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30 years after its debut, it’s still a miracle that Mortal Kombat ever existed

In his 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway offers a succinct, highly quoted answer to the question of how a person goes bankrupt. “Two ways,” he writes. “Gradually, then suddenly.”

“Gradually, then suddenly” may also describe how Mortal Kombat, a game with precisely nothing to do with Hemingway (although Motaro, the Centaurian sub-boss of the third game in the series, looks a little bit like a bull), came to exist. And shook up both the fighting game genre and the stuffy establishment in the process.

In another life, Mortal Kombat — which turns 30 today — is part of a landfill of forgotten fighting game detritus from the early 1990s that desperately tried to pull bored teenagers back into arcades like a down-on-his-luck carnival barker.

a row of arcade cabinets

The impetus for the game came from a briefly considered video game vehicle for actor Jean-Claude Van Damme, which failed to materialize for all the non-artistic reasons that make such deals fall apart. But the idea stuck around, and searching for a compelling new hook for a game, the team behind it stumbled upon the notion of going the exploitation movie route and swapping out star power for gory special effects. Incremental tweaks on the usual fighting game formula led to some big, loud changes.

“Other fighting games had this thing where you would get dizzy, and the other guy would get dizzy, and you had to accept the fact that you were going to get hit,” said co-creator Ed Boon, quoted in Steve Kent’s The Ultimate History of Video Games. “We hated the idea of being the guy who’s dizzy, but it was great to be the guy who was walking up to go beat the crap out of him, so we moved that to the end of the fight where damage was already done. We had this dizzy animation. Then at one point, somebody suggested, ‘Let’s make it gruesome.’ And everything just kind of built on that.”

Gradually, then suddenly.

Suddenly there was Street Fighter

It’s impossible to discuss Mortal Kombat without also talking about Street Fighter II. The first Street Fighter game, from 1987, helped carve out the bare bones of the modern fighting game. But it was its sequel, Street Fighter II, that polished the template until it shined. It upped the roster of playable characters from two to a perfectly balanced eight, added a bunch of special moves, and smoothed over the rougher parts of the gameplay.

Unleashed in arcades, Street Fighter II practically printed money, almost single-handedly breathing new life into dingy strip mall arcades in the process. Rip-offs were bound to follow. Many were terrible. Most quickly vanished into obscurity. Mortal Kombat was not among them.

a screencap from the original street fighter game

“There’s no doubt that a major reason why Mortal Kombat stood out from Street Fighter II imitators like Fatal Fury or Art of Fighting was because it had a gimmick: the blood and ‘fatality’ moves,” David Church, a postdoctoral fellow at Indiana University and author of Mortal Kombat: Games of Death, told Digital Trends.

“Those kinds of spectacle definitely drew in kids of my age, especially in combination with the realism of the character sprites that were stop-motion animated from still frames of videotaped actors,” Church continued. “Mortal Kombat wasn’t the first arcade game to have gore or to use that particular animation technique, but it brought together those ingredients within a dark and shadowy story world that made SFII‘s colorful, cartoonish world seem far less edgy by comparison.”

The total package

As Church makes clear in his book, Mortal Kombat wasn’t the inaugural game to feature either of these elements. The long-forgotten Commodore 64 title Barbarian: The Ultimate Warrior was released in 1987; the fighting game featured graphic decapitations and a demon-voiced narrator intoning the words “Prepare to die” before bouts. Meanwhile, the 1990 arcade coin-op fighting game Pit Fighter had employed digitized actors in place of wholly animated sprites. But Mortal Kombat combined both into one slick package, and the cumulative effect turned out to be more than the sum of its parts.

Gradually, then suddenly.

closeup on an arcade game's controls

Lacking a star like Jean-Claude Van Damme, Mortal Kombat’s creators – a small team of 20-somethings led by aforementioned computer science graduate Boon and comic book artist John Tobias – cast a group of unknown martial artists-cum-actors to fill out the game’s roster. Daniel and Carlos Pesina, Richard Divizio, Ho-Sung Pak, and Elizabeth Malecki were paid some $50 per hour to perform an assortment of martial arts moves in front of Tobias’ Hi8 camera, holding poses so that the key frames could be extracted and reformed into animations using AT&T’s TIPS video capture software.

Due to the technical limitations of the day, Hi8’s 30 frames per second (fps) had to be dialed back to eight frames, adding a certain jerkiness to the movements not unlike the questionable undercranking used to speed up martial arts sequences in certain kung fu movies.

‘Finish him!’

The game’s “underground lethal tournament of the world’s greatest fighters” plotline was borrowed wholesale from Bruce Lee’s 1973 American hit movie Enter the Dragon and, perhaps more freshly imprinted in the developers’ memory, 1988’s Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle Bloodsport. Lee and Van Damme are clearly the respective inspirations for Chinese martial artist characters Liu Kang and Johnny Cage, the Hollywood movie star-turned-fighter who shares Jean-Claude’s initials.

Other playable characters in the first Mortal Kombat include villainous mercenary Kano, Special Forces agent and sole female Sonya Blade, thunder god Raiden (his name borrowed from that of the Shinto god of lighting, Raijin), and palette-swapped Lin Kuei fighters Scorpion and Sub-Zero. Four-armed monster Goro and shape-shifting antagonist Shang Tsung rounded out the cast – with Reptile appearing as a secret character. It’s a strong assortment of characters in a genre that can often tip over into generic caricatures.

Mortal Kombat on the news - 1993

Not that a strong ensemble detracted from the desire to see them all brutalized, of course. As Church notes, this was the other big appeal of Mortal Kombat: Fights which guaranteed that they would descend into bloodbaths, as if fighters had attached razor blades to their feet and hands and taken blood thinners before sparring.

Things reached their bloody apex at the end of a best-of-three fight when one player would get to enter a complicated series of button presses to unleash a “fatality” death move. While later games’ fatalities grew increasingly silly, what is surprising about the original game is largely how unadorned they are in their blunt brutality.

Sub-Zero pulls off his opponent’s head, leaving the spine dangling below. Kano tears out his vanquished quarry’s heart and holds it aloft, still beating. Raiden electrocutes his opposition to death. Scorpion incinerates them. Physiologically unrealistic? Certainly. Viscerally satisfying in the manner of a Friday the 13th Jason Voorhees kill? Absolutely.

The fact that fatalities were more complicated to execute (no pun intended) than your regular special move – and that the arcade cab didn’t tell you how to do them – made them tantalizingly obscure. Editors of games magazines (remember them?) marveled – or inwardly sighed – at the fact that roughly half the letters they received on any given month either asked for or offered the fatality codes.

At one point, the move sequences were even printed by the Chicago Tribune, the same newspaper that has racked up 27 Pulitzer prizes in its existence (none of them for telling readers how to tear out the internal organs of a digitized fighter0.

Laying down the law

Mortal Kombat rejoiced in offending people. The more squares it shocked, the more units it sold.

Mortal Kombat was about quick and sometimes funny extreme shit,” Patrick Rolo, the comic book artist who drew the original Mortal Kombat series for Malibu Comics, told Digital Trends. “It broke the rules, and they got paid very well for their controversy. I remember a group called something like ‘mothers against violence’ protesting against it. I never cared too much to get into the details of drawing hearts being ripped out or brains being splattered. But it was a lot of fun to be part of — especially since, at 23, I was right around the target age to enjoy it.”

However, there is a tipping point – and Mortal Kombat certainly tipped over into it. All publicity was good publicity until, suddenly, it wasn’t. Shock and appall around the title, especially after its 1993 home console release, eventually got legislators involved. While the arcade ruffled feathers, the home releases ramped up the indignation exponentially.

In December 1994, Democratic Sen. Joseph Lieberman stood up in front of a group of Washington press corps and spoke out against the game. “We’re not talking Pac-Man or Space Invaders anymore,” Lieberman told the cohort of assembled journalists, after showing them footage of an MK fatality. “We’re talking about video games that glorify violence and teach children to enjoy inflicting the most gruesome forms of cruelty imaginable.”

an advertisement for Mortal Kombat

I remember my own Mortal Kombat censorship dilemma around the time. In 1995, having been deep into Mortal Kombat fandom for several years, I cut out a print ad for Mortal Kombat 3 and stuck it up on my bedroom wall. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” read the copy. “In this case, rip out their spines and internal organs.” I thought it was awesome. My mom thought it was horrific. She banned me from playing Mortal Kombat and, in something of an overkill move, even barred me from buying the magazine the ad had appeared in.

In a sense, it’s no surprise that some people reacted this way. Every generation needs something that drives parents wild. However, to really take them by surprise, it has to be something new. Our parents’ generation had grown up with rock ‘n’ roll and violent movies, so they can’t have been wholly surprised when gangsta rap or Marilyn Manson or slasher movies came along to shock their virtuous sensibilities.

But video games? They were barely on the radar. If they were, they were still imagined as the Pac-Mans and Space Invaders Lieberman referred to, occupying the same harmless entertainment niche as the pinball machines that companies like MK publisher Midway Games had started out making.

To uninitiated elders’ shock, video games like Mortal Kombat were suddenly realistic enough to convincingly show violence — and world-weary, post-ironic Gen X teens were all too ready to fork over their cash to see it. The inevitable end result was the development of a movie-style Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) ratings system for video games that was designed to regulate a new untamed format being invited into the homes of impressionable youngsters.

“Without a doubt, the formation of the ESRB is [Mortal Kombat’s] most significant legacy,” said Church. “Surely some other game would have come along at some point to trigger a similar controversy leading to a rating system, but MK happened to be the one at the center of that outcry.”

Kombat legacies

Fortunately, that’s not the only legacy of Mortal Kombat. Its success helped cement fighting games as one of the biggest video game genres of the 1990s. And it created a franchise that, despite an uneven track record in its doughy middle years, persists today. From a gameplay perspective, modern Mortal Kombat has never been better.

There is the temptation to make the subject of every retrospective like this into a critical turning point in history. In the case of Mortal Kombat, it didn’t bring about all these changes and innovations (remember “gradually, then suddenly”), but it certainly solidified them.

The original 1992 Mortal Kombat symbolizes video games at a fascinating intersection. It marked the last real arcade boom and the ascension of consoles. It signified a maturing of video games, or at least a showcase of the fact that not all games had to be squarely aimed at a G-rated kid audience. Digitized sprites, while looking dated today, also represented a bridge between flat, hand-drawn sprites and the 3D graphics that would take over a few years later.

And the existence of a Mortal Kombat movie a few years later (with that theme song) highlighted that Hollywood was beginning to warm to video games’ status as valuable intellectual property.

So happy birthday Mortal Kombat! Even if its 30th birthday does serve as a reminder of just how old those of us who played it as kids are getting today. But then again, isn’t that how aging happens? Gradually, then suddenly. With a hopefully not-too-grisly fatality at the end of it all.

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