Mortal Kombat 2: Kombat Boogaloo

Published on October 4th, 2011

James continues looking at the the world of Mortal Kombat.

Welcome to Part 2 of my look at Mortal Kombat. At the end of Part 1, I was explaining how the golden age of arcades was just coming to an end in the early 1990s, just as Mortal Kombat was coming onto the scene. Perhaps things weren’t looking great for the arcade industry, but the future of Mortal Kombat looked as bright as anyone could have hoped. Its runaway success at the arcade started with its 1992 release and there was little doubt it would be a hit when ported over to home consoles. It was decided that the game would go on sale on all 4 major home consoles on the same day, September 13, 1993, a day that would soon become known as Mortal Monday. Soon everyone who owned a Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis, Game Boy or Game Gear, as well as $50 (or the ability to convince their parents to give it to them) could play the hottest game around in their own home.

The people who stood to make money off the console success of Mortal Kombat were determined to let every kid know that this dream could soon be a reality. While they had advertised the arcade release for the game, Mortal Monday was marketed in an unprecedented fashion. We are now used to seeing video game commercials on TVs, billboards, before movies and most other typical advertising venues, but the industry is much bigger now and these tactics have proven successful. In 1993, it would have been thought of as pretty wild to have a $10 million advertising campaign (not adjusted for inflation!) for a video game release, but that’s exactly what Mortal Kombat did. The airwaves were flooded with commercials that amped up Mortal Monday not just as the day you could buy a certain game, but as a cultural event.

And in a way, they were right; the spectacular success of Mortal Monday did cause a lot of changes. Some say that it contributed to the end of the arcades. For a long time, programmers struggled with porting games from the arcade version, saying the console version would play as well or look as good. At the time, it was widely recognized that the Sega Genesis port was less than perfect and left many gamers griping. However, the massive success of Mortal Monday showed that most people either didn’t notice or didn’t care enough to stop them from buying the game, and to the people selling the game, it didn’t matter which of these was true. The golden age of arcades was certainly over now, and most progressive developers saw the home console market as the greenest pastures.

Mortal Monday also helped show just how big video games could be. Upon its arcade release, it surprised a lot of people with how well it did and the massive ad campaign for the console releases was an attempt not to lose that momentum. While the cost of such a campaign was huge, the millions of units sold and the great profits reaped did more than convince companies that pricey campaigns can pay off. The theory of pouring money into a game to make it huge started being applied on the front end of things, and when Mortal Kombat’s inevitable sequels started being developed, the team making them got bigger and bigger.

As with any cultural phenomenon, Mortal Kombat had many detractors. While some trotted the typical arguments of video games making kids lazy and stupid, the overwhelming majority were appalled by the realistic and intense levels of violence. I know ‘realistic’ isn’t a word people today associate with that generation of now primitive consoles, but looking at the graphics of Mortal Kombat relative to what came before, the characters looked very realistic and this is due to how they were animated. Game developers used a method of digitizing the fighting of real humans and inserting them into the game that was somewhat groundbreaking. It’s sort of like motion capture in films today, but instead of taking certain human movements and features and using them to turn Sam Worthington into a blue, 7 foot tall cat man, you are placed in the game as you are (in this case a shirtless dude or a black-outfitted ninja with a few coloured areas), just with much worse graphics. For many parents, this visual style was much worse than the hand-drawn look of the characters in Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat’s big competition. The people looked more realistic and this made what they did to each other worse for children to see. If this distinction seems silly, just think about if you had been allowed to watch an actual human Elmer Fudd drop anvils on a living version of Bugs Bunny, even if special effects were used for the gory parts.

It wasn’t just this visual style that was the matter, but what these characters would do to each other. During the fights, they punched each other so hard that blood would fly out of them. When the fight was over, there were Fatalities. What many gamers saw as amazing little treasures in the game, many parents saw as the biggest threat to their child’s innocence. Fatalities involved hearts being ripped out of chests, or heads being pulled on so hard that when they separate from the body, the spinal cord comes with it. While I’m not big on the idea of a nanny state, I can see how some parents thought these images weren’t appropriate.

Mostly because we would have to hear this voice delivering a State of the Union address.

As much as certain people hate censorship (or parental involvement), it’s usually a sign that your medium is being taken seriously. Comic books were forced to have some kind of regulation in the 1950s, and while the publishers fought it, it was the government’s way of saying that your goofy little art form is here to stay, and it affects a largenumber of people strongly enough that we need to control it. No one likes to be controlled, but it does come with the accidental compliment that your product is widespread, powerful, and not going anywhere anytime soon, and this had clearly become the case with Mortal Kombat and video games as a whole. Of course there were other violent video games in the 1990s but it is Mortal Kombat, with its multi-millon units sold, that is widely credited as the game that forced the ratings board for video games into existence, and the reason every video game comes with a rating on the cover to this day.

Here’s a news report talking about parental concerns about violence in the game. I think it’s safe to guess there were similar reports being filed on local newscasts across the country on Mortal Monday. Enjoy watching as this news reporter tries to steer the gamer toward saying he just plays for the Fatalities but instead just finds out what many parents know: that talking to someone playing video games doesn’t lead to the most interesting conversations.

Some fans of the game argued that it wasn’t just the violence people liked about the game and provided other reasons for their appreciation of it. The method of using digitized versions of actors made the game look more real than others they had played, they argued, or the gameplay was just very good and the game simply happened to be violent. I must say, the game is enjoyable to play, even the Nintendo one, which I can remember playing, but to argue that the violence wasn’t a major part of the game’s success is simply incorrect. First, there’s the ‘no press is bad press’ argument; even if these news reports were about how despicable the game was, it still functioned to remind everyone it was coming out and that it was a big deal. More damning than this are the differing responses between different versions of the game. Even before Mortal Monday, some arcade owners weren’t comfortable with kids playing this violent game and chose to tone down the violence on their individual units, removing the blood and making Fatality victims simply disappear instead of get mutilated. This was met with complaints and reduced customers who preferred to go to other arcades that kept the gore. While this may be anecdotal, there is a more practical example that is harder to deny.

As is still true today, Nintendo was the more child-friendly brand and its competition was the more adult-oriented systems. In fact here’s a commercial from the 90s skirting the issue that Sega has the balls to show violence that Nintendo isn’t willing to, with the awesome slogan “Sega does what Nintendon’t!”

In the case of Mortal Kombat, Nintendidn’t keep the blood and gore of the arcade version, but was otherwise ported most successfully of all the consoles, maintaining the best gameplay and controls. Despite this, the Sega Genesis copy outsold the Super Nintendo copy, which was agreed to have better gameplay but less violence, three to one. While it’s tempting to say that more people had Sega, this wasn’t the reason, and we got proof of it with Mortal Kombat 2. After the ratings board was developed, Nintendo was comfortable selling violent games because they came with a warning, and Nintendo quickly outsold Sega that time around. It’s rather clear that violence was one of the main selling points of Mortal Kombat, and between different ports of the game.

Considering that the game was made relatively cheaply and was an absolute smash hit, the creation of Mortal Kombat 2 wasn’t even a question. When this sequel was released, it was another massive hit. And even though the arcade success of the first game, the hype of Mortal Monday and millions of console sales for Mortal Kombat 1 and 2, I believe it was the time around the release of Mortal Kombat 3 that was the golden age for Mortal Kombat. Check out what 1995 was like for the Mortal Kombat franchise.

August: Mortal Kombat, the film was released into theatres.
It would go on to make $120 million on a $20 million budget. It was the 4th ever American video game adaptation and is to this day one of the most successful, holding the 3rd highest rating on Rotten Tomatoes. For a movie about a fighting tournament based on a video game, critics were weirdly supportive.

Mid-August: 10 days its release, the soundtrack goes platinum.
Seriously. Platinum. I was still surprised by this but I shouldn’t be because those songs were everywhere. I can hear the techno beats and ominous voice stating the names of fighters now, just like I did in every school dance and hockey locker room for the next few years. There have been successful singles and albums made out of movie soundtracks, but I can’t think of another that literally just lists characters from the movie and then yells the title of the movie. Although with the way George Lucas tries to milk as much as possible out of Star Wars, I’m surprised there hasn’t been one of these for the Star Wars films; given the ferocity of the franchise’s fans, I would assume that even in the music industry’s current climate, that shit would go diamond.

End of August: A Mortal Kombat TV special is released.

September: Mortal Kombat: The Live Tour arrives at Radio City Music Hall.
That’s right. The live tour. And oddly, it’s even worse than it sounds. It had all the unnecessary cartwheels and spins from the movie, just minus special effects, mystical elements and violence, which I like to call THE THREE THINGS PEOPLE LIKED ABOUT MORTAL KOMBAT. If there’s any testament to how big Mortal Kombat was, it’s that someone allowed this to happen. It’s like that Spider-Man musical but cheaper, which is still not a compliment. Check out the video below for proof, and to see someone in the Mortal Kombat live tour NOT be prepared for a question about violence, the ever-present concern for this franchise since the beginning.

October: Mortal Kombat 3 is released, as well as an interactive CD-ROM.
The sequels of these games each brought better graphics and more characters but the game stayed fundamentally the same. With all of these other projects being based on the games, and the games themselves selling millions, there wasn’t much of a reason to change a thing.

In fact, the next year, something called Mortal Kombat Trilogy was released, which gave you a chance to use all of the fighters from throughout the franchise in any of the levels from the franchise. Also in 1996, an animated show was created from the franchise titled Mortal Kombat: Defenders of the Realm. This wouldn’t be the last time a show based on the game would make it to the airwaves. In 1998, we saw the premiere of Mortal Kombat: Konquest, a live action (aktion?) show. It only lasted one season, and while the ratings weren’t awful, the episodes simply cost too much to make. Mortal Kombat 4, the final game in this boom, was released in 1997, and by that time there were many ways to watch and be part of the franchise. From 1995-98, there were all of the action figures, novelizations, clothes, and accessories you can guess would be available for an action/adventure product aimed at kids. Many tantrums were surely thrown over a variety of Mortal Kombat items over these years, and many parents surely gave in eventually and said under their breath, “I’ll show you Mortal Kombat.”

The first big misstep in the franchise was probably the film sequel Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, released 1997. The movie cost more than its predecessor and made significantly less. Despite the first film being a hit, the second one changed the formula a bit and tried to satisfy more fans by including more characters, leading to short and inexplicable appearances by many characters. The plan did not win over any more fans, and ended up just infuriating them with the lame sequel. Critics were not any happier. I mean, they were nice enough to not shit on the first one and this is how you repay them? The movie couldn’t even get back its less-than-A-list cast. The movie literally started where the original left off, with the first scene of the sequel being the last scene of the original… Except for the fact that the cast was almost entirely replaced, and Sonja Blade had somehow cut her hair while remaining in her fighting stance. Annihilation is viewed as one of the worst video game adaptations, which is impressive in a sad sort of way when you consider this is Uwe Boll’s favourite genre.

Things weren’t great for the rest of the Mortal Kombat property either. Maybe it was oversaturation. Maybe tastes just changed. Whatever the cause, by the end of 1998 it seemed people had enough of Mortal Kombat. A new Mortal Kombat game would come out every few years, but the receptions became more and more lukewarm. The TV shows were cancelled and have never come back. While a 3rd movie was not written off, it would be stuck in development hell indefinitely. The live tour stopped, but that may have been shut down for being a crime against humanity rather than popularity’s sake. Midway games, the franchise’s original developer, would go under, and sell its rights to another company. Although the franchise did not die, its golden age was decidedly over.

In my 3rd and final part of this Mortal Kombat artikle, I will look at why we are in the perfect place for this franchise to come back to life, and some evidence of how that’s already started.

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