Franchise Festival #90: Mortal Kombat

Welcome back to Franchise Festival, where we explore and discuss noteworthy video game series from the last four decades. Older entries can be found here.

This week we’ll be discussing the grisly remains of Mortal Kombat. Cover art, unless otherwise noted, is from MobyGames. Please consider supporting that website, as its volunteers tirelessly catalog key information and art assets for an often ephemeral medium.

Up through Mortal Kombat 4 I’ve generally identified the version being played in all images, as ports differ from one another to varying degrees, but from Deadly Alliance on I have not noted this as all ports look and play more or less identically.

A quick content warning as well: while I have tried to shy away from any particularly graphic imagery, the identity of the Mortal Kombat series is inherently linked with physical violence. If you are uncomfortable with this, or are viewing this on a work device, please take that into consideration (especially when reading about Mortal Kombat [2011] below).

Table of Contents

Background
Mortal Kombat (1992)
Mortal Kombat II (1993)
Mortal Kombat 3 (1995)
Mortal Kombat 4 (1997)
Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance (2002)
Mortal Kombat: Deception (2004)
Mortal Kombat: Armageddon (2006)
Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe (2008)
Mortal Kombat (2011)
Mortal Kombat X (2015)
Mortal Kombat 11 (2019)
Spinoffs

Background

Bally was founded as a pinball manufacturer in the 1930s and branched out into slot machines by the end of the decade. It largely stuck to these industries for the following twenty years, aside from a brief period in which it produced weapons for the American government during World War II, before overextending itself in the 1950s by moving into vending machines and even a short-lived record label. A buy-out by investors in 1963 led the company to refocus on slots and position itself to fully capitalize on the rise of legalized gambling in Atlantic City. In 1969 it acquired Midway Manufacturing Company, a creator of mechanical amusements since 1958, and used that subsidiary to explore the nascent world of video games beginning with 1973’s Winner, Winner IV, Leader, Space Race, and Playtime cabinets. Midway grew increasingly influential throughout the 1970s through an international licensing partnership with Japan’s Taito, culminating in the North American publication of Taito’s hugely popular Space Invaders in 1978. Bally’s investment in Midway would prove to be wise, as the Chicago studio churned out hit after hit in the 1980s; these include unauthorized Pac-Man sequel Ms. Pac-Man (1982), vehicular combat game Spy Hunter (1983), and kaiju simulator Rampage (1986).

654151-rampage-arcade-screenshot-stage-2
If you’ve ever watched King Kong and thought “I want to be that big ape,” then Rampage is for you. Source: MobyGames

Williams Manufacturing Corporation likewise predated the world of video games, having been founded in 1943 as a pinball table manufacturer before its acquisition by jukebox producer Seeburg in the 1960s. Sensing a shift in how audiences interacted with electronic amusements, Williams developed a Pong clone called Paddle Ball (1973) and used this to justify its 1974 rebranding as Williams Electronics, Inc. The studio would achieve independence as a video game developer and publisher when parent company Seeburg went bankrupt in 1980, confirming its future direction with arcade cabinets like Defender (1980), Joust (1982), and Robotron: 2084 (1982) before again rebranding itself as WMS Industries in 1987. Its 1988 purchase of Midway from Bally gave it a uniquely promising market position as the new decade dawned.

872314-smash-t-v-arcade-screenshot-the-battle-with-the-mutoid-man
Smash TV is a classic of the top-down action era. Source: MobyGames

Mortal Kombat co-creator John Tobias, a martial arts film enthusiast from Chicago, joined WMS Industries in 1989. Tobias’ enthusiasm for Hong Kong martial arts cinema had made him the ideal audience for Technos Japan’s revolutionary arcade game Karate Champ, which introduced North American audiences to the one-on-one fighting genre in 1984. Tobias’ work on WMS Industries’ Smash TV (1990) led him to meet Ed Boon, a computer science graduate who had been programming pinball machines at Midway for several years. The two young developers quickly became friends and, over the course of a fateful conversation in 1991, realized that they were both interested in producing a one-on-one fighting game with realistic graphics and a plot rather than the heavily stylized sprites for which the genre was known. Tobias and Boon would soon be spearheading development on one of the decade’s most influential video games.

14810-mortal-kombat-sega-cd-front-cover

Mortal Kombat (1992)

Midway leadership turned down the initial pitch for the project but reversed course following the commercial success of Capcom’s Street Fighter II (1991), based on the assumption that the game could be produced in less than a year. Tobias and Boon initially approached the project as a vehicle for cinematic martial artist Jean-Claude Van Damme but this plan proved unsuccessful due to a pre-existing licensing deal between Van Damme and SEGA. The unavailability of their planned star was little impediment to the developers’ ambitions, however, and they quickly sketched out an entirely unique universe for the game. Dan Forden contributed music and visual effects while Jon Vogel, who had already worked with Ed Boon at Midway, joined the team mid-development to augment work done on the game’s complex backgrounds.

661388-mortal-kombat-arcade-screenshot-choose-your-fighter
Character select in the original arcade edition of Mortal Kombat. Source: MobyGames

Tobias and Boon’s interest in realistic graphics led them to adopt WMS’ then-new technique of digitizing live actors using video tape. They spent five days recording Daniel Pesina (Johnny Cage, Raiden, Sub-Zero, Scorpion, Reptile), Rich Divizio (Kano), Liz Malecki (Sonya Blade), and Ho-Sung Pak (Liu Kang, Shang Tsung) performing martial arts moves in a small room at Midway’s Chicago offices. Film was shot at 30 frames per second and then edited down to only eight frames to save on memory. Though most of the actors had little experience with the medium, they collaborated with Tobias and Boon in establishing Mortal Kombat‘s distinctive story and characters based on influences as disparate as the work of H.R. Giger and William S. Burroughs. Early proposed titles for the game included Ultimate Kumite and Dragon Attack before the team settled on Mortal Combat at the suggestion of pinball designer Steve Richie; the ‘C’ was changed to a ‘K’ to avoid copyright infringement. Unlike all other characters, four-armed penultimate boss enemy Goro was hand-sculpted by Curt Chiarelli and animated using stop-motion techniques.

rehearsal_neogamer2
Digitization session for Daniel Pesina as Scorpion. The developers simply reused these clips and respectively recolored the character blue or green for Sub-Zero and Reptile. Source: Neogamer – The Video Game Archive

Mortal Kombat‘s gameplay broadly resembles contemporary one-on-one fighting games like Atari’s Pit Fighter (1990) and Capcom’s Street Fighter II (1991), as players attempt to defeat AI-controlled or human-controlled opponents in real-time 2D combat by depleting a health gauge through the use of punches, kicks, and other melee attacks. In contrast to Street Fighter II, though, skilled players can inflict heavy damage on opponents by “juggling” them in mid-air; juggling sees characters striking a falling opponent repeatedly, keeping them suspended and vulnerable to another blow. A lightly animated Test Your Might minigame also appears during the single-player mode, requiring players to rapidly mash buttons in an effort to break a set of blocks.

661412-mortal-kombat-arcade-screenshot-special-kick
Johnny Cage executes a special move as Shang Tsung looks on in the background. Source: MobyGames (Arcade Version)

Tobias and Boon put their own distinct spin on the one-on-one fighter formula by heavily incorporating fantasy elements into characters’ special attacks. Raiden, a thunder god influenced by John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China (1986), can transform into a bolt of lightning or hurl electrical charges across the 2D arena. Chinese Lin Kuei ninja Sub-Zero can freeze opponents. Sorcerer Shang Tsung has the ability to transform into every other fighter from the game, forcing the player to repeatedly adapt their play style mid-combat. The plot – a rare consideration for this genre in the early 1990s – is a similarly unique blend of the supernatural and tactile influenced by John Tobias’ love of Eastern and Western martial arts cinema. The arcade machine’s attract mode provides a brief textual introduction to each of the game’s characters, though much of the background is further sketched in through prologue comics written and drawn by Tobias. These could only be acquired by mailing $3.00 USD to an address identified in the aforementioned attract mode.

37372-mortal-kombat-genesis-screenshot-don-t-hate-me-cause-i-m-beautiful
Goro makes his debut. I’m seeing double here: eight arms! Source: MobyGames (Amiga Version)

Players choose one of seven characters and take part in the Mortal Kombat tournament, an event organized by Outworld’s Shang Tsung as he attempts to take over the Earthrealm. The player’s fighter must defeat all six other Earthrealm competitors and reigning tournament champion, four-armed half-dragon Shokan warrior Goro, before battling Shang Tsung himself. In addition to those already mentioned, characters include Kano, a member of the Black Dragon underworld syndicate with a cybernetic eye; Sonya Blade, a United States Special Forces officer tasked with hunting down Kano; Scorpion, an undead ninja rival (and yellow palette swap) of Sub-Zero; Johnny Cage, a Hollywood action star based on Marvel’s Iron Fist; and Shaolin monk protagonist Liu Kang.

In addition to its digitized actors, fantastical special moves, and comparatively detailed plot, Mortal Kombat set itself apart from contemporaries through graphic violence. Blood spurts from characters as they pummel one another and bone-crunching sound effects emphasize the horrific toll of battle. Most significant, though, is a finishing move mechanic introduced by co-creator Ed Boon. The ability to murder an opponent at the end of a match using a so-called ‘Fatality’ move performed through a complex set of button inputs was the result of Boon’s disappointment with the clean ending of combat in contemporary one-on-one fighting games and challenges implementing an alternative concept, ongoing visual degradation endured by character models as they take damage. Fatalities were developed in collaboration between the actors and franchise creators as each sought to one-up one another with grisly attacks informed by each character’s design and personality. These include Sub-Zero ripping his opponent’s spine out, Scorpion removing his mask to reveal a flame-breathing skull which roasts opponents alive, and Kano pulling out his opponent’s still-beating heart (an homage to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom). One arena, The Pit, also offers the opportunity to perform a stage fatality in which any fighter can uppercut their opponent off a bridge and onto a bed of spikes below. Gory fatalities unique to characters and combat arenas would increasingly come to define the franchise in subsequent entries.

881377-mortal-kombat-arcade-screenshot-it-hurts
Scorpion meets his fate at amid the bisected torsos and skeletal remains of The Pit. Source: MobyGames (Arcade Version)

Ten months after development had begun, Mortal Kombat was first tested in Chicago’s Times Square Arcade on the weekend of June 14, 1992. Early impressions were positive and the game appeared in arcades around North America the following October. One of the elements that contributed most heavily to its instant appeal was a pervasive sense of mystery engendered by opaque mechanics and odd visual cues lurking around the edge of the game world. With regard to the former, it was only through experimentation and player-to-player communication that the game’s first set of players discovered the inputs needed to execute each character’s fatality and special moves. With regard to the latter, The Pit conspicuously features a shadow passing over the moon; enterprising players eventually discovered that, by executing a command at the time that the shadow appears, they could initiate combat with the otherwise-hidden ninja Reptile. This fighter – a simple green palette swap of Sub-Zero and Scorpion – had been added to the game late in development by Ed Boon and was inspired by magazine-spread rumors concerning Street Fighter II‘s ultimately fictitious fighter Sheng Long.

20639-mortal-kombat-game-boy-screenshot-kano-vs-rayden-1
The Game Boy version is likely the least successful Mortal Kombat port. Source: MobyGames

Strong fundamental mechanics and secrets propelled Mortal Kombat to popularity in arcades, but Acclaim-published ports developed by Probe and Sculptured Software would make it a key milestone in video game history. These home console, handheld console, and PC versions were released on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES), SEGA Mega Drive/Genesis, SEGA Master System, SEGA CD, SEGA Game Gear, Game Boy, MS-DOS, and Amiga between 1993 and 1994. The SNES version features more arcade-perfect sound and visual design but suffers from imprecise controls and lacks blood; Nintendo insisted that blood be removed and fatalities be redesigned to appear less violent. The SEGA Genesis port outsold its more technically-impressive rival version through tighter controls and more accurate reproduction of the arcade original’s graphic violence. Missing characters and stages, along with an abysmal framerate, rendered handheld versions the least successful adaptations. On the other hand, the SEGA CD port is impressively faithful. Later ports to seventh-generation consoles featured still-more accurate arcade emulation and even added online play through the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 networks, though these versions have been removed from digital storefronts at the time of writing in May 2020. The differences between all variants of the game were carefully documented in a Digital Foundry video published by John Linneman in February 2020.

105576-mortal-kombat-snes-screenshot-the-classical-scorpion-s-harpoon
Note the absence of blood as Scorpion’s iconic spear pierces Sub-Zero in the SNES version. Source: MobyGames

While the arcade version had been directed towards older audiences, due to the college-age demographic which made up arcade video game enthusiasts in the early 1990s, a release on consoles in homes across North America led to younger players encountering the game’s graphic violence for the first time. This produced a media firestorm and, along with the release of Digital Pictures’ sexually suggestive SEGA CD title Night Trap (1993), led to a series of US Congressional hearings on video game regulations. The result was the creation of a variety of self-regulatory bodies which assigned age ratings to games in the style of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). One of these, the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB), would become the industry standard for game ratings over the following three decades.

53637-mortal-kombat-ii-genesis-front-cover

Mortal Kombat II (1993)

Ed Boon and John Tobias had no plans to develop a sequel following their rapid turnaround on Mortal Kombat, and were instead focused on producing a Star Wars adaptation. The blockbuster commercial success of Mortal Kombat, however, caused Midway to demand a follow-up before the end of 1992. The Star Wars project was shelved while still in the concept phase and all four members of the Mortal Kombat development team reconvened to work up a sequel. Two unfinished beta versions, 1.1 and 1.4, were publicly tested at arcades prior to the final game’s release in January 1994.

660123-mortal-kombat-ii-arcade-screenshot-choose-your-fighter
Mortal Kombat II character roster. Source: MobyGames

Unsurprisingly, production values were higher in the franchise’s second outing. The Hi8 consumer video camera and unused closet space used to digitize actors for Mortal Kombat were replaced with a professional-grade Sony camera and a green screen soundstage. Costumes were more varied, reflecting the expansion of playable characters from seven to twelve, though a handful of palette swaps still served to keep costs down. Kano and Sonya were dropped from the roster due to their status as the least-played characters from the first title, though their models do appear in the background of a stage.

881369-mortal-kombat-ii-arcade-screenshot-a-plan
An introductory attract mode again reveals the game’s plot. Source: MobyGames

Mortal Kombat II‘s plot is more complex than that of its predecessor. Tobias and Boon’s interest in Star Wars led to the presence of Shao Kahn, an Outworld emperor and the Palpatine to Shang Tsung’s Darth Vader. Following Tsung’s defeat at the hands of Liu Kang during the first game’s tournament, Kahn berates the sorcerer and demands that he lure Earth’s champions to Outworld for a rematch. Earthrealm protector Raiden and most of the previous game’s characters walk into this trap and are then forced to defend their homeworld from conquest by Shao Kahn and his lieutenants. Like the exposition offered by character biographies in the first Mortal Kombat, the narrative of Mortal Kombat II is laid out using story screens on the arcade cabinet’s attract mode. If the player is successful in battling through all single-player mode duels, they also receive an ending unique to their selected character.

3026-mortal-kombat-ii-dos-screenshot-bicycle-kick
Blaze makes his debut as a distant background fighter on The Pit II stage. Source: MobyGames (DOS Version)

These characters include the first game’s cast (minus Sonya and Kano); Kitana, a heroic fan-wielding princess from the realm of Edenia; Mileena, Kitana’s sinister twin; Baraka, a member of Outworld’s Nomad species with blades that extend from his forearms; Jax, Sonya’s Special Forces partner; Kung Lao, a friend of Liu Kang and descendant of Earthrealm’s deceased former champion; Shang Tsung, restored to a younger form by Shao Kahn; and acid-spewing ninja Reptile. Tiger-striped Shokan warrior Kintaro serves as the game’s penultimate challenge, replacing an abandoned bipedal tiger boss which proved too difficult to implement. Like Goro and Shang Tsung in Mortal Kombat, Kintaro and Shao Kahn are unplayable in Mortal Kombat II.

kintaro_psx_wiki
Sure that projectile looks nice now but what Shang Tsung doesn’t yet know is that it’ll reflect cleanly off of Kintaro’s striped hide. Source: Mortal Kombat Wiki (PlayStation Version)

All characters now have two fatalities rather than the single one for each character in the previous game; two new stage fatalities – a spiked ceiling and a pool of acid – likewise join an enhanced version of The Pit. To introduce more levity to the franchise, especially in light of the darker overall aesthetic of the Outworld arenas, babalities and friendship finishing moves are featured for the first time. These respectively see the player character transforming their opponent into a cute baby or performing some humorous spectacle rather than killing their opponent.

92011-mortal-kombat-ii-genesis-screenshot-fatality-drowned
Being transformed into a skeleton by the acid pool is my favorite fatality. Source: MobyGames

The word-of-mouth energy generated by Mortal Kombat‘s secrets led its developers to expand the palette of mysteries still further in Mortal Kombat II with three hidden fighters. These unplayable characters include Noob Saibot, an all-black ninja sprite with no discernable features; Jade, a green palette-swap of Kitana who serves as an assassin for Shao Kahn; and Smoke, a grey ninja who expels wisps of smoke as he moves. Backgrounds also offer more intriguing fodder for fans, as the redesigned Pit displays two distant fighters who are not otherwise mentioned in the game and a portal offers the opportunity for the player to access Goro’s Lair from Mortal Kombat if they input an uppercut following an obscure on-screen prompt. These curiosities left fans wondering what other hidden details might be lurking around Outworld’s periphery. Many rumored secrets – including a red version of Jade named Skarlet – were real only in the minds of fans.

135359-mortal-kombat-ii-snes-screenshot-mysteriously-hidden-behind
Smoke peeks out from behind a tree, hinting at his presence as a hidden fighter. Source: MobyGames (SNES Version)

Mortal Kombat II was a critical success that improved on nearly every aspect of its predecessor while stripping away a handful of extraneous elements. Console ports were again developed by Probe and Sculptured Software and published by Acclaim across a wide range of home consoles, handheld consoles, and PCs in 1994 and 1995. Mortal Kombat II ports were generally more faithful to the arcade release than their predecessors had been, with Nintendo opting not to censor the series’ violence for a second time. A digital re-release on the Xbox 360 seemed poised to preserve the game for a new generation of players during the 2000s, but it was delisted alongside other Midway titles when the studio sold its rights to Mortal Kombat in 2009.

101006-mortal-kombat-3-dos-front-cover

Mortal Kombat 3 (1995)

In a herald of major visual and mechanical changes to come, actors Philip Ahn (Mortal Kombat II‘s Shang Tsung), Elizabeth Malecki (Sonya Blade), and Katalin Zamiar (Kitana, Mileena, and Jade) entered into a protracted legal dispute with Midway over the likenesses to the characters they had portrayed following the release of Mortal Kombat II. Other actors, including Daniel Pesina (Johnny Cage, Scorpion, Sub-Zero, Smoke, and Reptile), Carlos Pesina (Raiden), and Ho Sung Pak (Liu Kang, Mortal Kombat‘s Shang Tsung) also departed the franchise following its second entry. Whether directly connected to this issue or not, the development team considered shifting Mortal Kombat from using digitized actors to using textured polygonal characters in the style of SEGA’s Virtua Fighter (1993). Concerns over the still-low level of detail in contemporary 3D graphics, though, led Tobias and Boon to return to the digitized photography of earlier series entries.

3030-mortal-kombat-3-dos-screenshot-select-your-fighter
Mortal Kombat 3‘s original roster (plus now-robotic bonus fighter Smoke in the center). Source: MobyGames

Even so, the series’ appearance went through extensive changes between its second and third iterations. Environments are more Western-influenced, emphasizing North American urban settings, and all returning characters aside from Raiden and Kung Lao look very different. Sub-Zero no longer wears a mask, Shang Tsung has face paint and a ponytail, and Jax now fights using cybernetically-enhanced arms. Raiden, Scorpion, Kitana, Mileena, Baraka, and Johnny Cage are absent from the game while Kano and Sonya return for the first time since the series’ debut. New playable characters include Sheeva, a Shokan warrior; Cyrax, a yellow robotic ninja; Sektor, a red robotic ninja; Stryker, a police officer; Kabal, a badly-scarred former Black Dragon gang member who wields hooked blades; Sindel, Shao Kahn’s queen and Kitana’s mother; and Nightwolf, a Native American shaman. Unplayable boss characters include a more powerful version of Shao Kahn and his centaur lieutenant Motaro. All characters and backgrounds are enhanced through the use of computer-generated imagery to augment digitized actors and sprites.

3038-mortal-kombat-3-dos-screenshot-the-mighty-motaro-is-about-to
Motaro is Shao Kahn’s most imposing Outworld warrior so far. Source: MobyGames (DOS Version)

The plot, again recounted through still images presented in the arcade cabinet’s attract mode, likewise represents a major update on what had come before. The tournament framing device is abandoned in favor of pitting Earthrealm and Outworld against one another in all-out war. Shao Kahn invades Earthrealm shortly before the events of the game, causing billions of humans to die and partially merging the two planes of existence. Lest humanity be entirely enslaved by a masked despot, Earth’s champions must defeat Shao Kahn and expel the forces of Outworld.

664422-mortal-kombat-3-arcade-screenshot-sheeva-uses-4-hands-to-magic
Earth has looked better. Source: MobyGames (Arcade Version)

Gameplay features few alterations from the template established by Mortal Kombat and Mortal Kombat II. The single-player campaign still sees players choosing a character and proceeding through a series of duels before confronting Motaro and Shao Kahn, though the player may now choose one of three difficulty levels to determine the number of fighters they encounter. A handful of stages are now multi-tiered, allowing the player character to uppercut their opponent to another area. Characters can also now rapidly advance using a run meter and chain predetermined attacks together using a system informally known as dial-a-combo.

627331-mortal-kombat-3-genesis-screenshot-babality
Stryker is transformed into an adorable baby through the power of the babality. Source: MobyGames (Genesis Version)

Fatalities, babalities, and friendships all return. In addition to these, animalities allow the player character to transform into an animal to kill his or her opponent and the mercy command returns a small amount of life to a defeated enemy. Stage fatalities are possible in two new stages, a subway and a bell tower, as well as a new version of The Pit.

Secrets are once again a core part of the Mortal Kombat experience, as the appearance of an on-screen six-digit pictorial Kombat Kode that can be entered before fights foregrounds the presence of hidden content more than ever. These codes enable fight modifiers like reduced health, or give the player access to additional game modes and characters. Noob Saibot returns as an opponent through one of these combinations, while another code allows the player to enable a playable hidden character for the first time in the series’ history. This bonus fighter, a robotic version of Mortal Kombat II‘s Smoke, remains playable on the individual arcade cabinet after activation until the arcade owner manually resets the machine.

881365-mortal-kombat-3-arcade-screenshot-battle-demo
The six icons at the bottom of the screen can be altered to input codes prior to each match. Source: MobyGames (Arcade Version)

Mortal Kombat 3 was released in arcades across North America in April 1995 and made its way to home consoles by the end of the year. To alleviate concerns of arcade operators over the unusually quick release of these home console ports, a revised version of the game called Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 debuted less than a year after the game’s initial publication. Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 features mechanical updates, including a new 2-on-2 mode, and additional assets; Scorpion, Jade, Kitana, and Reptile return to the series following their omission in the base game. Several new stages, including Scorpion’s Lair, were also added. A still-later cabinet revision includes the classic version of Sub-Zero, Mileena, and a new fighter named Ermac (based on rumors of a hidden character of the same name inspired by a debug menu ‘error message’ abbreviation in the first series entry).

559696-ultimate-mortal-kombat-3-nintendo-ds-screenshot-good-combo
The DS port of Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 features a guide to special attacks on its bottom screen. Source: MobyGames

Ports of Mortal Kombat 3 and Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 appeared throughout 1995 and 1996 on numerous pieces of hardware, including Mega Drive/Genesis, SNES, Master System (in Brazil only), Game Boy, Game Gear (in Europe only), Sony PlayStation, SEGA Saturn, MS-DOS, and the Windows PC platform. The Mega Drive/Genesis and SNES versions of Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 are noteworthy for the addition of brutality finishing moves, which see a character delivering a devastating series of rapid-fire melee attacks to their defeated opponent, and the inclusion of new playable character Rain; this purple palette-swap of Scorpion and Sub-Zero was inspired by musician Prince and had been teased in the attract mode of the arcade original while remaining inaccessible during gameplay. Later ports to iOS, PlayStation 2, GameCube, Game Boy Advance, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PlayStation Portable, and Nintendo DS would make the game available throughout the 2000s but all versions available via digital distribution networks would be delisted by the early 2010s.

151476-mortal-kombat-trilogy-playstation-screenshot-taking-advantage
You can finally play as a four-armed Shokan fighter for the first time in the PlayStation version of Mortal Kombat Trilogy. Source: MobyGames

Though the initial phase of the Mortal Kombat series was drawing to a close in the mid-1990s, one final title was released exclusively on home consoles, handheld consoles, and PCs between 1996 and 1997. Mortal Kombat Trilogy bears the overall appearance and gameplay of Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 but introduces the aggressor gauge, a bar that grows when characters deliver attacks and allows characters to move quicker and hit harder once full. All characters from Mortal Kombat and Mortal Kombat II aside from Johnny Cage are included while boss enemies are playable for the first time; new playable character Chameleon, a ninja which switches at random between the movesets and appearance of Sub-Zero, Scorpion, Reptile, Ermac, Rain, and Smoke, makes his debut here.

gamecom_msecrets.net
Like all Game.com releases, Mortal Kombat Trilogy is quite bad. Source: MKSecrets.net

The PlayStation version developed by Avalanche software is the most fully-featured and serves as the basis for all other versions. The Nintendo 64 port is missing seven characters due to memory restrictions, though it features a unique female variant of Chameleon named Khameleon, a new stage called the Star Bridge, and 3-on-3 combat. PC and Saturn versions maintain the overall quality and content of the PlayStation original, though the latter is missing some visual assets and sound effects. A monochromatic portable version produced for the Game.com is significantly stripped-down from its home console and PC counterparts but is still the most fully-featured portable series entry so far. A red-hued port to Tiger Electronics’ short-lived portable R-Zone device, in contrast, is a badly compromised imitation. Sadly, Mortal Kombat Trilogy would never be re-released after 1998.

79528-mortal-kombat-4-nintendo-64-front-cover

Mortal Kombat 4 (1997)

Only three new members had been added to the Mortal Kombat team during the creation of its second and third titles, as the games’ expanded visual palettes were made possible through the efforts of artists Tony Goskie, Steve Beran, and David Lee Michicich. Still, no programmers had been added to offset the heavy burden upon series co-creator Ed Boon. This small operation would prove untenable as the franchise took its first major leap into the third dimension in 1997.

989349-mortal-kombat-4-arcade-screenshot-select-your-fighters
The roster of fighters in Mortal Kombat 4‘s best-known arcade variant. Source: MobyGames

2D graphics in one-on-one fighting games had grown increasingly passe following the arcade releases of SEGA’s Virtua Fighter (1993) and Namco’s Tekken (1995). While Midway had explored 3D visuals when developing Mortal Kombat 3, the writing was on the wall by the mid-1990s: polygons were the way forward. Ed Boon and his team decided to abandon digitized actors in favor of entirely-digital characters based only loosely on motion capture. This evolution would prove highly challenging, particularly in terms of the resources involved, as the team doubled in size between Mortal Kombat 3 and Mortal Kombat 4 through the addition of Midway programmers who had previously worked on the studio’s contentious War Gods (1996). Character animations were carefully hand-animated to ensure that the immediacy of 2D fighting mechanics was not lost in the transition to 3D.

In spite of the difficulties faced by Boon and Tobias’ expanded staff, the resulting game successfully translates the Mortal Kombat experience from one generation to the next. Environments are 3D but characters still move linearly along a 2D plane. Combos take on increased significance, but combat is otherwise very similar to the series’ first three titles. Players engage with one another or AI foes by trading punches, kicks, and special attacks in an attempt to reduce their opponent’s health gauge to zero before carrying out an optional finishing move.

815756-mortal-kombat-4-playstation-screenshot-new-game-feature-use
Sonya wields a different kind of fan than Kitana and Mileena in Mortal Kombat 4. Source: MobyGames (PlayStation Version)

The key mechanical update to Mortal Kombat in its fourth iteration, as suggested by a televised ad campaign, is the addition of melee weaponry. Each character can draw and wield a unique weapon, though these may be dropped if the character sustains an attack; after being dropped, weapons can be retrieved and used by either fighter in the arena. The implementation of powerful tools which can be turned against their user introduces a thrilling new layer of risk/reward gameplay to the series’ formula.

989351-mortal-kombat-4-arcade-screenshot-presentation
Shinnok (left) and Quan Chi (right) make their debut in a slick introductury cutscene. Source: MobyGames

Narratively, Mortal Kombat 4 represents an entirely distinctive chapter in the franchise. Shao Kahn and his Outworld forces are set aside in favor of new antagonists, Elder God Shinnok and  sorcerer Quan Chi. These two characters, who had recently been introduced in Tobias-helmed action-adventure home console spinoff Mortal Kombat Mythologies: Sub-Zero (1997), are attempting to conquer the Mortal Kombat universe’s six realms following Shinnok’s escape from a Netherrealm prison. Earthrealm’s warriors are summoned by Raiden, who had originally imprisoned Shinnok a millennium earlier, to halt the Elder God’s progress. The controversial absence of any oversized boss characters permits players to control every character in the game – including Shinnok – for the first time in series history.

The roster includes returning characters Liu Kang, Sub-Zero, Scorpion, Raiden, Sonya, Jax, Johnny Cage, and Reptile (now no longer a palette swap). In addition, seven new characters are introduced: the aforementioned Shinnok and Quan Chi; Tanya, a Shinnok devotee from Kitana’s home realm of Edenia; Fujin, the God of Wind; Jarek, a member of the Black Dragon criminal syndicate; Reiko, a thoroughly mysterious Outworld ninja; and Kai, a Shaolin monk with the ability to control fire. The roster differs slightly depending on which revision of the arcade cabinet players encounter.

13374-mortal-kombat-4-windows-screenshot-that-scorpion-guy-can-sure
Times may have changed as games moved from 2D to 3D but Scorpion never stopped setting folk on fire. Source: MobyGames (PC Version)

Fatalities return, but all other finishing moves have been cut in an effort to move the franchise back towards its comparatively serious origins. The only alternate type of finishing move considered for the game – Mortal Kombat 3‘s animality – was omitted due to the difficulties animating additional polygonal character models. Though fans might have been disappointed in the reduction of total finishing move options, the shift from 2D to 3D allowed Boon and Tobias’ team to produce the series’ most complex, cinematic death animations so far.

meat_2rg
Hidden character Meat is very silly. Source: Mr2RG

Secrets are likewise pared back from the heights of Mortal Kombat II and Mortal Kombat 3. Early versions of Mortal Kombat 4 taken on a 35-stop tour of the United States feature a playable Noob Saibot, but his absence in the more widely available Revision 3 cabinet sparked unfounded rumors that he was hidden somewhere in the game. The only secret character available in Revision 3 is Meat, a joke fighter who originated as a fleshless generic character model used when other characters lose portions of their skin during fatalities. Meat’s fighting style and special moves are drawn randomly from other fighters for each match in which he appears.

As ever, home console ports followed the arcade original. Mortal Kombat 4 was ported to Nintendo 64, PlayStation, and PC by Eurocom in 1998 with heavy visual compromises. While the game did not look as good as its arcade counterpart, Eurocom successfully maintained 60 frames-per-second (fps) performance on all versions. A new Ice Pit stage was added alongside returning boss character Goro and hidden fighter Noob Saibot. All three initial home versions are roughly equivalent, though the Nintendo 64 port’s ending cutscenes are rendered in real-time using in-game character models rather than the pre-rendered full-motion videos (FMVs) present in the PlayStation and PC versions.

212073-mortal-kombat-4-windows-screenshot-goro-pounds-the-shit-out
Goro makes his three-dimension debut doing pretty standard Goro stuff in the home ports of the game. Source: MobyGames (PC Version)

Two later ports differ significantly from earlier versions. The first of these, an enhanced edition called Mortal Kombat Gold, was released alongside the SEGA Dreamcast’s North American launch in late 1999. Though developed by the same studio which had ported the game to other platforms a year earlier, Mortal Kombat Gold features six additional returning characters – Kitana, Mileena, Cyrax, Sector, Kung Lao, and Baraka – as well as new stages. The second unique port is a 2D version developed for the Game Boy Color (GBC) by Digital Eclipse. It features a reduced roster of characters and stages, but is noteworthy for running on the GBC’s Mortal Kombat 3 engine. While unofficial emulation of the arcade original remains highly flawed at the time of writing, likely due to it having been developed for Midway’s proprietary Zeus board using non-standard four-sided polygons, a re-release on CD Projekt’s Good Old Games (GOG) digital marketplace in March 2020 finally made the game accessible to new players for the first time in twenty years.

112402-mortal-kombat-4-game-boy-color-screenshot-liu-kang-and-rayden
I am more fascinated than I should be by Digital Eclipse’s 2D GBC port. Source: MobyGames

While the critical response to Mortal Kombat 4 was positive, it would become the last franchise entry released in arcades. That format was rapidly losing steam in the late 1990s as the disparity in graphical power between home consoles and arcades diminished, and the poor commercial performance of Ed Boon’s The Grid (2000) confirmed that it would no longer be a viable platform for future Midway releases. Fans would be kept waiting five long years between Mortal Kombat 4 and its successor as Midway explored how to keep its flagship property relevant in a rapidly changing video game landscape.

36745-mortal-kombat-deadly-alliance-gamecube-front-cover

Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance (2002)

John Tobias left Midway in September 2000. The final project he had worked on for the studio, a spinoff called Mortal Kombat: Special Forces (2000), was released after his departure to critical opprobrium. For the first time since its 1992 debut, Ed Boon would spearhead production on Mortal Kombat with no input from the series’ co-creator. Work began on Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance under the working title Mortal Kombat V: Vengeance after The Grid‘s 2000 release.

charsel_mrgstar
Character selection in Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance. Source: MrGSTAR321

In contrast with Mortal Kombat 4‘s 12 developers, the team working on Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance quickly ballooned to more than 50 individuals. The increased resources reflect a vast overhaul of the series’ combat mechanics to reflect contemporary 3D one-on-one fighters Dead or Alive (1996) and Soul Calibur (1998) as well as an entirely new RenderWare-based game engine designed for sixth-generation home consoles rather than a proprietary arcade board. Though Tobias was gone, his unique fusion of Eastern and Western aesthetics would remain a touchpoint for the new title’s visual design. Likewise, while he was no longer being digitally photographed as Raiden, former actor Carlos Pesina now led the franchise’s motion capture team.

dodge_mrgstar
Reptile, scalier than ever, dodges Sub-Zero’s ice blast by stepping into the background. Source: MrGSTAR321

Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance introduces the ability for dueling fighters to step into the background or foreground, establishing a new 2D plane on which to battle their opponents. Opening up the playfield allows characters to strategically knock one another into stage hazards like pillars or acid-spewing statues. Each fighter also now has two barehanded combat styles, each bearing unique combo attacks, and a third style in which the character uses a melee weapon. In a grisly new twist, weapons can be stabbed into enemies and left there to cause a more serious wound at the expense of a character’s third fighting style. The uppercut – a key move used by all characters since the series’ first release – is omitted here for the first time.

The standard gauntlet of AI challengers in single-player is augmented by a new tutorial mode called Konquest; this allows players to train themselves in each character’s moveset by progressing through eight challenges. Multiplayer, as ever, features the opportunity for two players to duel one another. Minigames return for the first time since the series’ debut, though they are limited to a reprise of Test Your Might and a new Three Card Monty-based mode called Test Your Sight.

intro_mrgstar
Shang Tsung murders series protagonist Liu Kang in the game’s opening cutscene. Source: MrGSTAR321

The plot of Deadly Alliance, like Mortal Kombat 4 before it, represents the start of a new chapter for the series. Quan Chi serves as the bridge, as he escapes Netherrealm imprisonment in an introductory cutscene and forms an alliance with long-time series antagonist Shang Tsung to reawaken a mummified army which once belonged to legendary Outworld Dragon King Onaga. In a startling announcement of Midway’s intentions to shake up the series’ long-held traditions, Liu Kang and Shao Kahn are murdered by Quan Chi and Shang Tsung before the game begins. The game’s battles subsequently center on Raiden’s efforts to muster a force powerful enough to defeat the eponymous deadly alliance.

moloch_mrgstar
Moloch isn’t to be messed around with. Source: MrGSTAR321

Returning characters include Cyrax, Jax, Johnny Cage, Kano, Kitana, Kung Lao, Quan Chi, Raiden, Reptile, Scorpion, Shang Tsung, Sonya, and Sub-Zero. Though most feature one or two iconic special attacks, updates to the series’ fundamental mechanics ensure that all feel distinct from earlier incarnations. New characters include Bo Rai Cho, a drunken warrior; Drahmin, a bestial demon hunting down Quan Chi; Frost, Sub-Zero’s Lin Kuei apprentice; Hsu Hao, criminal member of a breakaway Black Dragon faction called Red Dragon; Kenshi, a blind swordsman; Li Mei, member of an enslaved Outworld village fighting for her freedom; Mavado, Hsu Hao’s Red Dragon superior; and Nitara, a winged vampire. Unplayable oversized sub-boss Moloch wields a massive ball and chain in the single-player campaign’s penultimate match. Finally, two new hidden fighters – Mortal Kombat II’s background combatant Blaze and the motion capture suit-wearing joke character Mokap – are available once the player accesses them through a currency-based reward system called The Krypt.

255148-mortal-kombat-deadly-alliance-playstation-2-screenshot-purchase
The Krypt is more or less a spooky menu. Source: MobyGames

The Krypt consists of over six hundred tombstones accessed through a menu system. Each tombstone has an in-game “koin” value associated with it and, once purchased, opens to reveal a piece of hidden content. Rewards vary radically from new fighters, costumes, stages, and soundtrack recordings to campy infomercials featuring the game’s characters and concept art. Koins are acquired by playing through the arcade mode.

Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance was released on the PlayStation 2, Xbox, and Gamecube to critical acclaim in November 2002. It was a commercial blockbuster as well, shattering the impression that Mortal Kombat would be forever subject to diminishing returns. Two ports to the Game Boy Advance in 2002 (Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance) and 2003 (Mortal Kombat: Tournament Mode), which clumsily attempt to reproduce the home consoles’ 3D character models using sprite graphics, were less successful but quickly forgotten. Ed Boon had finally broken his series free from its 1990s identity and established the template for a new generation of home console players. The next step, naturally, would be iteration.

42129-mortal-kombat-deception-playstation-2-front-cover

Mortal Kombat: Deception (2004)

Having spent half a decade producing a game engine suitable for modern 3D fighting mechanics, Midway insisted upon a two year development cycle for the next series entry. That time would be focused on creating new characters, finding ways to meaningfully update the series’ fundamentals, and significantly fleshing out modes beyond the characteristic one-on-one duels; each game mode had a unique team assigned to it, with all coordinated by Boon and producer John Podlasek. Boon found a way to do what he and John Tobias had always done with Mortal Kombat sequels – build on desires voiced by players while still managing to surprise – more directly than ever by combing online fan communities. Midway delivered on the tight schedule with the franchise’s sixth core release on PlayStation 2 and Xbox in Fall 2004 and on Gamecube the following March. A stripped-down PlayStation Portable version was released in 2006 under the name Mortal Kombat: Unchained.

charsel2_mrgstar
The fighter selection from Mortal Kombat: Deception includes two paired characters for the first time in series history. Source: MrGSTAR321

The basic gameplay of Mortal Kombat: Deception‘s arcade mode – both single-player and multiplayer – is similar to that of its predecessor with several key distinctions. Weapons, either drawn using a character’s third fighting style or pulled from the floor of a combat arena, can no longer be lodged in enemies’ torsos. Stage hazards are also more deadly than in Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance, as characters can now be knocked into these for a fatality at any point during a match. Uppercuts return to all characters’ movesets and enemy combos can now be interrupted up to three times per match using a new “combo breaker” action. Owners of the PlayStation 2 or Xbox versions of the game were able to engage in online multiplayer for the first time in the series’ history, though servers have since been shuttered.

harakiri_lifeanddeath
Kobra pulls out his own heart as a hara-kiri move to deprive his doppleganger of the chance to execute a fatality. Source: Life and Death

In contrast to the single fatality available to each character in the series’ fifth entry, fighters now have two unique fatalities that can be performed after winning the second of a best-of-three match. For the first time, end of match fatalities can be prevented through the use of a hara-kiri command. If the losing player enters an associated button combination quickly enough, their character can preempt a victorious opponent’s kill by violently committing suicide.

The single-player campaign’s plot picks up directly after Quan Chi and Shang Tsung’s ending sequences from Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance. Earthrealm’s warriors are defeated, allowing the the deadly alliance to successfully resurrect Dragon King Onaga. Quan Chi and Shang Tsung then turn on one another before being confronted by an ungrateful Onaga. Raiden attempts to kill the Dragon King but manages only to kill the two sorcerers and temporarily immolate himself. Faced with the prospect of a seemingly unstoppable new antagonist, the Thunder God returns to Earthrealm and hastily assembles a new group of fighters to prevent Onaga from conquering the Mortal Kombat universe.

onaga_mrgstar
Onaga, as introduced in the game’s intro sequence, is a bad dude. Source: MrGSTAR321

Returning playable characters include Raiden, Baraka, Bo Rai Cho, Ermac, Jade, Kabal, Kenshi, Li Mei, Liu Kang (now a zombie), Mileena, Nightwolf, Noob Saibot, Scorpion, Sindel, Smoke, Sub-Zero, and Tanya. Six of these fighters had not appeared in a series entry since 1996’s Mortal Kombat Trilogy. New characters include Ashrah, an outwardly human Netherrealm demon; Dairou, a mercenary contracted to assassinate fellow combatant Hotaru; Darrius, the leader of a resistance movement within Orderrealm; Havik, a troublemaking cleric of Chaosrealm who resembles a decaying corpse; Hotaru, an Orderrealm general; Kira, a member of Kabal’s newly reformed Black Dragon syndicate; Kobra, a Black Dragon member and former New York City vigilante; and Shujinko, Bo Rai Cho’s noble apprentice.

571887-mkdexb023_giantbomb
Where Deadly Alliance‘s Konquest mode was a glorified tutorial, Deception‘s Konquest mode is a full-on quasi-RPG. Source: Giant Bomb

Shujinko serves as the protagonist of Mortal Kombat: Deception‘s most ambitious new addition to the Mortal Kombat formula, a dramatically revised Konquest mode. Konquest now offers its own unique plot and an open world featuring virtually all characters from the franchise’s history. These non-player characters (NPCs) provide world building and side quests in the manner of a role-playing game, though the gameplay mechanics outside of wandering the overworld are more or less identical to arcade mode. As Shujinko encounters hostile enemies on his quest to recover six Kamidogu artifacts from across the universe’s six realms, he battles them in one-on-one combat. Completing quests and advancing the plot in Konquest rewards the player with koins used to unlock content in the Krypt. Secrets abound in Konquest, offering the series’ most robust set of mysteries and hidden content since Mortal Kombat 3.

Two other new modes make their debut in Mortal Kombat: Deception, though they represent amusing diversions rather than narrative-oriented experiences. The first of these is Chess Kombat, which initially appears to be a standard game of chess using Mortal Kombat-themed pieces. Characters enter into battle once their pieces overlap, however, while the type of piece determines combat modifiers or special techniques. Puzzle Kombat, on the other hand, is a competitive falling block minigame in the style of Tetris. Chibi versions of Mortal Kombat characters appear at the bottom of the screen and attack each other based on the player’s puzzle performance.

deception_puzzlekombat
Chibi Scorpion and Chibi Jade battle one another through the power of falling blocks. Source: MobyGames

Mortal Kombat: Deception was another commercial blockbuster for Midway. More importantly for the franchise’s legacy, it was the series’ second consecutive critical darling in less than three years. Mortal Kombat’s new engine and mechanics had proven to be as flexible and dynamic as anything available in the 3D one-on-one fighter genre. Midway would next be faced with a critical choice: return to what had worked well since 2002 or advance to a new generation of hardware. For better and worse, Ed Boon and his team would make an uncharacteristically conservative move.

133253-mortal-kombat-armageddon-wii-front-cover

Mortal Kombat: Armageddon (2006)

Microsoft’s Xbox 360 launched in November 2005 and its Sony rival, the PlayStation 3, launched almost exactly one year later. Given the two year development period associated with modern Mortal Kombat games, fans might have reasonably anticipated the series’ 2006 title to be published for these new high-definition platforms. In the interest of wrapping up the series’ second trilogy before moving on to an entirely new approach designed from the ground up for seventh-generation consoles, however, Midway decided to reuse the previous two games’ engine one last time.

charsel_mrgstar
Mortal Kombat: Armageddon features the series’ largest fighter roster. Source: MrGSTAR321

Mortal Kombat Armageddon‘s release on the PlayStation 2 and Xbox in October 2006 heralded the conclusion of an era. To that end, every character who had appeared in a core Mortal Kombat game is present in Armageddon  as a playable fighter (with one notable exception: Mortal Kombat Trilogy’s Nintendo 64-exclusive Khameleon). Even Sareena, who originated as an NPC in spinoff Mortal Kombat Mythologies: Sub-Zero and was only previously playable in the GBA’s Mortal Kombat: Tournament Edition (2003), is available as an avatar. Two characters central to the game’s new Konquest mode, Edenian half-god protagonist Taven and his evil brother Daegon, are the only new members of the roster.

kreate
“Kreated” characters can get pretty silly. Source: Mortal Kombat Wiki

With regard to characters, the most substantial addition is Kreate-a-Character. This mode allows the player to visually and mechanically craft a fighter using a multitude of options. As suggested by the presence of customizable characters, fatalities are no longer character-specific. They are instead produced on the fly during a timed finishing move sequence from canned animations which can be strung together to graphically dismember an opponent. Jumps take on more significance than ever due to a new aerial combat combo system, while parries now allow fighters to cancel attacks.

Chess Kombat and Puzzle Kombat are eschewed in favor of a new, more robust bonus mode. Motor Kombat allows the player to select an adorable chibi version of their favorite Mortal Kombat fighter and race go-karts across obstacle-strewn tracks. In contrast to its inspiration, Mario Kart, Motor Kombat also sees racers graphically destroyed with an accompanying “fatality” message when they collide with track hazards. Motor Kombat can be played against AI rivals and with online or local friends.

motorkombat
Raiden zaps Sub-Zero in Motor Kombat. Source: MrGSTAR321

Arcade mode returns to offer the series’ standard gauntlet of single-player one-on-one fights culminating in battle against the game’s final boss, Blaze. In contrast with his comparatively mythology-light appearance as a hidden fighter in Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance, Blaze serves as the source of conflict in Mortal Kombat: Armageddon. The fiery construct is the product of an ancient plan by Edenian King Argus and Queen Delia to bring balance to the realms through a prophesied Battle of Armageddon.

konquest
Konquest mode is effectively a brawler, reflecting the early days of the one-on-one fighter genre. Source: MK Ice and Fire

Since the Arcade mode no longer includes character-specific cutscenes, the details of this narrative are conveyed in detail though Konquest mode. In Konquest, players take on the role of Taven as he attempts to halt Daegon from conspiring with long-time series antagonists to defeat Blaze and become a god. Gameplay articulates as a brawler in the style of spinoff Mortal Kombat: Shaolin Monks (more on this below) rather than a combination of overworld exploration and standard one-on-one fighter mechanics.

A 2007 port for the Wii adds a handful of new elements. Motion controls make their series debut, while endurance mode returns to a home console series entry for the first time since Mortal Kombat 4 and Khameleon makes her first reappearance since the Nintendo 64 port of Mortal Kombat Trilogy. Some controversy associated with the loss of character-specific fatalities did not meaningfully impact the game’s status as another critical success. Sales were weaker than either prior entry in the series’ sixth-generation trilogy, however, suggesting that fans were ready to see Mortal Kombat go through its next evolution. Happily, Ed Boon and his team were already looking ahead.

172496-mortal-kombat-vs-dc-universe-playstation-3-front-cover

Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe (2008)

Mortal Kombat 8 began development as a gritty reboot inspired by Gears of War (2006). This prototype was canceled when Midway established a licensing deal with DC Comics, however, kickstarting the production of the Mortal Kombat franchise’s first crossover. Like Mortal Kombat 4 before it, Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe would serve as a bridge between two long-term series arcs.

charsel_mrg
The left and right halves of the character roster reflect the two universes crossing over in Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe. Source: MrGSTAR321

In an effort to widen the potential audience following Mortal Kombat Armageddon‘s reduced sales, Midway targeted a Teen rating for the first time since its debut entry had catalyzed the need for an industry ratings board. Fans speculated that the presence of DC intellectual property necessitated less gore, but the comics juggernaut provided surprisingly little guidance to Ed Boon and his team. They were instead left to experiment with how far they could push the envelope before incurring a Mature rating. The result was a game that features plenty of its predecessors’ trademark violence, including fatalities, while toning down or cutting away from the most graphic moments.

Mortal Kombat‘s first seventh-generation release was published for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 in November 2008. Its leadership consisted largely of veterans from prior titles, including artist Carlos Pesina and writer John Vogel. Midway again turned to middleware for the game engine, using Epic’s Unreal Engine 3 to produce higher-resolution graphics than had been possible in the prior console generation while maintaining a tight two-year development process.

fatality_mrg
This fatality looks bleak, but the camera narrowly pulls away as the Joker pulls the trigger in the NTSC version. The PAL version is presented uncensored. Source: MrGSTAR321

As in all preceding Mortal Kombat games, the centerpiece of the series’ eighth title is a single-player Arcade and two-player Versus mode. The former sees players choose one of the two universes – Mortal Kombat or DC – and view the conflict between the two sides from their preferred perspective. The starting roster of Mortal Kombat characters includes Baraka, Jax, Kitana, Kano, Liu Kang, Raiden, Scorpion, Shang Tsung, Sonya Blade, and Sub Zero. DC, on the other hand, allows the player to choose from Batman, Captain Marvel, Catwoman, Deathstroke, The Flash, Green Lantern, The Joker, Lex Luthor, Superman, or Wonder Woman. Boss characters from each side – Shao Kahn and Darkseid – can be unlocked as the player progresses through the game. Characters were selected from the two properties based on their general popularity with fans and the presence of a counterpart character in the opposing universe.

bonus_mrg
Test Your Might articulates here as a series of button-presses as you hurl your opponent through scenery. Source: MrGSTAR321

The story abandons the events of the preceding four Mortal Kombat games, returning to the conflict between Raiden and Shao Kahn. Raiden blasts Kahn through a portal at the same time that Superman is firing his heat vision at Darkseid in a parallel universe, resulting in the two villains physically merging into one super-powered being called Dark Kahn. The Mortal Kombat and DC universes are likewise joined as their inhabitants begin suffering from supernatural rage. The two sides, each perceiving the other as an invader, battle to achieve supremacy. Raiden and Superman eventually set aside their differences and separate the two universes by defeating Dark Kahn.

Gameplay in Arcade and Versus modes is broadly the same as it had been in the preceding three Mortal Kombat tiles with a few key differences. Depth is de-emphasized in spite of the graphics and areas still being rendered in 3D, as characters exclusively battle one another along a 2D plane. The exception to this occurs when a character is thrown to the lower level of a combat arena, as the two fighters grapple with one another in mid-air. Klose Kombat also interrupts the standard flow of battle when the screen enters a tighter perspective and fighters engage in a rapid series of blows at close range. A rage meter serves a similar function to Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3‘s aggressor gauge, allowing characters to briefly hit harder and avoid being knocked down once filled.

klosekombat
Wonder Woman goes to town on Raiden in Klose Kombat. Source: Mortal Kombat Wiki

Konquest mode and the koin-based krypt marketplace have been stripped away. Minigames are generally absent, though a version of Test Your Might has now been integrated into one-on-one fights. Rather than trying to chop through blocks, the player must now mash buttons to drive their opponent through multiple walls within a combat arena. In Versus mode, the character being pushed through walls can mash buttons to reduce the efficacy of their opponent’s attack.

Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe featured online play, like its predecessors, and it was planned to be the first series entry to include downloadable content (DLC) through the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 digital distribution network. Mortal Kombat’s Quan Chi and DC’s Harley Quinn were to be bonus fighters which players could pay real-world money to access, but these plans were abandoned by early 2009. Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe had received generally positive critical reception, and sold better than any Mortal Kombat title since 2002, but this was not enough to halt the startling collapse of Midway shortly after the game’s release.

217356-mortal-kombat-xbox-360-front-cover

Mortal Kombat (2011)

While the Mortal Kombat series had been evolving during the late 1990s and early 2000s, Midway had been experiencing its own ups and downs. WMS Industries sold off its Midway stock in 1998 following the studio’s reorientation away from arcade and pinball cabinet production. The newly independent Midway then closed its arcade division in 2001 following heavy financial losses associated with Ed Boon’s The Grid (2000), pivoting to focus exclusively on home consoles. In spite of losing money every year following 2000, Midway began acquiring independent game studios and rebranding them from 2004; these include Inevitable Entertainment, which became Midway Austin, and Ratbag Games, which became Midway Australia. This strategy proved unsuccessful, as each studio was shut down over the next three years.

thegrid2
The Grid was a far cry from Midway’s brutal Mortal Kombat classics. Source: MKSecrets.net

Not even the acquisition of numerous licensed properties could stem Midway’s financial hemorrhage during the 2000s. In the six short years that separated 2006 from 2000, Midway dropped from having the industry’s fourth-highest game sales to 20th place. The 2008 sale of shares by Viacom CBS magnate Sumner Redstone, who had owned over 80% of Midway’s stock since 2003, represented the final nail in the coffin for the studio. It filed for bankruptcy in February 2009. Its most valuable assets, including the Mortal Kombat IP and the studio’s offices in Chicago and Seattle, were purchased by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment. The Chicago development studio, in which Ed Boon and the majority of the Mortal Kombat staff was based, was renamed WB Games Chicago and then reincorporated in 2010 as NetherRealm Studios.

charsel_mrg
The character roster is again pretty extensive in Mortal Kombat‘s reboot. Source: MrGSTAR321

Naturally, NetherRealm Studios’ first project was the ninth installment in the Mortal Kombat franchise. Ed Boon remained the project’s creative lead in spite of the aforementioned behind-the-scenes corporate transition, while Dan Forden returned to be the game’s composer following his absence from that role for Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe. Like its direct predecessor, Mortal Kombat is built on Unreal Engine 3.

The series’ second release on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 platforms is effectively a reboot, as Raiden conveys a message back through time from the apocalyptic conclusion of Mortal Kombat Armageddon to the days immediately preceding the first Mortal Kombat. This sets in motion a plot which retells the events of the series’ first three entries. As the story progresses, though, key divergences lead Raiden and his chosen heroes to a very different conclusion than the one they had reached in the original Mortal Kombat 3. Narrative is conveyed through the new Story mode, which inserts heavily cinematic cutscenes between single-player battles.

reptile_mrg
On-screen text identifies the level of damage inflicted on opponents. Source: MrGSTAR321

The character roster initially includes Baraka, Cyrax, Ermac, Jade, Jax, Johnny Cage, Kabal, Kano, Kitana, Kung Lao, Liu Kang, Mileena, Nightwolf, Noob Saibot, Raiden, Reptile, Scorpion, Sektor, Shang Tsung, Sheeva, Sindel, Smoke, Sonya Blade, and Sub-Zero. Cyber Sub-Zero and Quan Chi can be unlocked through gameplay. Goro, Kintaro, and Shao Kahn appear as boss characters in Story Mode but cannot be controlled by the player. Kratos, of Sony’s God of War property, is a fighter exclusive to the PlayStation 3 version. DLC fighters made available at regular intervals after the game’s release through a Season Pass (and integrated in 2012’s Komplete Edition) include Kenshi, Rain, Nightmare on Elm Street‘s Freddy Krueger, and newcomer Skarlet. Skarlet, who was based on an outstanding rumor concerning Mortal Kombat II, wields bladed weapons and special attacks oriented around the manipulation of blood.

fredkrug_wiki
Freddy Krueger is a pretty surprising addition to the Mortal Kombat roster, though he points the way ahead to later DLC fighters. Source: Mortal Kombat Wiki

Mortal Kombat mechanically resembles its 1990s forebears, as fighters battle one another on a 2D plane without access to the multiple fighting styles of the series’ 2000s-era trilogy. Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe‘s Klose Kombat, mid-air grappling, and in-battle Test Your Might sequences are also omitted. The two concessions to more recent franchise entries are the presence of 3D combat arenas and the inclusion of dramatic camera angles for certain special attacks.

Mortal Kombat‘s most significant new mechanic is a three-tiered power gauge which increases as characters sustain or inflict damage. Filling the bar’s first phase allows the player to activate an upgraded special attack, filling the second allows the player to interrupt an enemy combo, and filling the third allows the player to activate a devastating X-ray attack. This new type of special move includes cutaways to a grisly X-ray perspective of the opponent’s bones being broken. Still more graphic is the newest set of fatalities, rendered in high-definition for the first time in a Mature-rated series title.

xray_kk
X-ray attacks are pretty intense. Source: Kombat Kronicles

The Krypt makes its return alongside a variety of new multiplayer modes and minigames. With regard to the former, tag team matches now allow players to swap between multiple fighters mid-match. An online King of the Hill multiplayer variant also simulates the real-world arcade experience by allowing new challengers to take on a reigning champion one at a time. Minigames include a slot machine and Test Your Strike, which evokes the original Mortal Kombat‘s Test Your Might. A new Challenge mode offers long-term replayability by requiring the player to engage with very specific win conditions and humorous story scenarios.

Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment’s commitment to Ed Boon and his NetherRealm co-developers in the wake of Midway’s bankruptcy paid off with the most critically successful series entry since Mortal Kombat: Deception, as one outlet boldly declared Mortal Kombat the series’ best release yet. A staggering 3,000,0000 sales within its first year on store shelves evidently covered the cost of Warner Bros’ Midway acquisition. Corporate vicissitudes amidst the Great Recession failed to seriously tarnish Mortal Kombat as it moved into its third decade delighting and disgusting audiences alike across the globe.

cover_ign

Mortal Kombat X (2015)

Though again built on Unreal Engine 3, the tenth Mortal Kombat title was the first produced for eighth-generation home consoles. This generational leap was reflected in a longer development period than had been the case for any other series entry since 2002. The development team remained more or less consistent between the franchise’s ninth and tenth titles with one major exception, as NetherRealm hired German studio Dynamedion to compose the game’s soundtrack. The franchise’s first mobile release, an adaptation of Mortal Kombat X with a handful of exclusive characters, was internally produced by NetherRealm Studio and published in tandem with the home console version. Versions planned for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 were canceled during development while a PC port produced by High Voltage Software and QLOC was plagued with technical issues.

790442-mortal-kombat-x-playstation-4-screenshot-the-player-select
Mortal Kombat X’s character roster, including DLC figher Predator. Source: MobyGames

Happily, the eighth-generation home console version was celebrated as a meaningful iteration on its direct predecessor. The plot picks up two years after the events of Mortal Kombat, moving the newly rebooted timeline forward with the re-introduction of Mortal Kombat 4‘s antagonists in an intense opening cutscene. Elder God Shinnok and sorcerer Quan Chi resurrect Earthrealm warriors slain during the preceding game to fight for them as undead revenants, including Liu Kang and Kitana. Their invasion of Earthrealm is halted, however, by the newfound heroism of long-time Hollywood parody Johnny Cage. Raiden traps Shinnok in an amulet while Quan Chi escapes.

790441-mortal-kombat-x-playstation-4-screenshot-presenting-the-new
From left to right: Cassie Cage, Jacqui Briggs, and Takeda Takahashi represent a new generation of fighters descended from fighters in the first five Mortal Kombat games. Source: MobyGames

A twenty year gap separates this breathless introduction from the body of the game. Two decades on, Johnny and Sonya Blade have had a child and grown estranged. A handful of revenants saved by Raiden’s warriors – Scorpion, Jax, and Sub-Zero – have had their humanity restored and are hard at work rebuilding their associated Earthrealm institutions. When Outworld descends into a civil war between rival factions vying for power, Johnny Cage assembles a new group of fighters to broker peace and secure the amulet in which Shinnok is trapped.

Mortal Kombat X marks the debut of Cassie Cage, daughter of Johnny and Sonya Cage; D’Vorah, member of Outworld’s insectoid Kytinn race; Erron Black, a Western-influenced gunslinger; Ferra/Torr, a disguised muscular man and his small rider; Jacqui Briggs, daughter of Jax and Vera Briggs; Kotal Kahn, the Aztec-influenced would-be ruler of Outworld; Kung Jin, young cousin of Kung Lao; and Takeda Takahashi, son of Kenshi the blind swordsman. Playable returning fighters include Ermac, Jax, Johnny Cage, Kano, Kenshi, Kitana, Kung Lao, Liu Kang, Mileena, Quan Chi, Raiden, Reptile, Scorpion, Shinnok, Sonya Blade, and Sub-Zero. DLC featured the reappearance of Mortal Kombat’s Goro, Mortal Kombat 4‘s Tanya, and Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance‘s Bo Rai Cho alongside new fighters Tremor – a ninja wearing brown who had originally been planned for 1996’s Mortal Kombat Trilogy – and Triborg – a robotic combination of Cyrax, Sektor, Smoke, and the cybernetic version of Sub-Zero. Inspired by the popularity of the preceding title’s Freddy Krueger, NetherRealm Studios also used the DLC as an opportunity to add cinematic guest fighters Jason Voorhees (Friday the 13th), Predator (Predator), Xenomorph (Alien), and Leatherface (Texas Chainsaw Massacre).

16617-mortal-kombat-x-screenshot
Scenery and characters are more beautifully-rendered than ever during combat in Mortal Kombat‘s tenth entry. Source: MobyGames

Mortal Kombat X‘s gameplay is nearly identical to its direct predecessor. Exceptions include the ability to wield environmental objects as weapons, the reintegration of three fighting styles per character, and the presence of quick-time events during cutscenes; the latter encourage the player to pay greater attention to story sequences but also prevent skipping cutscenes on repeated runs through the Story mode. Fatalities are also now accompanied by two additional types of finishing moves: Quitalities, which brutally destroy the player’s character if they quit in the middle of an online match, and Faction Kills, which are based on the in-game faction associated with each fighter. Brutalities return as powered-up versions of standard special moves activated when that technique is used as the final attack in a fight. Finally, stage fatalities reappear after having been absent in Mortal Kombat (2011).

790976-mortal-kombat-x-playstation-4-screenshot-you-can-choose-1
Factions play a major role in the game’s online mode. Source: MobyGames

Online multiplayer is likewise largely unchanged. The most significant new feature is a mode called Faction Wars, in which players compete with one another while representing a selected faction from the in-game societies. Each faction persistently gains points during the ongoing competitions and the faction that acquires the most points at the end of a given week confers a new finishing move on each of its representatives. Additionally, players raise their rank and unlock personal rewards as they contribute to their faction’s success.

958501-mortal-kombat-mobile-android-screenshot-fatalities-are-performed
Fatalities in the mobile version of the game involve quick-time event swipes on the screen. Source: MobyGames

Mortal Kombat X was a massive commercial success, selling better than any earlier series entry. Its critical reception was less consistent, as its fundamental combat and presentation were praised while elements of its economy – particularly the ability to pay real-world money to unlock secrets in the Krypt – began to grate. The release of an expanded edition called Mortal Kombat XL in 2016, which includes all DLC alongside a new Pit stage and a handful of enhancements, should preserve the most complete version of this game long after its servers and updates cease operation.

mk11_cover

Mortal Kombat 11 (2019)

Development of the eleventh Mortal Kombat game, like its direct predecessor, was led by a team comprised of series veterans. In addition to its leadership, over 200 other employees worked on the game. Ed Boon and his co-developers sought to continue tapping into fans’ nostalgia while also evolving the franchise by integrating the series’ original timeline with the new one established in its 2011 reboot. Writers Dominic Cianciolo and Shawn Kittelsen were crucial in this effort, ensuring that the increasingly byzantine plot did not contradict earlier events.

charsel_bayfokus
The character selection screen from Mortal Kombat 11 is pretty atmospheric. Source: theRadBrad

The Story mode conveys the series’ densest narrative yet through cutscenes between single-player battles with AI opponents. Picking up from the conclusion of Mortal Kombat X, Raiden has been corrupted and sets out on a mission to kill all potential enemies to Earthrealm; the first victim of Raiden’s campaign is Shinnok. Shinnok’s mother Kronika, an Elder God who can manipulate time itself, allies with new NetherRealm rulers Liu Kang and Kitana to defeat the God of Thunder. Three distinct endings are available based on the player’s success during the Story mode’s final encounter.

shinnok_theradbrad
Shinnok is not looking so good these days. Source: theRadBrad

The roster is a characteristic combination of old and new, though the game’s time travel conceit allows the presence of multiple versions of the same fighter for the first time since Mortal Kombat: Armageddon. Returning playable characters include Baraka, Cassie Cage, D’Vorah, Erron Black, Frost, Jacqui Briggs, Jade, Jax, Johnny Cage, Kabal, Kano, Kitana, Kotal Kahn, Kung Lao, Liu Kang, Noob Saibot, Raiden, Scorpion, Skarlet, Sonya Blade, and Sub-Zero. New fighters include Cetrion, Elder God and sister of Shinnok; Geras, Kronika’s lieutenant; Kollector, a six-armed fighter who wields a variety of tools; and the aforementioned Kronika herself. Paid DLC introduces Shao Kahn, Nightwolf, Shang Tsung, Sindel, and a set of surprising guests: the Joker (Batman), Spawn (Spawn), the T-800 (The Terminator) and Robocop (Robocop).

A gameplay engine built on Unreal Engine 3 resembles Mortal Kombat X but features a few new elements. Each character can now perform an over-powered Fatal Blow once per match when their health drops below 30%, while Mortal Kombat X‘s Brutalities are replaced with mechanically-similar Krushing Blows. The Mercy finishing move returns for the first time since Mortal Kombat 3, allowing players to revive their opponent at the end of a match with a sliver of health. Characters’ defensive abilities are boosted through the addition of the Flawless Block, which permits fighters to perform a counter-strike if they block at the right time during an opponent’s attack.

scorpion
Scorpion and Frost are, like many of characters, dramatically re-envisioned for the series’ eleventh title. Source: theRadBrad

Mortal Kombat 11 was broadly well-received upon its release on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and PC in April 2019; the Switch port is especially impressive, as it represents the franchise’s first portable version with only minor graphical alterations from its home console original. Controversy dogged the release of a Mortal Kombat game for the first time in twenty years, however, as fans reacted negatively to the inclusion of UFC fighter Ronda Roussey as a voice actor for Sonya Blade; criticism was directed towards Roussey’s history of circulating Sandy Hook conspiracy theories and transphobic opinions. Following release, further concerns about NetherRealm Studios’ ethics were raised when an anonymous employee revealed that they suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) due to the graphic real-world reference imagery they were required to view during development. Finally, the presence of microtransactions doubled down on Mortal Kombat‘s increasing in-game economy problems. These controversies failed to halt the franchise’s forward momentum, however, and Mortal Kombat 11 proved to be the series’ most commercially successful release yet.

Note: Cover sourced from Amazon.

112766-mortal-kombat-shaolin-monks-playstation-2-front-cover

Spinoffs

Over its nearly thirty years, Mortal Kombat has spawned a shocking amount of content in other media. Comics explaining the franchise’s backstory, films and a television series dramatizing the events of the original trilogy, and even a techno album inspired by the first game were released throughout the 1990s. Most notoriously, a live-action stage production toured the United States from 1995 to 1996. A web short called Mortal Kombat: Rebirth (2010) and an associated YouTube series called Mortal Kombat: Legacy (2011-2013), both spearheaded by Kevin Tanchareon, were more successful than earlier attempts to translate the IP out of its native medium.

145335-mortal-kombat-mythologies-sub-zero-nintendo-64-screenshot
The platforming in Mortal Kombat Mythologies is as rough as the combat. Source: MobyGames

With regard to video games, the Mortal Kombat series first branched out from the one-on-one fighting genre with 1997’s Mortal Kombat Mythologies: Sub-Zero. This PlayStation and Nintendo 64 title was developed over 14 months by a team of five led by series co-creator John Tobias. Players take on the role of Sub-Zero in a prequel that explains the character’s history with Scorpion, Quan Chi, and Shinnok. Gameplay articulates as a side-scrolling brawler, as Sub-Zero navigates trap-filled 2.5D stages while dueling enemies.

mkmythcutscene2
The Nintendo 64 port’s greatest disappointment is its omission of the PlayStation version’s delightfully goofy cutscenes. Source: Mezmorize

The game proved divisive, through, as it clumsily attempts to graft the Mortal Kombat fighting engine onto a game featuring extensive horizontal exploration. The player must tap a button to turn Sub-Zero around when foes appear behind him and all special attacks make use of the same contextual direction inputs designed for its parent series. Still more disappointing is the conversion of campy live-action FMV sequences into still imagery for the Nintendo 64 version due to the lack of memory on that platform’s cartridge format.

specforc
Mortal Kombat Special Forces is otherwise a pretty joyless brawler, but I like that these cars have license plates which reference characters from core series entries. Source: Sinroth Gaming

Poor reception to Mortal Kombat Mythologies: Sub-Zero would not forestall a follow-up centered on Jax. As with its spiritual predecessor, Mortal Kombat: Special Forces was primarily designed by John Tobias prior to his 1999 departure from Midway and was intended to fill in more of the franchise’s backstory. Jax battles Kano and the Black Dragon syndicate across five stages depicted in a 3D action-adventure style. According to John Tobias, the PlayStation title was rushed to completion in an unfinished state due to the approaching release of new hardware. Sales fell dramatically short of expectations and the critical response was uniformly negative.

The franchise’s third video game spinoff was much more successful. Mortal Kombat: Shaolin Monks (2005) was developed by California-based studio Paradox Development following its acquisition and rebranding by Midway in 2004. Ed Boon’s role as a producer led the development team to base the game’s story on Boon’s favorite core series entry, Mortal Kombat II.

shaolin
Light platforming is present during Shaolin Monks‘ single-player campaign, though the emphasis is primarily on combat. Note that Sub-Zero (seen here) or Scorpion are additional unlockable player characters. Source: MrGSTAR321

Like Mortal Kombat: Special Forces, gameplay in Mortal Kombat: Shaolin Monks takes the form of a 3D action-adventure. Unlike that earlier release, however, its level of polish and fan-service made it highly popular upon its release for the PlayStation 2. Though the bulk of the experience is a narrative-heavy single-player mode in which the player takes on the role of Liu Kang, a multiplayer mode offers the opportunity for two players to duel one another in fully 3D combat arenas or play through the campaign cooperatively. In spite of its strong critical and commercial showing, Mortal Kombat: Shaolin Monks remains the series’ last video game spinoff at the time of writing in May 2020.

Conclusion

Mortal Kombat‘s influence on the wider medium can’t be overstated. It popularized the one-on-one fighter genre alongside Street Fighter, inadvertently inspired the creation of a software ratings board, and helped the genre make a definitive transition to home consoles in the early 2000s. Controversy, poorly conceived spinoffs, changing industry trends, and the occasional overly-traditional core series entry failed to tarnish Mortal Kombat‘s reputation as one of the most consistent franchises in its genre. Against the odds, Mortal Kombat is poised to enter its third decade more popular than ever.


Which is your favorite Mortal Kombat game? How about your least favorite? Who’s your preferred fighter? What’s the silliest cutscene or minigame in series history? Let’s discuss in the comments below.

Here is a tentative list of upcoming articles:

  • #91: Masters of Orion – May 22
  • #92: Mega Man Zero – May 29
  • #93: Panzer Dragoon – June 5
  • #94: Animal Crossing – June 12
  • #95: Dragon Quest – June 19