Red bricks, dark tables and cigarette machines. That was Pizza Hut in the ’90s. Yes, there were jukeboxes, but after sunset, the Hut frightened me. I was born in ’87, and during grade school, it felt like hours passed waiting for pizza. They had trifold menus, so there was nothing for me to draw on. Sometimes I’d have a classmate with me for a sleepover. When we had extra quarters, he’d suggest the arcade machine. It guarded the restrooms, glowing white and red, like an electric tombstone. This was MORTAL KOMBAT: Gold dragons, goofy, costumed actors, and a curved screen behind dirty glass. From the beginning, the violence didn’t interest me; the story did.
Twenty years later, the violence still doesn’t interest me, but the mythology of the franchise continues to enchant me. Early on in my adult life, I learned that the first installment was designed by a small team of four at Chicago’s Midway office, headed by Ed Boon and John Tobias. Through the years, I’ve maintained Kombat’s success was due to the freedom the small band presumably had with the project and the lack of interference from higher-up’s. While Boon continued to guide the franchise through later installments, the loss of Tobias and the addition of the countless hands it took to orchestrate the graphics, features and gameplay needed to appease enthusiasts of the 3D market, still intrigued me, but left me feeling disappointed and disengaged. Mortal Kombat ’92 was, in short, a small band’s art project. Mortal Kombat ’11 was fun and fascinating, but it felt kind of lackluster and bulky to me, in terms of story and character design.
To be fair, it was Mortal Kombat II that hooked me. I always had Nintendo’s Player’s Guide in the back seat of the family van for car rides and the cartridge in my console. The Shakespearean drama of Kitana, a princess turned assassin, and her clone Mileena, haunted me. But it was that grimoire of secret codes and storylines that lead me to the original game.
Still, it would take several years for me to truly appreciate the first Mortal Kombat. I think the allure started to make sense a handful of years ago, when John Tobias (thank you, thank you, thank you) released some of his original sketches and story notes on Twitter. Here was a character roster built upon mythic archetypes! Liu Kang was the Hero; Sonya Blade (replacing Kurtis Stryker) was cast as the Skeptic; Johnny Cage (originally dubbed Michael Grimm) had all the agreeable but arrogant qualities of the Sidekick; palette swap ninjas Scorpion and Subzero became the Hunter and the Hunted. The list goes on, down to unplayable, background Princess Kitsune, ultimately scrapped but resurrected for the sequel as Kitana.
Mortal Kombat could have been a mindless, digital blood sport. It would have been easy for the small team at Midway to build the kind of lethal romp I can’t seem to resonate with like Grande Theft Auto. Instead, they built a game with the less-is-more materials they had, founded had upon a strong, simple story. For thus of you unfamiliar with the story, it featured a centuries old tournament used a safeguard to prevent the Emperor of the extra-dimensional Outworld from absorbing Earth. Apparently, it took ten consecutive victories in Mortal Kombat for the Outworld to gain permission from the Elder Gods to invade. All went well for Earth until the Emperor’s sorcerer Shang Tsung gained control of the tournament through his champion, John Tobias’s “Threshold Guardian,” Goro. Being a four armed brute, Goro helped Shang Tsung win nine Outworld victories. In the somewhat present day, Earth’s protector and God of Thunder Raiden, drew a group of plucky, diverse warriors into the heart of the tournament. Among them was Liu Kang, who canonically defeated Goro and Shang Tsung.
I don’t play video games remotely as often these days, but I do read up, and I do ruminate on my influences, like all writers. So even though I’d open the options menu and select “Turn Off Blood,” and “Turn Off Fatalities” on those early games, there’s a special place in my heart for Mortal Kombat.