Scrolling Pixels: The original Mortal Kombat is a bloody masterpiece

4 May 2015

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Scrolling Pixels is Dean Van Nguyen’s monthly column focusing on retro gaming. Check back on the first Monday of every month for the latest instalment.

There are dozens, if not hundreds, of expressions that, having been popularised by The Simpsons, we all now use pretty frequently. “D’oh”, “Yoink”, “Car Hole”, “Me fail English? That’s unpossible” – all classics to have leaked into common vernacular.

Another you probably hear on occasion is Helen Lovejoy’s famous plea, “Will somebody please think of the children?”, an expression that parodies parent and child welfare organisations that have perhaps been a little bit zealous when it’s come to shielding kids from the perceived evils of the world.

Such groups were around in 1954, when widespread public concern that comic books were causing juvenile delinquency sparked the formation of the Comics Code Authority. They were active in 1985 after Tipper Gore caught her 11-year-old daughter listening to Prince’s Darling Nikki – a song that charts the Purple One’s interaction with a “sex fiend” he finds in a hotel “masterbating with a magazine” – which led to those ‘Parental Advisory’ stickers you often see on rap CDs. And they were out again in 1992, when the ultra-gritty, blood-splattered beat ‘em up classic Mortal Kombat was released and threatened to spark a rash of disembowelings and decapitations among the first world’s youth.

Comics, Prince’s music and Mortal Kombat share a few common threads. They’re all super awesome and none likely caused lasting harm to any child. But more so than the other two, Mortal Kombat probably benefited from the furor surrounding its content, which back in the day solidified the game as an absolute must play. I certainly remember stories of it leaking into the schoolyard. You’d hear about the raw violence and, in particular, the fabled ‘fatalities’ which, pre-internet, felt buried deep within the game, just adding to its near-mytical feel. Getting a glimpse of older kids crowding around MK in the arcade, the grimey look of the game alone made it feel kind of dangerous and forbidden. Of course we were drawn to this crazy thing. We were helpless to resist.

Wham! Bam! Van Damme!

Designed by video-game programmers Ed Boon and John Tobias, Mortal Kombat stemmed from an idea the pair had to create a game starring Belgian action behemoth Jean-Claude Van Damme. The deal never happened, but the success of Street Fighter 2 in 1991 emboldened the pair, and convinced publisher Midway that a beat ’em up could make money even without the Van Damme brand attached. That original concept still found its way into the game, however, through stalwart character Johnny Cage, a narcissistic and arrogant Hollywood movie star who even performs a split punch to the groin in a nod to a scene from JCVD’s Bloodsport (that movie and Mortal Kombat would be beautifully brought together in a mash-up video posted to YouTube years later).

Released to arcades in 1992, Mortal Kombat differentiated itself from Street Fighter 2 (which played much more smoothly) with its gritty, grainy and bloody presentation. Set at a martial arts tournament on a fictional island, the plot was ripped straight from Bruce Lee’s classic movie Enter The Dragon, and visually it looked like a ’70s grindhouse kung-fu flick – as if shot on film that was later attached to the back of a vehicle and dragged around a car park.

Old-school Hong Kong cinema references were everywhere, from the exotic backgrounds, each of which represented a different location on the island, to moves like ripping your opponent’s heart from his chest and watching it beat in your hand. The attention to plot was stellar, with Tobias in particular dedicated to creating a whole universe and giving each personality a deep back story. The sound effects were crunching. The announcer’s voice was instantly iconic. And the characters, which were captured using digitised sprites based on real actors, were convincing. (For an insight into this process, Gamespot’s 20th anniversary MK documentary is well worth a watch).

Character

Despite only having seven playable characters, the first Mortal Kombat still assembled one of the greatest rogues galleries in the history of beat ‘em ups. As well as Cage, you had Liu Kang who, with respect to Tekken’s Marshall Law and Street Fighter’s Fei Ling, was the greatest Bruce Lee clone ever to grace videogames. There was special forces agent Sonya Blade, probably the most iron-willed character in the whole series, and Lord Raiden, a god in human form so dominant that the 1995 cult classic Mortal Kombat movie tapped ultra-badass Highlander star Christopher Lambert to play him. Not to mention Scorpion and Sub-Zero, one of the most iconic rivalries in gaming history that, ironically, came about because of the technology of the time’s restrictive limitations. To save on memory, the developers took the ninja outline and simply changed the colour of its outfit to create two distinct characters.

It all added up to a piece that satisfies to this day. There are few things in videogames as fun to do as playing as Scorpion, dragging your opponent towards you with a harpoon-like spear while screaming ‘Get over here!’, and knocking them back to the other side of the screen with a huge, earth-shattering uppercut. Or freezing your enemy as Sub-Zero and reveling in their lack of defence as you choose your next attack. And, of course, the fatalities. Nothing has ever punctuated a win like brutally burning your helpless enemy alive, or ripping his head off with their spine still attached.

A dynasty

I remember Mortal Kombat being a big deal in the arcades, but like most games, I primarily played the home console versions. By the time the game came out for the Sega Megadrive and Super Nintendo, the controversies surrounding its content were well-worn. MK was at the centre of the moral panic targeting video games violence that led to a US Congressional hearing and the creation of the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) in 1994 (Europe’s video game content rating system, Pan European Game Information, wasn’t established until 2003).

Such was the hubbub attached to MK that Nintendo actually proudly proclaimed its less bloody home version of the game. Unsurprisingly, it got crushed by Sega. Mortal Kombat II (1992), a perfect sequel that improved on the original in almost every respect without stripping away any aspect of what made it great, was later released with blood on all formats.

Mortal Kombat 3 (1994) and Mortal Kombat 4 (1997) followed, but the lukewarm reception both games received, as well as the lack of mainstream media coverage, meant the series never felt quite as zeitgeist again. A ridiculous 15 MK titles were released between 1995 and 2008, including action-adventure spin-offs Mortal Kombat Mythologies: Sub-Zero and Mortal Kombat: Special Forces, and crossover beat ’em up Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe.

The series has gotten a major shot in the arm in recent years though, first with the release of the excellent Mortal Kombat reboot in 2011, and now the just dropped Mortal Kombat X. Both games stayed faithful to almost every aspect of the original, from its attention to plot through the inventive Story Mode, which moves away from the traditional beat ’em up structure of picking one character and fighting your way through a chain of enemies, to its dedication to killer violence, and a whole new series of incredibly stomach-churning fatalities.

PEGI obviously slapped the games with 18 certificates. I’m not saying you should let your kids play these messed-up things of course, (seriously, don’t watch this video if your squeamish), but they’d probably love them as much as I loved the originals.

 

Dean is a freelance journalist and editor covering media.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com