"Finish him!” Back in 1992, these iconic words rocked the then-subdued video game market, arcades, parental lobby groups and the US Congress to the core. Sure, violence in video games was certainly no newer back then than it was in Saturday-morning cartoons. But until Midway’s Mortal Kombat released in arcades around the world, violence had never been so realistic, so gratuitous or so central to a game’s appeal. It employed what, at the time, was a relatively new digitised-graphics technology where the likenesses of real actors were captured and portrayed as on-screen sprites; suddenly, the cartoonish graphics of the likes of Street Fighter II, Final Fight, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and other arcade favourites of the era seemed rather tame in comparison. It didn’t help, either, that with each connected uppercut or roundhouse kick, liberal amounts of pixilated blood spilled from the victim’s body to the floor. And to top it all off, the victor could finish off their defeated opponent with a "Fatality”: by inputting particular control sequences, the player could, well, violently execute their opponent. From tearing an opponent’s head from their body (with spinal column intact), to removing their still-beating heart with bare hands, to burning their body to a skeletal crisp, the level of violence on display in Mortal Kombat was unprecedented. By the time the game hit home consoles in 1993, it served as an example of the moral differences between the two hardware giants of the time, SEGA and Nintendo: both ported censored versions of the arcade game to their 16-bit consoles, but SEGA allowed the player to restore the gore by inputting "ABACABB” at the game’s title screen. Of course, the SEGA Genesis version (or Mega Drive version here in New Zealand) proved to be considerably more popular, eventually forcing Nintendo to revisit its "family friendly” approach to the home console. Mortal Kombat’s sequel and the arcade port of Rare’s Killer Instinct would later release on the Super Nintendo Entertainment Sytem with all of the gore and violence replete.
Mortal Kombat was not the only game to court such controversy at the time, but it was certainly the most popular and made the most convincing case pertaining to actual substance. SEGA’s Night Trap, for instance, consisted of very little gameplay and many Full Motion Video (FMV) sequences showing the capture (and implied murder) of scantily clad girls by vampires. Despite its blatant shock value, Night Trap is commonly held as one of the worst games of all time to this day. Even still, these games – primarily Mortal Kombat – caused considerable outrage due to the stigma that video games were the domain of children. It all led to a series of US Congressional hearings that eventually resulted in the establishment of the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), which is responsible for the classification of video games in the US (the New Zealand equivalent is the Office of Film and Literature Classification).
And so, given the novelty of its extreme violence and its undeniably sound fighting-game chops, it was nearly impossible to stem the Mortal Kombat franchise’s breakaway popularity. Aside from the inevitable game sequels, two movies and two short-lived television series followed on from the success of the games, each with its own varying degree of success. The first film was – uncharacteristically for a video-game adaptation – extremely popular with fans of the games, premiering at #1 at the box office in 1995 and grossing over US$120 million (against its budget of US$24 million).
But as quickly as it rose to prominence, the Mortal Kombat phenomenon eventually began to wane; as the fighting-game scene moved into the 3D arena with the likes of Tekken, Street Fighter EX and Virtua Fighter, Mortal Kombat moved with them and ditched the photo-realistic digitised sprites for texture-mapped polygons. The transition for Mortal Kombat wasn’t so smooth, however; while the games were critically well received in most cases and even sold fairly well, the franchise fell behind peers that came to the fore in the fighting-game genre. The profile of Mortal Kombat appeared to dwindle outside of the gaming sphere as well: the second Mortal Kombat film, 1997’s Mortal Kombat Annihiliation, bombed critically (with a Metacritic rating of 11/100) and underperformed at the box office, grossing only US$51 million worldwide against its budget of US$30 million). And this is not to mention the woes encountered by the franchise’s publisher, Midway, which filed for bankruptcy in February last year.
With a dwindling profile and its publisher gone under, it seemed that the once-mighty Mortal Kombat franchise was now teetering on the edge of The Pit. However, the rights for all of Midway’s key franchises went up for tender, and Warner Bros. Interactive snapped up Mortal Kombat. Ed Boon, one of the co-creators of Mortal Kombat, established NetherRealm Studios last year to continue work on the ninth game in the series. Due to release this month and simply retitled Mortal Kombat, the game is a throwback to the series’ glory days in many ways; through a time-travel story, it revisits the events of the first three games and even returns its gameplay to the 2D-fighting plane. Easily one of the most anticipated games of 2011, Mortal Kombat has already fallen fowl of the notorious Australian Classification Board, which has no R18 rating and ruled that the game features "violence that exceeds strong in impact”. It’s the first title in the franchise’s 19-year lifetime to be refused classification (and subsequently, sale) in Australia. Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment unsuccessfully appealed the ruling, although the game has been granted an R18 rating here in New Zealand.
Call Mortal Kombat gratuitous, abominable or whatever you will. But its undeniable legacy includes not only the creation of one of the bloodiest and most brutal game franchises in history; it played a hand in the establishment of the very rating system that keeps such games out of the wrong hands.