Mortal Kombat is an American media franchise centered on a series of video games, originally developed by Midway Games in 1992.
The development of the first Mortal Kombat game was originally based on an idea that Ed Boon and John Tobias had of making a video game starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, but as that idea fell through, a science fantasy-themed fighting game was created instead. Still the developers paid homage to him with Johnny Cage, a fictional film star whose personal style resembles Van Damme's. The original Mortal Kombat was the first fighting game to introduce a secret fighter, reached if the player fulfilled a set of requirements.
The original game has spawned many sequels and spin-offs consisting of several action-adventure games, as well as a comic book series and a card game. Movie producer Larry Kasanoff licensed the rights to the game in the early 1990s and produced the first movie of the franchise. Kasanoff also produced the second movie, animated TV series, live-action TV series movies, the first one million platinum-selling album and a live-action tour. Mortal Kombat has become the best-selling fighting game franchise worldwide and one of the highest-grossing media franchises of all time.
The series has a reputation for high levels of graphic violence, including, most notably, its Fatalities which are finishing moves that kill. Controversies surrounding Mortal Kombat, in part, led to the creation of the Entertainment Software Rating Board video game rating system. Early games in this series were also noted for their realistic digitized sprites and an extensive use of palette swapping to create new characters.
Now that that's all out of the way, let's talk about what Mortal Kombat means to me.
It's 1992. I'm an edgy and depressed 18 year old, for no good reason. I'm reasonably handsome, I have an unbelievably gorgeous - and well out of my league - girlfriend, I am just about to buy my first car, I graduate from high school soon, and I'm working almost full time at Burger King with a handful of my best friends of the time. Across the street from the Burger King I work at is an arcade. The arcade for the city I'm living in. Great for young kids and birthday parties, with their animatronic band and designated party room. Awesome for teens and their need to hang out, with an expansive and ahead of the times arcade selection sat just a few steps away from the soda fountain and pizza buffet. A new game shows up on the floor. A game called, as you might've guessed, Mortal Kombat. I was forever changed after playing it for the first time.
I had no idea, truly, what I was doing. I had been playing video games since the Atari 2600 at home and the Pac-Man or Ms. Pac-Man arcade at the grocery/convenience store (what an odd thing to think about in this day and age, an arcade game at the gas station!), and had been doing so pretty religiously up until this point. I was not the best to ever hold a joystick or controller, I wasn't the best to do it in my city, I wasn't even the best to do it at my school. But I was pretty good and still managed to kind of have a name for being pretty good at video games around the neighborhood, school, and arcade. Dropping that first quarter into the first Mortal Kombat arcade game was the first time I'd felt truly blown away by a video game in some time, probably since I first finished The Legend Of Zelda a few years prior. And let's take a moment to remark on that. The Legend Of Zelda had come and gone - well, it never really went anywhere - and then in comes Mortal Kombat. We're talking about truly being groundbreaking. We had the aforementioned Zelda, Final Fantasy, Super Mario Bros, Sonic, and a whole string of games that sucked a lot more. There were games like Contra and Altered Beast and Chakan, which were pretty amazing and provided endless hours of enteratinment. But there really had not been anything like Mortal Kombat. Except, of course, for Kung-fu, which Mortal Kombat was clearly inspired by when it comes to video games. After the first Mortal Kombat game, all bets were off and the video game industry has not been the same since.
I spent hours and hours and hours at that arcade. I stole rolls of quarters from the till at Burger King and would go play it on my lunch break, often times coming back to work late from break. I turned down a blowjob or three to go meet people to play, especially after MKII came around. We developed our own local competition and set of ground rules regarding pay and play at the arcade. There were hand-made sign up sheets and a self-evolving heirarchy of players and spectators. There would be hours long wait times to play as a new competitor based on how long the opponent could continue to win. Regular spectators clearly enjoyed the front row compared to people just finding out about Mortal Kombat. And before too long that theme was found to exist in other places across the country that had MKII arcade machines. Suddenly there were real Mortal Kombat tournaments happening with actual cash (and other) prizes on the line. I managed to make it to second place at the local tournament. One spot too low to go to the state tournament - and maybe further. I was still an edgy and depressed teenager, except now I had a reason for being as such lol.
I kept a relative finger on the pulse of Mortal Kombat after MK3 came out, but truthfully I fell off hard at that point and didn't play the next few titles or any of the previous very much anymore outside of hanging with homies and gettin' stoned. My life had turned drastically upside down, I was moving a lot - in terms of both housing and employment. I had successfully transitioned from one "scene" to another, no small task as teen/young adult. It wasn't until Shaolin Monks came out that I started paying real attention again to the gaming side of the franchise. By this point I had "settled down", was heavily into the terrible twos and toddler years with my two kids, and had a lot more time at home than I'd provided myself in the previous decade. While Shaloin Monks didn't hit a lot of the spots I loved about the first 3 titles, it was still a really fun game - even with, and in spite of, it's many glitches. As someone who had sort of taken some time away from gaming overall, and Mortal Kombat in particular, it was fun to come back to it in a team effort and 3D environment. Without me realizing it at first, my youngest was paying attention and got sucked into Mortal Kombat before they hit age 4.
Aside from the title that featured a versus scenario with DC characters, my youngest and I kept pretty on top of checking out and playing the following titles, either together or individually depending on how we felt about them as we heard of them. Shaolin Monks will always hold a special place. While it's not a perfect game by any means, it truly is a two-player game in the closest thing you can get to a true teamwork dynamic that there was up until that time, and for a long while afterward - so we spent a good number of hours together playing it. MKX was when everything kind of came back home for me, as far as what my edgy and teenage self always dreamed Mortal Kombat could be. The graphics and play were so unbelievable - but, mostly the graphics. When MK11 was announced, with the adverts and teaser clips and cut scene footage next to gameplay footage, my youngest and I were stoked. I was stoked. In ways I hadn't been about a game, or anything sort of hobbiest or pop culture or anything really, in over a decade. I saved up and we got the MK11 Ultimate release and I later bought extra packs and we played that shit nightly for months. We still play it monthly, just not nightly. We're older now, we both work now. But it is still a part of our rituals.
Of course, we can't go without mentioning the movies from the 90s - or the one from 2021 (or the specials and animated series), to be honest - but they take a major backseat to the game side of the franchise. The first movie was a slightly campy take on what was perceived to be the story and plotline (things that any MK fan will admit to being weak to begin with). It was corny, but it was the early 90s. It could have never been made and/or the sole copy could burn in a fire right now and I wouldn't lose any sleep or bat an eye and nothing would truly be lost from the story or overall Mortal Kombat experience. That said, as a fan of the games and franchise - as well as being and edgy and depressed teen at the time, I feel like it's worthy of watching. The second film from the 90s, however, is absofuckinglutely not. The most recent film, from 2021, was a really great sort of nod to oldschool martial arts films and less about Mortal Kombat, I feel. Instead of being written around the lore of Mortal Kmobat, it feels like a martial arts flick where Mortal Kombat was thrown in haflway through writing and production or as an outright afterthought. It didn't satisfy the entire fanbase, but for those who showed up for Mortal Kombat at the beginning and understand a damn good fight sequence being just a damn good fight sequence - on film or in game - it hit nicely.
We are coming up on the 30th anniversary of this game touching down in my hometown and I can't wait to see what they have lined up for us.