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‘Mortal Kombat’: The Gory Fighting Game That Changed Everything

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‘Mortal Kombat’: The Gory Fighting Game That Changed Everything

When the new Mortal Kombat film releases later this month, April 23rd its revised date, it'll undoubtedly play a part in introducing the long-running game franchise it takes inspiration from to a legion of new fans. We've plenty of really great, exclusive video content coming on the movie and its actors, soon - as well as this handy guide to the lore of Mortal Kombat, essential reading before you watch the film. But before all that new stuff, let's take a very brief trip back in time to where it all started.

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Midway's Mortal Kombat debuted in arcades on October 8, 1992, and quickly became a huge coin-op hit. It made household names of Scorpion, Johnny Cage, Sub-Zero and Sonya Blade - well, amongst the kids of households, anyway. And it pioneered a new level of bone-crunching, spine-tearing visual realism that video games simply hadn't seen before - leading to commercial triumphs aplenty, but also no little controversy.

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But while Mortal Kombat emerged in the wake of Street Fighter II's colossal global success throughout 1991, it wasn't Capcom's remarkable one-on-one World Warrior release that'd served as much of an influence. The development of Mortal Kombat did begin once Street Fighter II was in arcades, that's true, and its production was fast, spanning only eight months - but its makers had been thinking about a game in its vein for some time prior, and didn't look at the contemporary arcade scene for inspiration.

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Mortal Kombat was primarily the brainchild of designers John Tobias and Ed Boon, who'd both been at Midway - a Chicago company that first found its footing in video games by licensing Space Invaders and Pac-Man from Japan in the late 1970s and early 1980s, as Bally Midway - for a while, but came from quite different backgrounds. Boon had gone straight to arcade manufacturer Williams - which had bought Bally Midway in 1988 - out of university, to work in its pinball department, laying a foundation for a career in games; whereas Tobias had wanted to be a comic artist, but found his way to Midway to work on game graphics after a stint on The Real Ghostbusters comic.

The character select screen of Mortal Kombat / Credit: Midway, Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
The character select screen of Mortal Kombat / Credit: Midway, Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment

Tobias achieved a couple of notable credits prior to the release of Mortal Kombat, including 1990's twin-stick shooter Smash TV and early 1992's Total Carnage. While working on programming pinball machines, Boon was constantly amazed by what was going on at Williams/Midway's video game division - and he eventually got a break on that side of the business, working with legendary games designer Eugene Jarvis (Defender, Robotron 2084) on an NFL title called High Impact Football, released in 1990. And what made that game really stand out from its competitors was its digitised graphics.

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High Impact Football wasn't the first arcade game Williams/Midway had produced to feature digitised graphics - 1988's run-and-gunner NARC, also designed by Jarvis, had got there beforehand. That game got Tobias thinking about how to take large, realistic sprites - he wasn't a fan of tiny on-screen characters - and apply them to a fighting title. And it just so happened that he already had a concept in mind for a one-on-one fighter with huge, digitised sprites, and joined forces with Boon to fashion it into a pitch.

Johnny Cage faces Liu Kang / Credit: Midway, Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Johnny Cage faces Liu Kang / Credit: Midway, Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment

While it had no title at the time, Boon and Tobias - alongside friends and fellow Midway employees Daniel and Carlos Pesina, both of whom had martial arts experience and appear in Mortal Kombat (Daniel, most famously, as Johnny Cage) - began to work on a project that took cues from both video gaming history and, perhaps more significantly, the movie world. Initially rejected by Midway who preferred to pursue a Universal Soldier tie-in game (it went nowhere), the skeleton crew of designers weren't prepared to let their idea die - and legend has it that someone else involved in Mortal Kombat's earliest concepts, Richard Divizio (who'd play Kano in the original game, and Baraka in its sequel), ultimately convinced Tobias to give the game another shot. This time, Midway went for it.

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Boon and Tobias looked to 1984's arcade game Karate Champ by Data East as a foundation for their own one-on-one fighter - indeed, Tobias has cited it as the primary inspiration for how Mortal Kombat plays. The 1983 Hong Kong action film Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain was also massively important, mixing as it did real-world fighting with mystical elements (which is Mortal Kombat's whole schtick, really). It was a big favourite of Tobias's, as was 1986's Big Trouble in Little China, whose Lightning character is a pretty obvious precedent for Mortal Kombat's Raiden, the God of Thunder. Another inspiration was 1988's Bloodsport, starring Jean-Claude Van Damme - and the Belgian martial arts superstar would be parodied in Mortal Kombat in the form of Johnny Cage, whose data files were even named 'vandamme'. (And his fist-to-the-crotch move? Straight out of Bloodsport.)

Scorpion gets stuck into Raiden / Credit: Midway, Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Scorpion gets stuck into Raiden / Credit: Midway, Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment

Boon and Tobias always wanted ninjas in their fighting game - so it was no surprise that Sub-Zero, initially named Tundra, and Scorpion were among the first characters conceived. Both were played by Daniel Pesina (as was the palette-mixed third ninja of Mortal Kombat, the hidden fighter Reptile), and Liu Kang and Raiden were similarly early confirmations. But Sonya Blade, the game's sole female fighter, and her rival Kano were both added later on, after a demo for the game was well received internally at Midway and its makers afforded more time to fully realise their vision.

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Unlike the rest of the Mortal Kombat cast, the actor who portrayed Sonya Blade, London-born Elizabeth Malecki, had no prior martial arts experience. And with the game relying on filmed performances, captured on Tobias's personal Hi-8 video camera before being digitised, it was vital that the character moves appeared authentic. However, with a background in dancing and gymnastics, Malecki quickly clicked into the role, with coaching support from Daniel Pesina, and Sonya has remained a fan-favourite to this day.

Sonya Blade finishes off Johnny Cage / Credit: Midway, Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Sonya Blade finishes off Johnny Cage / Credit: Midway, Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment

Just as character names weren't set in stone immediately - as well as Sub-Zero's moniker change, Johnny Cage began life as Michael Grimm; and the four-armed, stop-motion-animated boss Goro was initially called Rokuro, then Gongoro - the game's title went through a few options before arriving at Mortal Kombat. Suggestions included Fatality (I'll get to those, in just a moment), Kumite, Death Blow and Dragon Attack. At some point, the word "combat" had been written on the drawing board - and one day, a mystery someone switched the C for a K. Steve Ritchie, who worked in Midway's pinball department, suggested Mortal Kombat as a result, and the name fit the game like none of the others had. Tobias tells a slightly different story, where the K was only added to get around legal; but however Combat became Kombat, the rest, as they say, is history.

What neither Midway nor Mortal Kombat's development team could have seen coming was the controversy that blew up around the game. While they were a late-in-development addition, offering something more spectacular than a final blow on a dizzied foe, Mortal Kombat's fatalities became the talk of every arcade, and every school playground. It was already exceptional that players could unlock a secret fighter in the game, in the shape of Reptile - but being able to gorily kill opponents, at the end of bouts? That was something else. And it was also something that got parents worried about video game violence, leading to congressional hearings in the United States Senate.

Johnny Cage's fatality takes Liu Kang's head off / Credit: Midway, Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Johnny Cage's fatality takes Liu Kang's head off / Credit: Midway, Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment

Prior to these hearings of 1993, video games were not especially well regulated when it came to their mature content. The first video game to earn a BBFC rating was 1986's Dracula for the Commodore 64 and Amstrad CPC - the British classification board advised that it not be sold to or played by anyone under the age of 15. That aside, though, there were no games-exclusive ratings boards. But as a result of the 1993 hearings, which focused on the violence and gore of Mortal Kombat alongside both DOOM and Night Trap, the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) was established in the US, and later Pan-European Game Information (PEGI) in Europe. In case you ever wondered what sparked those little notifications at the start of game trailers into existence, there you go.

When Mortal Kombat was ported to home consoles - the Super Nintendo and the SEGA Mega Drive - it was subsequently censored. On the SNES, the red blood was replaced with 'sweat', which fooled nobody; but SEGA went a different route and included all the gore and fatalities, albeit locked behind a cheat code, namely A-B-A-C-A-B-B. Any prog-rock fans out there might be able to make the connection, but for those of you (um, most of you... all of you?) who haven't: Abacab is an album by the British prog band Genesis, and Genesis is the North American name for the Mega Drive. See what they did there?

Kano sweeps Sub-Zero / Credit: Midway, Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Kano sweeps Sub-Zero / Credit: Midway, Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment

Of the congressional hearings and subsequent censorship of Mortal Kombat, John Tobias was said to be very irritated, whereas Ed Boon almost sided with the concerned parents, apparently once saying that he wouldn't let his 10-year-old kid play the game. Thinking back to the time, in the UK, neither my parents nor those of friends seemed especially bothered by the fairly comical fatalities on show - and I can't say I've ever found myself wanting to tear someone's heart out, or burn their flesh away to their skeleton, as a result of playing the game. But the panic around in-game violence sure was a serious matter - even if its most pronounced effect was to make us want to play those games more.

By today's standards, the pixelated blood splatters and barely broken bones of Mortal Kombat look incredibly tame (especially compared to the most-recent entry in the series, 2019's Mortal Kombat 11, and its stomach-turning fatalities), and the animation of those digitised fighters is clunky and stiff. But there's no denying that it's still a fantastically entertaining game to play, and one of the truest arcade classics of gaming history. Whether enjoyed solo or against a friend, Mortal Kombat is a fighter for the ages, a fighter of substantial importance in the video gaming medium - and anyone who's smitten by the 2021 movie or any of the modern games is recommended to turn back time and give it a play.

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Antstream GAMINGbible banner

The original Mortal Kombat 'Klassic' is playable now on Antstream Arcade, where it's GAMINGbible's game of the month - timely, given the movie, huh? If you already have Antstream installed, click here to go straight to Mortal Kombat. You can play thousands of retro computer, console and arcade games for free on Antstream Arcade, streamed straight to your Mac, PC, Android and other platforms. All Mortal Kombat arcade screenshots in this article used courtesy of MobyGames.com.

Featured Image Credit: Midway, Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment

Topics: Mortal Kombat, Retro Gaming

Mike Diver
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