Controversial Games: Mortal Kombat
Posted by Surface Lizard on Monday, 21st March, 2011
As a gamer, there are certain key loci of memory that resonate amongst us, like some form of Jungian collective unconscious. The first time we saw a home computer running Space Invaders, or an Ultimate game. Our first time in an amusement arcade, surrounded by screaming machines of beautiful graphics. The first time we turned on a ‘next gen’ console, and saw WipEout, or Super Mario 64 in action. Our first online gaming experience. The first time we saw a Mortal Kombat fatality. I remember it well. It was 1993. The Lizard was studying for his A levels. A friend told me, breathless and incoherent, about a new fighting game that had materialised in the city arcade; in which you could dismember people. I was already weary of the sterile freakshow of Street Fighter 2, and I was curious to see if my friend was just rendering gushing hyperbole. I found the Mortal Kombat machine brazenly on display at the front of the arcade, about which a crowd of slack-jawed, fellow student voyeurs had already amassed. Two ninja characters, represented in vivid, digitised graphics, were fighting on a narrow walkway. Blood poured from each punch. The ninja in blue (Sub Zero, obviously) won, and the words ‘FINISH HIM!’ appeared on the screen, accompanied with a booming, stentorian command. The blue ninja performed a solid uppercut, and the yellow ninja (Scorpion) fell into the pit, plummeting and landing upon spikes, impaled and screaming, with the severed heads of former combatants for company. This was grisly, brilliant stuff indeed…
Gamers adored Mortal Kombat . Parents, the blinkered religious right and the U.S. Congress took a rather more authoritarian take on the violence of Mortal Kombat . Until the brash arrival of Mortal Kombat , fighting games had been placidly violent affairs, little more than Tom and Jerry fisticuffs, without blood and viscera. Mortal Kombat set a new paradigm for mature content in a commercial game. Each connection splattered gouts of red blood, and the fatalities, arguably a gimmick more than a gameplay element, were vicious and wholly theatrical in their entertainment: heads exploded in Scanners fashion, hearts were ripped out, heads and spinal cords were pulled off, and opponents were immolated to the bones. Mortal Kombat was an audacious title, designed to appeal to just the demographic who would probably be banned from playing it.
Rather perversely, Mortal Kombat remained firmly beneath the radar of censure when it was purely an arcade title. It was only when the home versions inevitably appeared, released on the infamous Mortal Monday, and pushed with a Hollywood-style marketing extravaganza (as well as a rather dubious television spot of some bellowing youth) that the media, smelling a front page exclusive of ‘shock horror’ witch hunting and auto da fe, attacked the game as exposing children to depravity and violence. Conveniently ignoring all of the equal violence they are exposed to via comics, television and cinema. Mortal Kombat was a landmark title in more ways than simple controversy. It motivated legislation. The Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) was founded at the end of 1993, to offset the campaigning of Senators Lieberman and Kohl. from that point onwards, all released titles had to carry an age rating, to advise content.
No mention of Mortal Kombat is complete without a comparison of the Mega Drive and the SNES versions of the game. I purchased it for the Amiga, being a disgraceful nonconformist who disliked consoles back then. The Mega Drive version, encompassing the typical Sega attitude of non-compromise, was the definitive version for the home player, with none of the content whatsoever edited or truncated. The SNES version, however, fell afoul of the Nintendo sanitised ethos, and the blood was replaced by what was either sweat, or semen, and the fatalities were utterly changed for almost parody versions, inoffensive to all but the most delicate child, Unsurprisingly, the Mega Drive version outsold the SNES one by a significant margin. And Nintendo introduced all of the bloody beauty for Mortal Kombat 2.