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‘Mortal Kombat’: Looking back

| Monday, April 19, 2021


Maggie Klaers | The Observer

With the reboot of “Mortal Kombat” around the corner, it seems fitting to look back at the video game series that inspired the newest film and its cinematic predecessors. This famous video game franchise is infamous for shocking audiences and gamers around the world with its graphic violence and disputed oversexualization of women.

“Mortal Kombat” is the brainchild of video game designers Ed Boon and John Tobias, who began developing the first game in 1991. The creators’ original idea was to create a fighting game starring Jean-Claude Van Damme (as inspired by his film “Bloodsport”). However, the licensing for the movie fell through, and Boon and Tobias ended up making a fantasy-themed fighting game called “Mortal Kombat.” The game — which was released in 1992, hitting arcades around the world — showcased graphic ways to kill off characters. These virtual “kills,” in fact, were so graphic that they resulted in the creation of the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB). Regardless of the game’s rating (it was deemed “mature” by the newly-created ESRB), the game became a huge success, prompting the development of a sequel just a year later. This second entry, aptly named “Mortal Kombat II,” was another success.

The whole video game series centers around a fictional universe containing eighteen “realms.” Residents of these realms must participate in an inter-realm tournament in order to determine the fates of their homes. The game’s main character, Liu Kang, becomes the champion of Earthrealm at the end of the first “Mortal Kombat;” each subsequent game includes some iteration of this original premise (that is, the “Mortal Kombat” tournament), but later plots also feature an invasion storyline involving Earthrealm and Outworld, another of the game’s six main realms.

The games feature a colorful roster of characters that are very memorable even to this day. Standouts include Johnny Cage — whose character was inspired by Jean-Claude Van Damme — US Special Forces officer Sonya Blade, warlock Shang Tsung, Scorpion, an undead ninja specter, and Sub-Zero, a cryomancer. As Warner Bros. releases more and more sequels (Midway Games originally owned the franchise but sold it to Warner Bros. in 2009), new characters are constantly being created, all of whom are unique and exciting. The first canonical “Mortal Kombat” game to feature downloadable guest characters from other franchises was the 2011 reboot of the series’ first three games. This game — conveniently named “Mortal Kombat” — features horror icon Freddy Krueger from “A Nightmare on Elm Street” and Kratos from action-adventure video game “God of War.”

The games’ main combat features take after a martial arts style moveset, the term moveset referring to the set of actions which a character can perform. This makes sense, given that the majority of the characters are ninjas and martial artists. However, some characters do have very interesting powers. For example, as an undead ninja specter, Scorpion has the powers of the Netherrealm and fire, and Sub-Zero can conjure ice and manipulate freezing cold temperatures as a cryomancer. However, the one feature that is a staple in “Mortal Kombat” — and the very feature that forced the creation of the ESRB — is the Fatality feature, i.e. the presence of brutal “finishers” that often show gore and blood.

As the series gained a reputation in the video game industry, filmmakers saw a way to take this violent masterpiece and translate it to the big screen. In 1995, New Line Cinema, along with Paul Anderson, brought “Mortal Kombat” to the silver screen. Despite mixed reviews from critics — which can probably be explained by the film’s PG-13 rating, a definite misstep for an adaptation of a game that built its reputation on graphic gore — “Mortal Kombat” became a financial success. The film’s sequel, “Mortal Kombat: Annihilation,” was no more of a critical success than its predecessor, most likely due to shallow characters, the PG-13 rating and mindless fight scenes.

The films and television series based on the “Mortal Kombat” games do not include the violent Fatality “finishers” for which the games are so well known. However, Warner Bros., which announced a reboot for “Mortal Kombat: Annihilation” in 2010, has a chance to right this wrong. The reboot is scheduled to be released this coming Friday on HBOMax. Hopefully, the film will have an R-rating and will feature the kind of graphic violence present in the original games.

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