1992's Mortal Kombat delivered the perfect insult to the injury of video game defeat with the fatality. These gory finishing moves, pioneered by the infamous fighter, were the equivalent of blacktop trash-talk for guys that couldn't dunk, the smack chatter of White Men Can't Jump adapted into a new medium, heightening the drama of the arcade scene. Rival developers were left with two options to keep their own comparably styled projects competitive: make them good, or make them bloody. Guess which they chose.
The Mortal Kombat series would become a cash cow, spawning movies, toys, comic books, a cartoon, and an ill-advised stage production (yes, really). Arcade-goers weren't the only ones taking notice of the growing popularity of Liu Kang, Johnny Cage et al. Naturally, competitors wanted some of the original Mortal Kombat's success, and they saw fatalities as the way to get it, without taking the time to appreciate the actual playability of Midway's hit. Author and video game journalist Dan Amrich was covering the fighting game scene at the time.
"Any kid back then could walk up and put a quarter in an arcade game and see these fatalities – and that was an escapist, naughty thrill for them. That, and maybe their parents didn't know that they were going to the arcade, and didn't realise what they were playing when they got there. It wasn't all Pac-Man anymore. It was Pac-Man chewing on the bones of Blinky."
"It wasn't all Pac-Man anymore. It was Pac-Man chewing on the bones of Blinky." – Dan Amrich
The arcade (and, as an extension, home console) battle between the early to mid-1990s fighters ultimately boiled down to who had the best fatalities. Mortal Kombat's competitors comprised an eclectic group, similar to any good fighting game roster. Time Killers, Primal Rage, BloodStorm, Survival Arts, Killer Instinct, Weaponlord, Kasumi Ninja, Way of the Warrior, Eternal Champions, Tattoo Assassins and others all fought over the same few pieces of a bloody pie.
"All the other companies were going, 'This fighting thing is not going away, it's only building, and we should get on board,'" Amrich remembers. But these rival companies didn't fully get why Mortal Kombat was a success. The game worked because it played superbly – not everyone could pull off the fatalities, after all. But so many in the market incorrectly assumed that if they made their own releases gory, gamers would come in comparable droves.
Filmmaker and game artist Josh Tsui worked on a number of Midway titles in the 1990s, including WWF WrestleMania: The Arcade Game. He also witnessed the evolution of the Mortal Kombat series, and even made cameos in Mortal Kombat II and 4. Tsui was a part of the second wave of arcade gaming, a subject he's covering in his own documentary, Insert Coin.
"Back then, in the '90s, just about anytime you saw an Asian person in an arcade game, coming out of Midway, there's a very good chance it was me," he explains, laughing. "I think I was the only Asian person in the entire building."
"I kind of relate the fatalities to eating Cap'n Crunch's Crunch Berries," he continues. "Crunch Berries are great because there are so few of them on top of the cereal. If you had a box just of Crunch Berries, though, it's gonna taste terrible after a while. So that's the way I look at some of these games using fatalities. They overdid it on the wrong things."
So, the fatality is the Crunch Berry of game design: fun in small doses, nauseating in excess. What these games lacked in technical achievement, they overcompensated with buckets of 16-bit blood, but each imitator attempted to put their own "unique" spin on the mechanic. Developer Incredible Technologies' first entry into the market was Time Killers, which included mid-fight dismemberments – because missing limbs was the key to dethroning MK, obviously. The result was less groundbreaking, more side splitting.
Matches turned into unintentionally hilarious homages to the "Black Knight" scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Incredible's next title, BloodStorm, continued the war against MK, even poaching actor Daniel Pesina – who portrayed Johnny Cage in the first two Mortal Kombats – for an advertisement.
The absolute worst of these Kombat wannabes was Data East's Tattoo Assassins – a fighting game about warriors with tattoos that come alive. But unlike the others, and despite its ridiculous premise, this game had Midway staffers exchanging concerned looks.
"We actually did see it here in Chicago, and I remember out of all the copycat games, that was the one people were the most worried about," Tsui explains. "Bob Gale, the writer and producer of Back to the Future, was behind this thing. There was a lot of money being spent on it. So there was some concern about it. Then when we saw it on test, and realised this was a thing made by people who had never done a fighting game before."
Amrich actually covered Tattoo Assassins, and tells me about its unusual roots.
"It started life as a feature film script, but Bob Gale couldn't get anybody on board for it. He thought this would be a great, fun popcorn movie. When they did a Back to the Future pinball game at Data East, they worked with Bob Gale directly. They had a very good partnership, and that was a very good pinball machine. So, at some point, during some meeting, Bob Gale said, 'Hey, I've got this other idea that, now that I think about it, would make a great fighting game.' And Data East said, 'We're all ears, what ya got?'"
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What they got was a barely working mess that never made it to arcades. Data East, after seeing the unholy hell spawn they'd programmed, used their collective common sense and squashed it. But like a technological cockroach, the game survives through ROM hacks and emulations. Tattoo Assassins has even gained cult status due to its outlandish claim, proudly boasted during its attract mode, that there are 2,196 unique fatalities in the game.
"There's a 20-minute supercut video on YouTube where somebody went to the trouble of figuring out all of the fatalities and then edited them all together," Amrich says. "So if you haven't seen that, I highly recommend opening something cold and frosty and sitting through it. That's how I've seen most of them."
He's right that there is a selection of Tattoo Assassins fatalities videos on YouTube. But beer or no beer, they're really not worth much of your time.
"Fans – and when I say fans, what I really mean is masochists – have gone through and created detailed move lists for it, even when the game itself never fully shipped," Amrich continues. "I was contacted by one of the designers on the team, one of the programmers rather, and he said that there were three machines, 100 percent coded games, in existence. A couple of years after we spoke to each other, I found out one of them had been destroyed by a flood in Miami. Divine intervention is what that is."
But with that claim of over 2,000 fatalities, and the whole Bob Gale backstory, it's inevitable that Tattoo Assassins would continue to fascinate people today.
"My favourite ridiculous fatality in the game is the happy Thanksgiving one, where the winning character sort of bends over at the waist and shoots turkeys on platters out of their ass," Amrich adds. "A dozen turkeys shoot out of their ass. I'm kind of proud to say, on behalf of the entire games industry, that nobody else has bothered to do that. I'd like to think that other game companies saw that and said, 'Yeah, we're not going that far.'"
"When the fatalities came around, it made people realise: 'Wow, video games can do anything.'" – Josh Tsui
Once all the turkeys had flown, and the blood dried, the industry was stuffed to its gills with violent fighting games – and some genuinely good ones got a little lost in the mix. Killer Instinct and Primal Rage were more than serviceable games – the former lives on to this day, in a rebooted form, as a competitive fighter, showcased at eSports events the world over, while the latter received countless ports. Visual Concepts' Weaponlord was another unfairly labelled as a Mortal Kombat copycat, but its emphasis on weapons and a complex system of counters and blocks can be seen as a precursor to the likes of Soulcalibur. But technology was marching onward, and two-dimensional fighters were made to look like relics by the new, three-dimensional likes of Virtua Fighter and Tekken. Severed limbs lost their appeal.
But the trend for bloody finishing moves did result in something more than just a bunch of goofy gore. To Tsui, the fatalities arms race meant that video games had again kicked open a door of potential – for what the medium can be, and where it can go. "When the fatalities came around, it made people realise: 'Wow, video games can do anything,'" he says. They might be little more than a footnote, then, in the wider history of games development, but in their own, unique way fatalities showed the world that video games were growing up, changing, becoming something more than children's toys. The controversy that Mortal Kombat attracted only serves to illustrate this evolution: previously unconcerned parties began to look at video games as a major entertainment medium, and properly monitor what was being produced, and who it was aimed at.
Even Pac-Man himself would finally find himself in a fighter, come the Super Smash Bros. iterations of 2014 – but, mercifully, you won't ever find him gnawing on a ball and socket joint of a fallen Bowser as the sun sets over the Kongo Jungle. That sort of visceral thrill remains the preserve of Mortal Kombat, now on its tenth main edition and showing no signs of fading away like most of its 1990s rivals. Appropriately, it didn't merely beat them, back in the day: it saw them staggering, tore off its mask and flambéed the lot of them. Just for fun, of course.