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History of Mortal Kombat Part 1

VO: Adrian Sousa WRITTEN BY: Jarett Burke
In preparation for Mortal Kombat 11, let's take a trip down Mortal Kombat memory lane. First, let's visit Mortal Kombat's arcade days with MK1, MK2, and MK3, then FINISH IT off with Mortal Kombat 4. Here's Part 1 of the History of the Mortal Kombat franchise.
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History of Mortal Kombat - Part 1

Anyone who remembers the arcade scene from the Early 90s knows that fighting games were all the rage. Games like “Street Fighter 2” and “Fatal Fury” had us pumping quarters into arcade cabinets like our lives depended on it. It was in this incredible era of arcade fighters that Midway Games entered the arena with the very first “Mortal Kombat” in the Fall of 1992, changing the history of fighting games forever. Welcome to MojoPlays, and this is the History of Mortal Kombat Part 1.

Seeing as the “MK” series has been in our lives for nearly two decades, we’re breaking this topic into two parts to do it justice. For this first video, we’re looking at the series from its birth all the way up to “Mortal Kombat 4” – the last game to get an arcade cabinet release. There’s a whole lot of blood-soaked details in these early years of the franchise, so let’s get cracking!

“Mortal Kombat” owes its existence to a magical partnership, more so than an initial idea or concept. Both Ed Boon and John Tobias were working at Midway during the rise of arcade fighters in the Early 90s – Boon as a programmer and Tobias as an artist. Midway saw the runaway success that was “Street Fighter 2” and tasked both men with coming up with a combat game that could rival Capcom’s big hit. Boon and Tobias’ first idea was to make a Kung-Fu themed game with large digitized characters, aiming for a more realistic looking game than the likes of “Street Fighter 2” and “Fatal Fury.” Midway was thinking bigger, however, and wanted to take a more “Hollywood” approach, aiming to sign Jean-Claude Van Damme to headline its upcoming game in order to give it more mainstream appeal. Fortunately for Midway (and the rest of the world), plans to grab Van Damme fell through, and once again, Boon and Tobias returned to their initial idea of a Kung-Fu themed fighter.

With a small development team, Boon and Tobias began work on the then-unnamed fighting game in 1991 and would finish it less than a year later; but, it wasn’t always planned to be so violent – the blood and gore we all know and love just kind of evolved from one idea to the next. For example, having found the stun mechanic in “Street Fighter 2” more annoying than exciting, the development team moved it to the end of the fight, rather than have it occur during rounds. With the chance to get in the ultimate final attack on a dazed opponent, the idea for the controversial Fatality was born. A half-way completed demo became very popular within Midway’s office, which was really the first sign that this game would be successful. One of the harder parts of getting the project finished was settling on a name that could properly capture its essence. Finally, with the name “Mortal Kombat” in place – with the “C” devilishly changed to a “K” – the game was released in arcades in 1992 and on home consoles one year later - but not without its fair share of controversy in both cases.

Due to the game’s graphic nature, there were many calls to censor both the arcade and home versions and the debate led to a U.S. Senate Committee Hearing on video game violence in 1993 and 94, which ultimately helped lead to the creation of the ESRB Ratings Board. But, like most controversies, all the media attention only served to heighten “Mortal Kombat’s” exposure, helping it become one of the biggest video game releases of all time with its own commercials, comic book and even day of the week, dubbed “Mortal Monday.” The game was a critical success and sold more than three million copies during its release year alone and all but assured a sequel. All the media attention and public outcries seemingly had the exact opposite reaction as some parents and politicians had hoped.

For the second game, Boon wanted to include everything he and his team couldn’t fit into the original and make it twice as big, which included a focus on making it look better than the first game – using advanced video capture methods and more post-production effects to sharpen the overall image quality. This “Bigger and Better” mindset even trickled down to the smallest of details, such as using hand-drawn stills for more complex character animations and employing clay sculptures to animate larger characters. During the second game’s development in 1993 – right at the height of hysteria surrounding the first game’s console release –Midway knew it had to pull out all the stops in order to top “MK1.” So, the developers naturally went with darker themes, storyline, and art design to emphasize the graphic nature of the game; added two fatalities per character (along with other finishers such as Friendships and Babalities); and interjected a lot more humor into the game to help provide comic relief amongst the violent chaos. Who can forget the “Toasty!” guy?! Also, they focused a lot more on refining the combat, making room for combos, and offering a tighter gameplay experience overall to address concerns that the first game wasn’t as tight as its Capcom and SNK rivals.

If the release of the first “Mortal Kombat” was groundbreaking, then the release of the second game was downright astonishing. It hit arcades in Spring of 1993 and was so popular that Midway’s earnings increased by fifteen million dollars from primarily the arcade sales alone. Further, the home version was released amidst a massive ten million dollar marketing campaign and was also given its own day of the week much like the first one: September 13th, 1994 or, as gamers called it, “Mortal Tuesday.” Unlike the first game, though, the home versions were released uncensored this time around, which no doubt helped boost sales, which were enormous: by the Early 2000s, MKII had reached over four hundred million in sales.

How would Midway follow up this overwhelming success? By jumping right back into development for the third game, of course. “Mortal Kombat 3” spent just over one year in development but by the time the game was set to release in Spring of 1995, there were already 3D fighting games on the market that sucked a bit of wind out of “MK3’s” sails. Originally, Boon, Tobias, and Company wanted “MK3” to be 3D, but due to the complicated nature of making a 3D fighting game, they once again settled for 2D sprites – although characters were digitized more so than the second game to give them a slightly more realistic look. Despite not making the leap to 3D, there were some additions to the third game that separated it from its predecessor. First off, the game had a more Western feel to it, with venues set in modern locations as opposed to the Mystical stages from the first two games. Also, for the first time in the series, a run button and run meter were added, and the game allowed for chained, unblockable combos similar to other popular fighting games of the time like “Killer Instinct.” While, in terms of finishing an opponent, Animalities were added to the mix.

While “Mortal Kombat 3” was another massive release both in arcades and on home consoles, this time around the series wasn’t immune to its fair share of criticism. Of course, the 2D graphics were questioned, but so too were decisions to remove fan favorites such as Scorpion and Raiden for bland newcomers like Stryker and Nightwolf. The game’s modern setting was bemoaned as well, as were the run mechanics and combo system. With the third game, it appeared that the “Mortal Kombat” hysteria that swept much of the world was starting to wear off. Luckily for die-hard fans of the series, the game received an updated version in “Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3” for arcades later that year (and home consoles in 1996) that corrected the base game’s faults, mainly by adding more stages and beloved characters from MK2.

As the 90s came to a close, so did most of the arcades in North America. So, the fourth “Mortal Kombat” was the last game in the series released in arcades in 1997. In terms of firsts, however, it was the first “Mortal Kombat” game to use 3D graphics and it also added weapons to the mix. But, just as enthusiasm had dropped for “MK3,” the fourth game also suffered from fighting game fatigue and a lack of fresh ideas despite the jump to 3D. It received average reviews but couldn’t replicate the financial successes of the first three games, despite receiving a 35-stop tour of the United States to show off its prowess. “MK4” eventually came to home consoles in 1998, but seeing as the N64’s was limited due to it using cartridges instead of CDs, the PlayStation and PC versions of the game were deemed superior – though still not as good as the arcade version.

And things didn’t get much better for the beloved fighting franchise from 1997 onward as Midway’s attempts to break into the action/adventure sphere with “Mortal Kombat Mythologies: Sub Zero” that year and “Mortal Kombat: Special Forces” in 2000 were both universally panned by critics and fans alike. Thus, by the end of the 20th Century, “Mortal Kombat” as a franchise was in a bad spot and could only hope a new console generation could revive its once dominant status. Stay tuned for Part Two of our History of “Mortal Kombat.”
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