Mortal Memories

First released to video arcades in 1992, the original Mortal Kombat was something of a cultural watershed. Copies of the notoriously bloody fighting game hit suburban living rooms the next year like morally transgressive cluster bombs. Soon, future Presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman was convening the Congressional hearings that would result in the creation of the ESRB. Despite his efforts, all the hand-wringing about Mortal Kombat’s incarnadine action and gruesome “Fatalities” had the same result hand-wringing always has: the game sold like green beer on St. Patrick’s day.

Nor could one iteration contain the public lust for motion-capture carnage. The franchise has — to date — spawned 8 sequels and numerous spin-offs, including a 1995 motion picture that is A. surprisingly good and B. mostly remembered for it’s distinctive, electronic theme song. 2011′s tersely titled “Mortal Kombat” hopes to drum up fresh interest in the series, along with, well, fresh blood.

When chronicling the life of an average North American boy in the early nineties, the impact of Mortal Kombat cannot be overstated. The game’s many catchphrases — “Finish Him! Flawless Victory! Test Your Might! Get OOOVER Here!” — were a playground staple. Experience playing the game in the arcade could fast-track you to hushed conversational veneration. Owning a copy made you the elementary school equivalent of a rock star who was also a part-time astronaut.

Looking back, its clear that the game’s profound effect on a generation’s childhood has been sullied and overshadowed by Mortal Kombat’s seemingly endless parade of shoddy sequels. To redress that unfortunate reality, we’ve asked three GameFront writers to hearken back to the days of thumb blisters, Game Genie, and the seven enigmatic kombatants that would change gaming forever.

Ben Richardson’s Memory

My parents were not video game friendly. If a game was allowed on our family PC, it was likely a game that “Teaches Typing,” and even then, better Mavis than Mario. The household antipathy towards console entertainment systems was a subsection of the condemnation directed towards our extremely humble TV set, whose use was expressly forbidden, except in extenuating circumstances, like the Super Bowl.

Playdates with friends offered a window into another world — a world of interactive entertainment. Towering stacks of cartridges beckoned me in “family rooms” and “dens” across the D.C. metropolitan area; each sojourn seemed like a race against time as I endeavored to gorge myself on gaming before Mom’s inexorable Volvo could intercede.

Through a combination of petulance and divine intervention (a.k.a. my grandmother’s unlikely but nonetheless potent Tetris addiction), I was at last furnished with a GameBoy. I had Tetris, of course — what parent could object? — and the wholesome, unnecessarily difficult Mario Baseball. What I really wanted more than anything, however, was Mortal Kombat. I had watched in silent awe as my friends ripped hearts from breasts and spines from necks, convinced that I was somehow ineffably “in trouble” for having witnessed sights so simultaneously unsettling and exciting. I made a variety of entreaties as birthdays (mine, Jesus’) came and went, all of them rebuffed. Too violent, my parents said. Too much blood. Didn’t they get it? The profusion of blood was exactly the reason I had to have it! Stymied, I resigned myself to life as a Mortal Kombat-less loser.

Soon after, when I was a solid nine-and-a-half, my family was suddenly uprooted. My father, a professor, would be spending a year on a fellowship in Berlin, and we were to accompany him. I would have to leave my friends (and their video games) behind. Though the experience of living in a foreign country was not without its many merits, it was a difficult adjustment for all of us. American groceries and English-language books were hard to come by. My teacher at the bilingual school was named Frau Praetorius, and she took to her job instructing 5th graders with same kind of iron discipline that her ancestors no doubt applied to guarding Roman emperors.

Though they were careful not to stoke the fires of my alienation, my parents were watching, sympathetic. Despite their low regard for violence generally and video game violence specifically, they knew their son. My face on Christmas day, as I unwrapped the GameBoy version of Mortal Kombat II, must have been quite the sight. Moments after, the first of many harpoon-exploiting trips to the top of the tournament ladder commenced, with a tiny, black-and-white “Scorpion Wins” dancing on the screen. I love my parents, but I may not ever love them as much as I did on December 25th, 1994.

Mark Burnham’s Memory

Time: circa 1992. Location: Scandia family fun center in Fairfield, CA. Age: 10. Scandia was one of those places with a whole planet of fun things to do: a miniature golf course, go karts, batting cages — but none of these things even mattered. Distractions, all of them. The beating heart of Scandia was quite obviously — and literally — its arcade. In grade school circles, Scandia was renowned for this arcade, an Emerald City of electric joy, pumping fast and strong through ventricles like Street Fighter II, Star Wars (the one where you dog fight in an X-Wing), and X-Men (the arcade game),

So, it’s 1992, I’m there with a friend for his birthday, and it’s “time to leave,” according to his dad. I have one quarter left, so I walk over to a cabinet well outside the arcade’s epicenter — it’s as if the arcade is embarrassed by this particular game. It’s something called “Mortal Kombat.” I understand what the deal is. I put a quarter in, I select one of these fighters, and I try and beat the sh!t out of whoever my opponent is. I pick, of course, Scorpion. It appears I’m fighting a girl, Sonya Blade.

My thoughts sort of go like this: “wow, this is so real! It’s like they filmed real people fighting! What are the buttons?! Wow there’s blood! So much beautiful blood!” I don’t know any of the buttons, but I don’t care. This was a breakthrough, that much was obvious. It was adult, gratuitous, and yet childlike, like the satisfaction of destroying sand castles. That bleed.

And then the part comes that blows my mind. I somehow manage to button-mash my way to victory over Sonya Blade, but she isn’t down yet. A voice says to me, “Finish Him!” I’m supposed to deal some sort of death blow?! I do not know any regular combos of any kind, let alone a fatality combo (in years to come, this knowledge would become requisite for 10-12 year-olds) The end is sadly, infuriatingly inert. I think I just punched Sonya Blade, and that was that.

This is when I notice my friend’s dad is behind me, watching. I felt a strange feeling, something like a mixture of shame and unbearable annoyance. I knew this man to be a very strict, very conservative dad. He was horrified. He made it clear that we were leaving. I reasoned: “I won, though. I’m still going.” It mattered not to this man. What a sad, confused man, to make such a decision. I think I walked out of the arcade backwards, watching Scorpion get his ass handed to him, defenseless.

So many questions! What are the button combos? Where do you even find such important knowledge? What magazine would have them? What are fatalities? What are these other characters like?

C.J. Miozzi’s Memory

Test your might. I recall the furious button-mashing when this mini-game would pop up between battles — then again, it wasn’t entirely unlike the furious button-mashing during actual Kombat. As much as I loved Mortal Kombat, I was never really good at it — the two weapons in my arsenal were Scorpion’s harpoon and random button mashing, which worked surprisingly well against human opponents, but left fluid-filled blisters on my thumbs. Back then, the winner wouldn’t be the player who won the most rounds, but the player who could outlast his adversary. As the hours would tick by, blisters would pop, reform on the pruned skin beneath, and pop again, spilling blister-fluid down the controllers until one player could no longer take the pain.

There was an elegant simplicity to the cast of the original Mortal Kombat: the American, Metal-Face, the Girl, Bruce Lee, Lightning Guy, Blue Ninja, and Yellow Ninja. It was those last two that really captured my imagination and anchored a love of ninjas that would last throughout the MK series — helped, no doubt, by the mini comic book included with the game manual that hinted at the history between Sub-Zero and Scorpion.

It was that adversarial back story that made the Scorpion versus Sub-Zero battles the most exciting for me — these weren’t just two guys fighting to win a tournament; this was about revenge.

Wait, did I just… I did, didn’t it? I just applauded Mortal Kombat for its storyline.

Maybe it was just my young, impressionable mind being whisked away into a fantasy universe where warriors launched fireballs, ice blasts, and lightning bolts, or maybe it was because this was the first video game I ever played, but to this day, the original Mortal Kombat characters resonate with me in a way that few other video game characters do.

Back, back, low punch.

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