“Finish him!” is now shouted by adults inching towards middle-age while their children are ripping spines out. This isn’t a savage wasteland, it’s Mortal Kombat — a simultaneous cult hit and modern phenom — and its barbaric “Fatalities.”
First released to arcades by Chicago-based studio Midway in 1992, Mortal Kombat shocked by inspiring awe. Though not as technically polished as rival Street Fighter II, the gory visuals wowed players and repulsed everyone else.
The series’ most enduring legacy, the fatalities, was the bold punctuation of a minute of adrenaline-fueled tension and suspense. Though they’ve become elaborate and more inventive over time, the first visuals were a nightmare Takashi Miike would dream of. Uppercut your opponent’s head right off, rip their spine out, burn them alive: it was the unique signature of the avatar you had selected in the deadly tournament.
Of course, not everyone was mesmerized by the monstrosity. Mortal Kombat, along with Night Trap and Lethal Enforcers, were pushed to the center of a 1993 U.S. senate committee hearing on the abundance (or so they thought) of violence and sex in video games. Like comic books and movies before it, video games were corrupting youth, or something. Democratic Wisconsin senator Herb Kohl threatened the industry: “If you don’t do something about this, we will.”
They did, and thus gaming’s self-censorship group, the ESRB (Electronic Ratings Systems Board), was born. Burning your best friend alive from fiery breath was 1993’s hottest free speech issue. Pun intended.
Though the fuddy-duds in the senate were probably uptight, it’s not difficult to see their shock when you examine the work: The then-realistic, “refined” look of the original Mortal Kombat gave it a texture that made it tangible, despite the cartoon fire. The gore made Mortal Kombat “an MTV version of Street Fighter,” game creator Ed Boon said on G4tv’s Icons, back when MTV was an edgy product. The live-action avatars mixed with hand-painted backdrops gave it a vivid picture unlike other games that lit up arcades everywhere.
And it was awesome. It was edgy and felt wrong, and really there had never been such vivid brutality in games before. This wasn’t boundary-pushing, it was obliterating the fucking wall.
Adding to the dimension of Mortal Kombat was the story. Though video game storytelling had yet to mature (and debatably still does), the wild mythology Midway cobbled together fueled the imagination of its impressionable audience beyond saving princesses in a kingdom. Mashing Enter the Dragon with Star Wars, Mortal Kombat was an ancient tournament organized by gods where the prize is a spared invasion of Earth. Fail, and the planet is donezo. Ridiculous as it was, it was a story that endured through several iterations until the 2011 reboot Mortal Kombat. It’s amazing what can grow out of “Hey, Bob, this work? Ancient gods and stuff? Cool, put it in and let’s get lunch.”
However understandable the shock, was it warranted? It’s not like the fatalities were easy to do. Requiring precise timing and memorization in an extremely short window, Mortal Kombat’s fatalities were a privileged microphone you had to earn to drop. It was an expensive affair at the arcades to practice, not to mention the person behind you waiting for their turn. I personally would have loved to see Joseph Lieberman pull off Scorpion’s fatality.
Was it that bad? Comparatively speaking, Mortal Kombat’s fatalities are just as tasteless as they are tame today. More than twenty years later, they’ve gotten much worse by becoming so much better.
Gamers today still obsess over snapping necks and slicing faces off. Mortal Kombat X, the newest game in the series released earlier this year, led the industry in sales this past summer and the series is finally making its way towards eSports competition. But while the presentation, production value, and visuals are far more polished, the ever-lasting fatalities are grosser and ickier than before.