The violent history of Mortal Kombat moral panic

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A typical 'fatality' from the 1990s Mortal Kombat game
A typical 'fatality' from the 1990s Mortal Kombat game

With one punch, Daniel Pesina’s head was separated from his body. It flew through the air. Behind twinkled an arc of pixelated blood.

“Holy cow!” blurted Pesina. “You just killed me! You can’t do that.”

Seated alongside, Mortal Kombat lead developer Ed Boon smiled. “We can do whatever we want,” he said.

Pesina was a martial arts expert with dreams of cracking Hollywood (he played one of Shredder’s henchmen in Teenager Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze). Now he was on the brink of immortality. All thanks to his starring role in developer Midway’s new martial arts video game, in which, courtesy of the wonders of digitisation, Pesina portrayed fighters Johnny Cage, Sub-Zero and Scorpion.

But Mortal Kombat quickly became more than another game as it was unleashed on the world in October 1992. It was a brick lobbed through the window of an industry that previously had run scared of gore and adult content.

And 30 years later, it remains one of the most popular franchises in gaming. The point is proved with the release this week of a new Mortal Kombat movie. But Mortal Kombat’s popularity is entwined with its notoriety. It ventured where other video games had not dared by sparking a moral panic. And it all went back to that first hidden move smuggled in by Boon by which players, by pressing the correct combination of buttons, could knock Daniel Pesina’s noggin clean off.

“It was like 'oh you don’t want us to make video games like this? How about we turn it up to 11 and make it worse than anything you can imagine',” Ernest Cline, author of geek-culture bestseller Ready Player One, said of Midway and Mortal Kombat in the 2020 documentary Insert Coin.

Midway, which went out of business in 2010, was gaming’s version of the Sex Pistols, said Cline. If that was the case, then Mortal Kombat was the Chicago-based corporation's God Save The Queen: a title that scandalised adults, thrilled teens and left an indelible imprint.

Moral panics are as old as popular culture itself. Comic books were decried as harbingers of civilisation’s collapse in the Forties. A decade later, rock ’n roll was hailed as the devil’s music. In the Eighties, parents feared nerdy role playing game Dungeons and Dragons was leading their children down the path to depravity – which, as anyone familiar with D&D could have told you, was quite a stretch.

And then came Mortal Kombat – a block rocking smash that pushed the envelope for video console violence and then used the same envelope to slice off your head.

The ability to swipe a foe’s cranium clean off was just one of the “Fatalities” Boon and co-developer John Tobias smuggled into Mortal Kombat. Some were more “Fatal” than others. Sub-Zero’s “spine-rip” did exactly what it said on the tin. Scorpion set his enemies ablaze. The one consistent was the special kills were as disgusting as technology of the time permitted.

A Baraka fatality from Mortal Kombat 1
A Baraka fatality from Mortal Kombat 1

Disgusting – and, as it turned out, controversial. Video game graphics were becoming increasingly realistic – especially for the arcade “coin-ops” cabinets for which Mortal Kombat was initially developed. Yet in hand with such advancements a spotlight was turning on an industry previously dismissed as mere purveyor of distractions for children.

Midway already had a sense of the coming storm when they put out an arcade adaptation of Terminator 2. As the Terminator, the character has to shoot multiple police – though, as in the movie, the T-800 zaps the legs. That didn’t stop the company being grilled by journalists about their “cop killer” game.

But, as per its Sex Pistols image, Midway looked on the typhoon of publicity as positive rather than negative. They felt the same in 1993 when American congressman and future Vice Presidential candidate Joe Lieberman instituted congressional hearings into video game violence. He focused in particular focus on Mortal Kombat.

“The game narrator instructs the player to 'finish' his opponent,” said Lieberman. “The player may then chose a method of murder ranging from ripping the heart out to pulling off the head of the opponent with spinal chord attached.”

This was either a damning indictment of Mortal Kombat – or the best advertisement for which a video game company could wish. “Many companies would shudder when they see their product talked about in an unfavourable light by a US senator,” said Neil Nicastro, Midway’s hard-charging chief executive. “I personally delighted in it. Every time someone was making a big deal in the press… we saw the sales of the home product jump up.”

Mortal Kombat had by then made the transition from the arcade to home consoles. The 1993 Washington hearings had actually come about after the son of Lieberman’s chief-of-staff asked his dad to buy him Mortal Kombat for the Sega Saturn (the Sega Genesis in the US). His father was appalled – as was Lieberman when shown the game

“In the arcade, there were no parents walking around, so they had no idea,” Josh Tsui, former Midway Games artist and director of Insert Coin told Polygon. “When MK came home, what was a secret for the kids is now in the family room. Parents of that generation were thinking arcades were still cute games like Pac Man and Donkey Kong, so this was going to be a shock.”

Nicastro was right: violence and moral panic served only to help Mortal Kombat’s bottom line. The extent to which the bone-crunching and spine-removal were bound up in the popularity of the game was illustrated by the diverging sales of the Nintendo and Sega versions.

Nintendo, mindful of its family-friendly image, had vetoed the “Fatalities” and insisted the blood be turned to sweat. Sega, by contrast, green-lit a special mode that recreated the savagery of the arcade version. It outsold Nintendo 10 to one.

Political outrage over Mortal Kombat led to the creation in the US of the first ever official video game age ratings system, as set down by the new Entertainment Software Ratings Board. But the crackdown did little to dampen Midway’s appetite for gore. If anything, it ratcheted it up further in the years to come.

Players, for their parts, went to increasingly extreme lengths to uncover these hidden “Fatality” moves. Entire Wikipedia pages devoted to special moves would eventually spring up; on YouTube, one video detailing the secret moves of the Johnny Cage character alone runs to 15 minutes. Mashing buttons in the correct order had become a secret alchemy.

Mortal Kombat’s literal overkill could be tacky – even allowing for the over-the-top humour integral to MK experience. One secret combo in 2015’s Mortal Kombat X, for instance, allows the player hold an opponent’s head to the ground as a blade saws the foe’s skull open and their brains flop out.

A typically subtle fatality from Mortal Kombat X
A typically subtle fatality from Mortal Kombat X

It’s disgusting and breaks a cardinal rule of gaming by taking you out of the action. Instead you are aware the developer –Mortal Kombat rights having passed on to Warner Brothers – is merely trying to provoke.

We can tut all we wish. The game designers know what they are doing. In 2011, a rebooted Mortal Kombat was banned in Germany, Australia, Japan, Indonesia and elsewhere for its grotesque violence (more slicing heads, extra oozing brain). Four years later, Mortal Kombat X was the franchise’s fastest selling entry to date.

And yet it feels telling that, while recent Mortal Kombats have amped up the bloodshed, they have had sub-zero impact on the wider culture. In the 21st century it takes more than a video game with exploding jugulars to whip people into a panic. The situation was clearly very different in 1992, when brutal beat ‘em ups were perceived as genuinely threatening public morals.

“TV ads partly fuelled it,” Paul WS Anderson, director of the original 1995 Mortal Kombat movie, has said. “They emphasised gangs of young kids running around the streets screaming 'Mortal Kombat'. I think parents felt there was a revolution about to happen.”