The History of NRS
This article covers the history of NetherRealm Studios, Midway Games, and the Mortal Kombat franchise.
Mortal Kombat has become one of the most recognizable video game franchises of all time. While today's installments are produced by NetherRealm Studios, it hasn't always been this way, with Midway Games being the publisher for the first Mortal Kombat back in 1992.
The Midway Name
As with many companies, Midway has quite a complex history, with the rights to the name being transferred many times over the years. Midway Manufacturing Company was originally an amusement equipment manufacturer founded by Henry Ross and Marcine Wolverton in 1958. It was later acquired by Bally Manufacturing in 1969, a leader in manufacturing slot machines, and after a few years of making mechanical arcade games, Midway became an arcade video game company in 1973. The company had close relations with Japanese video game publisher Taito, with both publishers regularly licensing their respective games to be published in the other's country. Midway's initial success came with the distribution of Taito's Space Invaders in the United States, and from the early 70s to the late 80s, Midway would become a leader in arcade video games. In 1988, Midway would be acquired by Williams Electronics Games and move its headquarters to Chicago, with the company officially becoming Midway Games Inc. in 1996.
Mortal Kombat is the brainchild of Ed Boon, a video game programmer, and John Tobias, a graphic designer, both of whom worked for Midway. The pair initially envisioned a video game starring famous actor Jean-Claude Van Damme, but the creative direction eventually shifted towards the fantasy-filled universe we know and love today. While Capcom's Street Fighter II entirely dominated the fighting game genre in the early 90s, MK was going to be something different. The original Mortal Kombat, which adhered to many of the mechanics popularized by Street Fighter, such as blocking, projectiles, and special moves, still had an ace up its sleeve to avoid becoming just another knock-off. The game was incredibly gory, especially for the time, and it stood out with its kung-fu inspired moves and bucket-loads of blood. Saying that the original MK is the most violent video game of all time would be overdoing it, but it was the game's easy accessibility that made it so controversial; any kid with some spare pocket change could play it at their local arcade.
A Successful Sequel
The shock-factor was, of course, by design, but neither the creators nor Midway Games expected the title to garner as much success as it did. With the demand for a sequel becoming very apparent, Midway began working on the MK franchise's second installment, fittingly dubbed Mortal Kombat II. The idea was to double the content, and Midway essentially succeeded; the cast of playable characters would jump from seven to twelve, move lists were expanded, and every character got two fatalities! The game also gained more depth, with the art style becoming more defined and back-stories being less of an afterthought this time around. Needless to say, MKII needed to be a hit, and it was!
Work then began on Mortal Kombat 3, but much to Midway's dismay, the market had changed considerably by the game's release. While the cast of playable characters had again gone up, many of the fan-favorites were cut in favor of new faces. From there-on, Mortal Kombat changed quite a bit. To Midway's credit, the company had quite a few successes over the years and tried its best to adapt to the market's fluctuating demands. The franchise moved to 3D graphics. New titles were ported to the popular consoles of the time. Certain games would focus on the universe's story. Minigames were introduced; inspired by the ever-popular Mario Kart series, Midway even made Mortal Kart!
Following the turn of the century, things weren't looking great for Midway. While the company expanded its size by acquiring smaller studios to develop more projects in-house, sales were beginning to drop. In 2000, Midway Games was ranked #4 according to the magazine Game Developers, but the studio dropped to #20 by 2006. In March 2007, Midway reportedly entered into a new $90M credit agreement with National Amusements, owned by Sumner Redstone. However, by December 2008, Redstone sold his 87% stake in the company to another private investor, which triggered clauses in bond agreements, allowing bond-holders to claim a full refund totalling around $150M. Midway also reportedly lost $191M in sales in 2008, and by February 2009, the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
Returning from the Netherrealm
In May 2009, Warner Bros. reportedly acquired the vast majority of Midway's assets, including the Chicago studio and the Mortal Kombat franchise. The Midway Games Chicago development studio was later rebranded to WB Games Chicago, before once again rebranding to NetherRealm Studios in April 2010. Under the creative direction of Ed Boon, NRS would begin working on the next MK title, returning to the series' roots. The ninth installment of the franchise, simply titled Mortal Kombat, came out in April 2011 and was the first game released under the NRS banner. It was widely considered to be the best game the franchise had seen thus far, returning to a 2D plane for combat and with a clear focus on balanced and engaging fighting mechanics.
The studio has since gone on to publish Injustice: Gods Among Us, Mortal Kombat X, Injustice 2, and the latest installment of the MK franchise, Mortal Kombat 11. In terms of sales, MK11 is the most successful by far. It was the fifth best-selling game of 2019 and has sold over 8 million copies since release. With state-of-the-art graphics, an engaging cast of characters, and some of the best fighting mechanics the franchise has seen, MK11 has managed to grow an incredible fanbase. Needless to say, Mortal Kombat continues to solidify its place among the greats of the genre.
While the moniker of "NetherRealm Studios" might still be recent compared to the MK franchise's history, the studio is still, in essence, exactly what it was at the beginning. From Midway to NRS, Mortal Kombat is still being developed in Chicago with Ed Boon at the helms. The series has certainly had its downs, but it's only looking up from now. With the focus being on what once made Mortal Kombat great, it's safe to say that there will be Fatalities, absurd amounts of blood, and more "Finish Him" soundtracks for decades to come.
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