First introduced in American arcades by Midway Games in 1992, Mortal Kombat may seem like an ordinary fighting game but it became hugely popular because it stood out from the crowd in bold ways. So huge was the popularity of the game and so graphic was its violence that it became a source of controversy among parents and politicians and it is historically significant for being one of the main reasons why video games started using the rating system that exists to this day.
The arcade game Mortal Kombat featured single-player or multiplayer one-on-one matches in which you had to repeatedly attack your opponent until their life bar became depleted for two rounds in order to win.
You could control your fighter with an eight-directional joystick and five different buttons which allowed you to punch, kick, jump and strategize in various ways.
Among the game’s innovations that helped it stand out from the crowd were the ability to block your opponent’s attacks, the ability to “juggle” your opponent (attack them while they are in the air repeatedly to prevent them from gaining ground) and most infamously the finishing move – each playable character in this game had the ability to perform a “fatality” on their opponent as soon as the opponent became paralyzed following the depletion of their life bar, and every time a fatality was performed, something shockingly gruesome (and oftentimes very creative and hilarious) would happen. Fatalities allowed you to burn your opponent alive, decapitate them, pull their heart out of their chest or even hurl them onto a bed of spikes depending on the stage you are fighting on, and they are by far the most notorious element of the game.
The seven playable characters, who in the game’s story were all competing in the Mortal Kombat tournament held in Earthrealm by a sorcerer named Shang Tsung, each had their own special move sets. The first game’s roster included:
The four-armed Shokan warrior Goro served as the game’s sub-boss while shapeshifting sorcerer Shang Tsung, who had the ability to transform into any one of the seven playable characters during battle, was the final boss. There was also a secret character named Reptile, who also happened to be the first secret fighter in fighting game history.
The game’s creation is credited to Ed Boon and John Tobias. Video game developer Midway Games (which is now defunct – Warner Bros. owns the rights to the game now) had hired programmer Boon and artist Tobias to create a fighting game supposedly to compete with Capcom’s Street Fighter II: The World Warrior which was a huge arcade hit in 1991. Although even before this, Boon and Tobias had envisioned creating a fighting game. An idea for one of their games was actually turned down by the studio earlier because Midway had wanted to create an action game based on the Jean-Claude Van Damme movie Universal Soldier instead. That movie actually did get made into a video game, but Midway ended up having nothing to do with it (although when Midway greenlit Mortal Kombat, Van Damme did get parodied by the character Johnny Cage, a cocky Hollywood movie star).
The characters in the game, as you can tell by looking at them, were created from digitizing real actors (filmed using Tobias’ own camcorder). Those actors included martial arts coordinator Daniel Pesina who played Johnny Cage and the three identical but differently colored ninja characters Scorpion (yellow), Sub-Zero (blue) and Reptile (green), Richard Divizio (Kano), Ho-Sang Pak (Liu Kang), martial artist and Daniel Pesina’s brother Carlos Pesina (Raiden) and pro dancer and acrobatics instructor Elizabeth Malecki (Sonya Blade).
The appeal of this game to teenagers in the nineties cannot be overstated, eventually becoming so popular that it exceeded the gross of the movie Jurassic Park in 1993, making $300 million. That was the year that Acclaim Entertainment ported the game to consoles where its popularity skyrocketed even further, launching on Super NES, Sega Genesis, Game Boy and Game Gear all on the same day on September 13, 1993, a day advertised as “Mortal Monday.”
Critically, the reception was mixed, with many people comparing it unfavorably to Street Fighter II. But it was mostly well-received. Even if the realistic art and over-the-top violence sometimes outshined the mechanical polish.
Speaking of the game’s violence, although the Super NES version was more visually similar to the arcade game, it eliminated the blood and much of the gore of the fatalities in keeping with Nintendo’s family-friendly image. Sega on the other hand would take no such liberties. In a checkmate against Nintendo, they kept the arcade game’s blood and fatalities intact.
This game’s violence, as well as the content in games like id Software’s Doom and Sega’s interactive movie Night Trap, had fanned the flames of controversy among parents who saw video games as a kids’ medium. It was such a problem that the conversation surrounding inappropriate content in video games got all the way to the U.S. Senate, resulting in the creation of the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) in 1994, a ratings system that was responsible for rating every video game either EC (Early Childhood), K-A (Kids to Adults), T (Teen), M (Mature) and AO (Adults Only). Some of those ratings have changed or disappeared altogether but the system is still in effect and you can thank Mortal Kombat for its existence.
Following Mortal Kombat, the critically acclaimed sequel Mortal Kombat II came out in 1993 and introduced more characters, more fatalities and a new fighting tournament set in a realm called Outworld. The sequel’s success cemented the popularity (and inevitably the scrutiny) of the whole series, which would go on to include Mortal Kombat 3 (1995), Mortal Kombat 4 (1997), Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance (2002), Mortal Kombat: Deception (2004), Mortal Kombat: Armageddon (2006), the crossover game Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe (2008), the reboot Mortal Kombat (2011), Mortal Kombat X (2015) and Mortal Kombat 11 (2019) as well as spin-off games Mortal Kombat Mythologies: Sub-Zero (1997), Mortal Kombat: Special Forces (2000) and Mortal Kombat: Shaolin Monks (2005) and several remasters, updates, ports and compilations.
A number of comic book adaptations fleshed out the story of the games, including one written and illustrated by John Tobias that was made available via mail order the same year the original game was ported to consoles, although Malibu Comics also launched a short series in the nineties.
In addition, the game was adapted to film and television multiple times.
It was adapted into live action in 1995 with Paul W.S. Anderson’s Mortal Kombat and it was also adapted in 1997 with the sequel Mortal Kombat: Annihilation and in 2021 with a reboot that was released in theaters and HBO Max simultaneously. Plus there was the animated 1995 prequel Mortal Kombat: The Journey Begins and the 2020 direct-to-video film Mortal Kombat: Scorpion’s Revenge from Warner Bros. Animation.
On television an animated series called Mortal Kombat: Defenders of the Realm ran for one season on USA Network in 1996, a live-action series called Mortal Kombat: Conquest was syndicated by Warner Bros. from 1998 to 1999 and a well-received YouTube web series called Mortal Kombat: Legacy was distributed by Machinima and Warner for two seasons from 2011 to 2013.
Most of these adaptations are nice diversions for fans but none will ever match the feeling I first had when my stepbrother first introduced the game to me on his Genesis when I was a kid. Back when you didn’t know video games could get away with this level of violence, it was a true shock to behold and it felt like a game I very much shouldn’t be playing. Maybe this was why every other kid was playing it too. Or maybe I’m overthinking it and kids just love seeing ninjas rip each other’s heads off.