MORTAL KOMBAT: PART 1 – CYCLICAL EVERYTHING AND ARCADE CHARM

Published on September 28th, 2011

James begins his look at Mortal Kombat. In this part: The Golden Age of Arcades and cyclical trends.  

One of the great 21st century philosophers, Dennis Duffy, once said that “technology is cyclical” to explain how some communications trends leave us and then re-appear. OK, maybe he wasn’t a great philosopher and just a character on 30 Rock, and maybe he wasn’t saying something about the fundamental nature of technology but merely looking for a way to justify working at a beeper store this millennium. In any case, I dare say he might be onto something. No, beepers are not coming back, so maybe technology isn’t cyclical, but technoculture is. And yes, technoculture is a word. I have a very expensive piece of paper from a university with that word AND my name on it so not only is it a word, I feel qualified to use it, too. The word encompasses everything about where technology and culture overlap and change each other. For example, email changed how we do business, Facebook changed how we socialize, or political climates can make it easier for phones to give up private information about their users, etc.

The idea of things being cyclical is not a new one. The sun rises and sets, the seasons change, and this has been recognized to some degree likely since humans came into existence. More recently, things like fashion trends and political attitudes come and go. The 1950s were very conformist and conservative, with McCarthyism and moral panic over comic books, so there was a backlash, which led to the liberal madness of the 60s and 70s, with the drug use and free love. This was followed by a return to the right side of the political spectrum of the Reagan-era, greed-is-good decade of the 80s, and back and forth we go. Society gets a little too much of one thing, then it is corrected, but over-corrected, and things can’t stay that way either, so we lean back the other way and the cycle continues ad infinitum.

It’s not just with things so abstract and can be something as tangible as clothing. I remember in the 90s when bellbottoms made a big comeback and all the parents laughed as they recalled throwing their pairs out when they suddenly became uncool, probably because something else came along in the 80s. (Maybe leggings? I don’t know fashion. Anyone who has seen my homemade sleeveless hoodie can attest to this.)  I can remember wondering then if nothing is ever going to be new, if everything’s been done before and if life is a hellish Ferris wheel where we don’t even get to be in the seats, we just stand on the platform in line as the same things pass us over and over. (I don’t know if anyone else took the bellbottom resurgence so seriously.) Later I had a writer’s craft teacher explain that of course everything is a cycle but we are in control of our lives because even if we can’t stop the cycles, we can make the next one better than the previous one.

So fuck you, bellbottoms. Fuck you and the therapist you drove me to

But fashion is fashion and without offending any fashion lovers out there, it is relatively finite and at some point it seems like the trendy thing will inevitably something that’s been trendy before. In the episode of 30 Rock I mentioned, Dennis does manage to sell a beeper to Frank so he can use it as an ironic accessory. And while the hipsters I see daily will argue, it’s harder to wear clothes ironically than technology. This is due to technology’s obsolescence; its tendency become useless when it falls too far behind the standard. Clothing doesn’t really go obsolete, unless our species evolves and we lose the limb it was designed to accessorize. While we make fabrics that repel stains or don’t require ironing, the clothing world is largely the same as far as opening your closet and putting stuff on is concerned.. Technology, on the other hand, is much different. While appearances are important, the function and performance are so integral to the very meaning of the word ‘technology.’ Digital products, whether they are for entertainment or communications, are too tied into the practical and ever-changing nuts and bolts, and later computing speeds and social uses, of technology to be cyclical. In this way, technology itself definitely can’t be cyclical but technological trends can be.

 

"What's that? I'm back on TV? No, I don't know Franklin & Bash is, either."

 

When the first Moral Kombat game came out in 1992, it was released to arcades only. This sounds odd to the modern gamers but it was a different time for video games. This was standard practice for many titles, as the market for video game consoles at home was nowhere near as big as it is today. Like many items that are common in the household now, they were far too expensive upon their invention for most individual families to own. Instead of just selling consoles and games to customers, the video game industry had a different business model. I’m sure you’ve been in an arcade at some point in your life and are familiar with how this works but here’s a quick breakdown. Gamers, or potential gamers, usually couldn’t afford a whole system in their house, but really wanted to play video games, even if it was only for a few minutes at a time. Arcade cabinets (what I just called arcade games my whole life until researching this article) were sold, rented or leased to arcade owners, who would then let customers play them for a few minutes at a time in exchange for quarters. The relationship is similar to how movie theatres have functioned for a long time; paying a content producer (game developer/movie studio or distributor) for an expensive media product and allowing hundreds of strangers (moviegoers/gamers) to rent (use or watch) it for a small fee that, if done properly will be more than the exhibitor (arcade/theatre owner) paid for it initially. It has largely worked for movie theatres for more than a century and for a while, it worked very well for arcades, too. While you can trace it back decades before to pinball games and similar forms of entertainment, the 1970s and 1980s is the golden age of the arcade, when in North America alone, game developers and arcade owners built a multi-million dollar empire, one quarter at a time. You can still find arcades now but the number, size and popularity of these venues is a mere shadow of a formerly vast revenue stream. This was before the Internet and there were very few places where people could see the development of digital technologies, visual effects and artificial intelligence that would later comprise so much of the world they would grow in.

It is this environment that Mortal Kombat was created for, and where it first entered the world in August of 1992. Histories differ on the details but most people agree it took 4 people somewhere between 5 and 10 months to create Mortal Kombat. It started off as a vehicle for John Claude Van Damme but the deal fell apart and Midway, the developer, worried about the future of the project. However, once the game was completed and released, they had little to worry about as it was a big hit and caused line-ups at the arcade immediately.

"I'm going to make my parents divorce and then get Liu Kang to adopt me...."

I’m sure parents wouldn’t have said it at the time but there is something terribly romantic about this time in gaming. The thought of kids running to the arcade after school, lining up with their friends and classmates, acting like their favourite characters, talking about who was the better player and whatever else kids talk about, probably daring each other to do gross or embarrassing things, and all being together is sort of…well…sweet, even if they were there to digitally beat the shit out of each other. They were all there because if you wanted to play the hottest game, which was Mortal Kombat, you had to be there, because even though there were consoles, not everyone had them and Mortal Kombat was arcade-only at this point. Without getting too hyperbolic, it reminds me of the way people discuss how when Shakespeare was writing, theatre wasn’t just for the rich, but was one of the only forms of entertainment for everyone and no one wanted to miss this writer. If you wanted cutting edge gaming in 92, you had to be at the arcade.

I was 4 years old for most of 1992 so almost all of this article comes from second-hand experience. Gamers who were around at that time, the ones who I conjectured about in the last paragraph, don’t remember the arcade world like 16th century England but like the Old West. They talk of practicing alone whenever they had the chance to perfect their craft, knowing their time alone with the game wouldn’t be long. They fondly remember systemically trying every combination of buttons in order to determine special moves. There was always someone looking to take down the gamer on top. They talk about hiding their controls when the game yelled “FINISH HIM”, hitting a combination of buttons and joystick directions quickly and performing a Fatality, a gory finishing move in front of wide-eyed younger gamers who didn’t know such things were possible, let alone how they were done. They reminisce about working so hard to be the best in their neighbourhood, and when that happened, roving from arcade to arcade, trying to find someone better than them, someone they can learn from. They still look a little scared when they talk about how they felt when they weren’t getting any better and knew someone else out there was, that they were falling behind that person, that they might just be a big fish in a small pond, and all the people they’ve beat and dazzled would lose respect for them if someone from another arcade came in and mopped the floor with them.

All of this may sound odd to us now. Some of us might find it quaint, hiding combos in a pre-Internet age. For some it may seem contradictory; getting out of the house to play video games with other people? That’s the antithesis of a lazy loner gamer. Some may find it outright depressing to consider how little gaming time you’d actually get, having to wait in line behind all these other people. And while I agree that there is plenty of truth to these facets, I can’t help but admit that it is also something utterly charming about it all, too.

Of course, there is danger in that mentality. Like everything that has ever been romanticized, like Ye Olde England, the Old West, your first love or the cool indie theatre you went to before the huge chain came to town, things are always remembered more fondly than they deserve and they all came to an end for a reason. With that time in English history, maybe people got sick of being mostly illiterate, storing dead bodies in the water supply and child labour. Citizens of the Old West probably got sick of living in a lawless town, mostly filled with thieves and prostitutes, constantly struggling for mere survival, and instead wanted things like fresh food, comfort and dentistry not performed with mining tools. Maybe your first girlfriend made out with someone one summer up at her friend’s cottage but says it was closed lips and they were drunk and it was during truth-or-dare and she’s pretty sure he was gay anyway. Perhaps your local theatre should have cleaned up once in a while or paid for a security guard because more than half your attendance was sneaking in that side door. Whatever it is and whatever the cause, there’s always a reason things change and with it comes positives and negatives.

Sleeping guard? Just like in the movie I just didn't pay for. META SECURITY!

As I noted, the late 80s are generally viewed as the end of the golden era of the arcade, but as that closed, we grew closer to a golden of Mortal Kombat. The game was “ported over to” (made available on) home consoles the next year. It was the here that Mortal Kombat would explode in popularity. For anyone who thinks there wasn’t enough discussion of the actual game in this, I promise the continuation will contain way Mortal Kombat kontent. I just had to lay the foundation so I can talk about MK for the rest of the time. I will be discussing how large of a cultural phenomenon Mortal Kombat became, the backlash about the violence, the movies, the movie soundtrack(!!!!), the franchise’s eventual fade from prominence and how modern culture and technologies are primed to bring it back.

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