In our Final Round series, we take a look an in-depth look at as many fighting games as we possibly can. For part 3 of the series, Shaun Eddleston takes a look at 1992’s Mortal Kombat…
Year of Release – 1992
Developer – Midway
Publisher – Midway
Platforms – Arcade, Amiga, Game Boy, MS-DOS, Sega CD, Game Gear, Genesis, Master System, Super Nintendo
Developed by Midway in 1992 as a response to the wildly popular Street Fighter II, Mortal Kombat took a slightly different direction thematically than the cartoonish sprites of other beat ’em ups. Opting for digitized photos of actors, Mortal Kombat looked more realistic and placed a much higher emphasis on strong, bloody violence.
The control scheme was also a departure from the norm too, as characters did not block while retreating or crouching, but required pushing the block button. Even then, characters would take (reduced) damage from any hit while blocking. If the two fighters were close to each other, hitting any of the attack buttons would result in a different strike: a low punch turned into an unblockable throw, a high punch turned into a heavy elbow or backhand, and either kick turned into a knee strike. Crouching and hitting either punch resulted in an uppercut, which was the heaviest strike of the game.
It also introduced the concept of juggling. Juggling takes advantage of the fact that when a character is knocked into the air, the player is unable to control their character until he or she lands and gets up again.
Another key part of fighting game controls that Mortal Kombat changed was the way special moves were performed. It was the first to introduce moves that did not require a button press (such as tap back, tap back, then forward), and only a few of the special moves required circular joystick movement that were commonly found in other games of that era.
The game is also noted for the controversies that surrounded its high level of violence. Alongside games such as Night Trap and Lethal Enforcers, Mortal Kombat is partly responsible for the formation of the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), a governing body that requires all games to be rated.
The arcade adverts for Mortal Kombat are some of my absolute favourites, especially the “SO REAL IT HURTS!” spot. Sticking true to the
konsistent consistent branding from day one, replacing as many hard “C” letters with the letter K, Midway’s promotional material to get these machines into arcades nationwide were right on point for their audiences.
The home release ads, found primarily in comic books and games magazines, were also suitably effective in targeting their demographic. Hyping up the characters and the game itself with press quotes, Mortal Kombat was pretty much poised to be a success from the word go!
Mortal Kombat features seven unique playable characters, each with their own back story that ties in to the game’s general lore.
The game’s main storyline centers around a tournament being held by Shang Tsung on an island in Earthrealm. For 500 years in a row, Goro has been undefeated in the tournament, and initially helped Shang Tsung take over the tournament in an attempt to doom the realm. This, the 10th tournament, sees a new generation of fighters enter in an attempt to become the new Grand Champion.
A martial arts superstar trained by several great masters from around the world. Utilising his fighting talents on the big screen, Cage is the star of such movies as Dragon Fist, Dragon Fist II and the award-winning Sudden Violence.
Boasting an effective mix of agility and strength, Johnny Cage has a handful of cool moves at his disposal. The Green Shadow Kick, in which Cage slides across the floor with one foot, followed by a green-colored afterimage and connects with a kick to the torso of his opponent with the other one. The Plasmic Bolt sees Cage throw a green orb of energy at the enemy, while the Split Punch remains one of the character’s more memorable moves; he does a split and punches the opponent in the groin. This move previously only worked on male opponents, while against women, instead of punching, he would simply do a split and stand back up.
Kano lives a life of crime and injustice as part of the Black Dragon gang, a dangerous group of cut-throat madmen. An expert mercenary, thief and thug, Kano is feared and respected throughout all of crime’s inner circles.
Kano‘s moveset varies from the Kanoball, where he curls up into a ball and flies at the opponent, to the knife throw, which, as the name suggests, sees Kano throw a pair of knives at his enemies. This reliance on weapons instead of special powers separates Kano from the rest of the roster, and makes him a steadily formidable challenge to go up against.
A deity known as the “Thunder God”, Raiden was rumoured to have received a personal invitation by Shang Tsung himself to take form of a human to compete in the tournament.
As the god of thunder and lightning, Raiden harnesses some powerful electrical attacks, such as the Electrical Bolt, a bolt of lightning flying at his opponent. Raiden can also teleport behind an opponent, which is handy when trying to evade attacks, as well as launch himself towards them (while yelling gibberish) and push them against the wall.
A former member of the secret White Lotus Society, Liu Kang represents Shaolin temples in the tournament, and has a burning hatred of Shang Tsung.
At this point in time, Liu Kang‘s character design was incredibly similar to the wave of Bruce Lee-esque characters in the genre, but is one of the most powerfully agile fighters in the game, regardless. With attacks such as the Flying Kick, which sees Kang fly across the screen to land a kick on an opponents torso, to the Dragon Fire, where Kang sends a flame shot in the shape of a dragon towards an enemy. He also remains as one of the central characters in the whole franchise.
Sub-Zero‘s name and identity is unknown at this point, but due to the markings on his uniform, it is believed that he belongs to a legendary clan of Chinese assassins known as the Lin Kuei.
One of the most iconic characters in the entire Mortal Kombat franchise, Sub-Zero lives up to his namesake by having complete control over the element of ice. He has the ability to temporarily freeze opponents, as well as slide kick across the floor, tripping up opponents.
Like Sub-Zero, Scorpion‘s identity in this game is a mystery. From time to time, Scorpion has been known to show distrust and hatred towards Sub-Zero, which suggests that he belongs to an opposing clan.
Scorpion is, without a doubt, the most recognisable and famous characters in the entirety of Mortal Kombat. His arsenal includes the Hellfire Punch, which sees Scorpion quickly teleport behind his opponent and uppercutting them, and his signature move, the Spear, which sends out a rope with a tipped Kunai at the end, impales itself into the victim’s chest, allowing Scorpion to pull him or her through the air towards him for a free hit, as he shouts “GET OVER HERE!“; a brilliantly simple line that has now etched itself into the pop culture lexicon forever.
A member of a top U.S. Special Forces unit that was hot on the trail of the Black Dragon organisation. After tracking Kano and his men to an uncharted island, Blade‘s team was ambushed by Shang Tsung‘s personal army.
One of the most agile characters in the game, Blade also has the ability to manipulate pink-coloured energy, and throw concentrated blasts at an opponent. Her other moves include the Leg Grab, where she does a handstand, grabs her opponent with her feet, then slams them to the ground behind her, and the Face Planter, which sees Blade fly across the screen with a punch to anyone who thinks about using aerial attacks.
A 2,000 year old half-human dragon, who has remained undefeated for 500 years. After defeating a Shaolin fighting monk known as Kung Lao (who will pop up again later in this series!), Goro won the title of Grand Champion.
Apart from the GameBoy version of the game, Goro is not a playable character, and proves to be a tricky sub-boss when faced. Armed (ha!) with a number of high-powered offensive tactics such as Fireballs and a lethal Leaping Stomp (which sees him leave the screen entirely), Goro is notoriously difficult to defeat in this game.
The former Grand Champion, Shang Tsung takes over the Shaolin tournament and corrupts it in the name of his master, Shao Kahn.
Another non-selectable character, and the game’s final boss, Tsung possesses the ability to shapeshift, morphing into any character in the game, and can also fire flaming skulls at opponents.
Fun Fact: Shang Tsung‘s character design is based on Lo Pan, the antagonist of the 1986 John Carpenter movie Big Trouble In Little China, and was originally named Shang Lao.
Faithfully serving as Shang Tsung‘s protector in this tournament, Reptile is a master of stealth, staying hidden and constantly watching, staying true to his duties. He rarely fights, though he is highly skilled in combat, and is a force to be reckoned with.
Although we would see Reptile appear in future Mortal Kombat titles as a playable character, he remains a secret non-playable fighter in the first game. In order to face him, players had to execute a Fatality finish after fighting on The Pit stage, assuming a shadow flew over the moon in the background, without taking any damage or pressing the block button in the winning round.
There are a total of seven stages to fight on in the first Mortal Kombat;
- Courtyard – Shang Tsung sits on his throne and looks on as fights take place in front of a crowd of monks in this Enter The Dragon-esque stage.
- Palace Gates – Located at Shang Tsung‘s old island fortress, with a large statue of Buddha looming in the background.
- Warrior Shrine – A shrine dedicated to honour the contestants of the tenth Mortal Kombat tournament. Goro‘s statue is in the center being the Grand Champion.
- Throne Room – Where Shang Tsung sits on his throne in his island domain and watches as the combatants fight each other for his amusement.
- Goro’s Lair – Home to the Grand Champion Goro, this level with stone walls and several dark passageways; human bones are scattered on the floor and a skeleton hangs from a few shackles at the center of the arena. Many pairs of glowing yellow eyes appear and occasionally blink in the dark portions of the back area.
- The Pit – a bridge suspended over a sea of steel spikes, which is the source of death for anyone unlucky enough to be knocked off. When an opponent is defeated on this stage, they can be uppercutted off the bridge where they will land on the bed of spikes. This is the game’s only stage fatality. There are many severed heads at the bottom of the pit, including those of game creators Ed Boon and John Tobias.
- Pit Bottom – This stage is only accessible when the player is fighting Reptile.
Mortal Kombat‘s bonus stage is called “Test Your Might”. The minigame consists of the player’s character standing above one of five blocks of increasing hardness, depending on how far the player has progressed in Test Your Might. The player would have to hammer multiple buttons until the gauge next to their character passed a certain point, and then would have to press the Block button to strike. If they were above this point, their character would break the block in front of them. Otherwise, their hand would bounce off the object sitting in front of them.
Not the most original of minigames, as several other earlier titles had similar levels, but this one would return in later Mortal Kombat games.
After the game’s initial arcade release in late 1992, Mortal Kombat saw a release on several home consoles, with varying degrees of quality.
The SNES version was more true to the visuals and audio of the arcade version than the Sega Mega Drive/Genesis version was, but was heavily censored, due to the “Family Friendly” policy of Nintendo at the time. Blood was replaced with sweat, and several moves were changed to be less brutal and violent. These changes to the core element of Mortal Kombat make many consider this to be one of the most disappointing arcade-to-console ports ever. The Sega Genesis/Mega Drive version also featured no blood, but included a cheat code that enables the blood to be switched back on.
The GameBoy version was somewhat popular due to including Goro as a playable character (via a secret code), but Johnny Cage was not included as a character, and, like the SNES version, included no gore. The Sega Game Gear version matched the Mega Drive port in that blood could be switched on via a code, but the game suffered in its framerate, making it difficult to pull off fatalities. The Sega Master System version is practically identical to the Game Gear version, albeit with smaller characters.
The MS-Dos version’s graphics were the most faithful to the arcade version, but there were issues with the sound on the floppy disk version. A CD version was later released, and is a near-perfect recreation of the original arcade edition.
The Amiga version of the game is famous for allowing players to execute every move by using one button, due to controller restraints, and the Sega CD port includes a few extras such as the “Mortal Monday” commercial, and gameplay that feels more faithful to the original arcade version, but lacks slightly in terms of visuals.
Mortal Kombat built a reputation for its highly violent gameplay, and nothing emphasises this more than the inclusion of the “fatality”.
Each character has their own specific fatality, and requires a particular set of inputs to trigger them in the short gap of time between when game commands players to “FINISH HIM/HER!” and the opponent collapsing. Ranging from the heart being ripped from an opponents chest, heads being removed with the spinal cord still attached to Scorpion removing his mask to breath fire and Liu Kang transforming into a dragon, these fatalities are hilariously grim, and are one of the greatest parts of the game.
These gruesome finishing moves have become firm fan favourites across the series, and inspired many future fighting games to implement the same vicious elements too.
Mortal Kombat is a simply brilliant start to an iconic franchise, and one of the most beloved arcade games ever. While the sequels were way more sophisticated in terms of graphics and movesets, the first game holds a special place in gaming history for its innovative gameplay tweaks and its hilariously bloody violence.
The game literally helped to reshape the way in which video games were released, had a significantly more detailed story than many of its peers and remains one of my personal favourites in the genre.