Mortal Kombat Retrospektive #1: Mortal Kombat (1992)

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In 1992, the arcade scene was ruled by Street Fighter II. Released the previous year and immediately making a gigantic impact, Capcom’s classic brawler was nowhere near the first one-on-one fighting game but was easily the most influential and shaped the genre for years to come. Even now, modern fighting games are still obviously descended from SFII and follow its basic template, despite decades of technological advances and added features.

Of course, other companies wanted in on the action and those sweet, sweet quarters from arcade-goers, and the early 90s saw a deluge of what were often called Street Fighter clones at the time. Some of these games were quite good in their own right (SNK’s Fatal Fury and King of Fighters series became popular franchises, and Fatal Fury was in fact conceived by the original creator of Street Fighter), but none of them had the cultural impact nor the influence Capcom’s classic could boast.

Some time before Street Fighter II began making waves in the arcades, a small Chicago-based Midway Games team led by Ed Boon started working on a fighting game that was meant to feature Belgian action star Jean-Claude Van Damme. The deal to license Van Damme’s name and likeness fell through, but instead of cancelling the project, Boon’s team looked at Bruce Lee classic Enter the Dragon for inspiration and went from there. Midway did not have much faith in the project in the early going, but once Street Fighter II hit it big, things changed. The publisher began to take the project seriously, and eventually the throwaway project became what we know as Mortal Kombat.

The original Mortal Kombat was designed and developed entirely by four people — Boon, artists John Tobias and John Vogel, and sound designer Dan Forden. The Mortal Kombat series is considered the brainchild of Boon and Tobias, and they were in charge of the MK team until Tobias left Midway in the late 90s. Since then, Boon has been the main director of the series and Vogel took over as lead artist and writer.

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Ed Boon, original MK lead programmer and professional troll.
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John Tobias, original MK lead artist and lifetime winner of the “World’s Creepiest Mustache” award.

The original Mortal Kombat game doesn’t have much of a plot other than “some evil wizard jerk is holding a fighting tournament on a remote island, so you pick a character and fight through a bunch of other combatants until you reach the bad guy and his giant four-armed champion”. Eventually, the storyline was expanded by turning the MK tournament into a safeguard set up by the gods to protect the realm of Earth from the evil forces of Outworld, represented by Shang Tsung and Goro.

If Outworld wins ten consecutive tournaments, they can march into Earthrealm and conquer it. They’ve won nine so far, so no pressure or anything. This plot point actually wasn’t in the original storyline but was retconned in fairly early on. In fact, I’m quite sure this plot point was introduced in the 1995 Mortal Kombat movie alongside a few other lore-related details, which is probably the only time in history something from a video game movie adaptation (of which Mortal Kombat remains the best ever made) made its way back to the actual games.

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I love 90s video game ads. Every time I see this image, I find some new amazing thing on it.

Mortal Kombat was initially rolled out to a Chicago arcade in an all-white cabinet with a hand-written “MORTAL KOMBAT” sticker on top, and became a hit immediately. Even though the cabinet itself didn’t look like much at that point, the actual game’s presentation was very striking. While SFII had a cartoonish look with hand-drawn characters, Mortal Kombat used digitized sprites created by filming local martial artists.

This wasn’t the first time digitized sprites were used in a fighting game. Atari’s Pit-Fighter — which was not a Midway game as this article originally stated, I got things mixed up because Pit-Fighter appears on the Midway Arcade Treasures 2 compilation along with a number of other Atari releases — had done it a couple of years earlier. In addition, while it was not a fighting game, Midway’s run-and-gun quarter-gobbler N.A.R.C. had also used digitized sprites for its characters. However, the sprites in Mortal Kombat were a noticeable improvement over those previous games and made MK look more “real” compared to the anime-style visuals of Street Fighter II. So real it hurts, if you will.

Since the sprites in MK were created by filming actual people, the cast of playable characters consists entirely of humans… more or less… and doesn’t feature outlandish freaks like SFII’s Blanka. Goro, the massive four-armed boss, was created using stop motion.

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Out of the playable roster, Scorpion and Raiden are the closest things to weird freaks even though they look human.

Of course, the graphical style wasn’t the only thing that made people take notice, as MK also featured copious amounts of blood and violent finishing moves known as Fatalities. Fatalities were executed by inputting a special button combination at the end of the fight, and since the internet wasn’t really a thing yet you had people shoving tons of quarters into the game to learn those combinations. Naturally, this meant Midway earned even more money.

The fatalities themselves look quite tame by today’s standards, but tearing someone’s heart out of their chest or ripping off their head and spine was indeed quite brutal in an early 90s video game. Doubly so since these characters were filmed actors rather than cartoonish sprites.

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Audio-wise, there’s plenty of speech samples to enhance the atmosphere. Shang Tsung announces the name of your chosen character, does the whole “Round 1… FIGHT” thing, chimes in with approving comments during fights, and, of course, there is the classic “FINISH HIM” (or “her”) when it’s time to do a Fatality. The fighters also utter a variety of grunts and screams, including Raiden’s gibberish and Scorpion’s legendary “GET OVER HERE!” sample that is used in MK games to this day.

The sound quality is quite tinny because of the cabinet’s weak sound hardware, and this also applies to the music by Dan Forden. The compositions themselves aren’t all bad and sound like the kind of generic martial arts stuff you’d hear in an old kung fu movie, but you can barely hear the music due to the low-quality audio.

Mortal Kombat offers a basic single-player ladder in which your chosen character battles through the other six fighters one after another, followed by a mirror match. Once you’ve defeated your doppelgänger, you get to fight everyone again in three endurance rounds, each with two opponents and a single life bar per round for your character. Then, when you’re done with all of that, you face off with Goro and finally go one on one with Shang Tsung. When you beat him, you get a couple of ending slides for your character, and that’s all there is to it. Naturally, a second player can challenge you at any time for some versus action.

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THE KOMBATANTS:

Liu Kang (played by Ho Sung Pak):

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A member of the White Lotus Society of monks and resident Bruce Lee clone, who fights using fireballs and flying kicks. Liu Kang has the only fatality in the game that doesn’t kill the opponent, because he’s supposed to be a good guy. Doesn’t stop him from punching someone off a bridge into a bunch of spikes, though.

Johnny Cage (Daniel Pesina):

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John Carlton aka Johnny Cage is a Hollywood action star who starred in such classic films as Ninja Mime, Dragon Fist, and the award-winning Sudden Violence. Cage enters the tournament to prove to the world that his fighting skills (including green fireballs and the shadow kick) are not mere special effects and that he is, in fact, the special effect. His look is based on Van Damme in Bloodsport, as is his infamous split punch. I hear he’s not afraid to die, which is handy because he will do exactly that multiple times over the years.

Kano (Richard Divizio):

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The half Japanese and half American (later retconned as Australian) leader of the Black Dragon gang of criminals, enters the tournament to steal Shang Tsung’s treasures. Kano’s most distinguishing characteristic is his cybernetic eye, which is also the most interesting thing about him in this game aside from his heart rip fatality. He can also throw knives and defy gravity with his human cannonball attack. Kannonball? Kanoball? Apparently, the move is actually called Kanoball.

Sonya Blade (Elizabeth Malecki):

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The only female kombatant in the tournament and a Special Forces soldier, Sonya gets stuck on the island when pursuing Kano and is forced to join the tournament by Shang Tsung. Sonya’s role in the game was originally intended for another fighter called Kurtis Stryker, but players wanted a female character so Sonya made it in. Sonya’s leg grab is quite effective, and she also has a slightly odd aerial punch attack and a projectile in the form of a pink force field. Sonya is supposed to be a regular human, but she is still capable of burning people to death by blowing a kiss at them.

Sub-Zero (Daniel Pesina):

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Ooooohhhh, Chinese Ninja Warrior, with a heart soooo cooooooold, Sub-Zeeerooooo. The blue-garbed warrior is not actually a ninja despite The Immortals trying their hardest to convince us otherwise, but a Lin Kuei assassin sent to kill Shang Tsung. His main special move is the freeze ball that, well, freezes the opponent for a free hit, and he can also slide across the floor. Sub-Zero’s fatality is perhaps the most iconic of them all — he rips out the opponent’s head and spine and holds them up like a trophy. He’s really a bit of a dick, to be honest.

Scorpion (Daniel Pesina):

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Another ninja, who actually is a ninja and doesn’t like Sub-Zero. Scorpion’s iconic special move involves him throwing a kunai tied to a rope to pull opponents to him for a free hit, and can also hit opponents with a teleport punch that almost never actually connects and usually just gets him killed (at least this has generally been my experience). Scorpion’s origins are initially unknown, but if you finish the game as him you find out he was murdered by Sub-Zero and returned as a hell specter to get his revenge. His head is actually just a skull, which you can see when he performs his flame breath fatality. Scorpion’s voice is provided by Ed Boon.

Raiden (Carlos Pesina):

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The god of thunder, who has taken on the form of a mortal to fight in the tournament after receiving a personal invitation from Shang Tsung. Predictably, he can use lightning projectiles and also has a teleport, but his more famous special move is the torpedo attack where he launches himself at the opponent and shouts gibberish. The same yell is also heard when he blows up the opponent’s head as his fatality. Raiden (or Rayden, as he is called in the earlier home ports) has by far the best arcade mode ending in the entire game, in which he wins the tournament, goes “Well shit, this is great, I should get my god buddies involved” and ends up getting Earth destroyed in the proceedings. Have a nice day.

BOSSES/NON-PLAYABLE CHARACTERS:

Goro (stop-motion):

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The original Mortal Kombat sub-boss, Goro is a member of the four-armed Shokan race and has held the title of Grand Champion of Mortal Kombat for 500 years straight. He became the champion after defeating the Great Kung Lao, who was a Shaolin fighting monk and Liu Kang’s ancestor. As would become MK boss tradition, Goro’s AI is massively cheap and he does a ludicrous amount of damage with his attacks. He’s somewhat vulnerable to jump kicks, at least, and playing as Sub-Zero or Scorpion will help you beat him a bit easier.

In the arcade version, Goro simply jumps in when you defeat the last opponent in the final endurance round, and the match starts immediately. I always thought this was a very cool little touch.

Shang Tsung (Ho Sung Pak):

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If you manage to beat Goro, Shang Tsung himself steps in and acts as the final boss. He’s not as intimidating as Goro, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t just as dangerous. Shang Tsung’s skull fireballs do massive damage if they hit (and only slightly less if you block them), and he also has another trick up his sleeve — he can morph into any other kombatant. That includes Goro, by the way. Have fun! When you finally beat Tsung, the souls of fallen fighters fly out of him and he explodes.

Reptile (Daniel Pesina):

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The first hidden character in fighting games. The green ninja occasionally shows up before rounds to give hints on how to reach him. Basically, what you need to do is to play single player until you reach the Pit stage, and if there is a silhouette in front of the moon, you need to get a double flawless victory without blocking and finish your opponent off with a fatality (the Pit uppercut finisher isn’t technically a fatality, so it doesn’t count for this).

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If all the conditions are met, you’re transported down to the bottom of the Pit and fight Reptile, who uses the special moves of the other ninjas and is extremely tough to beat. If you do beat him, you get ten million points so you can boast about your high score to all your buddies. In the arcade version, Reptile’s life bar identifies him as Scorpion, which was fixed in some of the later ports.

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Of course, we can’t talk about Mortal Kombat without at least briefly mentioning the controversy surrounding the game in the 90s. Mortal Kombat was originally aimed at the arcade crowd, a demographic which generally skewed older than the console audiences at the time, so the MK team didn’t even think of any possible controversy their game might cause. Then the home ports (published by Acclaim, with a massive advertising campaign that gave us the famous “MORTAL KOMBAT!” yell) came out, and the ensuing shitstorm that led to the creation of the ESRB rating system is well documented.

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Acclaim assigned the development of the SNES version to Sculptured Software, a studio best known for a cavalcade of disappointing WWF wrestling games they developed for LJN/Acclaim throughout the 90s. As you probably know, the SNES port of Mortal Kombat was infamously censored to fit Nintendo’s family-friendly policies, and most of the fatalities were altered. Some of the new ones were actually quite good, such as Sub-Zero freezing and shattering the opponent, or Raiden shocking them so hard only a skull is left behind. Apparently, brutally killing your opponent was totally in line with Nintendo’s policies as long as no visible blood was spilled. Speaking of which, all the blood was replaced with “sweat” or dust or whatever the hell those grey pixels were supposed to be.

In any case, the reduced level of violence and gore on the SNES version was always going to be a bit of a problem. Despite some Nintendo diehards at the time lying through their teeth as they’d swear up and down that the gore didn’t actually matter and the gameplay was the important part, this watered-down experience simply wasn’t the Mortal Kombat people wanted.

On the other hand, the Sega Genesis port by UK-based Probe Software had the blood and guts unlockable with a code (ABACABB, or DULLARD if you wanted more options), and consequently outsold the SNES version by roughly eight billion copies. The Genesis port looked rather crummy with its limited color palette and simplified backgrounds, and also lacked most of the voice clips from the arcade, but none of that mattered.

The Genesis version earns bonus points by featuring by far the best soundtrack, with remixed tracks and all-new compositions by Matt Furniss. This soundtrack takes full advantage of the strengths of the Genesis sound hardware and sounds fantastic as a result. Most importantly, the Genesis version also plays much better and closer to the arcade than the SNES port, which has noticeable input delay and generally feels off despite looking much nicer graphically.

Later, Acclaim released a Sega CD port which was uncensored out of the box and featured the arcade soundtrack on the disc, but that version suffered from frequent load times. There were also ports of varying (mostly low) quality for the Game Boy, Game Gear, Master System, Amiga, and PC.

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SNES
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Genesis
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Arcade

At the time, the best port was the PC DOS version by Ultratech (who, as we all know, would later go on to become a giant evil megacorporation and organize the Killer Instinct tournament), which is nearly arcade-perfect and completely uncensored. The PC port also happens to be the first version of the game I got to play as a kid, so I still have a bit of a soft spot for it even though I haven’t played it since 1994. The DOS versions of the first three MK games are now available as a bundle on GOG.com, so playing them has never been easier.

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PC DOS

You may have noticed that I haven’t said anything about the actual gameplay. This is because, quite frankly, there isn’t much to it in the original Mortal Kombat and what is there isn’t very good compared to Street Fighter II. There are only seven playable characters, who all have the same amount of health and the same normal attacks. The action buttons perform high and low punches and kicks, as well as some elbow and knee strikes up close.

Pressing back+LK performs a sweep kick that trips up the opponent, back+HK is a roundhouse kick with a satisfyingly meaty impact, and down+HP makes your fighter uppercut the opponent high up into the air as blood splatters on the stage. The uppercut is among the most damaging individual attacks in the game and one of the most fondly remembered aspects of the original Mortal Kombat games, and while it’s still part of each fighter’s arsenal in the newer MK games it never quite felt the same (nor did as much damage) once the series went 3D.

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The only thing distinguishing the characters are their special moves and fatalities, which at least have become iconic over the years. The special move inputs in Mortal Kombat are very different from those in Street Fighter, with far less emphasis on diagonal movements. For the most part you just need to tap a direction a couple of times and then hit an attack button (e.g. Liu Kang’s flying kick: forward-forward-high kick, Scorpion’s spear: back-back-low punch).

Another major difference that is also an MK trademark is the dedicated button used for blocking instead of holding back to block like in most fighting games. All attacks also cause chip damage, instead of just the special moves.

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Between fights, you get to participate in the Test Your Might minigame which involves hitting the low attack buttons and then pressing block to break various objects with a strike. This minigame would show up in some of the later games as well.

If you try to play MK1 after getting used to the later games, you probably will curse the somewhat stiff controls and especially the lack of crossup attacks several times, especially after lazily jumping over Goro for the tenth time. The AI is brutally difficult, and each character only has a couple of special moves so the gameplay gets old quickly. The original MK is still worth playing if you’re a Mortal Kombat fan and want to see where it all began, or as a brief nostalgia trip, but that’s about it. As a fighting game, Mortal Kombat is nothing to write home about, and never really was in the first place.

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The most convenient way to experience MK1 at this point is probably the Arcade Kollection port for the PS3 and Xbox 360, which is mostly arcade-perfect with some unfortunate technical issues that drag down the experience. Just avoid the PC version, which still has the dreaded Games for Windows Live bolted to it. Obviously, you can also emulate the arcade version, which might be the way to go on PC. Or in general, really.

The original Mortal Kombat is more than a bit rough at this point and was definitely sold more on the gory visuals than anything involving its gameplay, but everything has to start somewhere. Mortal Kombat was originally meant to be a one-time project and the team was intending to move on to other games, but there was no going back once the game became a megahit. A sequel was inevitable.

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Next: Nothing. Nothing can prepare you.

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