It’s not hard to see why Mortal Kombat turned into one of the biggest pop-culture phenomena of the ’90s. It wasn’t the first game with gratuitous gore, but none of its bloody predecessors had the marketing dollars, strategic timing, or eye-catching panache of Midway’s infamous fighter. Landing one year after Street Fighter II ushered in a second wind for arcades, Mortal Kombat borrowed that game’s archetypal formula but swapped the cartoonish characters for digitized models of real actors, all of whom sprayed blood and got torn to bits during the iconic Fatality sequences. It was edgy and different and stuffed with arcane secrets (a new one was just discovered last year) that kept players plunking down quarters, and by the time the console versions launched on “Mortal Monday” in September 1993, MK fever was so hot that the publisher expected to sell at least 2 million copies in a matter of days.
Everything bearing the Mortal Kombat name became a hit. Mortal Kombat II’s home release in September 1994 was touted as the biggest entertainment launch of the year, earning $50 million in its first week alone—more than any film that year. The game’s de facto theme song, “Techno Syndrome (Mortal Kombat)” by The Immortals, was a sensation in its own right and is still played at sporting events. Paul W.S. Anderson’s film adaptation had one of the 10 best openings of 1995, and its soundtrack went platinum.
MK was as big as games get, being parodied on The Simpsons, ripped off in pro wrestling, and even inspiring a tour of live martial arts shows that debuted at Radio City Music Hall. But just two years after the massive launch of Mortal Kombat 3, the series’ good fortunes started to turn. A trio of major MK-related releases, two games and a second movie, all landed in the fall of 1997, and all of them were some varying degree of failure. Together, they weren’t enough to kill the series outright, but they did knock it from its bloody throne atop the world of video games. Apart from a few low-key, similarly unsuccessful efforts, MK spent the next five years in total hibernation. When it reemerged, its rebirth would be well-received by critics and fans alike, but the series never reattained the mainstream relevance it reached during those glory years.
Where the original Mortal Kombat landed in arcades just as their popularity was ramping back up, Mortal Kombat 4 had the misfortune of arriving as the scene entered another downturn—the one that finally killed arcades for good. 3-D fighting games like Tekken had become the genre’s new standard, and MK’s digitized graphics were no longer the shortcut to realism they once were. The series was due for a change, and the developers ditched its signature live-action look for their first attempt at 3-D polygonal models. To their credit, Mortal Kombat 4 looks about on par with its contemporaries, but despite its 3-D characters, MK4’s fights still take place on a 2-D plane. You could step into the foreground or background to dodge attacks, but aside from that, there was really no integration of the extra dimension at all. It still played like Mortal Kombat 3, only this time you could pull a cartoonishly large hammer or crossbow out of your pants and watch as your opponent slapped it from your hands before you could do anything with it.
At this point, with polygonal graphics being as primitive as they were and the creative team not having the time or experience to do something radically different, Mortal Kombat didn’t gain much from going 3-D. If anything, the attempted shift hurt the series by dulling one of its most important, distinguishing features: its personality. MK4 was the most grim and self-serious the series had felt since the original. It introduced a spate of new, forgettable characters and did away with all the wacky finishing moves where you could transform into a spider and strangle your foe or turn them into a baby. Some of the Fatalities took advantage of these new graphics by manipulating bodies in gruesome ways that you never could have done with actors, but for every inventive new kill, there was a remake of an older one. And as messed up as it might sound, seeing a polygonal model get its arms ripped off just didn’t have the same effect as when it was a digitized character suffering that fate. It has nothing to do with the ghoulish verisimilitude of seeing a crudely rendered real-life human get torn limb from limb. There was a chintzy charm to watching those ridiculous sprites explode into fountains of blood and femurs, and that was, perhaps uncontrollably, left behind as the series graduated to newer technology.
At the same time that MK4 was attempting to move the series into a new dimension, John Tobias, one of the series’ ko-kreators, was leading the production of an MK spin-off that would try to focus on the games’ surprisingly deep fiction. That game was Mortal Kombat Mythologies: Sub-Zero, a prequel telling the origin story of everyone’s favorite ice-blasting ninja. Tobias and his team wanted to make a hybrid that combined the one-on-one brawling of the main series with simple 2-D platforming, so they just took their pre-existing fighting system and plunked it into a rudimentary adventure game without tweaking too much.
As it turns out, MK’s controls aren’t suited to the precision jumping and movement that this kind of game calls for, and it made for an experience that’s as miserable as it sounds. You have to press a button to turn around, and your very inconsiderate enemies have no qualms about jumping back and forth over your head, forcing you to sit there spinning like an idiot. And while Sub-Zero might be aces at ripping out spines, his jumping skills aren’t up to the game’s pixel-perfect demands and difficult-to-judge 3-D obstacles. The first level alone is filled with ridiculous death traps, enemies that ambush you from off screen, and a leap of faith so nonsensical that it seems impossible anyone would have figured it out without reading an online walkthrough. It only gets worse from there.
The best thing about Mythologies, then, is the live-action movie scenes that flank each level of the PlayStation 1 version. John Turk, the actor/bodybuilder who gave his likeness to Sub-Zero and a handful of other characters in Mortal Kombat 3, gets a chance to actually act as the mystical warrior, and he gives a hilariously hammy performance. His arms are stuck in a permanent flexing position, bowing out from his body like an action figure as he trades expository lines with his fabulously dressed ninja master and a delightful, scenery-chewing Quan Chi (played by Kano/Baraka actor Richard Divizio). Between the lovably low production values and the palpable earnestness coming from in front of and behind the camera, these morsels of camp are a merciful respite from a game that, even by 1997’s standards, can only be described as torturous.
Although it also offers up plenty of unintentional belly laughs, it’s tough to be as charitable toward Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, the 1997 sequel to Paul W.S. Anderson’s Mortal Kombat movie. The 1995 original is a worthy guilty pleasure, an uncomplicated fantasy martial-arts flick that took its cues from the original game’s “Enter The Dragon but with demons and shit” concept. The mystical, orientalist mumbo-jumbo that the games used as its easily avoidable trappings were deployed in much the same way. Instead of focusing on that nonsense, the movie spent time developing characters and bouncing between memorable fight scenes that were both faithful to the games and filmed on spectacularly designed sets.
Everything took a turn for the worse with Annihilation. Anderson didn’t return (he was off making Event Horizon, another trashy charmer), nor did most of the original cast. Christopher Lambert’s charismatic take on Raiden was replaced with a sedate, workmanlike portrayal from James Remar. Worse, Johnny Cage, probably the best character in the original, is killed off within the first 10 minutes. The only actor who seems to actually be trying is Brian Thompson, who donned the ridiculous skull helmet of big-bad villain Shao Kahn and delivered lines like “The Earth was created in six days; so too shall it be destroyed. And on the seventh day, mankind will rest… in peace!” with enough gusto to actually make them work.
The plot jumped straight to Mortal Kombat 3 and brought all the proper-noun laden nonsense about Elder Gods and Netherrealms to the forefront. The fishing-line-thin thread of a story stitching all the fight scenes together became incomprehensible, which wouldn’t matter much if those fight scenes were any good, but they’re just as messy as the script. The one-on-one brawls are sluggish, with intercutting between the actors and stunt doubles making those deadly punches and kicks look more like limp-limbed flailing. And when more than two characters are involved, the action is rendered incomprehensible by hyperactive editing and needless shifts in perspective.
The look of Annihilation suffered as well. All the intricate, interestingly lit sets of the original were replaced with nondescript caves, empty deserts, and crumbling temples. And instead of creatively shooting around their horrendous-looking CGI creations, the filmmakers put them front and center, letting the camera linger on every ridiculous inch of these digital dragons. It turns the final showdown between Liu Kang and Shao Kahn into a total embarrassment. Our hero morphs into a doofy kung-fu fighting dragon and Kahn’s head erupts as he grows into a sinewy, three-headed penis monster. A third Mortal Kombat movie was planned, but after Annihilation suffered a fatality at the hands of critics and failed to deliver at the box office, it never came to be. That was probably the best outcome for everyone involved.
At that point, Mortal Kombat all but disappeared. Twenty-two episodes of a little-remembered TV show called Mortal Kombat: Conquest aired on The WB and later TNT between October 1998 and May 1999. John Tobias led the creation of a second MK spin-off in the vein of Mythologies that starred metal-armed cop Jax. It was a budget-priced mess, marred by a rocky production and Tobias’ resignation from Midway halfway through. The series wouldn’t return in earnest until 2002 with the release of Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance, a rebirth that kicked off a trilogy of fully 3-D fighters. They sold very well and helped establish some things the team behind MK would carry into its most recent games: a wealth of modes for solo players, vast collections of unlockable goodies, and even a few new characters.
While successful in the moment, this era came and went without making much of an impression beyond fans of the series. It wasn’t until 2011 that Mortal Kombat’s developers, themselves reborn as NetherRealm Studios and now owned by Warner Bros., would make a huge push to revive the brand with its ninth installment. It reverted the fighting back to the simple 2-D of the original games, and the shockingly well-done cinematic story mode retold and rebooted the series’ ever-complicated mythology. In the run up to its release, a dark-and-gritty fan project attracted enough attention on YouTube to get a green-light from Warner, and ended up being expanded into two seasons of a web series called Mortal Kombat: Legacy. Between the success of the 2011 reboot, its sequel, and those multimedia outings, nostalgia hungry Hollywood is of course racing to get a new MK movie off the ground. If that ever happens, it’ll be an echo of the ’90s MK mania, but it doesn’t seem possible that the series will ever reach the pop-culture prominence it once had. Today, it’s more of an immature video game elder statesman than the irresistible, brash young punk it was during its peak.
“Punk” really is the best way to understand Mortal Kombat’s lasting appeal. We live in an era where blockbuster game series are pumped out on a yearly basis by teams of hundreds of overworked developers. The original Mortal Kombat was made by a core team of four people, plus the handful of martial artists they filmed to create the characters. Even as the series blew up into a national phenomenon and the sequels rolled out, that tight-knit crew barely expanded and the games never lost the infectious pride in their own absurdity and cheap DIY aesthetic.
The reason people still love those original games isn’t the violence or stilted fighting; it’s the spirit and personal touch that spills out of them. It’s why the polygons of Mortal Kombat 4 felt so cold and flat by comparison. It’s why those awful live-action scenes from Mortal Kombat Mythologies are the only lovable part of that game. Heck, even the first Mortal Kombat movie had some of that heart, with its dedication to corny game references and the cheesy practical effects for Goro and Scorpion mixed among its cutting-edge CGI. By the end of 1997, it felt like Annihilation had really crushed what was left of that essence, but it wasn’t a flawless victory. Of the four people who made the original, three still work on the modern Mortal Kombat games, 25 whole years later. That dedication and the passion it breeds is rare in games, and the series continues to be one of the few where you can really feel the exuberance of the people who made it. Mortal Kombat might not be what it was, but it lived to fight again.