Mortal Kombat is now one of the most famous and recognizable franchises of all time, but it wasn't always that easy for the goriest fighting game of them all. Born in 1992 of a failed project that would have been starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, the story of the Earthrealm (humankind, basically) literally fighting against the dark forces of the Outworld sparked a new style in the fighting genre, Fatalities included.
If you want to know a little more about the game itself and the lore behind the saga, stay with us! We're in for a brief review of the turbulent history of Mortal Kombat.
The Original Trilogy
As you may already know, the golden era of Mortal Kombat comprises the first 3 games, where all the classic fighters we now love had a significant part. Unlike other fighting games of the early nineties, Mortal Kombat became an instant hit thanks to the use of live-action models, along with a much more violent approach and the ever-iconic Fatalities. In terms of gameplay, having a "block" button (and then a "run" button) was indeed a novelty, and the fact that secret moves were a thing definitely had something to do too.
The original Mortal Kombat, developed and published by Midway, had only 7 playable characters: Liu Kang, Sonya Blade, Scorpion, Sub-Zero, Kano, Raiden, and Johnny Cage, with Shang Tsung and Goro as the main antagonists. Such a short cast was the norm considering Street Fighter II (another classic fighting game, debuting in 1991) had only 8 playable characters plus 4 bosses. However, that was enough to lay the foundations of what was to come. Just one year later, Mortal Kombat II appeared as a more polished version of the first game, now adding new finishing moves like the Babalities and the unfamous Friendship, but also expanding the story and bringing more classic characters such as Baraka, Kitana, Jason Briggs a.k.a. Jax, Mileena, Kintaro, Reptile, Kung Lao, and the big bad Shao Kahn.
Now with a respectable number of followers, and a respectable number of fighters, the Mortal Kombat saga was ready for something bigger, and so we had Mortal Kombat 3 and Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3, both coming out in 1995. We can consider UMK3 as a revised version of MK3, adding new/missing content but also balancing stuff for a better experience; in 1996, Mortal Kombat Trilogy did the same thing, now with all the best parts of Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 and the first 2 games combined. MK Trilogy offered the full roster at the time, with some extras depending on your platform and the possibility of choosing the "retro" version of certain characters, like Raiden, Jax or Kung Lao, for example.
ESRB and the Mortal Kombat Controversy
Now you know about the first 3 games (that are actually 5), let's move away from the games and let's talk about everything surrounding them... because we all know how important it was for both the gaming industry and society.
As we said, Mortal Kombat was all about graphic violence, and there's no way you play it without crushing some bones and causing extreme hemorrhages to your opponents. While other games had cartoon violence or more polygonal and "blocky" characters, the fact that MK was based on live-action models made a lot of parents raise their voices against Mortal Kombat, with mass media and some politicians picking up the gauntlet. In addition to that, the lore and scenery of the games had a lot of dark references to religion, witchcraft, and other similar stuff. After all, it was a gritty franchise about gods and people with superpowers fighting to death against a legion of characters coming from a place that looks awfully similar to Hell.
In several countries, Mortal Kombat games have been modified or even censored, with some civilian organizations boycotting the companies behind them or even the gaming industry as a whole. In 1993, the US Congress was debating the state of video games and how it could impact younger audiences. Without being its primary objective, Mortal Kombat and the masterminds behind it, Ed Boon and John Tobias, were forever changing how we see video games in general, with the creation of the ESRB rating system as a result of a long, heated debate.
While such controversy could make some people shy away, leave a franchise as it is, and move on to new horizons, Mortal Kombat still had a lot to offer, and more to take advantage of the improved graphics of the new generation of consoles.
The Franchise Post-MK4 and the 2011 Reboot
It was 1997 when Mortal Kombat 4 abandoned the live-action sprites in favor of a more trendy 3D style, but still trying not to look like Tekken or Virtua Fighter. Talking about inspiration, MK4 also introduces a system where you can use weapons along with the classic moves, just like in Soul Edge and Soulcalibur. That, and the fact that it looks like the franchise doesn't take itself very seriously anymore, makes this game so controversial, with some fans saying it was a breath of fresh air while others say it lost the Mortal Kombat essence. Mortal Kombat 4 was the last MK game for arcade cabinets and the last one relying on its installment number. It included a lot of new characters too, making the protagonist group of heroes face a new menace: the Elder God Shinnok and his henchmen.
From there on, what once was a mysterious tournament to decide the faith of the Earthrealm in Shang Tsung's island, mutated into a huge-scale war involving several realms and a non-linear timeline. Also, Mortal Kombat always had a humorous side, but it became more evident with every new release, with characters like Meat or Mokap or such ambitious yet parodic-like plots.
The fifth entry, Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance (2002), featured Shang Tsung and Quan Chi killing Kung Lao and Shao Kahn for then trying to revive the enigmatic Dragon King. That Dragon King, named Onaga, is the final boss in the sixth game, Mortal Kombat: Deception (2004), that one where Kung Lao appears as a reanimated zombie. This other trilogy also includes the seventh installment, Mortal Kombat: Armageddon (2006), an all-out war between all the realms involved, with Blaze as the ultimate boss.
At that time, John Tobias had left the company (in 1999) and that new trilogy had nothing to do with the original one, with a different approach in terms of balance and fighting mechanics, a new art-style, a lore-heavy background thanks to the new "Konquest Mode", dozens of new fighters, and even the possibility to use weapons or creating your own character in the "Kreate-A-Fighter" mode. In fact, Mortal Kombat: Armageddon also includes a kart racing mode called "Motor Kombat", and it's as weird as it sounds... in a way that it's too bad that it's so damn good!
When Midway Games were thinking of a new Mortal Kombat that could reboot the franchise, they ultimately scrapped the idea and went with Mortal Kombat vs DC Universe, a game coming in 2008 that is both considered the eight entry and a spin-off series. If you thought we were exaggerating about them not taking its own creation that seriously, what about fusing Shao Kahn with Darkseid to create the powerful Dark Kahn? Yeah, that happened. Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and other DC characters fought against Raiden, Scorpion, Liu Kang or Shang Tsung in Apokolips, Darkseid's planet.
Mortal Kombat vs DC Universe is pretty much acceptable for an unexpected crossover. However, that was the last Mortal Kombat game developed by Midway since, in February 2019, the company filed for bankruptcy. Now acquired by Warner Bros. Interactive (who also helped to develop MK vs DCU, sharing the rights of the DC Universe), the Chicago studio was renamed NetherRealm Studios, now led by Ed Boon himself, one of Mortal Kombat's co-creators.
Returning to the idea of a reboot, the following main game (released in 2011) is simply called Mortal Kombat but mostly known as Mortal Kombat 9, now developed by NetherRealm Studios and with the purpose of retconning a thing or two about the whole saga. In this game, Raiden and Shao Kahn are the only survivors of the MK: Armageddon events, and that's when Raiden sends a message to his younger self as he's about to be killed. All in all, the new Mortal Kombat was a reenacting of the first games, in an alternate timeline where Raiden has not-so-clear visions of an inevitable and catastrophic future. As if the Fatalities weren't Mortal Kombat's signature, MK9 features extended X-ray moves where you can actually see a character's bones crushing as you fight.
The last Mortal Kombat game so far is Mortal Kombat X, the tenth entry in the main saga and the one with the best graphics by far. Even though it plays much like the previous game, MKX has a fair share of new mechanics and some other making a comeback. Plot-wise, the story is now focused on an old war sparking a new generation of warriors, especially since some of the main characters are Cassie Cage (daughter of Johnny Cage and Sonya Blade), Jacqueline "Jacqui" Briggs (daughter of Jax), and Kung Jin (Kung Lao's younger cousin). Since 2016 there’s also Mortal Kombat XL, which covers the base game and all of the all previously released DLC packs.
So There Are Also Some Spin-off Games?
We just covered the main saga, but we wouldn't be embracing the history of Mortal Kombat without talking about the spin-off games and all its apparitions in other media.
You may think every Mortal Kombat game is a traditional fighting game, but there are 3 action-adventure games involving the cast so far. The first one debuted in 1997 and is called Mortal Kombat Mythologies: Sub-Zero, so you probably guessed who's the main character... or not, because there's not just one Sub-Zero after all. In this case, we have a prequel to the first Mortal Kombat and its protagonist is the original Sub-Zero, Bi-Han, who was later killed by Scorpion during the tournament. MKM: Sub-Zero plays as the regular fighting games but in a side-scrolling beat 'em up setting, and it's awfully hard.
The second spin-off game was Mortal Kombat: Special Forces, released in 2000 and with Jax as the protagonist. Now in 3D, the story follows the cyber soldier taking revenge on Kano for killing his comrades, and trying to stop him before he frees his Black Dragon partners from prison. The game takes place even before the events of MKM: Sub-Zero so it places as the first one in the whole timeline. Unlike the former spin-off, this one plays completely different than the classic Mortal Kombat games, to the point that the camera angle is just like every other action-adventure game (following the character from a third-person perspective), and Jax can even use firearms alongside his combos.
In 2005, Midway released Mortal Kombat: Shaolin Monks, a game similar to Special Forces but now adding platforming elements (Jax couldn't even jump, for that matter). The best part of this game is you can play with both Liu Kang and Kung Lao in co-op mode, as you try to defeat Shang Tsung between the first and the second Mortal Kombat games. It also adds a versus mode and Fatalities as a finishing move you can actually use! To be fair, none of these spin-offs makes for a great game, but all of them have a special something for every Mortal Kombat fan.
The Movies and That Catchy Techno Song
Video game movies are not a great idea and, for some reason, they always seem to fail one way or another. But what if we told you the first Mortal Kombat movie is considered one of the best video game movies ever made? Simply called Mortal Kombat and directed by Paul W. S. Anderson, it debuted in theaters back in 1995. It is especially entertaining because it retells the story of the Mortal Kombat tournament, adding a few twists but ultimately keeping all the main characters. There are some random, filler fighters here and there, and you could say some character's background or clothes were significantly changed, but overall the movie is as cheesy and respectful to the original source as you would want it to be.
Although it doesn't shine for having outstanding performances, Christopher Lambert (as Raiden) and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa (as Shang Tsung) were pretty big names for a video game movie, with other notable new actresses like Talisa Soto (as Kitana) or Bridgette Wilson (as Sonya Blade). The plot mixes a few things from the first 2 games to create a story of its own, with several unforgettable scenes like Johnny Cage defeating Goro with his signature split punch, Sonya breaking Kano's neck with her legs, or Shang Tsung's "your soul is mine!", shortly followed by "fatality" after consuming that poor guy's soul. Man!!!
The direct sequel, Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, adapts the events of Mortal Kombat 3 with Shao Kahn as the main antagonist, trying to merge the Netherrealm and the Earthrealm. Debuting only 2 years after the first one, Annihilation has mainly a different cast of actors and it feels pretty rushed, only relying on fanservice characters and its predecessor success. Full of blatant green screen effects and low-budget CGI, exaggerated gesticulation, and corny lines, Annihilation is a perfect example of everything wrong with a video game movie.
While we can have different views on the movies, there's something every single person can agree on: "Techno Syndrome", by The Immortals, is the best song featured on a video game soundtrack. Period. The unmistakable synth riff, Shao Kahn's voice as you would hear it in the actual games, that upbeat drums... there's a reason for this song making you want to sign up for the next Mortal Kombat tournament, right? And it brings back so many memories!
Since the nineties, Mortal Kombat has appeared in comic books published both by Malibu Comics and DC Comics, but also in some novelizations. Back in 1998, Mortal Kombat: Conquest was a live-action TV show about the recurring fight between the Earthrealm and the Outworld, but this time with some original characters as the main protagonists led by Kung Lao and Raiden. Though some big names like Scorpion and Sub-Zero also made appearances, that was not enough for saving the day.
If you fancy watching an animated version of Mortal Kombat there's also Mortal Kombat: Defenders of the Realm, a cartoon version aired around 1996. The style was similar to that of Batman Animated Series or X-Men, but maybe not as epic... and the action was definitely not as violent as the games. Then again, the plot follows Raiden and his group (Sonya, Liu Kang, Kitana, Night Wolf, Curtis Stryker, Jax, and Sub-Zero) going against Shao Kahn and Shang Tsung to defend the Earthrealm from being conquered, and it serves as somewhat of a sequel to the first movie and the original trilogy.
The last known project to bring back Mortal Kombat to life is Kevin Tancharoen's Mortal Kombat: Legacy, a web series born after the huge success of his previous short film Mortal Kombat: Rebirth. In this case, it's a more realistic take on the classic plot where the Special Forces led by Jax, Sonya, and Stryker are after Shang Tsung, showing the motivation for every major character joining the Mortal Kombat tournament.
A New Game Around the Corner!
During The Game Awards, last December 6, 2018, Ed Boon went on stage to present the winner of the Best Sports/Racing Game category. However, the broadcast was "hijacked" and instead we got the reveal trailer for Mortal Kombat 11, a brutal fight between Scorpion and Raiden... and classic Scorpion. If you want to see what's the franchise up to 27 years later, you have a date with Mortal Kombat 11, coming out this April 23 on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and PC.
Mortal Kombat is still alive and kicking, so it’s safe to assume that the conflict between the Earthrealm and the other realms will give us more awesome characters and violent fights for the years coming. Curiously enough, being one of the most well-known gaming franchises it still finds it hard to earn a spot in the eSports community, where games like Street Fighter, Super Smash Bros. or Tekken (and you could add Dragon Ball FighterZ, BlazBlue, Guilty Gear, and the likes) seem to be the fan favorites.
In the early years, the Mortal Kombat games were famous for its live-action models, the gory Fatalities, and the somewhat scary characters and stages that haunted a lot of kids back in the day (we're looking at you, Living Forest). By adding God of War's Kratos or movie serial killers like Predator and Freddy Krueger to its roster, it's clear that everything could happen when it comes to the "new" Mortal Kombat, making the impossible possible just to make the fans lose their heads.
Even if you prefer 2D fighting games, you have to respect Mortal Kombat for what it is: a living legend of the gaming industry, the black sheep of the fighting genre, and a true pop culture icon that's not afraid to laugh at itself.