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Mortal Kombat - A Book Excerpt from Replay: The History of Video Games
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Mortal Kombat - A Book Excerpt from Replay: The History of Video Games

June 10, 2010 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 5 Next

The events that led to the Senate's inquiry began back in 1991 when artist John Tobias and programmer Ed Boon, who worked for Chicago-based arcade game manufacturer Midway, started thinking about their next project. Street Fighter II had just become the biggest arcade hit for years and Midway wanted a fighting game of its own. "We were fans of head-to-head arcade games and their appeal to the arcade crowd," said Tobias. "I was also a huge geek for Hong Kong martial arts cinema and was looking for an excuse to use some of those influences."

Having agreed to create Midway's answer to Street Fighter II, the pair started debating how they could make their game -- Mortal Kombat -- stand out from Capcom's landmark game. "A big goal of mine was to differentiate the visual qualities of Mortal Kombat from any of the other 'fighting' products out there. It was important for players to look at Mortal Kombat and know immediately that it was, at the very least, different," said Tobias.

The arcades were already overflowing with fighting games and some arcade owners were already tiring of them.

"We purchased fighting games when they first came out, but after a while we stopped buying them," said Bob Lawton, founder of New Hampshire arcade Funspot. "The sequels were coming out at a pace we couldn't keep up with and as soon as a new version was released, no-one wanted to play the older one."

Tobias hit on the idea of using digitized footage of real-life actors, an approach that had already been used in a small number of coin-op games, such as Williams' Narc and Atari Games' fighting game Pit-Fighter.

"We thought that by using the digitizing technique we could achieve a high level of detail, given the size of the on-screen characters in an expedited amount of time," he explained. The team hired actors to play out the roles of their virtual fighters in the game and, after some touching up, imported their images into the game.

Aside from the digitized characters, Mortal Kombat did not stray far from the Street Fighter II formula, sticking to Capcom's combination of secret moves, two-player action, and tactical brawling. Until they started testing it, that is. "There was an anti-climactic moment at the end that created the opportunity to do something cool," said Tobias. "We wanted to put a big exclamation point at the end by letting the winner really rub his victory in the face of the loser. Once we saw the player reaction, the fact that they enjoyed it and were having fun, we knew it was a good idea."

The "exclamation points" Tobias and Boon came up with were a selection of gory takedowns that could be enacted using secret button and joystick combinations when the game urges the player to "finish" their defeated opponent. Tobias and Boon called these gruesome finishing moves "Fatalities". "We certainly weren't out to cause controversy. We were out to serve the needs of our players and make sure that they enjoyed themselves while playing -- that was our number one goal all of the time," said Tobias.

And enjoy themselves they did. Mortal Kombat became the hottest game in the arcades since Street Fighter II, as players fought each other in the hope of delivering a brutal fatality move to their crushed opponent. With Mortal Kombat taking the arcades by storm it was only a matter of time before it arrived on the home consoles.

Acclaim Entertainment snapped up the rights and converted the game to both the Sega Genesis and Super NES. Sega approved the game complete with the violence from the arcade original, but Nintendo was more squeamish and insisted the fatalities were removed. Acclaim told the Japanese giant that the fatalities were the selling point and removing them would give Sega the superior game. Nintendo refused to change its mind and Acclaim grudgingly cut the gore from the Super NES edition.

With the home console versions of Midway's arcade smash ready, Acclaim prepared one of the biggest game launches ever seen at that point. The company declared that the launch day, Monday 13th September 1993, was "Mortal Monday" and lavished $10 million on TV advertising to ram home Mortal Kombat's arrival in U.S. homes.

Children and teenagers across the nation were inspired to start urging their parents to buy them a copy. One of them was the nine-year-old son of Bill Anderson, the chief of staff for Lieberman. Anderson was shocked at the violence in the game and told Lieberman about his son's request for a copy. Lieberman decided to check it out for himself. He too was shocked at a game that he saw as rewarding players for violent acts. He delved further into the video games on sale in the shops and found Night Trap, one of the first games released on CD-ROM.

Night Trap began life back in the late 1980s as part of Axlon and Hasbro's abandoned VHS videocassette console, the NEMO. After the NEMO project collapsed, Axlon co-founder Tom Zito managed to recover the rights to the game and formed a development studio called Digital Pictures to bring the game out on the Sega CD, an add-on for the Sega Genesis that hosted some of the first games to be released on compact disc.

The goal of the game was to protect a group of teenage girls at a slumber party by setting traps for vampires. Lieberman felt the scenes where the partygoers were dragged off by the vampires were sexist; particularly a scene where a woman dressed in a nightgown is attacked in the bathroom.

After finding out that most console owners were under 16 and that most of the parents in Connecticut who he spoke to knew nothing about the content of the video games their children played, he decided to act. The violent games Lieberman had homed in on were exceptions, but they justified the unease about video games that many parents felt. It was a distrust that reflected the historical pattern of new forms of media or entertainment being viewed -- at least initially -- with suspicion.

Such reactions to new forms of media could be seen in Greek philosopher Plato's criticisms of theatre and Hollywood's "sin city" image during the late 1920s and 1930s. As British psychologist Dr Tanya Byron noted in 'Safer Children in a Digital World', her 2008 report for the UK government: "The current debates on the 'harms' of video games and the internet are the latest manifestations of a long tradition of concerns relating to the introduction of many new forms of media."

It was a suspicion that had even caused games such as Lemmings, a 1991 puzzle game created by Scottish game studio DMA Design, to face criticism. The game was a play on the popular myth that the rodents regularly commit mass suicide by jumping off cliffs. It charged players with trying to save the creatures by leading them to safety while bouncy renditions of tunes such as "How Much Is That Doggy in the Window?" played in the background.

But the inclusion of levels where the lemmings had to avoid rivers of lava and negotiate volcanic rocks before jumping into the fiery mouth of a demon to escape prompted one southern U.S. TV station to call for the game to be banned for its satanic imagery.

But such criticism was not just about video games. The early 1990s were a time when fears about violence in society were particularly high on the U.S. political agenda. Congress was debating whether to restrict violent TV programming and a new gun control law, the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, was about to be signed into law by President Bill Clinton.

Other nations also shared America's unease about Mortal Kombat. Germany's youth media watchdog the Bundesprüfstelle für Jugendgefährdende Medien banned the game outright in 1994 for its extreme violence. Until then the only games outlawed in this way were a bunch of free neo-Nazi propaganda games that started circulating around Germany and Austria at the end of the 1980s. [2]


[2] These racist and anti-Semitic games were not released commercially, but distributed for free and, apparently, quite widely. One newspaper poll of Austrian students reported that 22 per cent of students had encountered these games, which included concentration camp management games and quizzes testing how Aryan the player was. The Bundesprüfstelle für Jugendgefährdende Medien banned seven such games between 1987 and 1990. 

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