Decades after its multi-system release, Mortal Kombat has become a gaming icon. Spanning more than a dozen games, two theatrical films, and an endless extended universe of comic book literature, the original Mortal Kombat remains one of gaming’s most influential titles. How well do you know the background and facts about fighting games’ ultimate tournament?
1. Mortal Kombat was created by only four people in 10 months.
In 1991, Midway Games wrangled programmer Ed Boon, then 27, and comic book artist John Tobias, then 22, to conceive and create a fighting arcade game that would be ready for release in 10 months. Boon and Tobias rounded out their team with artist John Vogel and sound designer Dan Forden.
2. Mortal Kombat was originally based around Jean-Claude Van Damme.
According to Tobias, the game started when the producers of Universal Soldier came and asked Midway Games to create a game based on the movie. But Midway thought it would be more fun if they licensed Jean-Claude Van Damme on his own, making a grittier game more like Van Damme’s Bloodsport. But that deal fell through, eventually moving the martial arts tournament to the fictional planet of Earthrealm.
3. Jean-Claude Van Damme maintained his presence in the final cut.
Still hoping to capitalize on Van Damme’s image as the epitomic action movie persona of the time (and in order to “spoof the whole Van Damme situation”), the pair wound up modeling popular Mortal Kombat playable character Johnny Cage—in appearance, backstory, and personality (the character is a notoriously narcissistic Hollywood actor), and initials—after Van Damme.
4. Big Trouble in Little China was a prominent source of inspiration.
Two Mortal Kombat characters were modeled after villains in the 1986 John Carpenter movie. The game’s thunder god, Raiden, took visual inspiration from the movie’s assassin trio, “The Three Storms” (played by Carter Wong, Peter Kwong, and James Pax), while Mortal Kombat boss Shang Tsung resembles the film’s big bad sorcerer, Lo Pan (played by James Hong). Designer John Tobias has said that these influences were an homage to Big Trouble because the premise of both the movie and the game were “kind of a mashup between a mythological eastern world and a western world grounded more in reality.”
5. Coming up with a name for the game took six months.
Mortal Kombat didn’t have a name for more than half of the development period; every suggestion for a title was allegedly detested by at least one of the four designers. Names that didn’t make the cut included Kumite (which refers to a hand-based section of karate training), Dragon Attack, Death Blow, and Fatality.
6. An outsider came up with the final title.
Pinball and game designer Steve Ritchie, a friend of Boon’s, came up with the name Mortal Kombat on a whim upon catching a glance of a misspelled “kombat” on the latter’s drawing board during a visit to his office.
7. Some of the Mortal Kombat “actors” have impressive resumes.
Just about every character in the original Mortal Kombat game was derived from a motion-capture performance by one of five actors: Korean-American actor Ho-Sung Pak played both game hero Liu Kang and big boss Shang Tsung; England-born Elizabeth Malecki played Sonya Blade; Chicagoan Richard Divizio played Kano; fellow Windy City native Carlos Pesina played Raiden; and the latter’s older brother Dan handled the lion’s share, portraying Johnny Cage, Scorpion, Sub-Zero, and Reptile. (Additionally, the corpses lining the Pit Bottom level are played by the game’s four creators.)
Ho-Sung has the most extensive filmography of the bunch, with well-known titles including the Jackie Chan favorite The Legend of Drunken Master, Epoch of Lotus, the Christian Slater film Alone in the Dark, and the 2012 remake of Red Dawn.
8. Only one Mortal Kombat character wasn't portrayed by a live actor.
In contrast to his human-portrayed counterparts, the big boss Goro (a four-armed human-dragon hybrid inspired by the lore of Sinbad the Sailor) was the result of stop-motion photography of a clay figure designed by sculptor Curt Chiarelli.
9. Liu Kang started out with a different identity.
Earlier drafts of the Mortal Kombat hero designed him as a Japanese warrior called Minamoto Yoshitsune. Tobias told Electronic Gaming Monthly in 1995 that the crew couldn’t “deal with the name,” so they opted for the shorter “Liu Kang.”
10. Mortal Kombat’s release was one of the biggest video game launches of its time.
Despite the minimal time and resources pumped into the game’s development, the size of its launch was nearly unparalleled. A year after taking original form as an upright arcade game, Mortal Kombat found life via four home systems: Nintendo’s Super NES and Game Boy, and Sega Enterprises’ Sega Genesis and Game Gear. All four versions of the game were released on a heavily marketed “Mortal Monday” on September 13, 1993.
11. Not all versions of Mortal Kombat were the same.
Each home version of the game was marked by a few distinguishing characteristics, intentional or otherwise. The Nintendo variations omitted the presence of blood entirely—replacing it with sweat—and cut down substantially on the violence, while the Sega games allowed for access to these gorier features, though only via cheat code.
12. One version of Mortal Kombat gives a shout-out to Phil Collins.
The aforementioned cheat code needed to allow the presence of blood and gore in the Sega Genesis variation of the game is “ABACABB.” This combination of letters is a reference to Abacab, the 1981 album of Phil Collins’ rock band Genesis (which just so happens to share a name with the gaming system in question).
13. A Belgian rock band formed to bring the Mortal Kombat soundtrack to life.
Following the initial release of Mortal Kombat, Belgian musicians Maurice Engelen (a.k.a. Praga Khan) and Olivier Adams received an offer to develop an album to accompany the game. Although Engelen and Adams were already members of the group Lords of Acid, they branched off to form The Immortals for this assignment. The Immortals’ compositions were involved in Mortal Kombat marketing, eventual sequels to the game, and the 1995 Mortal Kombat movie.
14. One American senator had a big problem with Mortal Kombat.
Connecticut Senator and future Vice Presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman took a stand against gory video games like Mortal Kombat at a Washington D.C. press conference on December 1, 1993. “Violent video games may become the Cabbage Patch dolls of the 1993 holiday season,” Lieberman said, referring to the toys’ popularity. “But Cabbage Patch dolls never oozed blood and kids weren't taught to rip off their heads ... We're talking about video games that glorify violence and teach children to enjoy inflicting the most gruesome forms of cruelty imaginable.” Curiously, the conference also featured Bob Keeshan, better known as Captain Kangaroo, supporting Lieberman’s argument.
15. This controversy inspired the ESRB rating system.
Following this public backlash to Mortal Kombat, the video game industry oversaw the formation of the Entertainment Software Rating Board. Though not a federal agency like television and radio’s FCC, the ESRB has been a mainstay in gaming since 1994, assigning levels of age appropriateness to titles based on violence and adult content.
A version of this story ran in 2015; it has been updated for 2021.