Controversy, Regulation, and the First Mortal Kombat
It’s a bizarre and unique event when a single video game can change the entire landscape and how the public sees them. We’re not talking about cutting edge graphics or innovative gameplay, but rather a game so out of the ordinary that new discussions come into play and real societal change occurs because of it. There are only a handful of games that capable of this. The game itself matters by its own notoriety, but there’s also a certain mixture of publicity and public opinion that makes these matters a much larger deal. It was on this day in 1992 that Mortal Kombat was released, not only bringing a new style of brutal fighting action to arcades, but also helping to create the perfect storm that would lead to the establishment of the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB).
Conception of Mortal Kombat began in 1991 when Midway tasked series creators Ed Boon and John Tobias with designing a new kind of combat arcade game. At the time, Street Fighter II was incredibly popular in arcades and few games were in direct competition with it. Boon and Tobias took it upon themselves to create something similar to Street Fighter II, yet all their own. Fans of Jean-Claude Van Damme, they originally attempted to gain his talents and likeness and wanted to create their game based around him. In specific, they wanted to make a game that used digitized versions of real-world actors. Though plans with JCVD eventually fell through due to the actor’s prior contracts with Sega for another unreleased game, the concept stayed and they would pay homage to JCVD through the character Johnny Cage.
The original Mortal Kombat is a tournament organized by the mysterious and treacherous sorcerer Shang Tsung and his champion, the half-human, half-dragon Goro. They have remained undefeated for five centuries and now a new crop of warriors must rise to attempt to regain control of the Mortal Kombat tournament. Though Mortal Kombat contained nine unique characters, Ed Boon’s team wasn’t shy about doubling up on roles. For instance, Ho Sung Pak not only portrayed series protagonist Liu Kang, but also series antagonist Shang Tsung as well. Likewise, Johnny Cage, Scorpion, Sub-Zero, and Reptile were all portrayed by Daniel Pesina. All other characters had singular unique actors, with the exception of Goro, who was actually a clay figure animated for the game.
Mortal Kombat was a similar format to Street Fighter II with two combatants fighting on a 2D side-scrolling plane, although numerous nuances made Mortal Kombat its own distinct product. The most notable difference is finishing sequences and fatalities. When considering the dizzy function included in other fighters, Ed Boon was not a fan. He felt the dizzy function was a bit too random in most games and could heavily mess with the outcome of a fight. However, he did enjoy the idea of a free hit on a defenseless enemy that came as a result. To get to that enjoyable spot and avoid the sour bits, finishing sequences were added to the end of fights when the fight was already finished. This allowed the winner some in-game bragging rights, especially if one knew the commands for the game’s elusive and brutal finishing moves in which characters would kill their victim in ridiculous ways.
In fact, copious amounts of blood and violence would become what Mortal Kombat was notorious for. During the time following Mortal Kombat’s release, political figures such as Joseph Lieberman and Herb Kohl took aim at the video games industry and particularly the supposedly imitable human violence found in games like Mortal Kombat. Video game violence and the effects of that violence upon children may have never been a more heated subject of debate than during this time. The result of these political and societal movements forced the video game industry as a whole to conceive a new creative board which would rate games based on their violent or mature content and label all video games with these ratings. Teen and Mature ratings were non-existent before games like Mortal Kombat and the creation and concern over these games essentially led to a more strictly regulated product.
Despite the regulations and controversy that surrounded Mortal Kombat, or perhaps even more so as a consequence of them, the arcade title was an immense success. Its fame coupled with numerous urban legends about unlockables in the game built a franchise that Ed Boon would work with for decades to come. Times have changed and the original Mortal Kombat is actually quite tame compared to current ridiculously graphic iterations, but there’s no doubting that the original Mortal Kombat helped create waves felt not just by its developers, but throughout the entire video game industry.