Would you look at that? Mortal Kombat turned 30 years old this past Halloween season! The legendary arcade fighting game known for its eccentric characters, competitive 1 on 1 gameplay, and brutal violence lives on after three long decades and is stronger than ever before. The road to get here wasn’t always roses and a casual stroll through the park but instead riddled with controversy, bans, censorships, and even government congressional hearings. In honor of the 30th Anniversary of the original Mortal Kombat, we wanted to laser-focus on the controversy it faced and the ramifications it would have on the games industry forever.
Released on October 8th, 1992, Mortal Kombat set the arcade world on fire. Sure, there were games like Street Fighter that already perfected the fighting game concept and had become a household name, but Mortal Kombat broke the mold by featuring extreme graphic violence using digitized actors. The violence ranged from blood splattering all over the stage throughout the fight to match-ending Fatalities that would straight up murder the losing player in horrific fashion. It was unheard of to have a game graphically depict someone getting their spine ripped out in bloody fashion at that point in time, and predictably some parts of the general public didn’t take too kindly to the idea of a kid randomly coming across this level of violence in their local arcade.
Enter Senator Joe Lieberman. Lieberman had been approached by his Chief of Staff in regards to the level of extreme violence in the Sega Genesis port of Mortal Kombat (the Super Nintendo version was infamously censored replacing the red blood with gray colored “sweat”). Lieberman had been hearing about increasing levels of violence in video games and had been conducting his own investigation into Night Trap, a horror video game with (at the time) very adult content. Lieberman took it upon himself to hold a press conference with other children’s advocates and make the argument that the video game industry was marketing extreme violence to children based on statistics; he said at the time, “We’re talking about video games that glorify violence and teach children to enjoy inflicting the most gruesome forms of cruelty imaginable.” What followed would evolve into downright moral panic that would change everything.
This was eventually presented to the United States Senate in December 1993 with the intention of passing a bill that would allow the government to come up with its own content rating system. The games industry banded together and announced the same day of the first hearing that they would develop their own content ratings system in lieu of a government controlled system. This would allow them to assign their own ratings and content warnings rather than be at the mercy of a presumably more brutal government board. In 1994 they presented to congress the Electronic System Ratings Board (ESRB). A voluntary industry wide adopted ratings system that would list content in each game and rate it according to an appropriate age demographic. Satisfied with the result, congress decided to not get involved with games content rating and the ESRB became the standard for the industry.
But where does Mortal Kombat come into all of this? Aside from kickstarting the entire political moral panic, it established itself as one of the first premiere “Mature” titles. Gone soon would be the days of video games being associated only with children and teens and Mortal Kombat would lean into the “hard edge” side of gaming and advertising. For better or worse Mortal Kombat was free to continue upping the levels of violence in sequels. The identity of the Mortal Kombat franchise was born. The “Mature” rating became a trademark of the series just as much as Fatalities or its cast of colorful characters, to the point that when a game comes out in the series that ISN’T M-rated it raises many eyebrows. Such was the case in 2008 with the release of Mortal Kombat vs DC Universe; that game ended up being rated “Teen,” and gone was all the graphic gory violence that Mortal Kombat fans came to expect from the series. As a result the characters from the MK side felt a lot less interesting.
Mortal Kombat persevered, however. Despite being put on literal trial over the levels of violence the game had, it embraced those aspects. It all became core to its identity and the moral panic and outrage just ended up making the series more and more popular to the point that it’s now a household name. Sure a ratings board may have been spawned as a direct result of it and forever changed the games industry along with it, but now… well, the violence from Mortal Kombat is as expected as the sun rising at dawn.
And we wouldn’t have it any other way. Happy 30th, Mortal Kombat!