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Retro Friday: Mortal Kombat

This year Capcom is celebrating the 25th anniversary of the fighting game series that put the genre on the map, but while the original Street Fighter was little more than a modest success in the arcades, its fiercest competitor erupted onto the scene in an inaugural debut that was much more convincing. This was none other than Mortal Kombat, a game that not only paved the way for the Entertainment Software Ratings Board in the United States with its barbaric Fatalities, but was also pieced together by a team of four passionate people in just under a year.

“As a kid I read superhero comics religiously and found myself drawing my favourites at a very early age,” states Mortal Kombat co-creator John Tobias, who began his career as a comic book artist. “My dream was always to illustrate a Superman, Batman or Spider-Man book, but that kind of changed as I got older. I became more interested in creating my own characters. My work on The Real Ghostbusters comic was kind of a letdown because I was in school at the time and needed an income. With the exception of a few issues, my work was always rushed and the publisher was a bit unscrupulous.”

Tobias’s frustrations didn’t last long. After finishing school, he was hired by Bally Midway on the back of his design skills. “What I knew of computer graphics at the time was entirely self-taught,” he confesses. “Schools didn’t have much in the way of a curriculum that could prepare you for work in the industry. Fortunately, I was a videogame
junkie and arcade rat growing up, so I knew what I liked and what I thought I could provide.” But despite the continuing rise of videogames as an entertainment medium, Bally Midway was a pinball purveyor first and foremost.
“At the time, there were maybe a dozen people in the videogame department,” Tobias remembers. “We were like the bastard children of a company that cherished its pinball game division. Our department was in a set of offices in the back of the pinball manufacturing plant. I loved walking through the factory in the morning. It demonstrated the reality of the arcade business, which outside of design and software was this beast of mechanical engineering and industry.” And it was during these early days that Tobias worked with Mark Turmell and Robotron creator Eugene Jarvis on Smash TV.

“Both of those guys were huge influences on me in terms of their work ethic and passion for games,” Tobias reminisces. “Eugene was like a god of the industry, although he never carried himself that way.He always made himself accessible, which was very generous considering I was a 19 year-old kid. The department was so small that management gave us creative freedom to do whatever we wanted and they obviously had plenty of faith in guys like Mark and Eugene. I think that freedom played a large part in the department’s success.”

Following the success of Smash TV, the foundations of Mortal Kombat began to take shape as Tobias started experimenting with the digitising capabilities of the company’s development hardware. “Up until that point everything I had done was hand drawn and animated,” Tobias reflects. “I thought the larger we could get the characters on screen, the more we could take advantage of digitization. So a fighting game, which would only require two characters on screen, immediately came to mind. I approached Ed Boon [Mortal Kombat co-creator, currently at NetherRealm Studios] and he was interested in doing a fighting game as well.”

This idea went on to become one of the most gratuitously violent and yet undeniably compelling games of its generation. But if it wasn’t for the unavailability of a certain Belgian action hero, Mortal Kombat might’ve been entirely different. “We thought about getting a Hollywood martial artist involved,” Tobias recalls, “and I think the company had been contacted regarding the Universal Soldier film. We were interested in Van Damme as a martial-arts star who could portray either himself or a character in our game. It didn’t pan out for whatever reason, and never got beyond a few phone calls between our licensing guy and Van Damme’s agent.”
But despite missing out on a different kind of blood sport, the cause for an unlicensed fighting game was given sudden validity with the meteoric rise of the dragon punch. “Street Fighter II released and was doing extremely well in arcades,” Tobias says. “That was our proof-of-concept because, prior to that, fighting games had only seen limited
success. We didn’t actually start on Mortal Kombat until after Ed and I had finished our prior projects, but I believe we started actual game development around October 1991. We went out for location tests around May 1992 with the finished product shipping August of that year.”

What followed was nothing less than a landmark moment as arcade gamers across the globe began to spread the word about Kano, Sonya and the technicolour ninjas. “I looked at the design and creation of the original characters as being a part of the storytelling process,” Tobias explains. “I used archetypes to define that first group of characters. Liu Kang was our hero and Johnny Cage was the sidekick. I never had a place to articulate any of that with exposition, but I think the players were able to look at those characters and understand the archetypes almost on a subconscious level.”

And even if they didn’t, it was clear that Mortal Kombat was tapping into a filmic style that lay somewhere between classic kung-fu and bloodsoaked horror. “There wasn’t a whole lot of conceptual art work done back then,” Tobias describes. “I had a couple of notebooks I kept with sketches and story. There were a few ideas that we never pursued. One was a brutish character called Rokuro, which is the name of a mountain demon in Japanese mythology. Another was a character called Kitsune, who we cut from the original but brought back in Mortal Kombat 2 as Kitana.”

The original Mortal Kombat was set entirely on Earth with the seven fighters competing in a tournament held by Shang Tsung. It wasn’t until the sequels that Tobias and the team expanded the universe to include the hellish Netherrealm, the otherworldly Outworld and the savage demigod himself, Shao Khan. Each fighter’s story was fleshed
out with a few words and a static image – which in Raiden’s case, portrayed him as a warmongering tyrant. This was totally at odds with the benevolent God of Thunder that fought to save humanity in the numerous sequels that followed.
“I always looked at the endings in Mortal Kombat as outlandish ‘what if?’ scenarios,” Tobias explains wistfully. “I never considered them as part of the story’s canon. Raiden’s ending, in particular, built on the source of his character – which was this god called Raijin who was a trickster-type character in Japanese mythology. Our Raiden turned into our own thing as he became more of a mentor in the later games. But the story from Mortal Kombat changed very little from its inception. There was always an island gateway to another realm and a tournament with a nefarious host beholden to gods from another realm.”

As the series grew and its fictional realms continued to diversify, the roster expanded to include a demonic centaur, ninja cyborgs and a mutant with retractable wrist-blades. But out of all the surprises that Tobias cooked up, the 2,000 year-old half-dragon that acted as Mortal Kombat’s unthrowable sub-boss was by far the most memorable. “Goro was inspired by the stopmotion in Ray Harryhausen films like Jason And The Argonauts,” Tobias confirms. “That was Goro’s initial inspiration in terms how to get a more fantastical looking character on-screen in digitised form. Curt Chiarelli was the talented sculptor who brought Goro to life. I knew him through a mutual friend and he did a great job for us.”

But as punishingly hard as the four-armed Shokan warrior was, the most vexing opponent in Mortal Kombat was undoubtedly Reptile – as you had to perform a Double Flawless Victory on The Pit stage before you could face him. “The hidden character idea originated with Ed,” recalls Tobias when asked about the first secret character in a fighting game. “He loved fucking with the players that way. I remember thinking there was no way they were going to find all this stuff, but they found every bit of it. We were amazed because when you look at the circumstances the odds were just incredible.”

And then, of course, there’s the little matter of a soul-sucking sorcerer who could morph into every other character when you faced him in the final showdown. “I recently dug up one of my old notebooks and found a page that had archetypes attached to certain characters,” Tobias describes while showing us some original sketches. “Shang Tsung was listed as ‘shape-shifter’. We had memory issues and couldn’t fit another epic boss in after Goro, so the idea of using all of the characters, which were already in memory, worked out great for us. Shang had a very limited set of animations that were mostly devoted to morphing between characters.” Still, at least he couldn’t regenerate his health.
Although Mortal Kombat was developed at a time when Street Fighter II and Fatal Fury were already relieving arcade patrons of their loose change, Ed Boon designed a fighting system that was considerably different to the competition. For a start, all the characters shared the same movement speed, damage output and repertoire of standard attacks, with only signature moves like Sub-Zero’s Ice Freeze projectile and Johnny Cage’s ball-busting Split Punch separating them offensively. It was also the first fighting game to feature a dedicated block button and special moves – like Raiden’s Torpedo dive – that used motion-only inputs.

But according to Tobias, the fivebutton layout wasn’t something they had in place from the start. “As I recall,” Tobias says “very early in development we had six punch and kick buttons – high, middle, and low. But we cut the middle button out because it was kind of redundant, and also because it helped us cut out some frames of animation that would’ve been required because of it.” This was a sensible decision given the tight timeframe the team had to work with, but we can’t help but wonder what a six-button Mortal Kombat might’ve played like. Arranging the buttons in a cross pattern isn’t the limit of Mortal Kombat’s innovations either, as similarly to how Street Fighter II inadvertently created the combo system, Boon and Tobias pretty much paved the way for Tekken by inventing the concept of juggles. “I recall juggling happening by accident,” Tobias explains. “But once it was discovered, Ed took advantage of it and tweaked it from that point forward. It was purely his brainchild.” It also had the unfortunate consequence of unbalancing the game, as certain juggle combos could kill a character at full health.

Fortunately, these touch-of-death combos were mitigated with subsequent revisions that tweaked various aspects of the game before Mortal Kombat II was completed. Reptile, for instance, was added in Version 3, while players were only able to play against the same character from Version 2 onwards. The Test Your Might board breaking, meanwhile, was a permanent fixture from Version 0.9 on. “I’d worked on a similar minigame in Total Carnage where the player had to repeatedly whack a button to survive an electric chair,” Tobias enthuses. “The one in Street Fighter served the same kind of purpose, which was just to give the player a break from the one-on-one battles. We wisely cut these sequences in the later games.”

One thing that’s never been cut from any Mortal Kombat to date, however, is the barbaric Fatality executions. The original wasn’t the first fighting game to have coups de grâce – that honour goes to Barbarian on Commodore 64 – but while Barbarian was content with straight-up decapitations, Mortal Kombat featured invasive heart surgery and spine splitters. “There was this anticlimactic moment at the end of a match that just felt like something was missing,” Tobias explains when asked about the origin of the iconic death blows. “That’s where the idea started. We never really censored ourselves, we just thought about how to get positive reactions out of the player.”

In this sense, the Fatality system succeeded, as no match was truly finished unless the winning player despatched their opponent in over-the-top fashion. But after various hearings on ‘videogame violence and the corruption of society’ – headed up by US Senator Joseph Lieberman after the release of Mortal Kombat and Night Trap – the ESRB was established in 1994. “When we designed the original arcade product, I believe our demographic was players in their late teens or early twenties,” Tobias states of the ensuing controversy. “We never thought of our players as children. I think that changed when the games were ported to the home consoles, and so I believe the rating system was entirely appropriate.”

It’s clear that the team’s primary focus was to make a fun and memorable fighting game that didn’t take itself too seriously, and by all accounts Mortal Kombat was exactly that. Tobias even used his experience working for the now defunct NOW Comics and Eternity Comics to write and illustrate a Mortal Kombat: Collector’s Edition comic book
that was advertised during the arcade game’s attract mode for $3 by mail-order. “The comic was my idea and it came from this desire to tell a story, which couldn’t be told in the game itself,” he says with a smile. “I believe we sold at least a few thousand of them.”

Tobias left Midway in 1999 during the development of Mortal Kombat: Special Forces and now does industry consulting work. He also illustrated a 16-page comic book that was included with the Kollector’s Edition of Mortal Kombat Vs. DC Universe. “I like how they’ve altered the original character designs in both DC Universe and Mortal Kombat 9,” Tobias reflects when asked about the recent reboot. “I think they really turned a corner in terms of quality and staying true to the original designs. When redesigning is done for no reason other than change for change’s sake, you can lose the qualities which made a character special from its inception.”

This is a sentiment that sums up Mortal Kombat really well; regardless of where the sequels have taken the series over the years, the original still holds up as one of the most compelling fighting games of its generation. And although everyone remembers it for the haunting words of ‘Finish Him!!’, underneath all the buckets of blood is a game full of intrigue and mystery. “One of the most interesting things that nobody else knows is what Raiden and Liu Kang are really shouting during their attacks,” Tobias teases, “but I can’t tell you what those are.” So even with its 20th anniversary rapidly approaching, it seems Mortal Kombat still harbours some sordid secrets.
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