Blood, guts, and the ESRB: A Mortal Kombat retrospective

By Steven Wong, Jun 05, 2014 11:45am PDT

Mortal Kombat is on its way to its 10th spine-ripping game, so we're taking a look back to where it all began. Check out 22 years of bone-breaking, blood soaked, Fatalities along with some of MK's greatest hits and misses. Guest stars include superheroes from the DC Universe!

Mortal Kombat

Mortal Kombat (Mortal Kombat Kollection)

Released in 1992 for arcades, Mortal Kombat was the game that broke rules and faces alike. Although the meager plot wouldn't be fully realized until the sequel, the story involved a fighting tournament where the hard C was replaced with a K, and several kombatants fought to the bloody death. Chief among them was the monk, Liu Kang, who put on his best Bruce Lee imitation while fighting to defeat the evil sorcerer Shang Tsung. Unlike other fighting games like the animated characters from the Street Fighter series, Mortal Kombat used costumed actors as fighters. But its real draw was in its brutal action, particularly the Fatalities, which was introduced into the gaming lexicon through this game.

Mortal Kombat would also make gaming history in other ways. The gore and violence was so extreme for its time that it was brought up during government hearings. From that, the game helped necessitate the formation of the ESRB and its ratings system for video games. Mortal Kombat was the first game to receive a Mature rating.

Mortal Kombat II

Released in 1993 and later ported to console systems and the PC, Mortal Kombat II expanded the original formula with improved fighting, a deeper storyline, additional characters, and gorier Fatalities. The plot continued from the first game with a new tournament, except that this one is held in another dimension called Outworld, where tougher enemies resided. A number of iconic characters made their debut in MK2, including Kitana, Mileena, Kung Lao, and a new villain named Shao Kahn. Characters could now perform multiple Fatalities, including Stage Fatalities where the fighting arena could be used to finish off an opponent. However, the game wasn't all blood and guts. There were diapers, too. Yes, MK2 was the first game to feature the Babality, which transformed defeated opponents into helpless infants.

Mortal Kombat 3

Mortal Kombat 3 released in 1995, and did away with the tournament format of previous games. Instead, the story now involved Shao Kahn resurrecting his queen, Sindel, and his invasion of Earthrealm. Earthrealm becomes a part of Outworld, and it's up to group of heroes to fend off the attack. The third chapter in the series features a number of new characters, such as the cybernetic ninjas Cyrax and Sektor. It's also the first game to have a playable Shokan character, Sheeva. Notable gameplay changes included chain combos and the Run ability, which quickly closed the distance between fighters. The developers at Midway Games decided to have more fun with the finishing moves, so in addition to Fatalities and Babalities, there was Mercy, which returned a sliver of health to a defeated opponent so that they could keep on fighting. Players needed to perform Mercies before they could execute an Animilaity, which transformed the victor into a creature or animal to kill their opponent. Lastly, the game introduced Kombat Kodes, which players input to access secret characters and modify the gameplay. MK3 would go on to be updated into Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 and Mortal Kombat Trilogy, which added more gameplay features and characters.

Mortal Kombat 4

Mortal Kombat 4 came out in 1997. It was the first game in the series to use rendered 3D graphics, and the last one to see an arcade release. The story veers away from anything having to do with the tournament or Outworld, and focuses on a fallen Elder God named Shinnok, who resides in the Netherrealm. Shinnok is looking to break out of his prison, and it's up to the fighters to stop him. In addition to the new graphical style and new characters like Quan Chi, MK4 let fighters wield weapons for the first time, but only in a limited fashion. Another noteworthy feature is the Maximum Damage cap, which limited the amount of damage a combo could do, and ended infinite combos. MK4's brutality continued even after the game ended, with an animated Game Over screen featuring fighters falling down a deep pit with spikes at the bottom.

Although MK4 was a financial success, fans didn't take very well to the self-described 3D game with 2D gameplay. Some were disappointed that it didn't play as well as other 3D games of the time. Considering how characters had two Fatalities each, and the game only had two Stage Fatalities, MK4 seemed less ambitious than its predecessor, despite the new graphics.

Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance

Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance is the fifth installment of the fighting series, which released for the Xbox, PlayStation 2, GameCube, and Game Boy Advance consoles in 2002. The game takes the series back to the Outworld, where the two evil sorcerers Quan Chi and Shang Tsung join forces. Together, they dethroned Shao Kahn, then made a stop over to Earthrealm to kill Liu Kang, before continuing on with their plan to resurrect an invincible army. That's when Raiden decided to relinquish his status as an Elder God so that he could intervene in the conflict directly, which raises the question... what was he doing across the previous four games?

Deadly Alliance is generally regarded as a series reboot, with gameplay that strongly resembles classic games. It is thought of by many as the game that revived the Mortal Kombat franchise. Except for Blaze and Mokap, every character featured three distinct fighting styles and two stances, for fighting with or without weapons. A new power-up feature was introduced, which increased damage for a short period. However, other areas were scaled back. Characters were back to having only one Fatality (except Blaze and Mokap, who had none), special moves were reduced to 2-4 per character, and Stage Fatalities were removed.

Mortal Kombat: Deception

Mortal Kombat: Deception hit the Xbox and PlayStation 2 in 2004, and a GameCube version came out in 2005. Spoiler Alert: The heroes from Deadly Alliance failed to stop the Shang Tsung and Quan Chi's plans from the previous game. The two sorcerers combined their powers to defeat Raiden, then immediately turned on each other for control over the Dragon King's invincible army. When the fight was over, Quan Chi stood victorious, but he wouldn't have time to enjoy his victory. It turns out Onaga, the Dragon King, was resurrected alongside his invincible army. It served him, and they were going to take Outworld back. The combined powers Quan Chi, Shang Tsung, and Raiden were not enough to repel Onaga's progression forward. So, Raiden decided to blow himself up along with everyone around him - a plan that almost certainly must have sounded better in his head. However, the move did little to stop Onaga. The remaining heroes were charged with stopping Onaga from destroying the dimensions so he could rule over them. Because… if you can’t defeat a pair of powerful sorcerers, you might have better luck against the unstoppable warlord that trounced both sorcerers and a former Elder God.

Despite the somewhat convoluted storyline, Mortal Kombat: Deception was a very good fighting game. It featured interactive stages with multiple levels, breakable boundaries, and death traps. Furthermore, the game featured Combo Breakers, which could be used up to three times in a match to interrupt combos. It was also the first game in the Mortal Kombat series to have an extensive online mode, along with a story that starts off with the bad guys winning.

Mortal Kombat: Armageddon

Mortal Kombat: Armageddon is the seventh installment of the series. It released in 2006 for the PS2 and Xbox, and would be the last Mortal Kombat game for those consoles. In 2007, Armageddon became the first and only Mortal Kombat game to come out for the Wii. The story plays out as a sort of mega reunion and house cleaning. After many millennia of conflict, kombatants were becoming too numerous and powerful for the realms to handle. Their non-stop fighting would tear the realms apart. Featuring a roster of 63 characters from across the entire Mortal Kombat series (Khamelion was exclusive to the Wii), the game was a fight to the death with only one supreme victor. Nearly every character was killed or presumed lost by the end of the story.

As if the mega roster wasn't enough, Armageddon featured a Kreate a Fighter feature, which gave players the ability to make a custom fighter. Complimenting the feature was Kreate a Fatality, where players had to chain together a long series of non-repeating commands until the Fatality animation finishes. Ranks are earned according to how far players get in the sequence, with rewards issued accordingly. Armageddon also included a fun mini-game called Motor Kombat, which featured cartoon style MK characters racing go-karts and using their powers against and Fatalities against each other.

Mortal Kombat vs DC Universe

This WTH moment was originally meant to be Mortal Kombat 8, with a dark, gritty design like Gears of War. The developers at Midway seemed to completely forget about Armageddon during its early promotions, because they stated that MK8 would be the game where almost every original Mortal Kombat character dies. Then somewhere along the way, the concept was thrown out in favor of an MK/DCU crossover. Some might argue that this isn't actually a Mortal Kombat game, since the crossover had no bearing on the series canon. However, it was the last game before the full series reboot, so it counts.

In the story, players choose to play from either the point of view of Mortal Kombat or DCU. Each faction will see the other as invaders trying to enter their dimension. Players use different characters across each chapter as the story plays out. A stand-out gameplay feature is how the characters show signs of injury and damage as the match progresses. The Flash gets cuts and a bloody nose while Scorpion's mask breaks apart to reveal the skull face underneath.

Mortal Kombat (2011)

Developed by the newly formed NetherRealm Studios (formerly Midway), 2011's Mortal Kombat is the ninth in the series, and it retells the story from the first three games. After witnessing the catastrophic events that occurred after the Battle of Armageddon, where Shao Kahn became the supreme ruler of the realms, Raiden sends his past self a message in an effort to avoid this fate. The message must have gotten messed up during delivery, because past Raiden shrugs off the visions and continues with the tournament. The story then plays out with changing perspectives, which requires players to win using different characters to progress.

After dealing with Kreate a Fatality from Armageddon, and the watered down finishing moves in MK vs DCU, it was nice to get back to the gory and violent Fatalities Mortal Kombat is famous for. Adding to the brutality were X-Ray moves, which revealed the breaking bones and other internal damage an opponent takes. Kombatants had a special bar that must be filled before they could execute X-Ray moves and enhanced special attacks called Breakers. Babalities from MK2 also made a return, which made for a slightly out of place, but welcome, throwback.

Mortal Kombat X

It's been a long, blood strewn road but Mortal Kombat is heading toward its tenth game with Mortal Kombat X. Not much is known about the game other than it's slated for 2015, and promises a dynamic and cinematic experience for the Xbox One, PS4, and PC. Judging by the announcement trailer, the game will continue the proud tradition of brutal fighting, combined with special moves, and - of course - gory Fatalities. The big question is, who's next?

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