Published: November 2nd, 2021
Author: Caitlynn Joann
Mortal Kombat came about via game designers John Tobias and Ed Boon, both of whom worked at Midway in Chicago. Midway became recognizable when they licensed Space Invaders and Pac-man from Japan in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Boon went directly to an arcade manufacturer, Williams, which bought out Midway in 1988. Boon began work in their pinball department, straight out of university, while Tobias began working on game graphics at Midway, after attempting to be a comic artist. Tobias notably worked on Shooter Smash TV and Total Carnage in the early ’90s. While working on pinball programming, Boon was consistently blown away with Midway’s game division. He eventually began working with legends like Eugene Jarvis, on an NFL title called High Impact Football, released in 1990.
Boon and Tobias, with help from fellow colleagues Daniel and Carlos Pesina, began working on the no-name game; Mortal Kombat. The Pesinas’ had martial arts experience and appeared as game characters, Daniel most notably as Johnny Cage. After hours of work and a presentation to Midway, it was rejected due to Midway having an interest in Universal Soldier, a game that miserably failed. But rumor tells us Richard Divizio, who plays Kano in the original and Barake in the sequel, convinced Tobias to push Midway a bit more, and they went for it!
Boon and Tobias used inspiration from other games, such as Karate Champ by Data East - Tobias cites this as the primary inspiration for Mortal Kombat plays. Another great influence was the 1983 action film Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain, as it did real-world fighting with mystical elements. If you have seen Big Trouble in Little China, you will note the resemblance between the Lightning character and Mortal Kombat’s Raiden character. Lastly, 1988’s Bloodsport’s Frank Dux, played by Jean-Claude Van Damme, was portrayed in Mortal Kombat in the form of Johnny Cage, whose data files were named 'Vandamme's. In Mortal Kombat, Cage is seen sporting Dux’s look with the same costume and shoes, even incorporating some of his moves from the movie.
Mortal Kombat was released on October 8th, 1992 in the U.S. It was the first fighting game to use digitized characters and blood. Mortal Kombat started out only as a 2D game, and at this time Street Fighter II, was the most popular fighting game, but Mortal Kombat’s backstory and the mystical world would quickly end that. Mortal Kombat was originally designed as a promotional piece for martial artist Jean-Claude Van Damme, who starred in Double Impact in 1993. Tobias shares, “the fiction behind Mortal Kombat was kind of already in development even prior to us chatting with Van Damme, and when he ended up not being involved, we just kind of marched ahead.”
Mortal Kombat II was released in 1993 and introduced the world to further violent fatalities and entered the spotlight for content censorship. Congressional hearings were held on video games by the Democratic Party and their attempt to censor video games and movies was dangerous for the fledgling franchises. This mix of realism and violence propelled Mortal Kombat into mass popularity. An example of this was Fatality, a “finishing” move executed against a dying opponent, creating a more gruesome death. One character would grasp the nearly defeated opponent by the head and rip it off with the spine following behind. The rest of the body would crumple to the ground in a pool of blood. A recurring element, the juggle, is a series of moves that could be executed against an opponent. If your moves caused them to be expelled into mid-air, you could force attacks on them, preventing them from defending themselves as long as they were in the air.
As the idea of censorship was favored and executed, Mortal Kombat was ported to home consoles where censorship began. On the SNES and SEGA Mega Drive, the blood was depicted as sweat. SEGA went a different route and allowed for a cheat code to reveal all of the gore: A-B-A-C-A-B-B. This code isn’t a series of random numbers, but rather an album title by the British band Genesis. Genesis is the North American name for Mega Drive. Pretty meta if you ask me.
Mortal Kombat arcade was the first video game to have an official release date countdown. This led to the infamous day, “Mortal Monday,” on September 13th, beginning in 1993. Stores were packed with 2 million copies of the game that disappeared from the shelves in record numbers. In 1994 all versions of the game were confiscated in Germany and only a censored version was released in Japan, with green blood and black and white fatality scenes, which of course became more alluring to the youth. Over the next few years, games like GTA took the spotlight for heightened violence and Mortal Kombat faded into the background. In 2011 Mortal Kombat made it's way back to center stage with enhanced graphics and visceral gore. It hit the shelves in April, and brought the series back to its roots, being recognized as the greatest Mortal Kombat game of all time.