The Mortal Kombat Retrospektive starts, appropriately enough, from the beginning of the series.
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 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. 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 Midway Games team in Chicago, 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 game, 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, they began to take it seriously and eventually the throwaway project became what we know as Mortal Kombat. The game 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.
Ed Boon, original MK lead programmer and professional troll.
John Tobias, original MK lead artist and winner of the “World’s Creepiest Mustache” award for 23 years running.
The original Mortal Kombat game doesn’t have much of a plot other than “evil wizard jerk is holding a fighting tournament on a remote island, so you pick a character and fight through other combatants until you reach him and his giant four-armed champion” although 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 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.
Mortal Kombat was initially rolled out to a Chicago arcade in an all-white cabinet with a sticker saying MORTAL KOMBAT 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 — Pit Fighter had done it a couple of years earlier — but here they actually looked quite good (for the time, anyway) and made MK look more “real” compared to SFII. SO REAL IT HURTS, if you will. Since the sprites were done 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.
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 with specific button inputs, and since the internet wasn’t a thing yet you had people shoving tons of quarters into the game to learn those combinations and making Midway 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 the early 90s.
Audio-wise, there was a lot more announcer speech than you’d hear in SFII. Shang Tsung announces the name of your chosen character, does the whole “Round 1… FIGHT” thing, chimes in during fights to say stuff like “Excellent” and, of course, the classic “FINISH HIM/HER” when it’s time to do a Fatality. The fighters also have 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, though, and this also applies to the music by Dan Forden. The compositions themselves aren’t all bad and are the kind of vaguely Asian-sounding martial arts stuff you’d hear in an old kung fu movie, but you can barely hear them due to the low-quality audio.
Liu Kang (played by Ho Sung Pak):
A member of the White Lotus Society of monks and resident Bruce Lee clone, who fights using fireballs and flying kicks. 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):
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 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.
Kano (Richard Divizio):
Leader of the Black Dragon gang of criminals, enters the tournament to steal Shang Tsung’s treasures. Has a cybernetic eye, which is 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 move. Kannonball. Kanoball. Apparently, the move is actually called Kanoball.
Sonya Blade (Elizabeth Malecki):
The only female kombatant in the tournament and a Special Forces soldier, gets stuck on the island when pursuing Kano and 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 weird 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):
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):
Another ninja, who actually is a ninja and doesn’t like Sub-Zero. Uses 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 spectre to get his revenge. His head is actually just a skull, which you can see when he does his flame breath fatality. His voice is provided by Ed Boon.
Raiden (Carlos Pesina):
The god of thunder, who has taken on the form of a mortal to fight in the tournament after getting 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 something like “ALIBABALEEEE”. 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. Have a nice day.
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 after defeating the Great Kung Lao, 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.
Shang Tsung (Ho Sung Pak):
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 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):
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 fatality doesn’t count).
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 very tough. If you beat him, you get ten million points. I guess that still mattered to someone in 1992. In the arcade version, Reptile’s life bar identifies him as Scorpion, which was fixed in some of the later ports.
Mortal Kombat was 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) showed up, and the ensuing shitstorm that led to the creation of the ESRB is well documented. Suddenly, Mortal Kombat was a horrifying murder simulator and the minds of American children were about to be corrupted for good, and this could not stand.
The SNES version, developed by Sculptured Software, was infamously censored to fit Nintendo’s family-friendly policies by altering some of the fatalities and replacing the blood with “sweat”. On the other hand, the Sega Genesis port by Probe Software had the blood and guts unlockable with a code (those of us who played the Genesis version will never forget ABACABB or DULLARD) and consequently outsold the SNES version by roughly eight billion copies despite looking pretty crummy and lacking most of the voice clips from the arcade.
The Genesis version has by far the best soundtrack, though, with remixed tracks and all-new compositions by Matt Furniss. This soundtrack takes 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 version which was uncensored from the start and had the music from the arcade version playing from the CD, but that version suffered from frequent load times. There were also ports for Game Boy, Game Gear, Master System, Amiga and PC.
At the time, the best port was the PC DOS version, which is nearly arcade-perfect and completely uncensored. It also happens to be the first version of the game I got to play, at the tender age of 6 or 7 while on a family visit to my dad’s friend’s house (his teenage son set the game up for me, gave me an old-school Gravis gamepad and left me to my own devices. I didn’t get past the mirror match in the arcade ladder). From what I can remember, none of the blood and gore bothered me at all, it was just kind of there as part of the game, and I don’t think I got too horribly warped by that experience.
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: high punch, low punch, high kick, low kick, throw, roundhouse kick, sweep kick and uppercut, as well as some elbow and knee strikes up close.
The only thing distinguishing the characters are their special moves and fatalities, which at least have become iconic over the years. Speaking of which, the special move inputs are very different than 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 (eg. 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.
Between fights, you get to try the Test Your Might minigame which involves hitting the low attack buttons and then pressing block to break various objects. 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. I know I did. The AI is also brutal, and each character only has a couple of special moves so the gameplay can get old quite quickly. The game 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.
The most convenient way to experience MK1 at this point is probably the Arcade Kollection port, which is mostly arcade-perfect with some rather minor sound issues. Just avoid the PC version, which still has the now-defunct Games for Windows Live bolted to it and therefore has no online play (edit: Apparently it does still have online, but to get it to work you need to install the newest version of GFWL, and there’s no one playing it). You can also fire up MAME to emulate the arcade version.
The original Mortal Kombat might seem 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. MK was 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 Mortal Kombat became a megahit. A sequel was inevitable.
Next: Nothing. Nothing can prepare you.