Since the advent of video games, the hobby was seen as an expensive yet all in all, wholesome, pastime. Kids could play classic games like Space Invaders or Pac-Man at their local arcade and games like Pong and Mario Bros. eventually made their way to the living room come the 1980s. Parents didn’t need to worry about what sort of content their kids were playing, as it was generally mindless fun. Then, in 1992, Mortal Kombat was released.
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Initially released for arcades, Mortal Kombat would become one of the games that would change the game industry forever. Due to the success of Street Fighter II, developer Midway thought they could one-up the arcade champion with their own fighting game. Created by Ed Boon and Josh Tobias, Mortal Kombat followed standard fighting game design: two fighters would face off and engage in martial arts fighting mixed with supernatural elements during timed rounds. There was also a loose story. The heroes of “Earthrealm” would engage villainous foes from Outworld in a deadly tournament called Mortal Kombat to decide the fate of their homeworld. While initially released for arcades, it soon found its way to retail shelves to be purchased for personal video game systems at the time, bringing a level of violence not seen in the medium at the time, right into the living room.
While there was blood in the game, which in of itself was shocking at the time, what really set things in motion were the so-called “fatalities”. When a player would win the best of three rounds, the game would prompt them to complete a fatality, a timed event that got the winner to implement a series of buttons rapidly in order to engage a special finisher. These moves were considered horrifically violent for 1992s standards and the series would only push the boundaries with each subsequent release. What was more gruesome was that the game used digitized sprites of real live actors, which means that the level of violence looked that much more real, as opposed to cartoony and more fantastical. It was over the top, but it was happening to individuals that looked real.
Politicians, naturally, freaked out and parents nearly passed out upon seeing spines being ripped out of people’s bodies. The game’s over-the-top and gruesome violence for the sake of shock value didn’t gel with authorities, who wanted to keep the series away from youngsters, lest they be corrupted by the game’s overall message: that violence is cool and that it will ultimately lead directly to more violent children.
Mortal Kombat was one of three games (the others being Doom and Night Trap) that directly resulted in the creation the Entertainment Software Rating Board, otherwise known as the ESRB. There was such an outcry over the level of violence in these games that there was a special Congressional hearing the United States, which caused the game developers, such as Sega and Nintendo, who were testifying, to consider the ramifications of their medium and thus, the developers offered up a concession to the government in hopes of preventing their games from being shut down: a classification system akin to what the MPAA does for films, which is to prevent the media from being seen by those considered to be too young. The board still operates today, giving a rating to each game released in North America before they hit the shelves in the form of a black and white box on the front cover, with the back label detailing exactly what’s inside of the game. The first Mortal Kombat game would get its MA-17 rating two years after it was initially released while censored versions for home released would be given an MA-13 rating. Ports aside, every Mortal Kombat game has been given a mature rating since the ESRB was established.
To this date, Mortal Kombat is controversial enough that the most subsequent entry gets banned in numerous countries around the world. The most recent entry, 2019’s Mortal Kombat 11, is currently banned in Japan, China, Ukraine and Indonesia. The series as a whole was banned in Germany until 2015, when Mortal Kombat X was released and the 2011 entry, which introduced X-ray moves and high resolution graphics to the series, remains banned in Brazil and South Korea and was unbanned from Australia two years later in 2013 upon the creation of a R18+ classification system.
But despite all this controversy, the series would actually flourish because of it. It was considered dangerous, wild and unlike any on the market and as such, it took only a year for Mortal Kombat II to be released. Since the release of the first game, there has been eleven games in the core series, various spin-offs, three live-action films (including the R-rated 2021 remake), animated films, comics, books and a web series released on YouTube. So while the game remains controversial to this date, with next-gen graphics showcasing X-Ray views of the gruesome attacks and the fatalities becoming more hardcore with each passing game, the franchise doesn’t seem to be slowing down at all. If anything, the series has basked in the blood, gore and controversy and seems to be doing just fine because of it. In fact, violence in video games only increased over the years and while the debate comes up every once in awhile, people seem to be much more forgiving about spines being ripped out of people’s bodies in 2021, than they did in 1993.