If people want to make enemies of friends, one sure fire way to do it is thrashing them in a fighting game. Whether by slamming a friend’s head into pixelated asphalt or through the ring in a WWE sponsored video game title, players of fighting games have made, lost and finished friends on the couch and all over the world.
One of the most popular games that spawned from the ‘80s and continues to this day is the “Mortal Kombat” Series. This series is often praised as one of the best fighting games, as well as one of the more historic games due to the changes to the industry that it brought.
“Mortal Kombat” was produced in a time where violence was a growing aspect of the video game industry. Video games before “Mortal Kombat” were hits in the arcade, with gore and flashy martial moves. When “Mortal Kombat” was in production, though, “Street Fighter II” was the king of the hill with a gaggle of clones following its success.
John Tobias and Ed Boon, using previous games of their creation “Narc” and “Terminator 2”, produced “Mortal Kombat” in a renaissance of martial art movies of Asian inspiration. The pair wanted to make combatants as large as possible while small enough to move on a screen. Because they used digitized actors similar to arcade games like “Narc” and “Terminator 2”, the pair found they couldn’t get any live actors — like Van Damme — to sign into the game.
Creating an elaborate mythology of “Mortal Kombat,” the two man team took one lesson from Street Fighter 2: secrets. One of the things that helped drive “Mortal Kombat” as a game of history was this plethora of secrets. According to “The Ultimate History of Video Games” by Steven L. Kent, Boons explained one of these secrets: “Reptile was a last minute idea. Someone came up with the idea of doing a green [ninja] as opposed to the red (Scorpion) and blue (Sub-Zero), and having him be this hidden feature that is seen very rarely. We knew that the rumors were running kind of rampant about the game and as a last ditch effort we just threw Reptile in saying, ‘Lets make this come out very rarely, so only a few people will see it.’”
The hope was that when players got certain circumstances to happen, they’d be brought to the bottom of the fight pit where they would get the chance to fight Reptile.
One of the other initial secrets were “Fatalities” that a player could perform. Fans fueled rumors of more secrets than what actually got into the game. Some rumors, however, became reality as the game developed, one being Ermac the Ninja in “Mortal Kombat” 3. Ermac was based off of diagnostic menus used to patch coding errors that occasionally glitched into normal gameplay, and the developers later adopted the “error,” turning it into a character.
The game’s most significant impact to the industry was popping the tension that had been building from concerned groups of the public and within the industry about the impact that violence, misogyny and gory drama in games could have on children.
Before “Mortal Kombat,” there had been several games, bands and television or movie broadcasts that had spurred public outcry about the graphic content in media, starting in 1976 with “Death Race”, “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” in 1982, “Chiller” in 1986, and “Narc” itself in 1988. While crude by today’s standards, these games drove many concerned political, parental, religious and media groups of the day to give the video game industry an ultimatum. Regulate the industry, or the government will do it for you.
With that ultimatum on the table, several major players in the media industry created the ESRB, Electronic Software Rating Bureau. With this bureau in operation, major retailers enforced its usage by restricting sales on games that weren’t rated by the ESRB. The only other option for developers if they refused rating was having a games market restricted to catalogue sales. Video games have since had a rating from E for Everyone to AO for Adults Only.
“Mortal Kombat” showed parents to be more conscious about what they allow their children to interact with, and it (along with Night Trap, Wolfenstein 3D, and others among the video games industry) changed the industry by partly inspiring the ESRB.
This is the second column in a series that will hopefully continue to discuss and review video games of historical and uncommon notoriety. The first of this series was on “Dwarf Fortress.” Suggestions are welcome and can be sent to the writer Peter Bordenave at BordenavePeter@Gmail.com, or through the Mainstream’s Facebook page.