Mortal Kombat: The Street Fighter knockoff that wasn’t
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Mortal Kombat hit arcades in 1992 like an uppercut, launching the fighting game genre to heights unknown. Until it’s arrival, every new fighting game just felt like a Street Fighter II: The World Warrior knockoff. Mortal Kombat was eventually released for the Super NES by Sculpted Software via Acclaim Entertainment and Sega Genesis by Probe Entertainment, solidifying its place as a real competitor to Capcom’s masterpiece.
According to David L. Craddock’s book, "Arcade Perfect: How Pac-Man, Mortal Kombat, and Other Coin-Op Classics Invaded the Living Room," it was like going against a Goliath. Wheeling their plain arcade box in between Street Fighter II cabinets, series creators John Tobias and Ed Boon sat and waited for someone to notice their game. One by one, players began to leave the Street Fighter lines to play this weird new game.
Violence and gore
Ask any adult at the time, and they’d swear Mortal Kombat wasn’t made for kids, considering it featured buckets of blood, dismemberment, exploding limbs, etc. In addition to this, the game’s graphics were not cartoony but, instead, grainy movie-like visuals, which made all the older kids love it instantly. It was a time when games had no rating system, so even the younger kids played it.
However, the violence was intentionally over the top to give the game a very humorous feel. The world was dark and bleak with death at every turn, which was a huge contrast to Street Fighter’s bright colors and everyday locations. The music also helped set the tone while the characters with their stories felt more at home in a fantasy kung fu movie than an arcade game. Midway had struck gold, with Tobias and Boon’s creation going on to ship over three million copies by November 1993 across multiple console platforms.
The controversy behind the game’s mega-violence helped garner much more attention, much faster, and has remained the franchise’s biggest draw. It also happened to be the main issue for the developers that worked on the game. Some were shunned for their part in creating this game that American society believed was created to corrupt their children. The game was unrepentant in its depiction of wanton violence, and many parents couldn't stomach it. As fate would have it, though, the outcries only served to cement its success.
To understand why this level of violence, comical as it was, received so much backlash, you’d have to realize that the game’s development was like nothing seen before. Actors were hired to play the characters in Midway’s studio, and even some fights were choreographed to help sell the experience.
Tasked with developing a fighting game based on Jean-Claude Van Damme, Midway had to change its plans as the famous action star was already working on another game, which eventually wasn’t released. He would have either played himself or a character in the game, but with his inability to join the project, the character Johnny Cage was based upon him. At one point they also considered making the game all about ninjas, since ninjas were admittedly popular at the time with movies like the American Ninja franchise. Eventually, though, development led to Midway's October 8 release.
The game used digitized motion capture graphics for the characters. Images of them performing character attacks, poses, and gestures were recorded on tape before being digitized and applied in the game. This level of production immediately set it apart from the competition. Martial arts actor Daniel Pesina and his brother Carlos were part of the team right from the start. The team later added Richard Divizio, Ho Sung Pak, and Elizabeth Malecki.
Divizio played the treacherous Kano while Pak played both protagonist Liu Kang and villain Shang Tsung. Lastly, Malecki took the role of Sonya Blade, the soldier, and only female character in the game. As for the brothers, Carlos played the thunder god Raiden while Daniel was Scorpion, Sub Zero, Reptile, and Johnny Cage. The team didn't make use of the more prominent tech employed in motion capture at the time, and because of the nature of many of the moves, they had to get very creative in how they recorded footage.
Being a 2d fighter was a saving grace because they only had to record the actors in motion from one direction. Moves like Raiden's torpedo and even something as basic as flying kicks had the team sit in a pose for several seconds at a time. Videos are doing the rounds on YouTube of Divizio resting on a small flight of stairs in a flying kick pose. Other moves required a lot of leaping around, so they made use of safety mats to reduce the likelihood of injury.
It's impossible to tell how the game would have fared had Midway been able to get Van Damme on the project, but it's safe to say fans have absolutely no issue with how the franchise turned out without him.
Growth of a franchise
When Boon and Tobias began work on Mortal Kombat, they hadn't planned for it to become a mega-franchise. Criticism for the first game further fueled the development of the sequel, which arrived the following year on June 25. Mortal Kombat 2 came with even more violence, and more humor too.
Besides basic character bios, the developers hadn't thought too deeply into the story and narrative. As an arcade fighting game, the whole idea was to keep two gamers playing at all times, leaving very little room for story segments. However, the developers soon realized that the fanbase was as much interested in the story as they were the gameplay. The story quickly became important, especially for the console versions, which required fans (or their parents) to make one time purchases to be successful.
Nintendo is a brand that has always focused on family-friendly games, and that was especially true in the early 90s. A little censoring was required to avoid any backlash from the release of Mortal Kombat on their 16-bit console. Nintendo executive Howard Lincoln met with Acclaim chief executive Gregory Fischbach to propose a solution.
Blood would be turned green, fatalities modified, and imagery such as impaled heads, removed. The game was censored, but that didn't curb the criticism, and fans were unhappy with the changes too. As for the Sega Genesis version, players were able to reactivate all the censored content by inputting a cheat code. This difference between the Sega and Nintendo versions resulted in the Genesis port out-selling the SNES, five-to-one. This vast sales difference occurred even though the SNES version had more accurate music and visuals.
US senator Joe Lieberman was shown the game by his chief of staff, Bill Andreasen, and on December 1, 1993, he spoke to the Washington press about the corrupting influence of video games. A week after, the senator chaired a subcommittee on violent video games, which led to the creation of the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) and its game rating system. Their first order of business was to assign Mortal Kombat with a "mature" rating. The rating prevented minors from legally buying the game, but this action only made the game even more attractive.
The first Mortal Kombat movie was released on August 18, 1995. The film made $23.2 million during the box office weekend and remained at #1 for three weeks. In total, it made an estimated worldwide revenue of $122 million. On November 21, 1997, Mortal Kombat: Annihilation was released, seeing about half the level of success the first did. The box office weekend earned $16 million, but worldwide sales were just over $51 million.
Earth Realm still needs protecting
The franchise has spawned 11 main titles, three spinoffs, and several other multimedia products. Mortal Kombat is allegedly worth over $12 billion. In May, the latest release, Mortal Kombat 11, became the best selling game in the US for 2019. The sky became the limit after media conglomerate, Warner Bros. bought Midway, thus owning all rights to the Mortal Kombat franchise.
To call Mortal Kombat a Street Fighter knock off is technically untrue, as the game introduced new concepts to the genre and has a much different marketing pitch from Capcom's fighter. Even as an esport, they attract players that hardly compete in both games. They're just that different.
In my opinion, Mortal Kombat's success as a franchise was due to the developer's desire to do outlandish things for a video game. It wasn't designed to become a vast multimedia franchise. Still, fan interest and the criticism received helped channel the developer's creative energy into something that, to this day, is unique in the video game industry.