It all started back in 1992. Street Fighter II was in the arcades and started a revolution in gaming. Gamers eagerly rushed to their local malls to face their friends, not to get a higher score, but to flat out beat them one-on-one.
The fighting genre had been born. But it hadn’t taken the gaming world by storm just yet. It needed competition. That’s where Ed Boon and John Tobias came in.
They decided to join in on the fun, but they wouldn’t copy Street Fighter and just be passed off as a ripoff. They created their own gameplay system, one much simpler to understand than Street Fighter‘s, used digitized actors instead of animated characters, and finally added something unique, something that no game before them, fighting game or not, had ever done before.
One word put their new series, and the company Midway, into the forefront of everyone’s minds. That one word was: Fatality.
We’ll keep updating the stories with links to subsequent installments but, for now, here’s a guide to help you navigate to the other articles in the series.
- Mortal Kombat and Mortal Kombat II (you are here)
- Mortal Kombat 3 and Mortal Kombat Mythologies: Sub-Zero
- Mortal Kombat 4 and Mortal Kombat: Special Forces
- Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance, Mortal Kombat: Deception, and Mortal Kombat: Shaolin Monks
- Mortal Kombat: Armageddon, Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe, and Mortal Kombat 9
Thus, the Mortal Kombat series began. The game made a name for itself for a number of reasons. As mentioned above, the title used digitized actors instead of animated drawings, which was a new concept at the time and helped enhance the realism of the game. The fighting system was also considerably different than its competition. Whereas Street Fighter focused on complex button combos and movements to execute the special moves, Mortal Kombat used a more simple fighting engine, one that didn’t require players to perform a full 360 degree spin on the joystick to execute a special move. The game also allowed players to block whenever they wanted to, rather than have to back away from the opponent and auto-block when a move hits.
The first game used a scoring system similar to Street Fighter, with the player earning points based on how much health one had at the end, how much time was left at the end of the fight, and whether or not they “finished” their opponent. Gamers would also gain points via the minigame “Test Your Might,” which involved mashing buttons, pumping up your character’s power, in order to karate chop through boards, ice, and other materials.
The most difficult way to gain bonus points was through finding the elusive Reptile. If one fought on The Pit stage while clouds rolled over the moon, got a perfect victory in the winning round without blocking, and executed their Fatality, they would get the chance to fight Reptile. It was an extremely obscure secret, with only a few clues throughout the game, such as “Look to la luna” hinting at the concept. Still, including secrets in their games would be something Mortal Kombat would become famous for. The scoring system would eventually be dropped in later installments, focusing instead on win counts.
Of course, the real clincher for fans was the inclusion of the Fatality. Once a player defeated an opponent, they were given the command to “Finish Him/Her!” If you managed to get in the right position, and execute the correct button combo before time ran out, you would kill your opponent in a gruesome and bloody fashion. It was a completely optional thing to do, and yet when it was first discovered, everyone wanted to try and pull it off.
No one was prepared (parent groups especially) when fatalities first appeared, and it gave the game a definite edge over its competition. It also gave it mainstream infamy, with parents everywhere losing their minds over their kids seeing digitized blood on the arcade screens. There were tons of complaints and protests, leading to news reports on the title, which just made the game even more popular among kids. Eventually, a group of executives came together and decided to make a ratings system to determine which games would be suitable for each age group as well as what was and wasn’t safe for kids. That’s right, Mortal Kombat almost single-handedly gave birth to the ESRB.
The story of the game is very, very loosely based off of the Bruce Lee smash hit Enter The Dragon. An evil sorcerer named Shang Tsung organizes a fighting tournament among martial artists from all over the globe, with the winner taking on the four-armed half-human, half-dragon Goro, and the fate of the world at stake. Goro had already won the previous nine tournaments, and a tenth victory would mean the Earth would be taken over by Shang Tsung’s master. Seven combatants would be the focus, each having their own unique backgrounds and motivations.
Johnny Cage, a movie star looking to prove that he isn’t overrated and can be a true fighter. Kano, a criminal mercenary who wants to get the treasure supposedly on the island the tournament is taking place on. Raiden, the God of Thunder invited by Shang Tsung himself who just wanted to defeat anyone he came across. Liu Kang, a Shaolin monk looking to restore honor to the tournament and the true hero of the series. Scorpion, a spectre back from the dead to get his revenge, and the most popular character of the franchise. Sub-Zero, an assassin and member of the Lin Kuei who is targeting Shang Tsung. Finally, Sonya Blade, a member of the U.S. Special Forces who wants to rescue her comrades from Shang Tsung.
These weren’t a bunch of people randomly picked out, however. The characters did have connections to one another. Raiden would become something of a mentor figure to Liu Kang. Scorpion’s target was Sub-Zero, who had killed him some years prior. Johnny Cage would develop a sort of romantic interest in Sonya Blade, who wanted revenge on Kano for some currently unexplained reason. And, for one reason or another, all of them wanted to defeat Shang Tsung.
The popularity of the title ensured its movement to home systems, which was part of the “Mortal Monday” TV campaign. All four of the initial ports were released on the same day, and there were plenty of commercials promoting the event. It was something that very rarely happened for a video game, indicating just how popular the title was. The ports were inferior to the arcade game, but that was to be expected at the time. What wasn’t as expected was the censorship. None of the ports carried the same blood and carnage fans wanted, which was because of the strict family-friendly policy on games at the time.
This aspect, however, would be used in the then-ongoing Nintendo/Sega war going on in the early 90s. The Super Nintendo version of the game had superior graphics to the Sega Genesis version, but all the violence was heavily censored. On the other hand, if one used a special code on the Genesis version, all the original blood and Fatalities would be unlocked. Sega had a leg-up on Nintendo, and their Mortal Kombat port would eventually be recognized as one of the premier titles for the system.
With Mortal Kombat now at the forefront of gamers’ minds, the fighting game genre took off. Arcades were packed with kids eager beat the crap out of their friends and the genre helped define a generation of players. It was the gaming choice for the 90s, and the series was just getting started. With all the hype, praise, and controversy surrounding their little project, Ed Boon and John Tobias knew that a sequel was inevitable.