Mortal Kombat began something special: the idea of fighting games with lore

I fell in love with Mortal Kombat’s lore the first time I saw it, and all it took was that dragon. The same one that might have caused you to click on this story.

I stumbled onto the game in late 1992. I was around 11, at an underground arcade when I should have been bowling.

The black and yellow symbol immediately intrigued me, and still stands out as one of my favorite video game icons. Just below that was Johnny Cage in the middle of a fierce scream as he performed a flying kick.

His look made me think about Bloodsport — one of those awesome movies that played seemingly around the clock on TBS — and for good reason. Mortal Kombat originally began as a vehicle for Hollywood martial artist Jean-Claude Van Damme.

Bobby Rae, Patrick Rolo/Malibu Comics

I remember reading through the Blood and Thunder comic and not realizing it was a ‘what if’ scenario until I had finished it. Small details never made sense, like the official Mortal Kombat 2 tie-in comic from Midway Games in which Raiden says that Liu Kang had killed Shang Tsung … even though Shang Tsung was still alive in the games. I didn’t understand why Scorpion was using his army of the dead to help Shao Kahn, or why Liu Kang had a swanky apartment in Chicago when the Malibu Comics books began.

I resorted to asking kids on the playground about the games, and I began collecting and trafficking in speculation that was mostly lies, although I kept hoping some of it was true or that it would at least soon begin to make some kind of logical sense. There was discussion of mythical nudity codes, and there was always the speculation that Sub-Zero and Scorpion were secretly brothers. My favorite rumor — or maybe it was a theory — was that Michael Jordan was going to be in Mortal Kombat 3. This was almost entirely based on the fact that Sub-Zero, Scorpion, and Reptile were playable in NBA Jam: Tournament Edition. The logic was flawed, but my friends and I were very excited by the possibility.

The creators themselves would hear outlandish rumors. Tobias told me that a friend’s younger brother had “seen” a fatality where Kano killed an opponent by shooting a laser out of his eye. That fatality didn’t exist at the time, and Tobias tried to explain that fact, but it was hard to talk people out of their favorite pet theories and conspiracies.

In a strange case of the tail wagging the dog, that fatality would show up in Mortal Kombat 3.

https://youtube.com/watch?v=xJ47QuwlfIA%3Frel%3D0

Fans were given the first, and best, Mortal Kombat movie in 1995 — and it’s a shame it never got a sequel — that fleshed out some aspects of the story, even if it didn’t jibe completely with what I had learned thus far. But it was the rare opportunity for the franchise to tell a story that made sense and fit into the world of games.

And that happened without much input from the game’s creators.

“We read the initial screenplay, we had conversations back and forth here and there, but we were always so busy working on the next iteration of the game that we didn’t bury ourselves in it, nor did they seek our input as much as we would have hoped,” Tobias told me. But the first movie went a long way toward establishing a set idea of who these people were, and how they fit together as a loose collection of good guys and bad guys.

https://youtube.com/watch?v=JHIfHL5UgFs%3Frel%3D0

Why care at all?

Why obsess over something that seems so ridiculous? Why spend so much time fussing over the story for an arcade game? I don’t have a good answer now, and even Tobias seemed surprised when I discussed the lengths I went to in order to understand the series.

“We were a little bit surprised that [the fans] were so taken by the story,” he said. “So when we would read about them asking questions about this player or that player, the fact that they were so intimate with the stories that we embedded into the game — again, it was just a sentence or two, but yet they would take those things and relate in ways that we hadn’t anticipated with the characters. I think that’s when we thought, wow. We [knew] that the game was popular and players liked playing it, but we didn’t know that they would get so involved with the fiction behind it.”

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Mortal Kombat 11 review

The world has gone through a series of large shifts since the launch of the first Mortal Kombat arcade games. Now the series primarily exists on home consoles, a platform that allows for detailed story modes as well as the simple competitive format of those early games. Characters now have room to speak with each other in cutscenes and narrative moments that go much deeper than the attract mode of arcade games ever allowed. Tobias admitted that he’s a little envious of that approach, but he also doubted it would exist without the ambiguity of the first games.

“Today, because of the capabilities of the newer consoles, you can tell all the fiction you want, and there’s very little left untold,” he said. “I think that’s great. Certainly, if we had the capabilities that we have today back then, we would have utilized it. But because we didn’t, I think it sort of helped build the mysterious qualities of MK, certainly with regards to the stories.”

And now, Mortal Kombat 11 tells a story where the classic characters have an in-universe reason to come back into the franchise to interact with who they have become in the years between the original arcade games and 2019. They argue with themselves and wonder how they could have made the decisions that have taken place in the lore of the games, in a way that connects the dots between many of the classic games and the more modern ones. That universal, single version of the story, the one that moves along a single line, the one that I had chased as a kid — it finally exists.

NetherRealm Studios/Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment

This is my new headcanon, and my younger self isn’t disappointed at all with what the series has become. The latest trilogy hasn’t simply reshaped this incredible thing from my youth. This version was better, it was offering me more of it, and I was still hungry.

Every scene gave me something memorable to overanalyze and speculate about, and it made me feel like a kid. Except this time, there are answers and satisfying conclusions. The creators of the original game built a world that existed more in our imagination than in the game itself, and not even they knew how well that approach would pay off decades later.

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