From Arcade to Blockbuster: How 'Mortal Kombat' Set the Bar for 30 Years of Fighting Games
Mortal Kombat has been a household name for my entire life. Erupting onto the scene back in 1992, few video game franchises have stayed relevant for so many years. With the blazing hot Mortal Kombat 11 topping the charts this week, there seems to be no end in sight. When I asked Ed Boon, co-creator of the 27-year-old franchise, if he originally foresaw it sticking around for as long as it has, there was a short pause in our phone conversation, and then a perfectly timed, “Absolutely.” After that, we both broke out laughing. Boon went on to say, “No, not at all,” telling me that the old days of Midway Studios in the '90s were such a “fast, intense” period that no one had any thought of a sequel, “let alone have it last for 20-something years.”
Many classic franchises try to keep up with the ever-shifting landscape of the industry, but few avoid getting uppercutted into the spiky pits of obscurity. Marvel vs. Capcom, for instance, has been in the zeitgeist for years, its latest title, Marvel vs. Capcom Infinite, disappointed fans with a conceptually uninspired art style, and worse, a story mode that felt hollow and factory-produced. Needless to say, Mortal Kombat outperformed Boon’s modest expectations—and the industry's. “In most series, their first couple of titles are their biggest selling ones, and then everything goes down from there. [Mortal Kombat 9] sold more than any previous game until [Mortal Kombat X] came along,” he says.
According to the longtime director, who always gets final cut on his projects and has outlasted almost all of his studio-head contemporaries, the secret ingredient to Mortal Kombat’s success year after year, sequel after sequel, is change. “One of the reasons why we think we’ve managed to stick around for so long is not only are we not afraid to change up our formula, change features and what not, but we strive for that. We strive to make the next game be different than the previous one," he says.
And the industry has changed too since the arcade era of Mortal Kombat 1.
Boon, who is 55 years old, wasn’t even 30 when MK1 premiered back in ‘92. After graduating from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the 20-something began programming pinball machines at Williams Electronics, which would soon become Midway Studios. It was there that Boon met John Tobias, who was working on a cartoonishly bloody arcade game called Smash TV. The two had the idea to use “digitizing” technology to photograph real people for sprites in a fighting game, and thus, Mortal Kombat was born. The first title, which was originally developed for the arcade, would soon explode into teenagers' bedrooms across America with ports on the Sega Genesis, Super Nintendo, and handhelds, with Boon as lead programmer and Tobias as lead designer.
“When they make a movie out of a video game, that’s always a sign that this is expanding past just the video game industry to overall entertainment or pop culture.”
By 1995, Mortal Kombat had become one of the biggest and the most controversial video games of all time. It had three hugely successful titles, a blockbuster movie, and a chokehold on the industry so tight that the U.S. government had to institute a rating system just to keep up with the gore. Boon says, at this point, it became “obvious” that MK was more than just an arcade game. “I think when they make a movie out of a video game," he says, "that’s always a sign that this is expanding past just the video game industry to overall entertainment or pop culture.”
And expand Mortal Kombat did, but not without facing some prickly obstacles. By the year 2000, Boon told me that things were looking “bleak.” The series had jumped into the 3D space with the wobbly Mortal Kombat 4 and had begun to churn out some very poorly received spinoff titles. Tobias, Boon’s longtime collaborator and friend, had left the team in 1999, leaving the production of the next title, Mortal Kombat: Special Forces, as a “ship without a rudder kind of thing.” Boon was not involved in that spinoff, and when it was released for the PS1, it flopped. Today, Special Forces stands as one of the biggest embarrassments of the franchise, but it did emphasize a gameplay element that would prove to be essential to the series' success in years to come: a fully formed single-player experience.
The first Mortal Kombat game to be released without Tobias was the award-winning Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance. It won back fans by introducing the new mechanic of multiple fighting styles for each character, troves of new fighters, a 3D fighting plane, and, most significantly, a devoted single player mode. Despite seemingly overhauling the entire franchise with this title, Boon maintains that Deadly Alliance was simply Mortal Kombat shifting along with the industry: “It was just continuing the sequel pattern of: Each game introduces a new feature, each game introduces new characters, usually a new graphic engine...or a leap forward in technology for presentation.” But while Boon was able to keep Mortal Kombat hip to the technological advancements of the medium as it entered yet another console generation, his publisher, Midway Studios, was a different story.
At the end of the first decade of the new millennium, Midway Studios filed for bankruptcy. As other publishers snapped up teams from the Chicago-based studio, Boon was flying around the world to find a new home for Mortal Kombat. Amidst the chaos, a new MK game was in production. Somehow, this period of change turned out to be the greatest creative renaissance for the franchise to date. “For me personally, [this period was about] focusing on the game," Boons says. "Whatever my involvement with the dissolving of Midway, [it was about] focusing on keeping the team intact, not breaking us up, and finishing our game. Doing all those things at the same time and looking for a new home. That was a really challenging year there.” Despite being dropped by Midway and then adopted by Warner Bros. during production, the ninth Mortal Kombat game, released in 2011, became the most successful title in the franchise’s history to date.
Boon says what separates Mortal Kombat from the rest of the crowded fighting game market is that the series has always had a rich lore. That story element is front and center in Mortal Kombat 11—as it has been since the series developed a single-player focus back in the early 2000s—so much so that the game itself resembles something of an eight-hour blockbuster superhero movie. In a time when cinematic universes are all the rage, it’s no wonder that Boon’s team turned its focus to a big-screen feel. “As the media for making these games became bigger and bigger in terms of how much we could store, suddenly we could tell more elaborate stories," he says. "That escalated to the point where we’re telling stories in the format that we are right now, which is pretty much movie presentation, and the player participates in the fights.”
Playing through the first few hours of the Mortal Kombat 11 story mode, Boon's mention of the single player experience being "escalated" and "elaborate" feels like an understatement. A lot of games have thorough cinematic sequences, and Mortal Kombat X really proved the depth of this decades-old franchise's lore, but MK11 is something else. We're watching a grand opera between bouts of grizzly hand-to-hand combat, a filmic story being told at the largest scale the industry has ever seen. Just as the NetherRealm team adheres to the changing of the industry, a story mode like this is bound to work in the other direction, forcing the rest of the industry to adjust its course to keep up.
“Do you ever get tired of Mortal Kombat?” I asked Boon towards the end of our conversation. “You’re probably the hundredth person who’s asked that. Honestly, in the future, yeah, absolutely we’d love to try something new,” he replied, mentioning the massively successful DC Universe Injustice games that his team produces in between Mortal Kombat titles. But while that side-franchise is gaining a dedicated fanbase and earning respect from a fighting game community that is not easy to please, it doesn’t seem like Boon will be done with MK anytime soon. By the time his team finishes an Injustice production, Boon says, they’re too excited to return to Mortal Kombat, because they’ve “thought of new ideas of what we can do to make it even better.”
It's hard to imagine what the perfect Mortal Kombat game will look like. MK11 certainly seems close. But I wouldn't be surprised if Ed Boon continues to strive for perfection, even if it takes him another three decades to be satisfied. For a franchise that spends so much time in the boiling depths of hell, it is soaring into stratospheric heights, well beyond its humble beginnings.
This story originally appeared on Esquire.com. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.