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VICE vs Video games

The Glorious, Gory History of 'Mortal Kombat'

Crude, violent, and innovative, the franchise's legacy extends far beyond the early censorship struggles that resulted in the creation of the Entertainment Software Rating Board.

by Aoife Wilson
Oct 29 2014, 2:20pm

The beginning of the 1990s was a golden age for arcade fighting games. In 1991, Capcom released Street Fighter II, a title so popular I don't need to explain its impact to you. SNK followed with Fatal Fury later that year and, together, both games re-ignited public interest in the fighting genre, bringing it mainstream attention and making competitive gaming pretty much the raddest thing in the world in the process.

Predictably, it didn’t take long for the knock-offs to descend on the scene, each vying for a piece of Street Fighter II’s success. SFII was colorful, polished and, above all, complex—it rewarded players who wanted to dig deeper into its mechanics without overly punishing those who just wanted a bit of button-mashing fun. Most of its contenders however, lacked the satisfying depth and steep difficulty curve of Capcom’s crowning achievement. One such title, released in 1992 and the product of a four-man development team, borrowed SFII’s use of projectiles and quarter-circle arcade inputs. But Midway’s Mortal Kombat added a few new ideas of its own: a dedicated block button, uppercut moves, so-called Fatalities (more on those in a bit) and digitized real-life actors in the role of the combatants.

Its mechanics were nowhere near as precise as Street Fighter II, and most of its characters played identically to one another aside from their special moves, but this combination of new ideas in addition to an already tried and tested formula elevated Mortal Kombat above all the other wannabes. And, crucially, this game had one more defining feature up its sleeve, one that ensured that not only would it stand out from an oversaturated crowd of contenders, it would go toe-to-toe with Street Fighter II as one of the most popular brawlers of the decade: It was gory as fuck.

Taking inspiration from 1980s action films and Kung Fu movies (Kano, Johnny Cage, and Liu Kang are directly inspired by the Terminator, Jean Claude Van Damme, and Bruce Lee respectively), Mortal Kombat was insanely violent. I vaguely remember playing MK at our local bowling alley—the only place in town to actually have arcade machines, as far as I can remember—and being utterly floored by the fact combatants could actually punch each other’s heads off, or pound each other in the junk. I was barely tall enough to reach the buttons.

Mortal Kombat–all original Fatalities

While there was something of an honor code to Street Fighter, which would never allow you to kick a fighter when they’re down, MK relished the opportunity to have you humiliate your opponent every chance you got. Hence the Fatality—a free but entirely optional move at the end of a fight where you could flout your victory over a fallen foe by ripping out their spine or popping their skull with an electric current. It was more than a touch immature, but the unashamed brutality, coupled with the somewhat realistic character models, is what made MK unique and, for the time, shocking.

A year after Mortal Kombat launched in arcades, it was ported to two home consoles—the Sega Genesis and the Super Nintendo, as well as two handheld devices—Sega’s Game Gear and Nintendo’s Game Boy. In the time between coin-op launch and home availability, however, MK had begun to gather a bit of a reputation. It had sat, unhindered, in darkened arcades where anyone with a bit of spare change could have a go, but as its popularity increased parents began to take an interest in what their children were playing, and were understandably concerned when they learned that sweet, innocent little Timmy had been using Kano to rip the still-beating heart from his playground rival’s on-screen avatar.

So, following widely publicized outcry that saw US senators Joseph Lieberman and Herb Kohl make all sorts of silly and spurious claims about the dangers that games like Mortal Kombat and the frankly awful Night Trap posed to the public, a positive conclusion to the whole saga was the creation of the Entertainment Software Rating Board, or ESRB. Games were no longer the preserve of children, and would now receive content-appropriate age ratings marking them as such, just like R-rated films and music.

The home console version of MK were some of the very first titles to receive the treatment and were significantly altered by publishers bending to the demands of anti-violence campaigners. While the Genesis sneakily included a cheat code that made all of the arcade version’s bloody and brutal content accessible exactly as the makers had originally intended, the SNES edition was totally neutered. Nintendo ordered the blood re-colored gray in order to claim it was sweat, and had the developer completely remove some of the more bloody fatalities. Predictably, sales of Sega’s version soared (and, after all that fuss, it received only a PG-13 rating), while the SNES’s completely stuttered.

Mortal Kombat II –all Fatalities, Friendships, and Babalities

MK and Midway, meanwhile, fully embraced this newfound infamy. Its response to the negative media attention the series received was to smugly add so-called "Friendship Moves" and "Babalities" to Mortal Kombat II—alongside doubling the amount of Fatalities available (adding the now-iconic blood-red text to accompany the move) and increasing the number of stages like the Pit, where players could push or throw opponents to a grisly death alongside the digitized mutilated remains of the game’s developers.

This set a precedent for the series to push the question of just how far is too far in its graphic depictions of violent acts. I love MK, but even I had to look away when treated to a preview of a few new Fatalities for Mortal Kombat X at Gamescom earlier this year. I’m hardly squeamish, but slicing a body down the middle so their throbbing brain and lolling tongue are simultaneously visible is pushing what I can feasibly stomach.

It’s easy to get bogged down by the violence, but there are other reasons to love the series. One of my favorite things about MK is its continued appreciation for both single player modes and hidden content. The inclusion of palette-swapped hidden character Reptile in the original game encouraged all sorts of fascinating rumors to travel within arcade crowds—mysteries that fans would gather round a machine to feverishly discuss and debate, this being a time before home internet connections. Some rumors were so persistent, they led to the creation of characters like Ermac and Skarlet, while MKII alone included three hidden characters—Smoke, Noob Saibot, and Jade, who began as palette swaps but have since taken on more original move-sets and been treated to expansive backstories as the lore of the series has deepened.

That’s the other thing MK has always, for better or worse, prized above other fighters: story. Mortal Kombat 9’s campaign in 2011 remains one of the most impressive single-player story modes I’ve seen in any modern fighter. There’s none of your text and still-frame arcade mode epilogue afterthought shit here—MK continually gives you real incentive to fight through and to master each individual character, and for that, I’ll always love it.

MK9 –a better story, but even more gore (all Fatalities/finishing moves)

In the three years between the original Mortal Kombat and MK3, the series underwent drastic changes in both its gameplay and story. Over the same period, Capcom simply re-released newly balanced and slightly tweaked versions of SFII. MK’s fighting had become somewhat more advanced, expanding each character’s set of moves to allow for much more interesting and complex match-ups. The game was taken a little more seriously on the competitive circuit, but it still didn’t have the almost scientific precision of SFII. The Street Fighter series had its dedicated, hardcore fighting game aficionados who were only really interested in updates that balanced characters and systems they were already familiar with – but MK chased, and achieved, mainstream popularity by making broad and bloody entertainment the name of its game.

Mortal Kombat is damn proud of its status as one of the most violent video games around, as evidenced by the creation of X-Ray moves in MK9. Several of its developers—including series creator Ed Boon—have spoken to me fondly of the production meetings in which they come up with Fatalities and do their utmost to completely out-gross one another. It may not have the shock value that it once did, but Mortal Kombat occupies a very special place in my heart. For when a woman tires of ripping the pancreas of another combatant out with her fist before turning it to ice and whacking him round the skull with it, well, that woman is tired of life. It’s silly, sure, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t fun. 

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