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access_time June 1, 2012 at 1:37 PM in Culture by Joe Roche

Mortal Kombat Retrospective: 20 Years Later

How many video games can you name that changed the landscape of the video game industry forever? Because make no mistake about, Mortal Kombat, for all its faults, fundamentally changed the video game industry (and not necessarily for the good). This is why in 2012 we look back 20 years to the very beginning of the iconic fighting game franchise.

The story of Mortal Kombat is fascinating; I won’t recount it in its entirety, other than to say that the idea for the game was as an arcade adaptation of the Jean Claude Van Damme movie “Bloodsport.” The Mortal Kombat creators, Ed Boon and John Tobias were unable to make a deal with Van Damme who had already agreed to grant his likeness to another developer, so Boon and Tobias were left with Johnny Cage, a Van Damme rip-off who has (unsurprisingly) had a longer career than Van Damme himself. Alongside Cage, the original Mortal Kombat arcade version had six other playable characters, Liu Kang, Sonya Blade, Kano, Raiden, Sub-Zero, and Scorpion.  The original game also had a hidden character (a trademark of the series) Reptile who is really just Scorpion in green.

What made Mortal Kombat special wasn’t just the fact that Johnny Cage was a blatant Jean Claude Van Damme rip off, but that Midway used a “motion capture studio” and brought in martial arts experts, taped mo-cap sensors to their bodies and used this technology to design the in-game experience. Compare the look of Mortal Kombat to the rival fighting series Street Fighter, and especially at the difference was clear. Mortal Kombat looked more like martial artists fighting while Street Fighter looked like cartoon characters fighting, this was intentional.

Beyond the hidden characters, Easter eggs, hints, tips, tricks and other goodies that have become commonly associated with Mortal Kombat, the distinctive feature of the series has been simple – gore. While Street Fighter has been the arcade/console fighting game of choice for fight game fans who want a challenge, Mortal Kombat has, over the past 20 years been the button mashing, fun loving cousin with the easier learning curve, in-game jokes and gallons and gallons of blood. Simply put, Mortal Kombat may not be as “difficult” to learn to master, but it’s the more “mature” or “adult oriented” fighting game.

If you look back at the earliest incarnation of the Mortal Kombat series, you had characters who were all relatively the same. The game provided seven skins for essentially one character, most of the moves were the same, the animations were basically the same, and the only defining characteristic that set the characters apart was their finishing moves – the fatalities. Nobody forgets the first time they saw their friends’ frenetic button mashing combo before your characters head was ripped off his shoulders, leaving a spinal cord dripping blood. That’s the everlasting image of Mortal Kombat, and it’s what made the arcade game and the subsequent console versions so popular. It also didn’t hurt that all finishing moves were ushered in with the iconic “FINISH HIM” prompt.  The real key to the fatalities was that while you could button mash your way through a round and to victory, you had to be precise with the fatality combination. Each individual character had a different sequence to trigger the fatality, so that even if you were great with Sub-Zero you’d learn the sequence for Raiden’s fatality because you just had to know what it looked like.

If there is anyone in the crowd right now who hasn’t heard FINISH HIM from an arcade unit only to leg sweep Liu Kang with Johnny Cage instead of ripping his head off than please leave now, because you’re obviously a liar. As a youth it was the most frustrating thing that could ever happen. You’d spend so much time getting to the FINISH HIM trigger and while entering your carefully researched button combination for the fatality, you’d accidentally press back one to many times and jump away from your defeated opponent who would just helplessly fall to the ground. Devastating.

This also brings up one of the things that I’ve always defended about the Mortal Kombat series. The “fighting game purists,” you know – those kids who use MadKatz controllers to play Street Fighter because it’s somehow a more sophisticated fighting game than MK. Those people will always tell you how button mashing fighting games aren’t any good. But Mortal Kombat, like anything else, is far more than just a button masher. It may be that the layout of the game makes it easier, and that the comedic interludes and gore make the game a bit looser than its Capcom brethren, but there is no question that a seasoned MK player who has learned the specific moves, will not lose to a button masher. This isn’t Soul Caliber.

Along with the graphic nature of the game play the other revolutionary aspect of Mortal Kombat was that it was an arcade fighting game that had a story. Over the years the Mortal Kombat lore has become a bit nonsensical, but the original game back in 1992 was pretty simple. The storylines and back-story have been filled in over the years, but 20 years ago here’s what we knew. Liu Kang, a monk is going to save Earth from an evil sorcerer named Shang Tsung, who apparently owns an island with different environments (including Hell apparently) and seven distinct sections for fighting. Shang Tsung has a multi-armed giant (Goro) who is going to rip you to shreds if you challenge him. It’s a timeless story, like Romeo & Juliet only with sorcerers and spike pits.

The thing that I loved about Mortal Kombat, and which I still love about the series to this day is that the storyline would become more fleshed out after you complete the tournament. I distinctly remember standing around a Mortal Kombat machine while someone else finished up the game just so that I could watch the end sequence and learn a little more about each character, because let’s face it, I’m not going to play as Sonya Blade, sorry.

The real legacy of Mortal Kombat though as we sit here on the 20th anniversary of the game’s arcade launch probably isn’t anything that happened between Liu Kang and Shang Tsung. The thing that Mortal Kombat will likely always be associated with most often is the birth of the ESRB. Pick any video game on your shelf out right now; see that little white box with the rating in the corner? That was Mortal Kombat.

Mortal Kombat isn’t the only reason that the Entertainment Software Ratings Board was created, but it played a major role. Joe Lieberman, the “Democratic” Senator from Connecticut played a major role in pandering to the public regarding violent content in video games and Mortal Kombat (along with Doom) was held up as the biggest contributor to the downfall of society. For those of you who think that Congress wastes their time with steroids in baseball, this is a tradition of time wasting that has gone back decades as the “violence in video games” hearings were taking place in 1993 and ultimately the ESRB (or what became the ESRB) was created to regulate/rate video game content on a completely arbitrary and almost indecipherable scale.

Oh, and since I haven’t taken a moment to recognize the other star of the Mortal Kombat series, let me just remind everyone of the soundtrack. Nothing can ever replace the sound of MORTAL KOMBAT being shouting across a bowling alley.

After 20 years, the Mortal Kombat universe has spanned 17 arcade/video game releases, including the 2011 Mortal Kombat and the upcoming PS Vita version of the game. There have been a number of Mortal Kombat music albums released, there is a number of comic books tie-ins and series’ and in 1995 Mortal Kombat the movie was released, with a follow up in 1997 (Mortal Kombat: Annihilation). There are collectible card games, a novelization of the first game was written in 1995 and there were two television series, the animated Mortal Kombat: Defenders of the Realm, and the awesome (but short lived) live action Mortal Kombat: Konquest. As recently as 2010 a short film, Mortal Kombat: Rebirth was released on the interwebs as a sort of precursor to the 2011 Mortal Kombat game and there is still talk that a new Mortal Kombat movie is coming.

From four (4) guys trying to make a Jean Claude Van Damme fighting game to a multi-billion dollar industry changing monolith, the legacy of Mortal Kombat continues to be written to this day. The number of games which went from the Arcade to the console generations and expanded their popularity is minimal. On this 20th anniversary of the release of Mortal Kombat we celebrate and recognize an industry trailblazer that has undoubtedly changed the industry and continues to be relevant to this day.


  • Ramon Aranda June 2, 2012 at 12:34 AM

    The first time I saw Sub Zero rip someone’s head off with their spine intact, I was like “WTF?!”

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