Gaming History 101

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Now & Then: Mortal Kombat (Midway)

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Last week Mortal Kombat released for the Playstation Vita and while I was playing it for review I couldn’t help but notice that the series has not changed much since it first released.  Normally this is a bad thing, but in the case of this series its strength relies on its simplicity.  Mortal Kombat is a game all about beating the crap out of your opponent and then topping it all off with a finishing move that is extremely violent in nature.

First Impressions

I still remember the day that I saw the first Mortal Kombat arcade out in the wild.  It was 1992, I was 10 and frequented the local roller rink where I could meet up with friends and play arcade games.  Yeah, even in 1992 the roller rink was still alive and well in Chicago’s northern suburbs.  At that time the arcade was dominated by Street Fighter II, a cartoon-like fighter from the geniuses at Capcom, but I wasn’t all that good at it and truthfully had little interest in fighters.  That is, until I walked in and saw a new game that prominantly displayed the title “Mortal Kombat” in bright yellow letters.  My first thought was how stupid it was that the word “combat” was misspelled, but then I noticed that the game used digitized realistic looking actors. Even more impressive was when the first uppercut made contact and a shower of blood erupted from the opponent’s face.  I was intrigued.

The line was long to play the game and I would waste a good 30 minutes “quartering up” (a term that meant you would place your quarter on the glass bezel to signify your place in line).  The game consisted of seven characters – two ninjas that shared the same costume with different colors, a guy that looked like Jean Claude Van Damme, a guy with a half-Terminator face (T2 had just come out), Bruce Lee, some chick, and finally a lightening guy with a ridiculous hat – you probably know the cast better by their actual names which are (in order of my descriptions): Scorpion, Sub-Zero, Johnny Cage, Kano, Liu Kang, Sony, and Raiden (misspelled Rayden in certain ports).  I favored Kano and Raiden because back then I based it purely on what the character looked like, not how they played.  Those first inital weeks were spent getting to know the game, utilizing all the moves that emitted blood, and learning the special moves.  Then one day I saw a guy playing as Johnny Cage beat Sonya and when it said “Finish Her” (usually a cue to uppercut) and he put in some special move, the screen darkened, and he punched her head right off.  As the stump spewed blood like a volcano, we all stood in absolute amazement and for the moment that guy was the coolest gamer I’d ever met.

Mortal Kombat has always held a special place in my heart because, lets face it, I was young and it was violent.  Some say it doesn’t have the game mechanics necessary to be a true “fighter”, whereas others feel the fact that any skill level can have a chance is intriguing.  Whatever the reason the game was responsible for taking at least half my weekly allowence.  Then the big news came: Mortal Kombat would be receiving home console ports to the Genesis, Super NES, Gameboy, and Game Gear.  Each game was to release holiday 1993 and it was unknown whether or not the blood and fatalities would remain.


Mortal Kombat was initially created by two men: programmer Ed Boon and graphic designer John Tobias.  The two men wanted to create an arcade game where Jean-Claude Van Damme would run around and beat up bad guys (Bad Dudes?) and even toyed with a fighting game based on Bloodsport (Pit Fighter?).  It turned out that Van Damme had been in talks with another developer, passed on the license, and that title never saw the light of day.  Midway then asked that the team develop a fighting game that was to compete with heavy hitter Street Fighter II and with a one year or less development cycle. Mortal Kombat would successfully be completed in 10 months.

Starting out Boon and Tobias recruited John Vogel as another graphical artist and Dan Forden for sound design.  The team would extend beyond this, but these four crafted the original members of the Midway team and would go on to gain quite a bit of fame in the early-to-mid 90s for their work on the Mortal Kombat and NBA Jam series.  One of the first decisions made was to model Johnny Cage after Van Damme as an homage to the actor (complete with initials “J.C.”) and famously included a splits groin punch after the scene in Bloodsport.   Ho Sung Pak played the screaming Liu Kang and ironically the final boss Shang Tsung (ironic because the cannonized plot has Liu Kang winning the tournament).  Elizabeth Malecki played Sonya, Richard Divizio played Kano, Carlos Pesina played Raiden, and brother Daniel Pesina would round out the cast playing Johnny Cage, Scorpion, Sub-Zero, and Reptile.  Goro, the sub-boss for the game, was a stop motion miniature because of his mutated look and four arms.  While not many members of the development team made appearences in the first game, they would make subsequent appearences in sequels and a couple were even secret characters in the NBA Jam series.

Of all the things the development team struggled with, the name was one of the biggest.  Discarded names included Kumite(sparring), Dragon Attack, Death Blow, and even Fatality.  Eventually someone wrote over the word “combat” on Boon’s white board, giving the word a “K” in the title instead of a “C” and pinball designer Steve Ritchie, during a visit to Boon’s office, suggested the name “Mortal Kombat“.  According to Boon, after that the name, “just stuck.”  From that point on, the developers would tend to integrate “K” in for “C” for various words.

Mortal Kombat Komes Home

Mortal Monday, which was some Monday in the summer 1993, was the official launch day of Mortal Kombat on home consoles.  There would be four versions, one for each home and portable console for Nintendo and Sega and none of them would have blood or fatalities.  Well, that’s not exactly true, Sega wisely decided to include the one aspect of the game that people wanted but shipped with the blood locked away behind a code.  At that time Sega was self-rating its games and gave Mortal Kombat an MA-13 (the game equivalent to PG-13) with the ruse that the rating was based on the “locked” version.  There is not a gaming child of the 90s out there that can’t tell you about ABACAB (these are the button presses to unlock blood on the “code” screen) and DULLARD (button presses to unlock the cheat menu).  Lesser known but still valuable was 212DU, the button presses for blood that was on the 3rd “code” screen in the Game Gear version.  As a result, while I was enjoying ripping off heads and dangling spinal columns my SNES friends were looking at gray “sweat” blood and “finishing moves” that were pathetic.


While it was nowhere near as pretty as the SNES version, the Genesis version of Mortal Kombat clearly took home the prize for best port.  It’s rarely discussed, but the speed for which the game moved also provided a benefit for Genesis owners, whereas the SNES version was sluggish and felt slightly delayed.  Later on a port for the Sega CD was released, which took advantage of the extra colors and memory to create a version that looked much closer to the arcade.  This version also had red book audio, which made for the wonderful soundtracks that CD-based games of this time often had, and Mortal Kombat was no exception.  Unlike all other versions the blood was unlocked from the start and thus the game was internally rated MA-17 by Sega’s board, but also unlike all other versions the CD format brought with it load times each time Shang Tsung would morph into a new character.

Video Game Violence Heats Up

With the home version finally in place and most gamers in the country eagerly playing, it was only a matter of time before parents and governmental officials took notice.  All of the graphic violence and digitized realistic characters would have been ignored had it not been for the game invading homes and kids were playing for endless hours.  It was impossible to avoid – screams, blood, and decapitation was in front of every parent’s eyes.  It was at that time that violence in video games not only came under scrutiny, but Mortal Kombat was instantly connected with every case the senators brought up.  While historically the focus over video game inappropriation and violence likes to put Grand Theft Auto on the forefront, it was begun by Mortal Kombat and Night Trap way before that.

Toasty Eggs

Another great aspect of Mortal Kombat was the various secrets hidden in the series.  Back in those days it was difficult to confirm or deny any rumors you had heard and those that weren’t in magazines or early web sites could also be dominated by simple playground talk.  I had friends who unlocked the power to play Goro in the Genesis version, performed a “nudality” and saw a naked Sonya in the SNES version, and even unlocked Ermac in the arcade version.  None of these were true of course, but that didn’t stop people from making up whatever rumors they wanted to.  It didn’t help that a lot of the true secrets and easter eggs were so off the wall that anything was possible.

You could fight against Reptile, a hybrid of Scorpion and Sub-Zero with a green costume, in the first game.  It was no easy task: you had to be on the pit, shadows had to cross the moon (only one in six fights on the arcade version), you had to get a double flawless victory without using block and perform a fatality.  If all of these things happened at once, you would get to fight Reptile at the bottom of the pit with a 10,000,000 point bounty on his head.  He was brutally difficult and although the points didn’t really matter, it was a surefire way to get your initials permanently placed at the top of the machine’s leaderboard.  In the console versions there were ways to glitch the game and create a green-coated fighter for the second player if they joined while you fought Reptile.

Some of the rumors were based on possiblities, like the Ermac being the rumored name of Reptile if the machine accidentally glitched from time to time on the arcade.  The glitch would display Reptile as red instead of green and an internal counter would trigger and “ERror MACro” would be displayed.  This lead to the idea that a fighter named Ermac could be unlocked and fought, but he never made an appearence until Midway created him as an unlock in Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3.  There were obvious blood code rumors for the SNES version, but the only truth to that was a simple Game Genie code that would change the grey sweat to red, thus emulating blood, but nothing else changed.  Electronic Gaming Monthly also put an April Fools prank out suggesting the unlockable fighter Nimbus Terrafaux in the Genesis version, complete with an altered image that fooled me for a few weeks.

As for all the other rumors, they rely solely in gaming urban legends.  Several Mortal Kombat clones were released, all of which were terrible, that attempted to bring some of these rumors to light.  Primal Rage was also developed by Midway and had similarities to Mortal Kombat, but only had controversy thanks to a large ape named Chaos that could throw up and urinate on his opponents.  Time Killers removed most of the hassle of remembering fatalities and waiting for a win, instead allowing the removal of limbs through regular gameplay and generic finishers that dismembered the other player.  Data East also created an unreleased arcade game called Tattoo Assassins that was nearly finished and exists in a fully playable version on MAME, that had multiple fatalities for each character and even the rumored “nudalities” that would stip the player down to nothing (no actual nudity was displayed).  Even Naughty Dog’s first game was a horrid recreation of MK called Way of the Warrior, which existed only on the ultra expensive 3DO, but don’t worry you aren’t missing much.

Mortal Kombat!

There’s no doubt that this fighter was one of the definitive games of the early 90s, during a time where the genre was beginning to rule supreme.  It’s not a particularly good fighter and its focus is more on button mashing than anything else, but it was that simplicity that made the game fun.  Oh yeah, and a ton of blood.

The Mortal Kombat Now & Then Series Continues with Mortal Kombat II

Written by Fred Rojas

May 11, 2012 at 12:00 pm

2 Responses

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  1. Thanks , I’ve recently been searching for information about this topic for a long time and yours is the best I have discovered till now. However, what concerning the bottom line? Are you sure concerning the supply?|What i don’t realize is in fact how you’re now not really a lot more well-favored than you may be right now. You are so intelligent.

    • Not quite sure what you mean regarding the “bottom line” or “supply”, but I’ll do the best I can to answer any specific questions on game sales, popularity, or to clarify my statements in any article. Please note that sales data in the United States can often times be difficult to get specifics on given poor tracking of game sales historically for our country (and the fact that the actual numbers are rarely released by the publishers).


      October 6, 2012 at 12:09 pm

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