Mortal Kombat first hit the arcades in October of 1992 (goodness me, am I old) and quickly stirred up a storm due to its, for the time, realistic looking graphics and ultra-gory finishing moves. Mortal Kombat quickly became a favourite of the 90s video game enthusiast, one that tended to be more jaded than their 80s counterpart and far more interested in watching burly, bald blokes rip the heart straight out of a ninja’s chest, which Mortal Kombat was more than happy to give them. I’ll certainly never forget my first reaction to seeing such barefaced brutality in a video game, especially as I was still in primary school at the time, and the most extreme thing I’d ever seen in a game up to that point was Super Mario sending Bowser to a lava-based death, and that was done in a far tamer manner.
Mortal Kombat was so violent, in fact, that Nintendo turned into a giant bunch of wusses and censored out all of the blood when the game hit the Super Nintendo in 1993, along with severely toning down the vicious fatalities as well. Kano now didn’t rip out an opponent’s heart but instead kind of just touched them in the chest before looking at his own hand in wonderment. He was probably thinking, “Wow, I just killed that dude by touching him, I should probably get that checked out”. SEGA did manage to include the blood by having it unlockable via a special code, which was a rather neat way around the whole furore, even though the Mega Drive version of the game had to be pretty scaled down in order to fit onto the cartridge. As a result, neither home port of Mortal Kombat on the major fourth gen consoles really delivered, although the second game was much better in that regard.
The question is though, after all these years, is Mortal Kombat actually still fun to play? As someone who didn’t really begin to enjoy the series until it moved into the 3D realm with Deadly Alliance, I’m possibly the wrong guy to ask. Even in my youth, I thought the gameplay of the MK series trailed behind the likes of Street Fighter II, which I played religiously and loved. Outside of a few special moves, every fighter in Mortal Kombat essentially fights the same with the same set of moves, a likely consequence of having to use real actors for the fighter sprites, limiting the ability to give everyone more unique attacks and move sets. The addition of a block button takes a bit of getting used to, but I think it’s probably one of the better aspects of the Kombat, as it adds an additional layer of strategy to things as you don’t get a “free” block just for walking backwards.
Viewed at the time, the gameplay in Mortal Kombat was a little bit sluggish but mostly serviceable. Viewed by modern eyes, it’s positively archaic. Going back to play it for this feature rammed home to me that it was the novelty and general ambience of Mortal Kombat that helped it become an enduring series in the video game world because it certainly wasn’t the fighting itself. The fighting is probably the worst part of the whole experience, if I’m being honest, as the fighters with the most effective special moves inherently have a big advantage, and the fact everyone shares the same basic move set means you don’t have much in the way to counter someone when they have better specials than you. In a lot of ways, the Kombat in Mortal Kombat is a bit of a slog, although for 1992 it was hardly terrible. Certainly, it’s not a patch on the 2D games of the modern MK Era.
Mortal Kombat isn’t without its own unique blend of charm though. I know “charm” isn’t a word you usually expect to see when it comes to a game where you can rip a woman’s head off and leave her spine dangling in the wind, but Mortal Kombat manages it somehow. I think it’s partly due to the inherent cheesiness of it all. The game was originally pitched as a vehicle for Jean Claude Van-Damme, where the karate kicking Belgian would take on a slew of wacky opponents, not unlike how he would in some of his movies. Even with JCVD removed from the situation, the game still manages to capture the vibe of the low budget martial arts movies that you’d rent from a video shop (ask your parents, younger readers) on the weekend and enjoy in a partly ironic way. Whereas the gameplay isn’t especially good, Mortal Kombat does definitely have more going for it than just that, and that’s probably why it stood the test of time while the lesser games that cribbed from it didn’t.
I suppose you could say that Mortal Kombat’s biggest crime was that it inspired a whole slew of copycats who tried to create their own digitised sprite-based fighting games. If you were ever unlucky enough to slog through a game like Kasumi Ninja or Way of the Warrior, then you can throw the blame firmly at the feet of Midway for making the style popular in the first place. I’m joking, of course, but it does ring true that Mortal Kombat did have a wider ranging effect on the video game world and that not all of it was a positive. However, Mortal Kombat has endured for as long as it has because it is and always has been greater than the sum of its parts, and that is why it was able to survive and thrive long enough for the gameplay to actually become good. In its 30th year, the series’ first game has not aged well, but it does still deserve its notoriety.