Violence. Blood and gore. Martial arts. Ninjas. Cyborgs. Sorcerers. Four-armed half-dragon men. If this combination of words were presented as a clue on Jeopardy!, the correct response would be “What’s everything a kid in the ‘90’-s thought was totally rad?”. All of this and so much more were part of what endeared me to the Midway developed fighting game, Mortal Kombat.
Geographic distance kept me away from the fighting game boom that dominated arcades throughout most of the ’90’-s, but thanks to my trusty Super Nintendo, this became less and less an issue when companies started to port games like Mortal Kombat to home consoles. These conversions were far from arcade perfect, and a controller is hardly a replacement for the joystick and button combination found on an arcade cabinet, but renting Mortal Kombat was far more convenient for me than begging my parents to drive me into the city so I could wait in line to play it at Electric Avenue.
Subtracting the buckets of blood and the ability to tear your opponents head from their neck at the end of a match, you can see why Mortal Kombat became such a smash hit even at a glance. Mortal Kombat’s fighters were brought to life by real actors who had their moves performance captured and their likeness digitized. This made it seem so much mature and advanced than all of the other games on the market that starred cartoon characters. There was something that felt so dangerous about Mortal Kombat, something forbidden, because frankly speaking, I probably shouldn’t have been playing it.
What hooked me most on Mortal Kombat above all else though was its story and lore. Street Fighter II would be followed by two updates on the SNES, Street Fighter II Turbo and Super Street Fighter II, that would bring four new characters with each subsequent rerelease. As someone who was two young to understand the minutiae and balance updates that fundamentally changed how the game was played, it just wasn’t exciting renting a game that I had played before with a few differences. Over the course of four games on the SNES – three games and an update to the third chapter – Mortal Kombat would not only change its fundamental gameplay, adding new characters, mechanics, backgrounds and gory fatalities, but it would advance its story too.
The first Mortal Kombat introduces the titular tournament, a battle waged for centuries between the warriors of Earthrealm and those who wish to invade and conquer it. There are fighters, like the hero of the story, Liu Kang, who are fighting altruistically to save our world, while others, like the resurrected specter, Scorpion, who enter the tournament seeking revenge. Relationships would evolve over the course of each subsequent entry, rivals would find themselves becoming reluctant allies and new villainous threats would emerge to further flesh out the lore of this sensation that had taken over the minds of those who shouldn’t have been allowed to get close to it.
A good fighting game, above all else, should concern itself with deep mechanics to keep you coming back, which is why Mortal Kombat’s rival, Street Fighter II, has arguably aged far better. To me though, what new mechanics and fatalities the developers had cooked up took a back seat to finding out exactly how the world and lore of Mortal Kombat would evolve from entry to entry. Take my favorite character, Sub-Zero, for an example. In the first game, he’s a villain who canonically is killed by Scorpion, yet he returns in the second game. If you defeat the final boss as Sub-Zero in Mortal Kombat II, it’s revealed that you’re playing as the brother of the first character. By the third entry, Mortal Kombat 3, the character is on the run from his clan, the Lin Kuei, who are turning its members into mindless cyborg assassins. It’s the stuff that kept kids coming back to the comic book rack – or keeps people tuning into soap operas – and I couldn’t get enough of it.
Pressures over video game violence kept the SNES version of Mortal Kombat from being as gory as the version found in the arcades, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying and repeatedly renting it from my local video stores. Where I really learned to love the franchise though was with the second game, Mortal Kombat II. Nintendo’s main competitor, Sega, didn’t buckle under pressure when it came to the home version of Mortal Kombat on the Sega Genesis. By inputting a secret code, affectionately referred to as “blood code,” the sweat that normally flew out of a character when they were hit changed to scarlet red blood. This made the Genesis version of Mortal Kombat vastly outsell the version found on the SNES, so when it came time for the sequel, Nintendo made sure the screen ran red with blood.
Mortal Kombat II out the gate was a difficult game to rent, but it wouldn’t be long until it started showing up on store shelves with a lot more frequency. This was because every store we frequented had a copy, which increased the chances of securing it. Between my older brother and my friends at school, hundreds of matches of Mortal Kombat II were waged. One night a room of us lost our collective minds when after playing fifty multiplayer matches straight, a grey ninja named Smoke emerged and challenged us to a fight. Smoke was the thing of school yard rumors and now, here he was, right before our very eyes. When asked what I wanted to be for Halloween in 1994, I answered Reptile, the green answer to Scorpion and Sub-Zero, who was my favorite character as his moves and fatality were easy for me to pull off. The year after that, Scorpion, not a difficult task for my mom who essentially just had to do what she did the year prior but in yellow.
After renting Mortal Kombat II enough times to own it a few times over, my brother and I came to the conclusion very early on that we had to own Mortal Kombat 3. The decision was made to pool our collective resources to buy it when it eventually arrived on store shelves in late 1995. I’m sure we were meant to split the cost of the game down the middle, fifty-fifty, but my impetuous nature caused me to squander away my money on action figures and other things. By the time we actually got our hands on a copy, the game was more his than mine, but what was important is that we got it, eventually.
Mortal Kombat 3 launched in October 1995, and our routine was to come home from school everyday, pick up the phone, and call down to Wal-Mart’s electronics department. There were countless days of disappointing no’s, or trips to the mall where we would run over to where they sold the games to see Mortal Kombat 3, but for some unknown thing we never heard of called a PlayStation. One day they finally got a copy in, and months were spent playing one-on-one matches against each other and climbing through the ranks of the arcade mode with different characters. For Christmas that year we were gifted a strategy guide for the game produced by GameFan magazine that held within its pages cheat codes to unlock extra characters, along with every fatality move and combo for us to memorize. There are many important things I’ve forgotten in life, but if you approach me on the street and ask me Sub-Zero’s 6-hit ground combo in Mortal Kombat 3, I can recite it like my life depended on it.
1995 wasn’t just a big year for Mortal Kombat because of the release of Mortal Kombat 3, that year also saw the release of a live-action feature film based on the game. It was close to the release of the film when I became aware of the movie after seeing images of it plastered on the covers of magazines, followed by many commercials that would air on TV featuring the infectious techno theme song that’s still even today being used to build hype for new games in the series. So excited my brother and I were for the August 1995 release of the Mortal Kombat that we picked up the novelization for it, if for nothing more than to see a few still shots found within its center of actor Robin Shou as Liu Kang coming face-to-face with Sub-Zero.
Now’s as good a time as any to explain what going to the movies was like for us growing up. There was a single screen movie theater, the Carbonear Cinema, that would get one movie and air it every night at 8PM for a week. Depending on the popularity of a film, the cinema would hold it over for a week or so. This was the case for movies like James Cameron’s Titanic and possibly The Perfect Storm as we can’t get enough of a piece of media that mentions our province. It would never get a movie on the day it was intended to come out for the most part, so if you saw a release date for a movie like Mortal Kombat on TV, you knew it was that plus an undetermined time in the future when it would show up in Carbonear. At least social media didn’t exist back then to spoil movies the second they came out.
My brother and I saw many films at Carbonear Cinema. My earliest memories of the place go back to seeing Tim Burton’s Batman and my mom covering my eyes when Joker electrocutes someone with a joy buzzer. It sadly burned down in 2011 and the shell of the building still remains today. I keep the place alive fondly in my memories, thinking about seeing things like Twister with my grade 6 girlfriend or standing outside in the cold, cheap soda bottles hidden in my boots waiting for the doors to open to see The Grinch of all things.
We were also fortunate that our parents would indulge us from time to time and take us into the city to see a movie. The two of us were constantly consuming movies either by renting them or taping them on VHS when they aired on TV and kept up on upcoming films with what resources we had. When a big movie was coming out, largely of the summer blockbuster variety, we simply couldn’t wait until it came to Carbonear, we had to see it NOW. I was the obnoxious kid who bragged to people that frankly didn’t care that I got to see The Lost World: Jurassic Park before anyone else did and the 1999 release of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace was an occasion worth pulling us out of school for.
When Mortal Kombat arrived in theaters in 1995, I was eleven years old and my older brother was fourteen. Though Mortal Kombat the movie wasn’t as gory as the games in which it was based on, it still carried a PG-13 rating. Our family went into town with the plan to dump us off at the movies while our parents went out to grab a bite to eat by themselves. When my mom went to buy our tickets, my brother was given the go ahead to enter, however I was deemed too young and thus I couldn’t go in unless accompanied by a parent. I had come so close, only to be denied that which I so desperately wanted, given away by my sweat pants and Batman Forever t-shirt.
After some time had passed, our parents blessed us with a second chance to see Mortal Kombat, but this time we would come prepared. Thankfully I was tall and looked older than what I was, so by swapping out my sweatpants for jeans and telling the person who worked at the box-office that I was thirteen, I had broken through the obstacle that once stood in my way as I entered and prepared myself to get seated for Mortal Kombat.
Ask most people what they think the greatest movie based on a video game is, and there’s a large chance the answer will be Mortal Kombat. It’s far from a good movie in the traditional sense, but it’s delightfully cheesy and a very faithful translation of the source material. Through the eyes of an eleven year old kid though, it was the single greatest thing I had ever seen in my entire life. I sat in awe as I saw Goro, the four-armed boss character from the first game, brought to life by an animatronic, smiled from ear to ear as Scorpion shouted “get over here!” as he shot his spear from his hand and near hit the roof when Reptile made an appearance towards the end of the movie. If you watch the movie now divorced from the era, I can see why you would get bored or even laugh at how stupid it all is, but I will probably list Mortal Kombat as one of my favorite movies and easily one I’ve seen dozens of times. To this day I know if I fire off a text to my brother that says “I pity you sorcerer,” I know I’ll quickly get a response saying “save your pity for the weak!,” referencing a dialogue exchange between Liu Kang and the villain, Shang Tsung.
Mortal Kombat kept me hooked because of its creative characters and finely tuned lore. The hook that brought me into this world were the realistic graphics, something I though could never be topped by any other video game. Little did I know that something would come along barely a year after the dual release of the Mortal Kombat movie and its third chapter that showed me just what video games could be capable of.