When Mortal Kombat made its debut nearly 30 years ago, it ended up in the middle of a media storm because it was “too violent, especially for children.”
Two sentences are enough to bring the memory of each gamer into a 2D world made of pixels and martial arts: the first is Finish Him, followed immediately after by Fatality! 30 years ago the first Mortal Kombat made its arcade debut and the world of video games has never been the same since.
Born in response to the hugely popular Street Fighter II, Mortal Kombat adopted a decidedly more violent and graphic style, winning the hearts of young gamers of the time and causing panic in legions of parents. His bloody Fatalities, in fact, started the process that led to the establishment from the system to determine if a game is suitable for minors: the ESRB.
Mortal Kombat’s impact, however, doesn’t stop with a final move in which a fighter slashes his opponent’s spine. Thirty years later, the game created by Ed Boon and John Tobias and published by Midway Games has 11 main chapters, as many between spinoffs and remastered, an official competitive circuit, 3 films and hundreds of thousands of fans around the world.
In this special on the history of Mortal Kombatwe would retrace the impact that the game has had on some of the most important moments in the evolution of gaming: from the console war of the 90s to the relationship between video games and films, passing through the evolution of the fighting game industry and ecosystem.
The rebellious spirit of Mortal Kombat
Like many great classics, Mortal Kombat also ran the risk of never seeing the light in the design phase. First it was supposed to be a fighting video game starring Ninja, then it was transformed into the official Universal Soldier video game: an action movie starring Jean Claude Van Damme. The idea of Boon and Tobias was to digitize the actor’s moves and fighting style to make him the protagonist of a gory and more serious video game than the competition. When the license agreement was blown, however, the entire project was at risk of cancellation but the release and success of Street Fighter II convinced the upper floors of Midway to give the green light to the original idea.
The Capcom game was never an inspiration for the Mortal Kombat team because it was seen as too childish in its cartoon-like style. Tobias said that many of the game’s identity elements come from the fascination Chinese mythology and supernatural kung-fu movies had on him. In 2011 he wrote in a tweet: “The works that most influenced me were the Tsui Hark’s film – Zu Warriors and The Swordsman. We had to get them from some not-so-legal vendors in Chicago’s Chinatown. “
Someone think about the children
Mortal Kombat has achieved many milestones: it was the first video game to have a secret fighter (Reptile, which later became a playable character in the sequel), one of the first titles to be released simultaneously for the 4 main consoles of the time (SNES, Mega Drive, Game Boy and Game Gear) and was the arcade cabinet most popular from its release in 1992 until the summer of 1993 when it lost the crown to NBA Jam. Many, however, remember Mortal Kombat for another reason: together with Doom, Night Trap and Lethal Enforcers he was the protagonist of a media storm that brought him before the US authorities.
Two ultra-conservative American senators accused these 4 video games of “corrupting the minds of young people and our society” and organized a series of hearings to clarify the issue. The famous ones were in the sights of the censors Fatality and the realistic depiction of violence with lots of blood and guts. The atmosphere bordering on the ridiculous that for almost a year has enveloped the world of video games is perfectly represented by the eleventh episode of the seventh season of the Simpsons in which Bart is obsessed with Bone Storma video game very similar to Mortal Kombat that Marge considers to be “too violent and distracting him from his duties”.
1992 and 1993 were also some of the most intense years of the console war between Sega and Nintendo and also in this case the title of Midway was one of the protagonists. Nintendo he wanted the version of the game for his systems to be censored, removing most of the Fatalities and replacing blood with sweat. Sega, having chosen the role of the rebel as opposed to the great N wand, has published a version very little censored and with a trick (the famous ABACABB) to unlock all the violence of the original. American teenagers have completely fallen in love with the brutality and realism of Mortal Kombat and this has rewarded the decision of Saw. Despite the public sentiment and the ridiculous accusations made against the title, in 1994 the US authorities gave an ultimatum to the video game industry that by the end of the year created the ESRB (Entertainment Software Rating Board) to determine whether a game was suitable for minors.
Movies, comics and music albums
Today the relationship between video games and the world of cinema is improving day by day with acclaimed TV series like Arcane and Egrunners and almost decent movies like Uncharted. Mortal Kombat, however, was one of the first video game franchises to bring its bombastic identity to the cinema and to be successful. In 1995, after all the controversies and obstacles of American lawmakers, the Mortal Kombat movie he broke the box office by earning more than $ 120 million, 6 times his budget. While the video game’s violence had been softened, fans liked the film a lot but weren’t as thrilled with the sequel, Annihilation, or the two TV series (one animated and one live action) that came in the following years. The 2021 reboot film, after a decade of uncertainty and problems, brought the series back to the big screen with moderate success from critics and audiences.
Orderable by mail upon launch of the first chapter, the first Mortal Kombat cartoon, called “Collector’s Edition”, was written and drawn by John Tobias and was meant to be a prologue to the events of the game. It was advertised on arcade cabinets when not in use, in the so-called “Attract Mode” designed to catch the eye of those who walked in the old arcades. Mortal Kombat 2 also had an official comic written and drawn by Tobias of which more than 100 million copies are said to have been printed. The cross-media collaborations of the title do not stop there: in 1994, to accompany the console versions of Mortal Kombat, a techno music album namesake made by The Immortals. Composed in a month between one stop and another of their tour, the disc contains a song for each of the 7 characters, plus one for the boss Goro, and two other original tracks. One of them, Techno Syndrome, contains the famous scream “Mortal Kombat!”, And it came in at number 10 on the Billboard top 200 that year.
Now the Mortal Kombat brand is in the hands of Warner Bros. which has managed to revive the series thanks to a couple of video games that have been able to rework hyper violence in a modern way, conquering old and new fans.
Mortal Kombat has had such a profound impact on the world of video games that today, thirty years later, it would be difficult to imagine a world in which it never existed. From the laws on rating to the relationship with the world of cinema, from “Get over here“to” Fatality “, we can only be grateful to Midway for believing in the great idea of Boon and Tobias and giving us an icon of the fighting universe.