In October 1992, arcade powerhouse Midway unleashed its answer to Capcom’s Street Fighter 2 upon American arcades. Called Mortal Kombat, Midway’s fighter didn’t do much that was particularly new, but it managed to pull together several existing threads of game design in a way that felt fresh, contemporary and unique. Mortal Kombat presented arcadegoers with an alchemical blend of Street Fighter’s one-on-one combat, Pit Fighter’s digitized character artwork and the over-the-top gore of exploitative works like Exidy’s Chiller.
The game’s heady blend of skill-based competitive play and ’90s attitude (“Kombat” comes from the same angry school of linguistics as “Xtreme”) inspired nearly as many imitators as Street Fighter itself. From the gross-out stop-motion brawling of ClayFighter and Primal Rage to the digitized brutality of Kasumi Ninja to the combo-driven mechanics of Killer Instinct, Kombat klones — er, clones — clogged the arcade market in no time flat.
The game’s success was undoubtedly buoyed by the narrative of a Street Fighter versus Mortal Kombat rivalry, which lined up neatly with the tribalism that had taken hold among gamers in the ’90s. The conversation back then always seemed to pit Nintendo against Sega, Mario against Sonic, Final Fight against Double Dragon and so forth. Pitting two fighting games against one another wasn’t just thematically appropriate; it felt like an inevitable turn of the video game zeitgeist.
In truth, Mortal Kombat lacked the depth of its would-be rival. Street Fighter 2 contained memorable characters and great music, sure, but its excellence stemmed from its mechanics, which possessed a depth that far exceeded that of any fighting game to that point. Its dozen warriors wielded distinct skills that could chain together into devastating combos. Unique moves like a twirling kick or an elongated punch gave each combatant distinct advantages against some opponents while rendering them vulnerable to others. Mortal Kombat, on the other hand, lacked that fluidity of motion and the addictive one-two-three flow to its battle mechanics. It also fell short in terms of its roster: It contained only seven characters, and the palette-swapped members — identical except for their color schemes — looked even less distinct from one another than Street Fighter’s uwagi adorned men, Ryu and Ken.
What Mortal Kombat lacked in substance, though, it made up for with style. Its characters, digitized from motion capture footage of martial arts actors, looked “realistic” by the standards of the era. Their movements had a choppy quality, and the fighters never looked like they really inhabited their photorealistic settings, but Mortal Kombat’s gory, lifelike gloom gave it a heavy metal album cover feel that set it apart from Street Fighter’s cartoonish fare.
Mortal Kombat’s brawlers bled, froze and died in a number of explicit ways ranging from brutal impalement in a pit of spikes to messy dismemberment. Midway’s brawler invested its viscera with a panache that became the game’s main draw. Merely beating an opponent into submission was one way to win, yes, but cool kids put a flourish on their victory by inputting secret “fatality” moves, flashy techniques that messily and decisively ended a dazed combatant’s life. Street Fighter 2 matches ended with a glimpse of a defeated foe’s bruised and bloodied character portrait. Mortal Kombat encouraged you to explode the loser into a shower of giblets, or rip their skull from their body (spinal cord trailing), or freeze them and shatter the corpse in a gruesome update of the liquid nitrogen scene from recent hit movie Terminator 2.
Mortal Kombat turned tawdry violence and humiliation into spectacle. In doing so, the game struck upon a new voice for U.S.-developed games, something that had been sorely absent for far too long. Looking back, you can’t shake the impression that Atari’s implosion in the early ’80s had enervated the U.S. games industry. Where the Atari 2600 and Intellivision libraries put forth a distinct identity, both in terms of game styles and marketing, it fractured and disintegrated in the years to come. The best American games drifted to personal computers and adopted a melange of styles, while Nintendo and Sega brought Japan’s distinct manga and anime sensibilities to consoles. Midway, Atari and other American manufacturers continued to make enjoyable arcade creations ranging from the sleek polygon combat of S.T.U.N. Runner to the proto-real-time-strategy of Rampart, yet none of these games shared any kind of defining personality to speak of.
Mortal Kombat pointed the way forward. It was, mechanically speaking, not all that different from the hottest Japanese arcade game of the time. However, no one would mistake Mortal Kombat’s grainy, gritty digitized visuals and blood-soaked effects for something from Nintendo or Sega. Japanese developers certainly weren’t shy about getting naughty with their own games, but their bad behavior tended toward sexual or scatological rather than violent, and the most lurid Japan-developed software never made its way into U.S. shops. Mortal Kombat stepped into that vacuum with a resounding wet-meat splat and a booming cry of “FINISH HIM,” and suddenly America had its mojo back.
It didn’t take long for Mortal Kombat’s example to be imitated far and wide, and not just by the fighting games mentioned above. A year later, id Software elevated violence and gore to a new level by putting the player into the thick of its bloody corpses with the immersive, first-person shooter Doom. American RPGs went grim, too, thanks to the likes of Crystal Dynamics’ Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain, which cast players as a vampire obsessed with revenge and hungry for innocent blood. Crack dot Com gave us Abuse, which was basically Turrican with lots of gooey severed limbs. Yes, everyone got in on the act, even squeaky-clean Nintendo of America: The company went for gross-out appeal to sell innocuous Super NES games like Super Metroid (which festooned its print ads with bloody hunks of meat) and Yoshi’s Island (whose commercial featured a man exploding).
Mortal Kombat became a huge hit on its own terms; both it and its sequel rank among the 10 most successful arcade games of all time. It reignited U.S. console and arcade game development after 10 years of wandering in a wasteland of surplus E.T. cartridges and dominating Japanese developers. American games would skew toward greater visual realism; those choppy digitized sprites paved the way for detailed 3D character modeling and rendering techniques. They’d also become unflinchingly violent, for better or for worse.
Of course, not all American-made games or U.S. marketing embraced Mortal Kombat’s brutality, but Midway introduced a nasty edge to American game design that’s never gone away. From 16-bit knock-offs like Eternal Champions to modern indie works like Hotline Miami, you can see Kombat’s influence at work when bodily fluids explode into geysers and limbs go flying. When Japanese studios struggled to keep up in the Western market as we worked our way into the new millennium, games like Vanquish, Breakdown and even Sonic the Hedgehog’s rival Shadow adopted aesthetics cribbed directly from the Kombat playbook: loud, brutal and fumbling toward photorealism.
Two and a half decades out from Mortal Kombat’s release, the games industry has grown far more global in nature. American, European and Asian studios constantly cross-pollinate. But Mortal Kombat’s influence remains indelible, from the industry’s frequent forays into explicit (and escalating) violence to the fact that U.S. studios stand at the cutting edge of the medium rather than lagging constantly behind Japanese developers. The Mortal Kombat franchise itself lost the plot for a while, but the talent behind the series weathered Midway’s collapse in 2010 and regrouped as NetherRealm. The studio’s work on 2015’s Mortal Kombat X and its DC Comics-themed adjunct Injustice has cemented it as a vital force in fighting games. Meanwhile, former rival franchise Street Fighter has struggled of late with a dicey fifth numbered entry. It’s taken a few rounds, but Mortal Kombat may just have proven the victor.