Back in 1991, we were hanging out in arcades, happily enjoying match after match of Street Fighter II. Little did we know that in the following months we'd be body slammed by a fighting game that would rearrange the face of gaming. Come October 1992, Mortal Kombat exploded onto the arcade scene, changing the genre—and entertainment legislation—forever. This month sees the release of the latest game in the series, simply named Mortal Kombat (or, unofficially, Mortal Kombat 9), and marks the perfect opportunity to take a look back at the franchise's near twenty-year history.
Like many other venerable game franchises, Mortal Kombat had (by today's standards) extremely humble beginnings. In the early '90s, Capcom's Street Fighter was the series to beat. But that didn't sit well with Midway Games, a company that had dominated the arcades in the late '70s and '80s thanks to games like Pac-Man and Space Invaders. Midway gave four guys the task of creating a competitor for Street Fighter, and within an incredibly short ten-month development cycle, programmer Ed Boon, designer John Tobias, artist John Vogel, and sound designer Dan Forden had created the first Mortal Kombat arcade game.
Originally conceived as a vehicle for action star Jean-Claude Van Damme, the game became its own unique creation thanks to a failed licensing deal. (The spirit of JC lives on, however, in the character Johnny Cage.) What immediately set Mortal Kombat apart from other fighting games—especially its main competitor, Street Fighter—was its quasi-realistic approach to violence. While critics slammed the game for its simplistic, sometimes repetitive controls, its effective use of digitized renderings of real actors (as opposed to stylized cartoon characters) added a heightened realism to the violence. It was bloodier and more graphic than anything else that anyone had seen.
The game's Fatalities, in particular, featured spines being torn out, heads exploding, and bouts of pixelized blood gushing on the screen. Gamers loved every gory minute of it, so Midway was motivated to create a sequel that many believe to be the best game in the franchise, Mortal Kombat II. MK II built upon the first game's popularity and sought to attract even more Street Fighter fans by adding more playable characters and augmenting its straightforward combat system. In response to early parental outrage at the game's over-the-top violence, it also added some tongue-in-cheek Fatalities like Friendship, which allowed the winner to give the loser a bouquet of flowers rather than killing them, or Babality, which allowed the winner to turn the loser into a baby.
Despite the obviously caricature-ish approach to violence, the game raised the hackles of both parents and legislators. Along with games like Doom and Night Trap, Mortal Kombat even spurred senators Joe Lieberman and Herb Kohl to hold hearings on video game violence. Video game makers were pressured by these hearings to either create a ratings system for their games or risk interference from the federal government. From the controversy rose SEGA's Video Game Rating Council, which, along with other proprietary ratings systems, later evolved into what we know today as the Entertainment Software Rating Board, or ESRB.
Ignoring the conservative naysayers, Midway continued to make Mortal Kombat games for the arcade. When it became obvious that the popularity of arcades was diminishing in the United States, Mortal Kombat migrated to home consoles with the help of developers at Acclaim Entertainment. Between the years of 1995 and 2007, Midway attempted to keep the franchise fresh by introducing 2v2 matches, tournament modes, unlockables, multiple fighting styles per character, weapons, death traps, a Konquest adventure mode, mini-games and even the ability to "kreate" a character. It also attempted to expand the franchise's audience by making titles for Nintendo 64, PC, Xbox, Gamecube, Wii, PSP, PlayStation, and PlayStation 2. Most recently, Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe took the series to seriously strange ground by pitting heroes like Batman, Green Lantern, and Captain Marvel against MK fighters like Baraka, Jax, and Scorpion. Despite the game's wooden dialogue, the formula worked better than anyone expected, proving, once again, the Mortal Kombat franchise's seemingly endless capacity for conceptual renovation.