Deep inside every adolescent boy lurks a savage, untamed beast. On the outside he might do his homework, watch after his baby brother after school, and take clarinet lessons, but deep down, he wants blood. Sure, he might not really want act out any gruesome acts of violence, but on some level, he knows it would be wicked cool.

Mortal Kombat held a mirror up to the dark side of youth, and forced America to confront itself. It was as popular as it was controversial, and it changed the face of gaming over night, ushering in video gaming's exploitation era. But what might be most exceptional is the way that it has managed to outlive the fleeting trends it helped to spawn and stayed on top more than fifteen years. Mortal Kombat has left behind it a mighty legacy, and it isn't finished yet.


First Blood

The beginning of the 1990s was an important turning point for arcade games. In 1991, Capcom released Street Fighter II, and SNK followed shortly thereafter with Fatal Fury. These two games helped to propel the once meager fighting game genre into mainstream success, and ushered in a new culture of competitive gaming into arcades all over the world.

It was also during this time that Midway, once known as one of the leading names in arcade game localizations, was looking to bolster their name as a developer of original games. The company had merged with Williams at the tail end of the '80s, and it was from them that they acquired the internal development studio that would make them a household name among gamers.


Mortal Kombat's development was the result of one of the most famous partnerships this side of John Romero and John Carmack. Artist John Tobias had already cut his teeth in game development, working on some of Williams' biggest hits, like Smash T.V. and its pseudo-sequel, Total Carnage. Programmer Ed Boon had made his bones in Williams's prestigious pinball department, coding software for classics like Funhouse and Black Knight 2000 before moving into game development with the High Impact Football series. It was here that Midway first began to dabble with digitized photographs to heighten realism.

This would be one of the major selling points when Boon and Tobias began planning their first attempt at a fighter. While the idea had already been pulled off successfully by Atari's Pit Fighter, Midway was working in the post-Street Fighter II era, and the rules had changed overnight. Mortal Kombat adopted many of the conventions popularized by Street Fighter, including blocking, projectiles, and special moves executed with controller motions.

But it was style that set Mortal Kombat apart. Pulling elements from kung fu movies, '80s action flicks, and the over-the-top violence of the '70s exploitation era, the fighter was as dark as it got. It wasn't the most violent game ever -- Exidy's Chiller may still hold that title to this day -- but the pairing of live actors and gallons of blood made people take notice. In fact, the studio did much to make the violence a selling point, adding "Fatality" moves that added nothing to the gameplay, but let you act out gory deaths on your defenseless, incapacitated foe.

That cold-blooded brutality was precisely what made the title resonate when it was finally released in arcades. While many games don't achieve real notoriety until they reach consoles, the success of Mortal Kombat was simply too great to ignore. It seemed like every teenage boy in the country was playing the game -- much to the dismay of the media.