A Quarter Century of Glorious Video Game Violence | Mortal Kombat II at 25

Mortal Kombat II is a game without a release date. I’m not saying it just appeared one day out of the Nether Realm so that Quan Chi could use it to influence the children of Earth Realm so that they’d rip each other limb from limb and display their foes’ skull and spinal columns as grisly trophies but what better answer is there? More than likely some beefy delivery men in blue coveralls wheeled the arcade machines into the arcades in 1993, someone signed the papers and no one looked back. It’s strange for a number of reasons mainly because of the gaming community’s obsession with it’s past and Mortal Kombat II’s status as one the greatest and most controversial games ever made.

I’m sure if I looked hard enough I’d find the day the massive arcade consoles were shipped out across the world to warp the minds of children and teenagers alike but this piece needed a lead and I’m sticking to it. Mortal Kombat II is a fighting game at heart but whereas a great deal of fighting games like Street Fighter and Tekken relied and still rely on complex combos, juggles and moves to energise and add depth to their gameplay Mortal Kombat never did. It’s a button masher a game that when a requisite number of buttons are pushed your opponent is stunned and you get to pull out their intestines like ribbon from a clown’s sleeve. The most complex thing about Mortal Kombat II was it’s fatalities.

Fatalities were Mortal Kombat II’s iteration of finishing moves and they rapidly became the series’ staple or gimmick. As Sub-Zero you could reach into your opponent’s back and rip out their spine like Predator but if he was sponsored by Klondike. Scorpion could burn his opponents to death. Reptile vomited acid on them. New character Baraka could impale his enemies on his handy arm-swords. Shaolin monk Kung Lao could slice opponents in half with his razor-edged hat. The list goes on and Mortal Kombat II only added to it as well as introducing the infantilising babalities and the heartwarming friendship finishers. But its graphic and gory violence would eventually stab Mortal Kombat and its contemporaries in the back though it never tore out their spines.

Mortal Kombat II was outright banned in Germany and censored in Japan. Within a year of the first game’s release the American rating board – the ESRB – had been set up after Senate committee hearings took white bread America by storm. Public outcry against violence in video games was massive from 1992/3 all the way up to the late 2000s where it eventually died off. But Midway – Mortal Kombat’s developers – never shied away from the controversy or the violence. Instead they doubled down on it.

By this time Mortal Kombat II had an M for Mature rating which is a lot like the 18 rating we see here in Europe. It means: “Stop, do not let children younger than 18 play this game. It contains content that is unsuitable for them.” Of course saying that and putting it into practice are two very different things. It was hard to restrict access to video games especially when they were mostly available in arcades in the early 90s. Not like you can stop a child putting in their hard earned coins and losing to Johnny Cage in their first game. The rating system made these games hard to buy but not hard to play at least while arcades were still popular. Besides without the violence the Mortal Kombat games were just worse versions of Tekken with characters that looked suspiciously like Bruce Lee, Jean Claude Van Damme and several Playboy models.

“Their graphics are so true to life that even the most cartoonish of the fatalities leave a queasy feeling in most stomachs.”

The original Mortal Kombat games were made using live actors filmed on a gray screen. They were then turned into sprites and put onto the game’s animated 2D arenas. The fatalities were animated but they looked real enough to appear as if real people were being burnt, disemboweled and pulped. Eventually Mortal Kombat got rid of this style and switched to the cartoonish graphics it became known for up until Mortal Kombat: Armageddon. Once Armageddon became recognised as the most bloated game in the series longtime developer and creator Ed Boon knew it was time to change.

Mortal Kombat was released in 2010 and designed as a kind of retroactive continuity for the entire series. The character roster was cleaved in two and the graphics became much more lifelike, almost too lifelike. Mortal Kombat and its 2015 sequel Mortal Kombat X are the closest stylistically to the original two games. Their graphics are so true to life that even the most cartoonish of the fatalities leave a queasy feeling in most stomachs. They have little of the simplicity of the early games but they make up for that with excessive detail. The violence is so lifelike in both its visuals and sound design that it borders on the kind of gore-porn that Eli Roth would watch with a tear in his eye.

Viewer discretion is advised for the below trailer.

Mortal Kombat II defined the extreme limits of video game violence. It made us understand what kind of violence was fun and what was not. Many games have tried to emulate this kind of violence and nearly all have failed. Violence is just upsetting without actually earning it. The Postal games and Soldier of Fortune series never could attain the level of credibility and clout the Mortal Kombat series had no matter what claims of politics or satire they made. Mortal Kombat remains the pinnacle of video game violence as enjoyable entertainment and Mortal Kombat II bears most of the responsibility for that, good or ill.


Featured Image Credit.

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