With Mortal Kombat (2021) out now on Blu-ray and digital, Lindsay Dawson looks back nearly 30 years to the fantasy fighter that influenced every game since, and how the industry went from a niche market that made toys for kids to one of worldwide respect.
The original concept for Mortal Kombat was to create a fighting game around action star Jean-Claude Van Damme. And although the Muscles from Brussels couldn’t participate due to scheduling conflicts, one key feature remained: the animators used footage of stunt actors against a green screen to rotoscope realistic movements onto digital sprites. The characters looked like real people – because they were – and were heavily inspired by recognizable action heroes (including JCVD himself, reimagined as Johnny Cage: a movie star / martial artist). What’s more, here you wouldn’t just beat your competitors into submission as in other games: these were fights to the death, which meant blood flew and – if you mastered the controls – you could perform a fatality.
The arcade version was developed and published by Midway in 1992, and kids ate it up. It was easy to see why they would want to burn through their allowances: arcade games were seen as superior to home consoles, and Mortal Kombat was considered the most violent video game ever made. Even as parent groups spoke out in disgust, things were happening behind the scenes: dedicated home consoles had left the 8-bit era and entered a brave new 16-bit world, which meant more storage for game assets, a jump from 256 colors to a whopping 65,536, and the potential to bring the arcade experience home.
These consoles were also becoming more widespread, with the two major players being Nintendo’s Super Entertainment System (SNES) and the Sega Mega Drive, also known as Sega Genesis in North America (since this article focuses on the US games industry we’ll be using the latter nomenclature here). Both companies knew they could make a ton of cash if they could capture the home market, but both also knew they would have to make significant changes to the game because it was parents who bought these titles, not kids.
Before we go any further, we have to set the stage for why Nintendo and Sega weren’t just competitors, but bitter rivals.
The previous decade Nintendo had wanted to break into the Western market when The Video Game Crash of ’83 occurred. The effects were devastating and immediate: Nintendo rebranded their Famicom as the Nintendo Entertainment System, because words like “console” and “games” had become poisonous. Released in ’85 it was touch and go for a while, with no one sure how it would all pan out. But when the dust settled Nintendo was one of the only console makers left, and was largely credited with reviving the video game market.
And then there was Sega: one of the little guys who wanted to take on Nintendo. 1985’s Master System was more powerful than the NES, but Sega’s library was tiny, making it impossible for them to get a foothold in the market. They tried again with the Genesis 16-bit system in ’89, and in 1990 Sega unleashed a secret weapon to compete directly with Mario: the blue dude with a ’tude, Sonic the Hedgehog. Mario jumps? Sonic runs. Mario wears red overalls with a blue shirt underneath? Sonic has blue spikes and red tennis shoes. Sonic’s popularity got Sega on the map, but soon Nintendo released their 16-bit console, the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, in ’91. Nintendo still had an industry stronghold, but it was smaller than before.
In 1993, both Nintendo and Sega released console ports, which Activision distributed.
Nintendo had strict guidelines about what they would allow in games for their systems, making them seem like a family-friendly company. Making Mortal Kombat more palatable would take some doing, and Nintendo tried to balance what players wanted with the concerns of parents. As a result the SNES version emerged seriously altered from what made Mortal Kombat infamous: red blood splatter became grey sweat, and fatalities were heavily censored. The one advantage of the SNES was that it was fresher than the Genesis, had more processing power, thus making for a better visual experience.
Sega also shipped a censored version for Genesis, but word quickly spread throughout schoolyards that you could enter a code and unlock the good stuff. It was an underhanded but genius move, having a clean version on the surface to appease parents whilst also providing what they knew kids really wanted, but only if you were in on the secret. By the time the parents found out about the code, it was too late. The information was already on the cartridge, and there was no way to download an update that would make the gore harder to access.
Players agreed that if you wanted better graphics you went with SNES, but if it was the arcade experience you wanted Genesis was the way to go. In the end Sega out-sold Nintendo 5 to 1, and with a clear victor in this battle you’d think that would be the end of it.
Not even close.
In 1994 a staffer told his boss, Connecticut senator Joe Lieberman, about a game his young son wanted for Christmas. Lieberman was so disturbed by the idea of this title he felt it necessary to bring the issue before Congress. What followed was a series of hearings to discuss violent video games and their effects on children. In addition to Mortal Kombat, the other standout title from the hearings was Night Trap, where you defend a group of teenage girls at a slumber party from vampiric creatures. Like Mortal Kombat, the game had real actors, only this time in Full Motion Video (FMV).
During these hearings Nintendo and Sega initially pointed fingers at each other: Nintendo claimed that their guidelines meant they didn’t approve games that were violent, gory or had suggestive themes whilst side-eyeing Sega who, for their part, argued that video games weren’t only for kids, claiming the average Genesis owner was 19 years old (and the average Sega CD owner even older, at 22). They also pointed to their own proprietary rating system, under which both Mortal Kombat and Night Trap were rated MA-17: the most restrictive level in their 3 tier system.
Lieberman introduced S.1823 – The Video Game Rating Act of 1994 to the Senate floor during these hearings. The bill called for establishing an Interactive Entertainment Rating Commission, a government-sanctioned group tasked with reviewing games and determining a proper age rating, although it didn’t state any guidelines. Lieberman advised the companies to develop their own solution rather than force the government to step in and take responsibility.
That summer, in the most ambitious crossover since Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Nintendo, Sega, Atari, Acclaim, Electronic Arts, Phillips and 3DO formed a coalition and developed their own regulatory board, the Interactive Digital Software Association (IDSA, later ESA). From there, they established the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB). These seven companies made up 60% of the US video game market, but that wasn’t enough to convince the Senate that their rating system would be accepted industry-wide. However retailers Wal-Mart, Toys R Us, and Babbages (GameStop today) testified that they wouldn’t sell games without a rating in their stores, which would all but force the other 40% of the market to fall in line.
These ratings were based on the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) Ratings, which the general public already recognized. The idea was that parents could use that information to make better decisions about what was and wasn’t appropriate for their children to play.
The ratings were originally as follows:
Today, they are mostly unchanged:
It’s funny to look back and see what people were concerned about decades ago. The graphics of Mortal Kombat seem quaint in comparison to the 4K photo-realism of today. Sega stepped away from the console market 20 years ago and now focuses on game development for other consoles, whilst Nintendo is still at it, only now competing against Sony and Microsoft. You can also buy and download Night Trap on the Nintendo Switch, and it has a rating of T for Teen. Arcades in the US, even pre-pandemic, were few and far between, and the ones that do exist are more about tapping into nostalgia than experiencing the newest cultural phenomena. The ESRB is statistically one of the most accurate and adhered to rating systems, and Joe Lieberman became Al Gore’s running mate in the 2000 election, making him the first Jewish-American to appear on a Presidential ticket.
There have been many video game controversies in the years since, and there will certainly be more to come, but very few of them have been as influential and far-reaching as this one.