October 15th, 1992 is a day that changed the world of fighting games forever. Ed Boon and John Tobias’ Mortal Kombat burst onto the scene amid controversy and quickly cemented its place as the most successful one-on-one fighter from the West. Mortal Kombat has since become a best-selling franchise, numbering ten main entries and several spin-offs and remasters.
What began as a canceled movie tie-in is now one of the three biggest fighting game franchises in the world, competing with Street Fighter and Tekken beyond the Arcades and home consoles. The game’s ludicrous, over-the-top violence and unique brand of humor separated it from the crowd of games grasping at Street Fighter II‘s feet, and instead let it stare into the Capcom blockbuster’s eyes, cackling maniacally. When the fighting began, MK was ruthless and its gore set it apart from everyone else.
Round 1… Fight!
Mortal Kombat stepped into the ring breaking spines and spraying blood. Its brutality earned great aplomb among its fans, but also saw the game get condemned by public figures in most countries — and even banned in Germany. Inevitably, the forbidden fruit syndrome was in full effect, and the game topped everyone’s wish list, despite parents everywhere trying their hardest to say no.
It’s impossible to talk about Mortal Kombat without mentioning Fatalities; the finishing moves are a brand staple, and what makes the kombat mortal. Boon and Tobias liked the satisfaction of dizzying your opponent and getting a free hit, but also thought that it made bouts unfair, so they decided that the opponent who lost the entire duel should be dizzied instead, and the winner could deal a finishing blow. Fatalities allowed it to be truly final. Not only are they a thematic flourish but they’re also a means of communication.
These gruesome finishers let your opponent know you have absolutely destroyed them — that you have actually murdered them and mutilated their corpses. Hailing from a time before voice or text chats, a Fatality told your opponent “I pwned you!” The finality and brutality of them was a gut punch so powerful it ripped through. Kano rips his opponent’s heart out much like Bart Simpson gets his torn from his chest (except literally), while Sub-Zero rips his opponent’s entire spine out of their body along with their head to proudly place above his fireplace; these moves don’t impact the outcome of the fight in any way — except letting you know that your opponent REALLY killed you, that is.
This form of communication truly evolved in Mortal Kombat 2 and 3 with the addition of Animalities, Babalities and Friendlies, but it all began on the original arcade. It was the original “You’re just not good enough yet,” the original “You Died.”
Ed Boon & Co.’s brand of humor cemented its place in the pop culture of the 90s, and has remained a staple in the series to this day. Although most of its best-known jokes started appearing in the series from the second installment, Mortal Kombat‘s core humor lies in its absurdist violence. (Just take a second to consider the level of hatred you would have to feel for someone to literally rip their spine out). It’s the Tom and Jerry or Happy Tree Friends style of using violence for comic effect, and Mortal Kombat feeds off that same carnal amusement.
The fighters bleed profusely from every hit. They fly ten feet into the air from uppercuts. They literally fight to the death. This isn’t just beef — it’s a forty pound rump steak dripping with fresh blood for you to bathe in. But counter-intuitively, that’s what makes it funny.
Originally the game was intended to star Jean Claude van Damme. However, thanks to JC pulling out, we were blessed with another JC — Johnny Cage, that is. The egocentric, aloof Hollywood star, a dramatization of van Damme, Cage is stylized to look like the actor’s character in Blood Sport, and has a splits crotch-punch as his signature move. This bitter dig ended up being one of the few characters to appear in every game in the series.
The announcer, rumored to be Shao Khan himself, is another long-running joke. His over-enthusiasm and bellowing bass paint him as a maniacal sadist, laughing at the damage the competitors do to each other and taunting them to kill their opponents with the world-famous “Finish [them]!” He barks at the fighters to begin their bouts, and relishes in one-sided flawless victories.
Noob Saibot Wins
The game’s seven playable characters were portrayed by five actors, with Daniel Pesina playing the roles of Johnny Cage, Sub-Zero, Scorpion and Reptile. Furthermore, the three ninja characters were identical sprites with a different dominant color. This palette swap technique soon became a Mortal Kombat trademark. From a technical standpoint, the characters have very slight differences between them, and unlike other fighting games at the time, where characters’ speed and reach vary greatly, MK opted for near-identical templates with a few unique moves.
Boon and Tobias have also peppered their games with little signatures. Mortal Kombat hails from the ancient 1990s, before DLC and loot boxes, when games had hidden characters that were unlocked with hard work and cheats. The original hidden character was Reptile, the green ninja. He can be unlocked by winning with two flawless victories and performing a Fatality on the Pit stage. A grueling and obscure test of ability, fighting against Reptile was a reward and a test all at once. This later became a trend with a fourth, grey ninja named Noob Saibot (“Boon Tobias” reversed) being hidden behind similar challenges. Mortal Kombat 4 even made Goro playable!
Up, Up, Down, Down…
Boon and Tobias have made a habit of following the Mortal Kombat rumor mill. They have also made a habit of making rumors come true. (Reptile wasn’t an unlockable character until fans created a rumor that he was.) In fact, it was the 3.0 update that actually gave players the opportunity to not only face him, but select him. This trend saw the additions of Ermac and Animality finishers in later games too.
ERMAC was actually a graphical error message that would pop up in the corner of the screen and make Scorpion’s yellow suit flicker in red (the actual color of the suit used to capture stop motion for the game). The rumor soon was spread that Ermac was the hidden red ninja and could be unlocked. This rumor, however, took another four years to materialize, with Ermac making an appearance in Mortal Kombat 3.
The creators’ curiosity and willingness to oblige the fans not only got the rumor mill turning faster, but was also a huge factor in the game’s popularity. Fans’ dedication and curiosity was always rewarded — if not by initial design, then by redesign as hearsay became common knowledge. Midway catering to its vocal fans inspired loyalty among them for years to come; the community not only grew but, got more imaginative, and the development team followed suit.
Flawless Victory! Kinda.
The game hasn’t aged well; it’s more Macaulay Culkin than Cher. But it’s not just outdated visuals that make Mortal Kombat less accessible today. It’s difficult — difficult in the way that cutting wood with a bread knife is, as the given tools are sub-standard. Yes, every character has roughly the same reach and speed, but input delay makes them feel as if they’ve just about made it to round 12 with a 1990s Mike Tyson. For reference, Street Fighter II made characters feel like 1990s Tyson, and even featured him.
There is no in-game moves list, no “I just want to enjoy the story” difficulty level (although to be fair, there is no story). Add to that the general lack of variety — seven fighters, two bosses, four arenas — and you’d think that by today’s standards there isn’t all that much fun to be had with the original blood-spilling thriller of a fighter.
With the bad comes the good, however. The levels are well-crafted and detailed, such as the Pit, which grants you a thrilling opportunity to uppercut your opponent onto the eagerly awaiting metal spikes, a privilege absent from competitors. The few moves that are there are fun and diverse; it’s not fireballs for everyone, mind. Scorpion has his hook, Sub-Zero his ice, and Johnny Cage his crotch punch. MK offered light-hearted fun altogether absent from the genre until then; juxtapose the fun with the brutal visuals, and you have yourself a pedigree fighting game, a brutal outlet that both embellishes and trivializes death and violence in ways that discourage it rather than the opposite.
The main thing about Mortal Kombat is that even 25 years later, it still oozes personality and bloody brilliance. The game’s success was no accident, and its legacy was not built on Kontroversy alone. In 1992 a star was born, and it has been bleeding all over our screens for a quarter of a macabre century.