The late nineties were a great time to be a fan of fighting games. Following the massive success of Street Fighter II on the Super Nintendo, every company began to exploit the genre, wanting a piece of the lucrative cash pie. Capcom itself went nuts, milking Street Fighter II by making endless sequels and ports to every system in existence. However, there was one fighter that sprung up during these years that really stood out, one that had an enduring legacy in more ways than one. I’m talking about Mortal Kombat, the highly controversial fighter released in 1993 to all home consoles. The series was notable for many reasons- it was the first western developed fighter that actually caught on with the masses. It was also amongst the first western developed games to really get noticed on the consoles. More than anything, however, Mortal Kombat stood out because of its graphic explicit violent content, that not only made it a raging hit with everybody, but also made it the centerpiece of what effectively became the first ‘videogames are too violent and are ruining society’ controversy.
The Mortal Kombat controversy resulted in many things- it represented the epitome of the clash between Nintendo and Sega, with Sega deciding to go through with its cooler, edgier image and shipping the game uncensored on the Genesis, and Nintendo playing it safe and releasing a heavily toned down version for the SNES. It resulted in the formation of the ESRB. It was the first time that videogames were noticed and taken seriously by the mainstream media as something more than just fun distractions for kids.
However, in all this talk of the Mortal Kombat controversy, people often tend to forget about the games themselves, which were enduring and addictive, well designed fighters. In celebration of the recently released franchise reboot Mortal Kombat, we decided to have a quick look at the series and its meteoric rise to prominence in the ‘90s followed by its rapid decline. Strap your seatbelts.
The original Mortal Kombat was a technical marvel when it was first released to arcades in 1992. It differed from its contemporaries in so many ways. For instance, the game was built with digitized sprites that were based on actors’ movements, as opposed to animated 2D sprites. This made the characters in game look incredibly realistic, and they seemed to be incredibly fluid as they performed their gruesome finishing moves.
Speaking of finishing moves, that was another innovation that helped Mortal Kombat defy the convention set by Street Fighter and its countless sequels and clones. In Mortal Kombat, all the characters were virtually identical in terms of traits such as height, speed and power – but the primary difference lay in their finishing moves, known as Fatalities. These fatalities would usually be executed near the end of the match, and they would be accompanied by a gruesome, excessively violent animation on screen (such as the infamous Spine Ripping fatality), that would end the match in an instant.
The game’s success in arcades ensured that it would find its way to home consoles soon enough – and it did. The following year, a nearly pixel perfect conversion of the popular arcade game was released for the leading home consoles of the time, in what was at the time the biggest launch for any game ever in history. Publishers Midway advertised the game with a massive advertising campaign, and the game was an absolute success. Too successful, in fact, for its own good, or for the good of the videogame industry as a whole.
Nintendo and Sega had been extremely careful with the violent content in the game – Nintendo had had it removed altogether, with the characters now sweating instead of bleeding, fatalities being renamed as Finishing Bonuses, and being significantly toned down in graphical execution altogether. And Sega, at face value, had followed a similar track, with the Genesis version of Mortal Kombat even more scaled back than its Super Nintendo counterpart.
However, the Genesis version shipped with a secret cheat code that would restore all the blood and gore and the fatalities to the game – and this made the Genesis version of the game ‘superior’ to everybody who played, which is slightly ironic as, on a strictly technical basis, the Super Nintendo was graphically and aurally superior in every way. However, the Genesis version outsold the Super Nintendo version 4 to 1, and it was this version that kicked off a controversy about violent content in video games, which ultimately culminated in the video games industry agreeing to self regulate its own content, leading in the end to the creation of the ESRB.
The game’s mammoth success, however, would ensure a sequel. Obviously. Midway followed up with Mortal Kombat II, a game that was absolutely on the cutting edge as far as graphics and sound technology was concerned. The game was released on the Genesis and SNES shortly after its arcade release, and it was released uncensored without the need for any special ports. With another large scale advertising campaign and incredible sales (in its first week, its total revenue earnings of $50 million dwarfed the earnings of even several blockbuster movies like The Lion King and True Lies), Mortal Kombat II left behind an indelible legacy, as to this day, it is regarded as the best game in the Mortal Kombat franchise, and the best fighting game of all time.
With Mortal Kombat II, the SNES version was the one to get – not only did it have all the fatalities and violence uncensored, but it also had superior graphics and sound (which was a result of the SNES’s technological superiority over the Genesis, which, having launched a year before Nintendo’s system, was beginning to show its age by now).
However, the series’ insane popularity was due for a decline – and it suffered just that when Mortal Kombat 3 was released shortly after. The game, which appeared on every system in existence at that time (including yes, even Sega’s Master System) was criticized soundly by fans, even though critics professed to liking the game. The new combos and the inclusion of new characters over old fan favorites led to many competitive gamers sticking with the older (and perceived to be superior) Mortal Kombat II over 3. Whereas Mortal Kombat 3 was by no means a bad game, it did represent the first time that the till then untouchable series made a serious stumble. In retrospect, this was only the beginning.
Mortal Kombat 4 was released for the new generation of gaming systems. As such, it was also the first fully 3D game in the series. Throughout gaming history, few gaming franchises have made the jump from 2D to 3D successfully. Mortal Kombat was not one of them.
The game’s jump to 3D really hurt it, and it tanked as far as critical and fan reaction was concerned. The game saw a release on the Dreamcast a year later, titled Mortal Kombat Gold, which fans tend to remember slightly more fondly, but on the whole, one can safely point to Mortal Kombat 4 as the point where the series officially lost its prominence and relevance amongst the gaming community. The series’ case wasn’t helped by the arrival of new fighters onto the scene, such as Soul Calibur, and Super Smash Bros., and Capcom’s continued success with their Street Fighter series.
And that was it. Though new games in the series were continued to be released over time, none of them ever made even the slightest mark on either the market or in gamers’ collective consciousness’s. The series’ best days were behind it, in the golden age of SNES/Genesis powered 16 bit gaming, and with franchises such as Street Fighter and Super Smash Bros. continuing to gain more and more traction, it seemed impossible that Mortal Kombat would ever be able to stage a comeback.
Until the announcement of the latest installment in the franchise, titled simply Mortal Kombat, for the PS3 and Xbox 360. The game releases today in PAL territories, and it is a glorious return to form for the once venerable franchise. Will this title be enough to restore the series’ glory? Only time will tell. For now, we can all be happy in the knowledge that we have an expertly crafted and finely tuned fighter game on our hands.
Update: We have reviewed the latest Mortal Kombat Game. You can check the review out here.