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Saturday, October 8, 2022

[Retrospective] Flawless Victory: ‘Mortal Kombat’ Still Hitting Fatalities 30 Years Later

Before Mortal Kombat hit arcades 30 years ago, the arcade was dominated by Street Fighter II, and rightfully so. Capcom’s fighter had rejuvenated the arcade scene, and multiple developers were looking to cash in with their own creations, no matter how much they ripped off Street Fighter II‘s concept. Midway was one company, which had tasked Mortal Kombat creators Ed Boon and John Tobias with creating a fighting game that would rival Street Fighter II. A few digitized actors, a swapping of letters, and a Fatality or two later, and the duo had done just that.

Fighting game stories aren’t exactly deep, and Mortal Kombat‘s story is no exception. The game takes place in Earthrealm, where a martial arts tournament is held on Shang Tsung’s Island. Shang Tsung was banished to Earthrealm 500 years ago and, with the help of the four-armed Shokan warrior Goro, is able to seize control of the Mortal Kombat tournament in an attempt to conquer the realm. For 500 years straight, Goro has been undefeated in the tournament, having won nine consecutive tournaments. Should Goro win again, Shao Kahn, the Emperor of Outworld, will be allowed to take Earthrealm. In order to prevent this, seven warriors compete to challenge Goro for the title.

The road for Mortal Kombat reaching the arcade was a long one. Without going into the minute details, Midway had tasked Boon and Tobias with creating a fighting game in 1991. Initially, the idea for the game was a fighting game similar to Data East’s Karate Champ, which then morphed into an arcade adaptation of the Jean Claude Van Damme movie Universal Soldier, with plans to have Van Damme starring in the game. However, that plan was scrapped once the deal with Van Damme fell through, though Boon and Tobias kept a Van Damme tribute in what was eventually Mortal Kombat in the form of Johnny Cage (complete with the Bloodsport split punch).

During development, the team had difficulty in coming up with a name for their burgeoning fighter. Accounts differ as to how they arrived at Mortal Kombat, but according to Boon, for six months during development “nobody could come up with a name nobody didn’t hate.” Eventually, someone had written down “combat” on the drawing board for names in Boon’s office,  writing a K over the C “just to be kind of weird.” Pinball designer Steve Ritchie was sitting in Boon’s office, saw the word “Kombat” and said to him, “Why don’t you name it ‘Mortal Kombat‘?”, which according to Boon, “just stuck.” John Tobias remembers it differently, saying that the name “came about during the trademark process in naming the game. We really liked Mortal Combat as a name, but it couldn’t get past legal.”

As for the game’s violence, this initially wasn’t supposed to be the bloody affair we all know and love, but progressed as development went on. The concept of Fatalities came about from the “dizzied” mechanic in earlier fighting games. While Boon despised the mechanic (which is in Street Fighter II), he did admit that the free hit was a fun idea when your opponent was dizzied. Eventually, Boon and Tobias decided to incorporate a variation of the dizzied mechanic by having it occur at the end of the fight, after the outcome had already been decided.

Separating Mortal Kombat from its competitors was its graphics. Obviously, the buckets of blood were one thing, but the use of digitized fighters was the bigger contrast. Midway had previously used the technique of taking footage of live actors and rotoscoping it before in other titles such as in Terminator 2: The Arcade Game, but with Mortal Kombat, it took the technique to the next level. The result felt far more realistic that Street Fighter II’s sprites.


Mortal Kombat not only felt different than Street Fighter II, it also played differently. Rather than holding back on the joystick to block, the team decided to implement a block button as a form of offensive blocking. And while neither game officially recognized combos, MK did allow for players to juggle their opponents for extra hits. A string of successive punches could batter your opponent before they were knocked backwards. Plus, Mortal Kombat’s iconic uppercut just looked and felt so cool. It didn’t need you performing a specific joystick motion, which meant anyone could use it. Of course, the geyser of blood that shot out of your opponent before they came crashing down to the ground was the exclamation point.

Yes, Mortal Kombat wore its gore on its bloody sleeves. Shockingly realistic for the time, it’s actually now almost comical how blood just squirts out of fighters whenever a big hit lands. That comedy changes quite quickly when it came to the fatalities, which quickly became the game’s selling point. Sub-Zero’s spine rip was brutal, and probably the most memorable of the bunch, alongside Scorpion’s iconic hellfire, which is a series mainstay. Kano’s heart rip echoed that scene from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, but was no less cool to see. Regardless of who you chose as your fighter, you knew in the back of your mind that pulling off a Fatality would be rewarding for everyone involved, from your opponent to the people watching you duke it out.

Obviously, this gore and violence didn’t sit well with parents, and in particular, politicians. The 1993 US Senate hearings on video game violence had Mortal Kombat in its crosshairs, alongside two other titles that were deemed too violent for children in Night Trap and Lethal Enforcers. Aside from Sega and Nintendo taking potshots at each other (and the usual general ignorance when it comes to these topics), the hearings led to the industry-led creation of the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, which remains in place to this day.

Mortal Kombat continued to ride the wave of popularity once the home ports were announced. Midway had partnered with Acclaim for the ports, which came up with the concept of “Mortal Monday”, complete with the iconic commercial. After their verbal jousting during the Senate hearings, Nintendo and Sega each had their own version of the game. The Super Nintendo version was developed by Sculptured Software, while the Genesis version was developed by Probe. While the SNES version definitely looked and sounded closer to the arcade than the Genesis version, the controls were laggy, and most notably, the blood from the arcade had been changed to “sweat”. The Fatalities were also neutered, making what was so special about Mortal Kombat a complete joke. Meanwhile, the Genesis version allowed players to input a code that would restore the blood and Fatalities, making it the far more desirable option, despite the downgrade in the audio and visual department.

From there, Mortal Kombat‘s popularity only grew across a variety of mediums: toys, comics, a cartoon, a live-action tour (seriously), a soundtrack album by The Immortals featuring the iconic “Techno Syndrome (Mortal Kombat)”, and a collectible card game all spawned at various points. It all culminated in Paul Anderson’s 1995 film adaptation, which is still regarded as one of the best videogame-to-film adaptations, and the $122 million gross at the box office on a $20 million budget certainly helped. Of course, it also helped that Midway had released Mortal Kombat II into arcades in late 1993, but that’s another story.

It’d be easy to say that Mortal Kombat was in the right place at the right time, riding on Street Fighter II‘s popularity. But 30 years later, after 14 entries and spinoffs, continued merchandise, several films and devoted fans, Mortal Kombat the franchise has carved out a significant chunk in the history of video games as well as popular culture, and has remained popular all this time. Obviously, the series has had its ups and downs, but it still endures. Going back and playing the original Mortal Kombat today seems quaint when compared to its more modern sequels, but the thrill of uppercutting your opponent into The Pit or pulling off a Fatality after a hard-fought victory never ceases to entertain.

The post [Retrospective] Flawless Victory: ‘Mortal Kombat’ Still Hitting Fatalities 30 Years Later appeared first on Bloody Disgusting!.


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