I think it would be fair to say that Street Fighter fared better in plastic. They had a superb line of figures turned out by SOTA Toys, that I wish had lasted longer. Mortal Kombat saw a series of figures produced by a company called JazWares that looked impressive, but the actual results were -- not so great, to be blunt about it.

Recently, both concepts have once again come under the same toy company umbrella. And it was once again JazWares. While I was certainly interested in new figures, the company producing them gave me some measure of concern. Nevertheless, their 4" line of Mortal Kombat figures especially was very appealing to me.

I decided to take a chance. I purchased a three-pack of the well-known cyber-ninjas: Sektor, Smoke, and Cyrax. Much to my surprise, they were very impressive. They weren't perfect, but they were a darn sight better than the last go-round. So was the multi-pack of standard Mortal Kombat ninjas that I picked up not long after.

So I decided, as I was able, that I would occasionally add to this collection. So it is that we come to a review of one of the more notable, if not exactly one of the more major players in the Mortal Kombat universe, one who's been around for quite some time even if he's never quite had the spotlight shown all that directly on him, a charming fellow by the name of BARAKA.

Why Baraka? A couple of reasons. He's an interesting-looking character. He's not as extremely unusual as some of the other unusual folks populating the world of Mortal Kombat, but neither is he especially human. Secondly, he's a character that Hasbro never got around to. Their Mortal Kombat line was focused on the characters from the first game, and then from the movie -- which was also focused on characters from the first game, with the exception of Kitana, who also turned up. Over the years, I customized a number of Mortal Kombat action figures for myself, including the cyber-ninjas, some of the female ninjas, Kintaro, and Baraka. While I feel that most of these turned out very capably, some of these excellently, Baraka probably is the least of my personal lot.

Now, JazWares figures are not compatible with Hasbro's line. But at least I can say I have an official Baraka figure around here now.

Let's consider a brief history of the Mortal Kombat concept, and of Baraka in particular.

Mortal Kombat, is a series of fighting games created by Ed Boon and John Tobias. The first four renditions and their updates were developed by Midway Games and initially released on arcade machines. The arcade titles were later picked up by Acclaim Entertainment for the home console conversions. Beginning with Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance, Midway Games exclusively created home versions of Mortal Kombat up until Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe. Following Midway's bankruptcy, the franchise was picked up by Warner Bros. in July 2009 and became a part of the Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment Branch.

The original three games and their updates, Mortal Kombat, Mortal Kombat II, Mortal Kombat 3, Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3, and Mortal Kombat Trilogy, were styled in a 2-D fighting fashion with gameplay consisting of five buttons that were high punch, low punch, high kick, low kick, and block. Reviewers have stated that because of this the characters are only differentiated by their special moves. In fact, some reviewers have criticized that the "bewildering array" of special moves in comparison to other fighting games has resulted in too little focus on regular moves.

The series is especially noted for its realistic digitized characters (which differentiated it from its contemporaries' hand-drawn sprites), and its high levels of graphic violence, including, most notably, its Fatalities. The original Mortal Kombat was developed with digitized characters based on live actors, as opposed to animated cartoon graphics. Mortal Kombat 4 brought the series into 3D, replacing the digitized fighters of previous games with computer-generated polygon models.

The most recent game, a not-quite reboot but more of an attempted alteration of the timeline on the part of Raiden, called simply "Mortal Kombat", although is known to most as either "Mortal Kombat 9" or "Mortal Kombat 2011", was released in 2011, and features characters from the first three games, including Baraka.

Baraka was first introduced in Mortal Kombat II in 1993 as an unpredictable warrior in service to Outworld emperor Shao Kahn. He belongs to a race of nomadic mutants called Tarkatan, later revealed in Mortal Kombat: Deception to be a crossbreed between Netherealm demons and denizens of Outworld, apparently populating the vast wastelands of Outworld. Baraka, like most other members of his race, possesses long blades extending from his forearms.

In the events leading up to the second Mortal Kombat tournament, Baraka led the attack on the Shaolin temple in Earthrealm, which spurred Liu Kang to seek vengeance in Outworld as predicted by Shao Kahn. After Shao Khan was defeated, Baraka disappeared. He would later re-emerge in time for Mortal Kombat Trilogy. After this, Baraka had once again escaped and spent time traveling alone.

In the time before the events of Mortal Kombat Gold, Baraka encountered the sorcerer Quan Chi while wandering through Edenia. Quan Chi offered Baraka a chance to rule the realm at his side if he agreed to join the army of Shinnok. Eager for battle, he readily accepted. Once again Baraka planned to betray his new masters, but after Shinnok was utterly defeated, his opportunity was also lost once again. Baraka had gone to warn Quan Chi that Shinnock had been defeated, Quan Chi pretended that he had master minded the events. He had then seemingly killed Baraka.

But at the time of Mortal Kombat: Deception, Baraka formed an alliance to the risen Dragon King, Onaga, in whose strength he had great faith. When Baraka agreed to follow Onaga, the remainder of the Tarkatan race did so too. Baraka freed Mileena from her prison and recruited her to Onaga's ranks to pose as Princess Kitana. Kitana used this position to misdirect the Edenian forces into combat against the Tarkatan raiding parties well away from Onaga to give the Dragon King the time he needed to complete his schemes.

While brainstorming possible character ideas for Mortal Kombat II, several designers visited a local costume shop and found a Nosferatu mask. They painted the mask to enhance its horrifying appearance and added false fingernails to appear as long fangs. This mask was worn by Richard Divizio, the actor who portrayed Baraka in the game.

Early Baraka concept art by character designer John Tobias portrayed him as a masked, bald human ninja armed with hookswords. The swords were later used by Kabal - also played by Divizio - in Mortal Kombat 3. Another Baraka concept portrayed him as a creature with extra-long, metal talon-studded, muscular arms, but it was thought this might create an unfair reach advantage and so was re-sketched with blades inspired by the Marvel Comics character Wolverine, whose claws extend from his hands.

The third and final attempt at a Baraka design included a full head of black hair tied up in a bun, and a large red dot on his belt to go along with his familiar red-and-white tunic and black pants. The red dot, added simply as a decoration, was axed because it was misinterpreted as symbolizing the red dot on the Japanese flag, and the hair was gone shortly thereafter, finalizing Baraka's bald look used throughout the Mortal Kombat series.

Baraka has been popular enough to turn up elsewhere. Baraka made several appearances in Malibu's' Mortal Kombat comic book series, making his first appearance on the first issue of Goro's miniseries Prince of Pain. Baraka was portrayed as the classic brawn-over-brains type, and had the distinction of speaking in rather broken English; in the 1993 Midway-created Mortal Kombat II comic book, his only line being "Baraka show [Johnny] Cage pain!"

Baraka was also featured in an eponymous one-shot issue by Malibu Comics in 1995. He was also one of numerous characters who habitually referred to themselves in the third person throughout Malibu's entire Mortal Kombat series. Baraka's background is mostly kept in the comic, having him as the leader of the mutants that form part of Shao Kahn's armies.

On the following Battlewave series though, he changes sides when Shao Kahn starts replacing his mutants with Scorpion's army of undead soldiers. He ends up joining with Kitana, Kung Lao, and Sub-Zero in a rebel force set to defeat the emperor. Despite this, his violent nature often put him at odds with his former comrades.

Baraka briefly appeared in the movie Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, and was played by Ray Park -- for those of you who thought he got his start as Darth Maul. He was killed after being kicked into a fire pit by Liu Kang following a swordfight.

The package for the figure summarizes much of the character's known backstory. It reads: Baraka is the fiercest of the Tarkatans, vicious nomadic mutants from the wastes of Outworld. Like all Tarkatan males, he joined Shao Kahn's army once he came of age and survived the brutal Ritual of Blood. He gained the rank of Enforcer after single-handedly defeating a rebel faction. His loyalty and strength male him a favorite of the emperor; his retractable blades have slain many of Shao Kahn's most bitter enemies. As a kontestant in the Mortal Kombat tournament, he will ensure his emperor's claim to Earthrealm.

So, how's the figure? Extremely impressive. Baraka looks nearly human. In fact, if you saw him from the back and he had his claws retracted, you might think he was -- right up until you got a look at his face. He has a fairly prominent brow, creepy yellow eyes, and a mouth full of the longest, nastiest, metal-covered teeth you've ever seen.

Baraka has a smile that would give the Joker the creeps. If he needs tooth work done, he doesn't visit a dentist -- which is probably just as well for the dentist -- he goes to a metal shop. He probably doesn't need to chew his food fifty times -- although I hesitate to think of what he eats in the first place. And we can only hope for his sake that he's not prone to biting his tongue.

The headsculpt does an excellent job of replicating this scary maw. It's a surprisingly deep sculpt, with rows of sharp teeth. Oddly, they weren't painted. It might have been a little much to design a stencil for. Fortunately, it wasn't anything I couldn't remedy with a jar of Games Workship Mithral Silver, and a toothpick. Painting the teeth was actually one of the easier touch-up jobs I've had lately. Each one is so prominently sculpted that they were easy to target with the toothpick, and I think the results look pretty good.

This is not to malign the rest of the cranial detail. The eyes are pretty scary, the overall facial features well-rendered and nicely symmetrical, the ears well-detailed and pointed, and the head overall of an appropriate shape, even with a slightly recessed forehead above the brow.

Baraka's upper arms are fairly ordinary in appearance, but nicely done on the figure. Then there's the matter of his lower arms. Anyone thinking that Baraka's teeth are the primary sharp objects they have to worry about had better look again. There's a series of small spikes on his lower arms, and each arm, has one very long spike, roughly 2/3 the length of the entire arm, jutting out from it.

Toywise, these are clearly inserts. And here is where my custom Baraka figure which I made years ago fell massively short. I built up the lower arms with modeling putty, and stuck toothpicks in them. The toothpicks worked well enough, but the figure was left with a bad case of Popeye arms. All the more reason to have purchased this figure, who is obviously not so disproportionate.

Nor are his claws toothpicks. These are a pair of vicious curved blades, molded in black and given silver trim, inserted into tabs on the lower arms. Each blade is 1-1/4" in length, considerable when you consider that the full height of the figure is almost precisely 4". If Baraka were six feet tall, this would put the claws at over a foot and a half in length.

Baraka's clothing is not overly ornate, but it is distinctive enough, and nicely done. Baraka is wearing an off-white sleeveless shirt that drapes into narrow tunic sections in the front and back below the belt. The shirt has dark red trim around the collar and down the front, and two identical emblems on the chest that look like stylized fanged skulls, also imprinted in dark red. The shoulders of the shirt are black.

The tunic sections below the belt are also off-white, with dark red borders, and some black detailing at the base. Baraka's belt is thick, and black, with several circular silver studs around its circumference, and a large silver belt buckle with a skull shape to it.

Baraka is wearing loose-fitting black trousers that are about knee length. He has what looks like brown leggings beneath these, with black shields strapped to the fronts of his legs. These shields have silver skulls at the knees, and two large silver studs further down. He is wearing black shoes that have a separate area for the big toe. As Baraka's hands are reasonably human in appearance -- thumb and four fingers -- one would likely assume that so are his feet.

The painted details on the figure are superbly well done, much better than I would've expected. A few of the smaller arm spikes are a little off, but that's honestly the worst I can say. And although Baraka may not be the most ornate figure in this line, he does have some pretty small details, such as the studs on his belt, which have been very expertly painted.

About the only odd thing I can say about the painting of the figure is that the shoulder joint is entirely painted flesh-tone, which is a little unnecessary since the articulation mechanism itself is molded in flesh. Also, the paint tends not to stay on this section once you move the arms. The easiest thing to do, really, is to just gently scrape it off. The alternative is to have it gradually chip and flake off, leaving Baraka looking a bit like he's had a bad sunburn and has started to peel.

Articulation is excellent. Baraka is fully poseable at the head, arms, elbows, including a swivel, wrists, mid-torso, legs, knees, including a swivel, and ankles, including a swivel.

But, the question must be raised, given the manufacturer and my previous experience with their larger Mortal Kombat figures from a number of years ago -- how's the quality? As with the ninjas and cyber-ninjas, it's surprisingly excellent. Baraka moves well, holds a pose well, he feels solid and sturdy, nothing feels like it's going to fall or break off, and while I wouldn't quite put Baraka or his colleagues in the same category as the best that can be produced by the "big guns" in the toy world, this is a very nicely-done action figure that is well-made and a good representation of the character and concept.

I'm not sure how far JazWares will be able to take the Mortal Kombat line. To date, I've only seen the figures at Toys "R" Us -- and they're not inexpensive. And these days, the Mortal Kombat universe is a big place. There's certainly no shortage of characters to be produced, but whether JazWares will have the opportunity to get around to even a significant percentage of them remains unknown. If they can maintain their present level of quality, or even increase it, I'd like to think that they'd get the chance.

So, what's my final word? I'm truly impressed, more than I thought I would be. This is a sincerely excellent figure, of a popular if not overly prominent Mortal Kombat characer who's certainly earned his place in the Mortal Kombat concept, and well deserves a good action figure. And this is that figure. If you're a longtime Mortal Kombat fan, and enjoy the character of Baraka, you'll definitely want to add this fine figure to your collection -- or should I say kollection!

The MORTAL KOMBAT figure of BARAKA definitely has my most enthusiastic recommendation!