Mortal Kombat actor Daniel Pesina looks back at finding cult fame, suing Midway and playing one of the game industry's most memorable characters.
This past school year, Columbia student Kenny Voong wanted to make a videogame. He just didn't quite know how.
Like many new to this kind of thing, he had a direction but needed a map.
Then one day, on his normal walk up and down Chicago's North Clark Street in a part of town flooded with strip malls and "BYOB" restaurants, Voong noticed a sign for "Chicago Wushu" on the side of the road and randomly decided to look it up online. There he found an odd coincidence: Daniel Pesina, master of the guan, was in a former life a Mortal Kombat actor.
In an industry where creative leads typically stay behind the scenes, in-game actors found cult success in the '90s by giving players faces to identify with. And when Mortal Kombat became one of the industry's most popular fighting games, Pesina grabbed his handful of fame, appearing on the covers of magazines like Time and VideoGames, guest starring on TV shows like the UK's Gamesmaster and being noticed by fans in the dentist's office.
He played Johnny Cage, the Hollywood star that was as close as the original game had to a main character - showing up as the first fighter on the character select screen, with his image stretched across the side of the arcade cabinet - as well as Sub-Zero and Scorpion, the masked ninjas who became two of the game's most popular characters.
Voong figured this was his shot. He had his game idea - a first-person shooter that would morph into a fighting game when players got up-close. He had his team - a group of friends at Columbia. And one day he stopped by Chicago Wushu looking for help.
Pesina's reply: "Of course."
This, as you'll come to learn, is normal for the now 50-plus year-old Pesina, who in recent years has acted in a film poking fun at Mortal Kombat, has made a cameo in a low budget movie about video games and doesn't flinch when I ask him to put on sunglasses for a "Johnny Cage 20 years later" photo shoot.
Former Mortal Kombat co-star Ho Sung Pak (Liu Kang) describes him as someone who's so nice he doesn't know how to say 'no.'
"You wish more people in life were like that, so life would be a little easier and people would get along a little better," says Pak. "And yeah, I'm sure it's gotten him into many different messes."
Mortal Kombat origins
Pesina's first mess with a game industry connection came before he ever realized it, on a road trip in the mid-'80s.
"Danny," as friends call him, grew up in Chicago, the third of four brothers, and describes himself as a quiet child who grew into his skin as he learned to hold his own through martial arts. After some early martial arts practice, starting at age 11, Pesina met the artist who would end up responsible for his game career — John Tobias — through mutual friend Andrew Kudelka.
It started with a high school project, in which Tobias needed to record a short film for a video production class. "I had some story about a ninja hunting down a group of thieves or some nonsense," says Tobias.
So he recruited Pesina, along with Pesina's brother Carlos (who would later join Midway as an animator), Rich DiVizio (who would later play Kano in Mortal Kombat) and Kudelka (who currently works at Tony Hawk HD developer Robomodo), and drove them in his parents' Dodge Aspen to a forest west of Chicago.
A FEW YEARS LATER, JOHN TOBIAS JOINED MIDWAY AND HELPED CREATE A PHENOMENON — HE TEAMED WITH ED BOON AND OTHERS TO DEVELOP MORTAL KOMBAT, AND THE GAME WENT ON TO BECOME ONE OF THE INDUSTRY'S BIGGEST FRANCHISES.
Mid-drive, Tobias noticed another car trying to pass him from behind, and as he was making a turn felt a Trans-Am slam into his back. The Aspen ended up crushed, the school's video equipment broken and Tobias panicked.
"I was like 16 and had just gotten my driver’s license so I was absolutely hysterical," says Tobias. "Fortunately, no one was hurt. Danny was a number of years older than the rest of us and the only adult in the group so he kind of calmed things down. We waited around for a tow, but the car was still drivable so we strapped down the trunk and Danny drove us back because I was a bit too frazzled. That was our first project together."
A few years later, Tobias joined Midway and helped create a phenomenon — he teamed with software lead Ed Boon and others to develop Mortal Kombat, they brought Pesina on as the game's first actor and a consultant to suss out how to make a digitized-actor fighting game work, and the game went on to become one of the industry's biggest franchises.
"I'M MORE OF A HANDS-ON TEACHER. I THINK REALLY THAT'S WHY MORTAL KOMBAT WORKED OUT SO WELL."
Now, 20 years later, Pesina still revels in talking about the details of the recording sessions, which he remembers as "trying to figure out what movements would work within those particular technical restrictions."
Properly aged and in street clothes during our interview, Pesina doesn't make for a 1:1 resemblance of the Hollywood action hero that he used to portray, but his energy level is unmistakeable.
Mid-interview, he pops out of his seat to act out kicks and demonstrate what it was like to capture animation frames one at a time. He cradles his energy drink, or as he calls it, "dinner," since he just returned from a 10 day vacation and needs to get back into shape. He arrives at Chicago Wushu on a motorcycle half the width of a car. These days he's in charge here.
"I'm more of a hands-on teacher," he says in reference to the class he'll be teaching later that night. "I think really that's why Mortal Kombat worked out so well."
And while Pesina and Midway ended up in a dispute down the line, he says working on the original game felt like a group of friends hanging out despite occasional low budget hang-ups like having to fall on the ground instead of padded mats.
"He never complained," says Tobias, who served as the game's art lead and therefore oversaw a lot of the actors in the game. "He was always game for whatever we threw at him and I think that attitude rubbed off on everyone."
He was someone, perhaps, who was too nice to say 'no.'
Johnny Cage: 1992 to 2012
Tattoo Assassins and TRF
PESINA FUN FACT #1
In addition to working together on Mortal Kombat and Thea Realm Fighters, Pesina and Ho Sung Pak collaborated on many non-game projects.
The duo appeared together in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2: The Secret of the Ooze, performed in live martial arts demonstrations, co-starred in a short film called Common Enemy, appeared in a full-length film called The Book of Swords and even wrote a screenplay about cage fighting before mixed martial arts became popular. "We were just a little bit ahead of our time," says Pak.
Pesina stuck with Mortal Kombat through its sequel, at which point he parted ways with Midway and found himself in demand from companies trying to copy MK's success.
As was habit, he didn't say 'no.'
Pesina agreed to appear in Tattoo Assassins and Thea Realm Fighters — both games from developers in the Chicago area, and both games that were cancelled before finishing development.
Tattoo Assassins grew out of Data East's U.S. division, best known for making pinball tables, when it decided to chase the MK money with its own digitized actor fighting game. "They were thinking, 'OK we're gonna try to ride the whole Mortal Kombat wave if we get the characters in it,'" says Pesina.
The game made it most of the way through development, with, oddly enough, a script from Back to the Future co-writer Bob Gale. While some Internet reports say Pesina worked on the game in secret, Pesina says he's not sure why, suggesting it might be because he didn't contribute much.
"When I look at stuff that's on the Internet, even the birthday's wrong, and like anybody can put something there," Pesina says. "And that's fine — it doesn't bother me. My ego's a lot bigger than that. [Laughs]"
Thinking back, he struggles to remember exactly what he did for the game. He sways back and forth trying to remember if he filmed anything for the game itself before it was cancelled. He recalls promoting it at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, though it's been so long he may actually be remembering promoting Thea Realm Fighters instead. Despite his name lending the otherwise cynical Mortal Kombat clone a speck of credibility, Tattoo Assassins wasn't his chance to cash in.
"I don't think I even got paid for that," he says.
But he says he doesn't have hard feelings.
"Well, I didn't do [much] work," he says. "And they did pay for my trip to Vegas. They paid me for the day to go to Vegas, and they were like, 'Oh we're gonna do this game,' and they just ran out of money for the game. So I was just like, 'Oh well, what can you really do?' ... [Should I be upset] because you ran out of money? I mean, I'm not an asshole."
For Thea Realm Fighters, the story sounds the same. Pesina calls it "Ho Sung's game," noting that Pak took the actor/consultant lead role on it, similar to Pesina's role on Mortal Kombat. This time, High Voltage Software (which you may know more recently for its work on the Conduit series) was developing it for Atari's Jaguar home console.
PESINA FUN FACT #2
While Pesina says he's never seriously considered making a fighting game of his own, if he did it would probably lean a lot more realistic than most others on the market.
He points out a favorite example about how in real life, a punch to the elbow will "devastate" most people, but it doesn't read well enough visually to work in a game. "People don't understand," he says. "Like, if you get punched in the elbow and your arm falls off, it doesn't look like much, but it's a valid target."
"Atari and us had a mutual friend," says Pak, "and they were like, 'Hey let's try to get this going.' And I was like, 'Yeah, sure.' So we got it going, and cool characters, cool game. It's too bad. I still think I have all the footage somewhere and I'd like to maybe revive it, even as a simpler game that people could play on their phones or something."
In "TRF," as he calls it, Pesina played a character named "Sparq" who wore sunglasses and fought on a stage with the Hollywood sign in the background — clearly in reference to Johnny Cage — and took a series of promotional pictures.
He didn't get paid that time either.
"No I didn't," he says. "[Laughs] Yeah, again, they run out of money and I'm not going to [complain]. Even if I work for two hours, if they don't have any money, well that's the end of that. Otherwise, you'll get a [reputation] of being, 'Well this guy's an asshole.'"
Both cases mirror how Pesina viewed payment on Mortal Kombat — to a certain degree he felt he shouldn't be paid strictly based on his time, but on the end product's success. Unfortunately for Pesina, that meant he didn't get paid what he felt he deserved for Mortal Kombat, and didn't get paid at all for the others.
Pesina v. Midway Mfg. Co.
There was one time, in all this, that Pesina said 'no' in a big way. Or depending how you frame it, said 'yes' to his lawyers.
After clocking his hours on Mortal Kombat 2, Pesina noticed that the series was growing more popular than he'd initially imagined, selling wild numbers of its Super Nintendo and Genesis ports. And he started feeling like he should be paid more.
While his contract stated he would be paid hourly, Pesina says the higher ups at Midway said they would "take care of him" if the game took off.
"When we were making [the original arcade game], there was a verbal agreement," Pesina says. "They were like, 'We're gonna make 200 games.'"
When the game, and then the sequel, sold something along the lines of 1,000 times that many arcade machines, and the console ports did far larger numbers, Pesina became worried.
"[Some of the actors] started asking, 'Hey you guys promised you'd take care of us,'" he says. "We signed an agreement which was literally one paragraph. ... [John Tobias] was just like, 'Don't worry — these guys are not assholes. Don't worry about it. They're gonna take care of you.' And I was like, 'Oh, OK.'"
"[SOME OF THE ACTORS] STARTED ASKING, 'HEY YOU GUYS PROMISED YOU'D TAKE CARE OF US.' ... [JOHN TOBIAS] WAS JUST LIKE, 'DON'T WORRY — THESE GUYS ARE NOT ASSHOLES."
PESINA FUN FACT #1
In addition to teaching classes at Chicago Wushu, Pesina is currently writing a book about Tai Chi, which he's planning to publish through one of his students who is friends with a book publisher.
"Being a martial artist in America, a lot of our martial arts are ... not very good," Pesina says. "So I'm writing a book on how it's actually taught in China, as opposed to what I see in the U.S. [What's normally taught in the U.S.] shouldn't even be called Tai Chi, because it's not."
As stated in Pesina's contracts, he made $50/hour for the first game (for approximately $3,000-4,000 total), and $75/hour for the second (for, he estimates, more hours than he worked on the original). Had the game remained a small production, he says he "got paid good."
Pesina says his lawyer, through a group of clients, asked for $10 million.
His formal complaint against Midway, Williams, Acclaim, Nintendo and Sega alleged that "the defendants used [Pesina's] persona, name, and likeness without authorization in the home version of Mortal Kombat and Mortal Kombat II and the related products, thereby infringing his common law right of publicity," and that "the Midway defendants breached their duties of good faith and fair dealing."
The court saw in Midway, Williams, Acclaim, Nintendo and Sega's favor, noting that Pesina was unable to prove that his likeness was recognizable in the game - citing a survey in which 6% of 306 people felt he looked like the in-game character - that he was not enough of a known celebrity for the games to infringe on his right of publicity and that his contracts prevented him from claiming he wasn't properly compensated.
Pesina points the blame at a lack of legal resources.
"When it started to happen, one of the lawyers looked at me and he goes, 'We've gotta find more time to put into this,'" he says.
"DANNY WAS A FRIEND AND THE WHOLE SITUATION REALLY BROKE MY HEART. ANY FRUSTRATION I FELT PROBABLY HAD MORE TO DO WITH HOW OUT OF CONTROL THE WHOLE SITUATION BECAME AND MY INABILITY TO REALLY DO ANYTHING TO FIX IT."
"And I was like, 'Is it gonna take a lot?' And he goes, 'Well right at this point, this hasn't even started yet, and we've got 68 law teams already against us. And we don't have enough manpower. My office only has like 14 lawyers.' And the other woman [helping Pesina with the case], she only had four lawyers. So we've got 20 lawyers and they've got 2,000 lawyers. You know what I mean? The man hours [are] not adding up. They're gonna overwhelm us. And he goes, 'Don't worry. I don't really see it going that far. I think they're gonna settle.' But they did not. They knew they had deep pockets, and they said, 'We knew we really owned this franchise,' or whatever they're gonna say, and whatever."
And for the survey claiming only 6% of respondents matched Pesina to the in-game Johnny Cage, he questions the logic behind it.
"They can do a survey, but who are they really surveying? Did they survey people who actually played the game, or did they just go across the street [and say] 'Hey does this guy look like this guy? No.' I mean, are you really comparing apples to apples or oranges to oranges? For me, I would walk down the street and people would say, 'Hey, you're Johnny Cage.'"
As a silver lining, Pesina points to the lack of a Johnny Cage character played by a different actor in Mortal Kombat 3, saying he thinks that was Midway's way of admitting he was recognizable in that role, even though they couldn't admit it in court.
"For me, it's like, 'You're darn right it is, because you can't find anybody to replace Johnny Cage,'" he says. "[Laughs] Because guess what? In the end, you knew that my likeness was the likeness of Johnny Cage."
But clearly, it's an emotional silver lining rather than a financial one.
Pesina didn't lose money over the case, with his lawyers working for a percentage of the winnings, but the situation caused tension between him and Midway, and the rift meant he was out for further MK projects.
"I don't know that I'd describe it as being a feud, as much as it was a disagreement," says Tobias. "Obviously, once a lawsuit is undertaken relationships are going to be affected."
"There's really no bad blood," says Pesina. "I'm just a little upset at [Boon and Tobias]. Because they thought the same — they thought, 'These guys are not assholes.' And then [the higher-ups] were like, 'If you give them the rights, they're gonna ask for more.' ... And really they work there, so if they side with us, they're gonna cut their own nuts."
[Note: Boon declined to comment for this story.]
"Danny was a friend and the whole situation really broke my heart," says Tobias. "Any frustration I felt probably had more to do with how out of control the whole situation became and my inability to really do anything to fix it. I still consider Danny a friend and I can empathize why he felt the way he did; I just have a different perspective. Danny's a good guy with a big heart and I believe that he truly believed in the position that he took and because of that I never took any of it personally. Life's too short."
"People ask me for advice," says Pesina, "and that's one of the first things I say: 'Get everything in writing. Make sure you get what you want.' And don't make them say, 'Oh it's gonna be.' You gotta be happy with whatever you sign for, because you can't take it back."
The BloodStorm ad
One of the cheekier parts of the Pesina/Midway fallout came in a 1994 marketing campaign from another Chicago area company: Incredible Technologies.
These days best known for the Golden Tee Golf series, in the mid-'90s it took a run at Mortal Kombat's popularity with three fighting games: first going the hyper-violent route with Time Killers and BloodStorm under its Strata label, then partnering with Capcom for a digitized actor game in Street Fighter: The Movie (which notably starred Jean Claude Van Damme, who Midway originally wanted for MK but couldn't get).
While none of these seriously approached MK's popularity, BloodStorm stood out for its lack of a filter. Not only was it violent to the point of chopping characters in half and letting them continue fighting with dangling intestines, it referenced other games and its developers, included a bounty of secrets and codes (some of which were hidden in game magazines), introduced a save system long before that became common in arcades, and even listed a phone number in the credits for players to call for a shot at appearing in a hypothetical sequel. "Ahead of its time," you could say. "Rough around the edges," would be another way to put it.
But to some, BloodStorm's legacy is less about the game itself, and more about a print advertisement for it that appeared in EGM2 magazine (seen below left).
Given BloodStorm's kitchen sink approach, Incredible Technologies asked Pesina to participate in a photo shoot attacking Mortal Kombat head-on. And this time, Pesina used his lack of a detailed contract with Midway to his benefit, since there were no strings preventing him from signing on.
"One day, [a guy from Incredible Technologies] asked my brother, 'Hey would your brother do a thing for one of our games,'" says Pesina. "Whoever arranged to give his number was like, 'Just charge him a lot. He'll pay it.' And I was like, 'Really?' And he was like, 'Yeah, don't worry - make some money' ... So, you know. I told him a price, which was ridiculously high, and he was like, 'OK.' And I was like, 'For two hours, you're going to give me that much money?' I think it was like, I worked like an hour and he gave me $1,500 or something like that. Not bad. And maybe even 40 minutes."
"Daniel Pesina, who starred as Johnny Cage in Mortal Kombat has switched to BloodStorm," the ad read.
In the relatively conservative game marketing industry, it was the equivalent of Kool-Aid Man knocking down a brick wall. A game-specific version of Genesis doing "what Nintendon't." Jeff Brown would be proud.
"The focus of our team was to add as much over-the-top stuff into BloodStorm as we could, so an ad with Johnny Cage seemed to be a perfect fit," says Incredible Technologies VP of marketing Scott Morrison, noting that the photo shoot took place in the company's warehouse and that Pesina "was more than willing to go right over the top along with us."
"I TOLD HIM A PRICE, WHICH WAS RIDICULOUSLY HIGH, AND HE WAS LIKE, 'OK.' AND I WAS LIKE, 'FOR TWO HOURS, YOU'RE GOING TO GIVE ME THAT MUCH MONEY?'"
Urban legends online suggest that this ad led Midway to fire Pesina from future MK games, but Pesina says the two broke up because of the lawsuit, not the BloodStorm ad.
"I don't think [the ad] actually upset people at Midway," says Pesina. "I think it more upset some of the hardcore Mortal Kombat fans."
"Danny was never 'fired' because he wasn't an employee," says Tobias. "Everyone kind of went their separate ways by the time I remember seeing the BloodStorm ad."
While fans online like to talk about the ad even today, suggesting a fighting game marketer looking to make a 2012 version with another game would probably see viral success, Morrison says the ad didn't spark much internal attention at the time.
"I don't really remember the ad having a huge fan reaction - there weren't as many social media outlets then - but even so it became pretty apparent that the vocal die-hard MK fans weren't going to jump ship on their favorite game because of it," he says. "My recollection of that fairly mature point in coin-op fighting games was that there were two main player camps: MK fans and [Street Fighter 2] fans. Despite including both fighting styles in BloodStorm, we learned that it was nearly impossible to get these players to jump to a new game no matter how innovative, similar, different, pretty or gory it was."
Future game projects?
"'WHOEVER'S AN ARTIST, BE AN ARTIST. DON'T LET THE ARTIST DO THE MARTIAL ARTS BECAUSE IT'S GONNA TURN OUT SHITTY.'"
In 2012, Pesina seems at peace with his entertainment side-career past, rarely dropping his smile even when discussing lawsuits and workplace disputes.
It doesn't bother him that, to a certain degree, he's typecast as a single character. "I don't mind it," he says with an inflection that suggests he actively enjoys the occasional visitor stopping him on the street.
Given how much time has passed, then, would Pesina consider appearing in another game at this point, or is he past that stage of his life?
"[Laughs] Depends," he says. "Yeah, it's possible, but even now, my brother and some of my friends are working on Mortal Kombat 59 million, and I'm like, 'Dude, you guys are doing the same thing. You don't have any originality? Who's at the helm? ... This game should be evolving in some way.' And [they say] 'It's too difficult.' And I'm like, 'No it's not too difficult. You guys really need to get somebody who knows what they're doing and you gotta let egos go. Whoever's an artist, be an artist. Don't let the artist do the martial arts because it's gonna turn out shitty.' You know what I mean? You can't take the guy who's gonna program and say, 'OK you're doing the art.' That's what you guys are doing. You're letting anybody just take the helm and say, 'Oh I have an idea.' No, you have an idea based on an idea, which makes it just watered down." [Reviews tend to disagree.]
Not that it seems likely following that, but I suggest it would be clever for Warner Bros. to reunite the original cast to make an HD remix of the original game for the 20th anniversary.
Pesina's initial answer: "Yeah, probably not — we had our little dispute."
And if Warner Bros. asked?
"I would entertain it," he says. "I'd have to sit down and see what they really want. Now that I know them, I wouldn't take them at their word. I'd be like, 'OK what do you really want to do with this?' You know what I mean? And 'Is it going to be really like number one and two?'"
Pesina says a big sticking point would be working with someone like Tobias, who he gives most of the credit for the original games turning out well — a natural bias, perhaps, considering Tobias was the art lead and much of Pesina's work was on the game's visuals, and considering they are friends to this day while Pesina isn't in touch with Boon, but one Pesina firmly believes in.
"[Tobias] is the reason we have Mortal Kombat," says Pesina. "Without Tobias, you could have put us and Boon together. You could have put Boon, another artist and us together, and it would have never happened.
"John was really — even though he gives credit to Ed, it's kind of like Paul McCartney. You know, he gave credit to Lennon, but really now that X amount of years have gone on, 'Who wrote that song?' 'Really I wrote that song. He's my best friend; I put his name on it.' And for that, guess what? 'He was my boss, so I put his name on it.'"
If Pesina's professional game acting career is over, then, what about an amateur one? Will he appear in Kenny Voong's project with students at Columbia?
"I'll be in it if I really have to be in it, but I'm trying to avoid that. [Laughs] ... They're like, 'Oh will you be in it?' And I'm like, 'Well, you know, I will if it will really help.' But I'd rather ... that's time consuming.'"
As it turns out, shortly after Pesina's initial interview for this story, Voong and team put their project on hold, suggesting it may follow the Tattoo Assassins and Thea Realm Fighters trajectory as a big idea cut short.
Essentially, they made Pesina's decision for him.
That's been a common theme in Pesina's game career - most of his biggest road bumps have come from causes outside his control, or people he never met. Which isn't uncommon with game actors - despite being public faces to promote the games, they're rarely in charge and have little say over whether they get cut or their games get cancelled.
But for Pesina, this has never been a full time career, nor has he ever tried to make it one. It's been a hobby on the side of teaching martial arts. His 15 minutes, which have now lasted 20 years. And his taste of the game industry hasn't left him frustrated, in large part because he's never really been part of it.
When he looks back, he gives the impression that he loved working on every project and doesn't regret any of them. Even when they didn't work out.
Polygon, Daniel Pesina, The Arcade Flyer Archive, BigBangBlitz and 10p6 on YouTube, Retro Junk, Moby Games, Scott Morrison, Bleachwad on Mortal Kombat Online