The Evolution of Mortal Kombat

Mortal Kombat
Mortal Kombat Evolution

Mortal Kombat may have started as an arcade sensation that got tongues wagging around the world, but it’s now undisputedly one of the greatest fighting series in gaming. Its evolution since the first arcade cabinet released in 1992 has seen the sensational scrapper morph from a deliriously entertaining (and, yes, very gory) 2D fighter to one of the most well-regarded and fully featured fighters you can get.

With Mortal Kombat 11’s continued success (it was the best selling game in America in April, topping the charts for PS4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch), we wanted to take a look back at where the series has come from, and where it’s going. We were lucky enough to ask Netherrealm Studios’ Director of Art Steve Beran some questions about the series past, present, and future.

Early Days

Mortal Kombat’s story starts back in 1991, when creators Ed Boon and John Tobias set out to make a fighting game for publisher Midway. Beran tells us one of their aims was to “create a new kind of fighter, one that featured digitized characters and had a story to it.” They later drafted in John Vogel and Dan Forden to help develop the game, which hit arcades in 1992.

It was an instant success with its distinct style and addictive fighting. While the ahead-of-its-time graphics earned headlines, the original Mortal Kombat introduced many of the elements that have defined the series. These include being able to juggle characters by hitting them while they’re in the air and Fatalities, super moves that ended fights in style.

The game was then ported to the SNES, Sega Mega Drive, Game Gear, and Game Boy, with all four editions launching on September 13, 1993. To say it was a bit of a phenomenon would be an understatement and we can’t help but agree with Beran when he says “It’s hard to believe that it was only a team of four guys!”

Naturally, a sequel followed soon after, with Mortal Kombat II hitting arcades in November 1993 and Brean argues it is an incredibly important part of the series. He explains: “Mortal Kombat II was a very pivotal moment in the series evolution. It took the tournament to Outworld. Besides improved gameplay, Mortal Kombat II really expanded the mythos of Mortal Kombat.”

Here’s an example of a Fatality in from Mortal Kombat II

This, he tells us, is in part to Tony Goskie joining the MK team, who introduced a “dark, surreal, signature look” to Mortal Kombat II. Beran even tells us that this style “still drives a lot of our environments to this day.” It’s a testament to the designers of the time that Mortal Kombat II continues to be a touchstone for the modern games.

Mortal Kombat 3 followed in 1995, introducing a selection of new characters, (including Kabal, who returns in MK 11) as well as the ability to move to different parts of the level by uppercutting your opponent. There was even a new type of Fatality, in the form of ‘Animality’, where your fighter would change into an animal and then maul their opponents. But Mortal Kombat 3 also marked the end of Mortal Kombat’s first era, as it was the last time the digitized 2D graphics that MK had become known for would be used.

The move to 3D

As the series moved to 3D with Mortal Kombat 4, one thing became clear. Mortal Kombat would never rest on its laurels. There was the aforementioned move to 3D character models and arenas in MK 4, the Konquest mode that was introduced in Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance, the Combo Breakers in Mortal Kombat: Deception, and Mortal Kombat: Armageddon’s ability to let you create your own Fatality.

MK Deadly Alliance

Each game introduced something new to the series while also refining what made people fall in love with the series in the first place. And that’s without mentioning how varied this era of Mortal Kombat is, with modes such as the kart racing mini-game “Motor Kombat” making an appearance in Armageddon, or 2008’s Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe, which let Batman take on Sub-Zero.

  • Steve Beran on fans hunting out Mortal Kombat’s Easter Eggs

    “We LOVE it. Mortal Kombat has always been about secrets, and we love when people find what we’ve hidden and talk about what they found. We take great pride in our games, and I like that we are now notorious for great detail and for hiding things within our games.”

When we ask Steve Beran what’s been the key to the series’ longevity, he tells us, “It’s impossible to pick just one thing that is the key to Mortal Kombat’s longevity. I will say that introducing something new to every iteration plays a big role. We always want to introduce something new, but at the same time keep what fans love about it.

“Ed [Boon] is always pushing new gameplay ideas for every iteration. Friendships, Babalities, X-Rays, Motor Kombat, different meters, etc. All were ideas to keep the series fresh and ever changing.”

After Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe, the next big shake up would come with 2011’s Mortal Kombat reboot.

The modern era

The 2011 Mortal Kombat expanded on a lot of what had made the series so popular to begin with. The increased power of consoles meant that a new visual flourish was introduced with X-Ray moves, where you could see bones shatter as a punch, kick, or knee landed with force on a fighter. The celebrated story mode reached new heights, as this reboot focused on re-telling the tale of the first three games, as Raiden began to change the course of history by sending a premonition to his past-self.

Mortal Kombat 2011

Fans and critics both loved the Mortal Kombat reboot, with it earning an 87 on Metacritic. It was followed by Mortal Kombat X in 2015, which earned significant praise for its story mode and its character variations system, which allowed you to choose a playstyle for a fighter that suited you. That was then followed by this year’s stand-out, Mortal Kombat 11.

While we’ve focused on Mortal Kombat’s commitment to looking to the future, it doesn’t mean that the series doesn’t look to its past. In fact, it plays a big part when the team look at deciding a roster for a new Mortal Kombat. As Beran explains, “Choosing a roster is an extremely elaborate process. It’s a delicate balance of picking returning characters, new characters, body types and fight styles.”

Mortal Kombat 11 takes this even further, with characters from the past and present of Mortal Kombat coming together in its story mode. This meant Beran got to revisit the early days and design retro MK characters alongside their present day versions. He tells us, “I especially enjoyed the retro characters. Johnny Cage’s design is my favorite. It still has that 90’s vibe, but we gave him a jacket and updated his cheesy clothing.”

The Future of Mortal Kombat

Mortal Kombat 11’s success means that the future of the series looks very bright indeed. With DLC due to launch with the Kombat Pack for the most recent entry, more unannounced characters will test their might in the popular fighter, but what lies beyond that?

We asked Beran what he thinks the future of the series looks like and he tells us, “As technology improves, it opens more opportunities to push features and the visuals in games. I look forward to pushing the quality of our art across the board.” We can’t wait to see what a fatality looks like on even more powerful hardware.

From its arcade beginnings back in 1992 to becoming one of the most prominent fighters on the planet, with a thriving esports scene, Mortal Kombat has always been one of the leading fighters in gaming, and it looks like we’ll be hearing Scorpion yelling “GET OVER HERE!” for many more years to come.

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