Dan Elektro Interview

The staff of DMK recently caught up with former Gamepro Magazine features editor and Mortal Kombat guru Dan Elektro for an exclusive interview..

DMK: First off thanks for letting us conduct this interview with you Dan…

Dan Elektro: My pleasure!

Q: Dan, could you tell us how you became interested in video games? What were some of your favorite games growing up?

A: I was like everybody else–instead of going outside, I wanted to stay in and play Atari (if you’re on the young side, replace that with “Nintendo”). I was always a geek and I always liked computers but I was constantly trying to bend them to my will in the name of fun. I was fortunate to grow up during the golden age of arcades, so I still get all mushy when talk turns to Robotron 2084 (which I have only recently gotten halfway decent at), Marble Madness, and Tempest. I remember my first MKII arcade experience in the now-defunct Station Break arcade in New York City’s Penn Station–I got worked. I miss the innovations of coin-ops, and the total creative freedom that came with it. “We need to make a custom optical trackball flight controller for this game–so let’s do it!” Don’t hear that much anymore. It’s like songwriting–sometimes simpler chord progressions make a better song. Sometimes, simpler gameplay goals turned out to be more satisfying.

Q: How did you get involved with Gamepro Magazine?

A: Hard word, dumb luck, and a few friends. I had been writing for smaller magazines and online publications since 1993, both as a freelancer and a staffer (I was one of the three people writing Flux magazine back in the day, which featured a lot of MK content). I came out from NYC to CA to work on a magazine with game editor legend Andy Eddy, called Digital Diner. Diner died a quick startup death, and he put in a good word for me at GamePro when he found I was applying for an opening. I heard that 200 people applied for the job, and ultimately it was a close shootout between two candidates. I feel very fortunate that they went with me!

Q: How long have you been working for Gamepro Magazine?

A: I joined the day after E3 in June 1997. My first issue was Sept 1997–the Castlevania cover with its now-infamous day-glo pink ink! I mean, the issue with the Saturn review for MK Trilogy. I didn’t get to review it–I had to do Disney’s Hercules as my first review. Low man on the totem pole.

Q: Could you tell us what some of your duties are at Gamepro?

A: I’m the features and departments editor, which means I oversee ProNews, Cutting Edge, Head 2 Head, Buyers Beware, GeekSpeak, all that stuff, plus the feature articles and cover stories. I don’t necessarily write all those sections, but I make sure they get written. Generally if you see an article in the magazine without someone’s name on it, it’s written by me (including most of the “by the GamePro Editors” articles–I usually wrangle and rewrite those from staff contributions). I’ve been the Head 2 Head answer guy for two years, and I love that, anonymous or not. I’m also the CD editor and I try to act as the unofficial writing coach, working with the newer writers and helping them improve. Somewhere in there I get to play games on occasion…

Q: What are some of your contributions to the gaming world?

A: That’s a tricky question. I wrote an NBA Jam FAQ back in the day! I also wrote a book–PlayStation 2 for Dummies, now on a clearance table near you–though I was helped a lot by the GamePro staff on that one. I have ideas for two more books, one of which is MK-related and neither of which is a Dummies product, but I have no idea if I’ll actually get to do either one. I’m a moderator over at snk-capcom.com. And here and there I’ve been able to make suggestions on games in development, and I hope those suggestions have given the developers what they needed to make a better game. I may never know but I’m always honored when I’m asked “What would you do for next year’s game?” or “This is early, what would you like to see?” I’m totally humbled every time. I guess what I try to contribute, at least, is a sense that there is no ivory tower–game editors are not better or cooler than anybody else, though a lot of them seem to think they are. That bugs me. I want people to know that I’m approachable, and that if they come to me for information of any kind that I will tell them whatever I can and be honest, without pretenses. So I guess I try to contribute trust.

Q: Can you tell us anything about MK: Deception that is currently unknown?

A: Unfortunately I can’t. LOL–after just saying I’ll tell you whatever I can, I have nothing to tell you. It’s not even a case of not being able to tell you anything, it’s a case of Midway keeping things very much under wraps. I was really happy with the way DA turned out and I’m glad to hear that they’re doing another game, but I’d guess that you guys know more than I do at this point. I’ll get the scoop at E3, but you guys can feed off the rumor mill, which I don’t follow too much simply because I can’t print it. πŸ™‚ But when I saw the PSM cover, I went “Damn!” πŸ™‚

Q: How do you feel about MK: Deception being online compatible?

A: It’s about time. I mean, I hate it when a game throws online into the mix just because they think it will sell, and not necessarily because it’s good for the game. But MK’s ready for it–there are so many MK fans that want to play against each other–and I trust that the team knows what it’s doing. The problem is not the game or connection speed–it’s the people who currently play fighting games online and have no problem with dropping if they’re about to be defeated. Crap like that kills online gaming and can hamstring a product like Deception before it even gets a chance.

Q: If you were behind the next Mortal Kombat film, would you base it around the game storylines? Why or why not?

A: Funny story. A friend is a screenwriter in Hollywood, and a few years back he was offered the next MK film. He dropped me a note and said “What do you think? I am not sure what story I would want to tell.” I said that the greatest story for an MK movie was obvious–Scorpion vs. Sub-Zero, all the way back to the beginning, through all the touchstones of revenge throughout the games. That would be so freakin’ cool. He said “Hmm…well, I don’t know” and ultimately passed on the film anyway. Subbie and Scorpion’s feud has been at the center of MK lore for years, so I’m not saying anything that other rabid MK fans couldn’t have come up with–but damn, I don’t want to know more about Liu Kang. Bring on the bad-asses.

Q: Over the years you have pretty much earned yourself the top Mortal Kombat guru of GamePro magazine especially after you cracked MK1’s D-U-L-L-A-R-D code. Have you considered joining the MK Development Team?

A: Last I checked, I wasn’t invited! LOL. I like what I do for a living and my skill set would not necessarily apply to a development team. I’d love to try it someday but writing about games doesn’t mean you can write a game. πŸ™‚ In all honesty, I think I got lucky with DULLARD. What happened was this: MK was supposed to come out on “Mortal Monday” but people broke the street date and copies went on sale Friday. I’d preordered it, so the store called and said “If you want it now, your copy’s here.” I ran and got it and a friend, Carl Elston, said “Check out this weird code–nobody knows what it does, but it does something, because it opens a menu when I put it in.” I spent the next two days systematically going through each flag in the debug menu, writing down what it did, just totally reverse engineering it like a man possessed. It was cool know that I was solving a mystery and I could be the first to solve it if I just applied myself to the task, so I was up for hours and really excited the whole time. Monday morning I sent a detailed fax to GamePro (because even though I read EGM as well, I liked GP the best–they didn’t print rumors and I felt like they were, well, professional) and I had everything but one flag nailed. I actually got a phone call from Scary Larry saying “Where did you get this? This works on a regular retail cartridge? And by the way, this was really well-written.” I was really happy when I saw that they basically printed it exactly as I’d submitted it. And then it took six months to get my prize–a t-shirt in the wrong size. Ah, but the glory… So I didn’t discover DULLARD–Carl gave me the actual code–but I did figure out what it did more than anybody else, so I guess I do get credit for that.

Q: How big of a Mortal Kombat fan do you consider yourself and do you own any rare MK merchandise or collectables after working with the top multiplatform gaming magazine for all these years?

A: I don’t think anybody notices it, but the rearview mirror of my car has an MK dragon medallion hanging from the rear-view mirror. It’s been there for years; I think it was a tchotchke from MK3, long before I was at GamePro. (And you can tell it’s my car because the license plate says GAMEPRO. I am a huge nerd.) I have a nice Deadly Alliance shirt–I guess you’d call it a knit club shirt, because it’s kinda like a golf shirt with a collar, but it’s got a huge silver MK dragon on the side and “Mortal Kombat Deadly Alliance” printed up the buttons. For years I held on to the t-shirt I got when I preordered Genesis MK–it was basically just the MK logo with the Acclaim and Midway logos on it–but I think I finally had to let it go because it was worn out. I used to have one of the MK3 “icon” t-shirts, and might still–not sure. I bought the MK/MKII audio CD back in the day and I’m really glad I did. I have the little GI Joe-scale Goro action figure, with the four ball-joint arms. I sometimes put him in the clutches of the large one that came out a few years ago. I’m also proud to have John Tobias’s comic book for MK1, because I always liked his art style; I might still have some of the Malibu comic from the mid-90s, but I’m not sure. I had a bunch of Tobias’ work on The Real Ghostbusters for NOW Comics, but I wound up sending all but one of them to him as a gift since he told me he didn’t have copies of his own. I recently found some of my original interview tapes with Ed and John from the early 90s, but I haven’t listened to them in ages. But if you don’t count Kerri Hoskins’ phone number, I guess my ultimate MK collectible is an NBA Jam Tournament Edition arcade board with the 1.0 chips on it–the one with Sub-Zero, Raiden, and Scorpion in as secret characters. The NBA made them pull that version and pop in newer chips. I have an NBA Jam machine in my garage but I don’t have an MK rig…yet. πŸ™‚ I guess that if you have MAME and can seek out the ROMs, this isn’t all that rare any more.

Q: How often do you visit (if any) Mortal Kombat fan sites or community chat/message forums?

A: I tried to be a member of one of the forums and simply could not keep up. I will swing by if I hear a fresh rumor and want to know if it’s true. πŸ™‚ I generally visit them all equally, and just hit whichever one pops into my mind first. I think it’s cool that the competition between all the sites is friendly–everybody’s doing it for the same reason.

Q: What do you think MK: Deception needs to be the best fighting game of all time hands down?

A: Well, I’d like to see more balanced AI; there were a lot of times in DA that I felt like I was getting my ass handed to me by the computer rather suddenly, so a few more gradiations as the difficulty steps up would be nice. I think the multiple-discipline system is probably the best thing to happen to the series since MKII came out, so any extension of that would be welcomed. Online, again, it’s time. I guess spending lots of time on tuning the single-player and two-player gameplay experience instead of focusing on gimmicks like the Krypt full of Koffins (fun, but frustrating) would help the game establish a legacy.

Q: Will you and the GP crew be heading to E3 this May? If so, what kind of MK: Deception coverage can we expect?

A: Yep, I’ll be there, and we’ll get whatever we can. Definitely want to get some hands-on time with whatever they may have on the show floor.

Q: What is your personal theory about the never ending arguments concerning “Is Reiko Shao Kahn?” Do you think this mystery will be answered once and for all sometime down the road?

A: Dude, you have it all wrong–Rieko is Sheng Long! Well, finding out “for sure” that he was or wasn’t won’t be as satisfying as people think. It’s like, the only way to find out for sure is to find out that he is. Otherwise, there is no decent way to tell players “He’s not” in the context of the game. And if they say “He’s not,” people will find a way to say “That’s what they WANT you to think!” I don’t think Reiko is Shao Khan, myself, but that doesn’t mean that Ed Boon isn’t reading the fan sites and saying “Hey, that’s an interesting interpretation, let’s play with that…” We know that Ed and John used the rumors to their advantage with MKII and MK3, and let the fans feed the fire. Some theories that fans came up with wound up being in-jokes and full-fledged characters later–Sub-Zero’s animality, stuff like that. So if enough fans say “Reiko is Shao Khan,” Reiko might BECOME Shao Khan, whether Midway had it planned that way or not. Or maybe the Midway team is digging the subtle clues and watching people catch on. Personally, I think if it was true, it would have been more overt from the start, would have been written in as a bigger mystery starting with MK4. But that’s just my take.

Q: Some say MK: Deception will return to MKII’s darker roots. Would you like to agree with this conjecture or do you feel MKD should have a completely new feel to it like no other MK?

A: MKII is still my favorite of the series, and I like its unflinching darkness. I liked DA for the same reason–I didn’t see much light in there, personally. But I would not feel cheated if MKD echoed some themes or atmosphere from MKII. It seems to me like that’s one of the powers of a strong franchise like this one: Continuity. You can build on the past, you can refer to your own history, extend it and expand it and revisit it. As long as you make it relevant to new players as well, it’s totally fine. If it really feels “like no other MK,” then I think fans would be disappointed. Wouldn’t it cease to be MK at that point? It should feel a little like other MKs, in some regard. I’m down for anything that stays true to the series, really. If they revisit older stuff, cool; if they want to explore new space that seems like it fits in the same universe, that’s also cool. What I don’t want to see is, like, Mortal Motor Speedway, with big-head Baraka throwing skulls at Raiden in go-karts.