Mortal Kombat: The controversial beat-em-up which changed gaming forever

·3-min read

This article is part of Yahoo's 'On This Day' series

A deep voice intones, ‘Finish him,’ then a pyjama clad fighter rips out his opponent’s heart and the voice approvingly bellows, ‘FATALITY!’

The infamous ‘fatality’ moves in the 2D beat ‘em up Mortal Kombat inspired horror among politicians in the early 90s - and paved the way for age ratings on games. 

Two characters fight one another in Mortal Kombat game.
Mortal Kombat 1992 arcade release history anniversary. Source: MidWay Games

The killing blows (which came after you had defeated an enemy, as a final humiliation) included ripping out a victim’s spine, and punching people’s heads off. 

To execute the moves, players had to hit a sequence of keystrokes after beating their opponent in the game’s 2D kung fu battles. 

It was on this day 29 years ago - on October 8, 1992 - that the gory phenomenon was unleashed on an unsuspecting public when it hit arcades for the first time in the US.

Woman plays video gabe Mortal Kombat II in an arcade
The series has spawned numerous follow-ups and sequels thanks to its enduring popularity. Source: Getty Images

The game’s realistic digitised sprites were ground-breaking at the time, giving the characters a look of real video - although the game’s blood was cartoon-like by contrast.

The game’s makers had hoped to do a game starring a digitised Jean Claude van Damme, but settled for paying homage with character Jonny Cage, whose moves are similar to Van Damme’s (and who decapitates people with a brutal uppercut). 

It was marketed with a poster showing footballer Vinnie Jones saying, ‘To be this hard takes ages.’

Two cartoon characters in the Mortal Kombat game stand across from one another with the words 'Finish Him' above their heads
The 'fatality' finishing moves which became Mortal Kombat's trademark caused controversy worldwide. Source: MidWay Games

The game was a hit with gamers, with Mega Power magazine writing,`The real icing on this brutal, blood-filled cake are the individual death-blows.' 

Others were less enthused. 

Social Security minister Anne Widdicombe urged a boycott of Sega, who published the game on the Megadrive. 

Mr Peter Smith, of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers said, : `If children are encouraged to think that violence is a game for them to participate in, it shows a very decadent set of values.'

Raiden and his lightning powers have appeared in every Mortal Kombat game
Raiden and his lightning powers have appeared in every Mortal Kombat game Source: NetherRealm Studios
Two players fight each other in Mortal Kombat 11
The latest game in the series, Mortal Kombat 11 Source: NetherRealm Studios

But the furore over the game paved the way for the recognition that it wasn’t just children who played video games - adults do too. 

The Mortal Kombat series is now a successful multi-media franchise, with more than a dozen games and spin-offs and two Hollywood films based on the games. 

The game has sold 73 million copies since launch, with the latest Mortal Kombat 11 selling 11 million copies on its own. 

In total, the Mortal Kombat franchise is estimated to have earned more than $5 billion during the decades since it launched. 

The controversy over the game inspired game publishers to set up a voluntary age rating system for games.

The European Leisure Software Publishers Association (ELSPA) used a tick box system to show whether games were appropriate for under-10s or older age groups, saying, ‘to ensure responsible behaviour by members and allow parents to make informed choices about the game-playing of their children.’

Since 2012, games are rated in the UK by the Video Standards Council, with particularly violent games rated by the British Board of Film Censors (BBFC). 

Mortal Kombat is the most successful fighting game of all time, with more films based on the series in development. 

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