So Real It Hurts: Mortal Kombat's Legacy

Celebrating 30 years of Mortal Kombat

So Real It Hurts: Mortal Kombat's Legacy
Photo by WTFast / Unsplash.

Arriving at the arcade, hoards of teenagers line up to play the latest video game craze. Eyewitness reports the game is Mortal Kombat, and gamers can’t put it down, given the intense blood and a move dubbed fatality.

No game before featured this level of violence, leading to a concern regarding who and how we consume games. How does this game affect our youth? Will there be a limit to what’s acceptable for our children? How will the government respond?

After Mortal Kombat hit arcade shops in 1992, the government introduced the ESRB: the rating system used for video games in the United States and Canada. With the ESRB, it became a win-win for the government and the developers behind the titles.

In the arcades, the response to Mortal Kombat was overwhelming. Throngs of people lined up to play. The hours spent trying to reach the boss not only placed gamers in Mortal Kombat history, but created memorable gaming memories for many.

Mortal Kombat reached its 30 year milestone this week and to commemorate the franchise, let’s rediscover its origins and it's visceral legacy.

I’m off! The elder gods are waiting.

Kung-fu or Jean-Claude Van Damme?

Released by Midway on October 8, 1992, Mortal Kombat began as a kung-fu fighting game. Four guys, co-creator John Tobias, Richard Divizio, Daniel, and Carlos Pesina, thought of a martial arts title based on kung-fu films. Midway rejected the idea.

The interest returned when Midway sought a fighting game starring action star Jean-Claude Van Damme. Straight away, John Tobias, Ed Boon (the other co-creator), Carlos Pesina, John Vogel, and Dan Forden began work. The quintet picked up steam until Van Damme could not star in the game. Then, given Midway kept interested, the team returned to the kung-fu motif.

With the martial arts idea green-lit, the team of five began working on the title.

With Carlos Pesina as a stunt actor, the team filmed his moves and digitized the sprites into the video game. The digitized actors became a trademark for the ’90s Mortal Kombat games.


Fighter selection screen. Source: Gifer.

The characters they digitized were:

  • Scorpion: A yellow Hellspawn ninja bend on revenge
  • Sub-Zero: A blue ninja out for glory
  • Johnny Cage: An a-list celebrity who is a reworking of Jean-Claude Van Damme
  • Kano: A thug out for the prize
  • Raiden: The god of thunder and protector of Earthrealm
  • Sonya Blade: A military specialist looking for her partner. Fun fact about Sonya was her character was originally male and named Curtis Stryker.
  • Liu-Kang: A Shaolin Monk hoping to win it all.

The seven characters enter a Mortal Kombat tournament against Shang-Tsung and his cronies. In the last tournaments, the four-arm Shokan Goro won. He remained champion after defeating the great Kung Lao 500 years ago. With Goro’s consecutive wins, his home (Outworld) gets closer to conquering Earthrealm. Yet this time, Earthrealm stands a chance. The thunder god Raiden has championed Liu-Kang, who is ready to keep peace in Earthrealm.

By any sort, the story isn’t groundbreaking, yet the gameplay is. Mortal Kombat features two sets of basic moves for punches and kicks. The high punch, low punch, high kick, and low kick. The characters as well have special abilities. For example, Scorpion can shoot a spear, Sub-Zero an Ice ball, and Liu-Kang, a fly kick.

Yet, the most damning of all features is the fatalities.

The idea of killing the character happened organically. During development, the dizzying effect from Street Fighter annoyed the team. So they thought, “why not have the dizzying effect happen at the end of the match?” From there, they created the gruesome move.

We can acknowledge the blood in the same way. As the process for the game came along, the blood emerged. It isn’t clear if they knew the blood would cause an uproar, making video game history. Regardless, the blood remained and became the franchise’s staple ever since.

Source: Warner Bros.

The blood and fatalities were coincidences, and so was the name Mortal Kombat. The name came to fruition when someone wrote combat with a K on their name board, as Ed Boon remembers. However, John Tobias remembers a different story. They changed the C in combat to a K for trademark reasons.

With everything in place, the team completed the game. Mortal Kombat headed to arcades everywhere, blowing the minds of everyone. Unfortunately, the team spiked the difficulty since Mortal Kombat is an arcade title. Gamers must keep inputting coins to reach Shang Tsung and become Mortal Kombat’s grand champion.

I wasn’t alive when this revolution occurred, but I will cherish Mortal Kombat when I laid my eyes on it. The many hours playing with family and at home changed my life.

'Mortal Combo?' What Mortal Kombat Means to Me

My earliest recollection of Mortal Kombat wasn’t with its first title, but with its third. Given I was always around family, I would ask my uncles if I could play "Mortal Combo" (I didn’t know the name). We then played Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 until I had to go home.

My exposure with the franchise grew. One of my cousins had the game on their Super Nintendo and I recall toying with the game's television plug-n-play. I spent countless hours holding that thick blue, red, and black controller. Car trips had me glued on a portable screen, trying my hardest to beat the game as my family weave through traffic.

Each time I reached Goro, I couldn’t get past him. I would try to beat him, but to no unveil. Unfortunately, Goro will have me beat, as I no longer have the Mortal Kombat plug-n-play. It’s one thing from childhood lost to time.

One day, I will repurchase the plug-n-play or the classic Mortal Kombat collection to have my revenge.

Kombat Immortalized

Mortal Kombat gained many fans from day one. However, the heavy use of martial arts films, blood, and memorable fatalities has kept both veteran and new fans playing endlessly.

It kept me playing. I’ve been a Mortal Kombat fan since I played with family members. My continuous exposure to Mortal Kombat made it my favorite video game franchise. Those who love the game as well saw the game grow from digitized actors with pixelated blood to 3D models dying in realistic ways.

Thank god I’m not squeamish.

Mortal Kombat is celebrating its 30 years, releasing a video that gives snapshots of its incredible legacy both on consoles to the movie screen. Not too long ago, there has been news and teasing of a potentially new title. In the meantime, keep your eyes peeled for the the 30th Anniversary Ultimate Bundle!

While we have to wait and see what the Mortal Kombat team shows us, I know it will be worth celebrating.


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