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A History of Violence: A Look Back At The 'Mortal Kombat' Series (Part 1)

Mortal Kombat Logo

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 1 Opening

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.

Mortal Kombat 1 Select

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.

Mortal Kombat 1 VS Goro

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.

Mortal Kombat 2 Opening

That sequel would arrive one year later in Mortal Kombat II. Promised to be bigger, better, and bloodier in every way, fans rushed to the arcades again to see that they indeed delivered. More characters, bigger bosses, more stages, and most important, more blood and gore. The game wasn't that much different from its predecessor, save for the aforementioned scoring change and subtracting the "Test Your Might" minigame.

The focus was on adding to an already well-received system, with each of the twelve characters now having two Fatalities each instead of just one. The Stage Fatalities, introduced in the previous game with The Pit stage, now included the Pit II, the Deadpool, and the Kombat Tomb. In addition, two new kinds of "-alities" were added. The Babality changed your opponent into a baby version of themselves, while the Friendship have your character do something nice for your opponent rather than kill them. These were made in response to the parents' complaints regarding the last game, though whether it was a joke or meant to be taken seriously is up for debate.

With the scoring system changed, finding the secrets were now for bragging rights more than anything else. And keeping with the theme of adding more, there were now three secret characters to fight instead of one. If a player executed a strong uppercut on the opponent, an image of the sound producer, Dan Forden, would appear on screen and shout "Toasty!". On the Portal stage, if the player did this, and held both Down and Start before Dan left the screen, they would instantly fight the grey ninja Smoke. If, in the battle before the "?" stage in arcade mode, a player won the fight using only low kicks, they would fight the green female ninja, Jade. Finally, if the player won 50 matches in a row, they would fight the black ninja Noob Saibot, which was Ed Boon's and John Tobias' last names backwards.

Mortal Kombat 2 Select

Liu Kang defeated both Goro and Shang Tsung in the last game and saved the Earth from oblivion. However, the sorcerer travelled to the Outworld realm and begged forgiveness from his master, the emperor Shao Kahn. He then developed a plan. If they challenged Earth to another tournament in Outworld, they would have to accept, and Shao Kahn would have the home advantage. Kahn agreed, and organized a new tournament, with him as the final opponent and Kintaro, a tiger-striped monster from the same race as Goro, serving as the sub-boss.

Liu Kang, now the Mortal Kombat champion, returns to accept Shao Kahn's challenge. Raiden returns as well to monitor the events of the tournament and make sure they abide by the rules. Johnny Cage looks to capitalize on his newfound popularity after the first tournament. Scorpion returns, originally thinking he succeeded in his revenge, but discovers that Sub-Zero is still alive. Turns out he's mistaken, as he did succeed in killing the original Sub-Zero. The one in this game, however, is actually his younger brother, looking to restore honor to the Sub-Zero codename. Both Shang Tsung and Reptile return as well, playable characters for the first time. Shang Tsung had his youth restored by Shao Kahn, and looks to win to ensure Outworld's victory, and possibly to overthrow the emperor. Reptile is revealed to be a member of an endangered species known as the Saurians, and serves Shao Kahn in the hopes that he'll release the remaining members from slavery.

Five new characters are introduced in this game as well. Kung Lao is a fellow member of the Shaolin alongside Liu Kang. He was originally set to enter the Mortal Kombat tournament, but declined due to his peaceful attitude. After the tournament, however, all the members of the Shaolin monastery save for himself and Liu Kang were brutally massacred, and now he wants revenge. Kitana is the princess of Outworld and the stepdaughter of Shao Kahn. However, she learns Kahn was behind the murder of her original father and mother - and seeks to aid the heroes in overthrowing him. Jackson Briggs, aka Jax, is Sonya's partner in the U.S. Special Forces, and joins the tournament to free her from Shao Kahn's capture, as well as to arrest Kano, who was also captured by Shao Kahn. Mileena is an evil clone of Kitana, who serves Shao Kahn faithfully and looks to gain favor from him by killing Kitana. Finally, Baraka, a member of the evil race of Tarkatans who all serve Shao Kahn, just wants to kill as many people as possible in the tournament.

Mortal Kombat 2 VS Kintaro

Like the previous game, Mortal Kombat II was ported to all the major game systems, but it wasn't met with as much censorship as its predecessor. Nintendo, realizing how poorly the last one sold on their Super Nintendo, decided to leave the blood and Fatalities in their game, but did leave a mature content warning on the game's box. This resulted in the title selling extremely well, beating out its Genesis competition and becoming known as the best port of the game yet. The SNES version also got an odd Japanese version, where all the blood was green instead of red and had the game going into monochrome whenever a Fatality was used. The title was also ported to other systems many years after its release, most notably as a special inclusion in Mortal Kombat: Shaolin Monks.

Mortal Kombat II is widely regarded as the best game of the original arcade series. All the additions to the gameplay and quality home ports increased the installment's popularity to incredible heights. The game was so popular that later arcade cabinets were given deadlock security panels to prevent people from breaking in and stealing the motherboards. Mortal Kombat was at the height of its popularity, and the fans near-insatiable desire for more ensured that more was on the way.

Check back tomorrow for the second installment in our Mortal Kombat retrospective for Mortal Kombat 3 and the spin-off Mortal Kombat Mythologies: Sub-Zero.

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