Pop Culture Icons #3 : Mortal Kombat

We’re finally back for this pop culture icons series ! After a few months off we got a bunch of articles to give you so this is going to be a busy month ! This episode, like two others, will be a bit special as we’re not going to talk about a special character but about an entire franchise. Indeed, out of the 12 episodes that are part of this series, three of them (including this one) will be about video games franchises that marked the pop culture industry. We start with the most famous fighting game in history… Moortaaal Koommbaat, which by the way, celebrate its 30 years of existence in 2022 !

A 30 years old story…

If we want to talk about Mortal Kombat’s history, we first need to go back in time, in 1991 and not 1992. 1991 marked the beginning of an another famous video games franchise : Street Fighter, as the very first game released on arcade. Street Fighter quickly became the ultimare fighting games reference. A year later in 1992, Street Fighter released its second game, Street Fighter II : World Warrior. It’s during this same year that Mortal Kombat’s history started. Built as a direct opponent to Street Fighter, the game also and obviously released on arcade. If we want to be honest, the first versions of Mortal Kombat weren’t better games than Street Fighter as they were just trying to immitate its opponent. However they do had something that made the difference and gave Mortal Kombat its reputation : violence. The game was certainly less precise and less optimize than Street Fighter but it was violent ! Blood, broken members and above all : fatalaties ! For those who may not know Mortal Kombat, fatalities are custscenes happening at the end of a fight, where the winning character is literally destroying his/her opponent in its own way. These fatalities are preceded by the very famous “Finish him !” announcement and followed by “Fatality ! *insert character* wins !”. Very basic at the beginning, the game developped through its history, an entire panel of fatalities, proper to each characters. Just one year later, Mortal Kombat II released, giving the players an improved game with much more combat technics and available combos as the game also doubled the number of available characters. Mortal Kombat and the next games definitely marked a real start for the franchise in the video games industry, extending, game after game, the number of characters available, the complexity of its combos and the details of the game. In 2022, 30 years after its creation, the Mortal Kombat franchise released 22 games, with the latest being Mortal Kombat 11, the 11th game of the main line (other Mortal Kombat themed games released, most of them being adventure or platform games). Finally, the history of Mortal Kombat is not only about video games. Movies, animation movies and many other platforms hosted the universe of Mortal Kombat which helped the franchise to survive through time in order to became an icon of pop culture, and not only a video games icon. Yes, we can easily discuss of the movies’ quality but no doubt they helped in one way or another to spread Mortal Kombat all over the world. More recently, the latest Mortal Kombat movie, despite being an average movie, gave us an acceptable adaptation that certainly introduced the franchise to a younger generation who didn’t grew up with the games and this movie was succesful enough so we can hope for a second round in the upcoming years.

So why and how Mortal Kombat became such an icon ?

Fatalities and Techno Syndrome

Street Fighter and Tekken are certainly as much iconic as Mortal Kombat in the video game industry and each game has a powerful fan base. We can debate the quality of each games, and there is no doubt that Mortal Kombat is not THE absolute reference (despite being very good) if we strictly talk about gaming. However when it comes to pop culture in general and building a cultural franchise, Mortal Kombat is far in front of everyone else, and more generally far in front of a lot of succesful and iconic video games. But why ? And also how ? I’d say that first we have to look at the game itself. Earlier we say that blood, violence and fatalities almost immediatly gave Mortal Kombat an iconic status. These are little elements and details that despite not impacting the gameplay itself, give the game a proper identity and this is very important, especially when it comes to versus fighting games, as all of the games consists in the same thing : fighting your opponent in a 1 on 1. Through the history of video games, we can’t count the number of versus fighting games that just failed because they litterally brought nothing different compare to the known references (Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, etc.). This is where Mortal Kombat won the battle and won its tickets to the video game hall of fame : by creating something different. So these small elements and details are actually what gives Mortal Kombat all its originality and as a proof the “Fatality” sound became an Internet icon by itself, being transformed into memes, gifs, etc. When you ask someone where doest it it comes from, you have high chances to get the person knowing Mortal Kombat. I’m adding to that the legendary “Techno Syndrome” song that also gave the game its proper identity (theme songs are super important when you want a video game to be famous). A electronically produced song, very typical from the 90s’ that despite being musically outdated, is still super efficient and everyone know what are we talking about if that song starts.

Legendary characters

Besides its visual and sound elements, Mortal Kombat also managed to inplant its characters inside the pop culture, alongside famous movies or litterature characters. Who never heard of Scorpion, Sub Zero, Liu Kang, Raiden and many others ? Iconic costumes, memorable skills and capacities, Mortal Kombat characters really became icons going beyond the world of video games, like many video characters before and after them (Lara Croft, Sonic, Mario, etc.). Here, these characters are also examples of how Mortal Kombat evolved. In the beginning, Sub-Zero was only a blue version of Scorpion made for the second player that would play against you. Then other versions of Scorpion came, each one with a different colour so players could make the difference but none of this was impacting the gameplay itself it was just there to make a difference while playing with several people. Then Mortal Kombat really started to create a roster full of different and unique characters, each one having unique costumes and skills. If you go in a pop culture or video game convention, be sure you will find many people disguised as Scorpion or Sub-Zero.

30 years of Mortal Kombat…

Beyond the video games

Finally, Mortal Kombat quickly understood how to use the franchise in a different way than just video games. We talk about movies earlier, movies that despite having a questionable quality, are example of Mortal Kombat trying to spread the franchise everywhere, through movies, comic books, TV shows, goodies and more. The latest movie that released in 2021 being an example of Mortal Kombat still trying to improve its presence through every aspects of pop culture.

The five most famous Mortal Kombat elements :

  • The black dragon logo
  • The “Techno Syndrome” theme
  • Fatalities
  • The character of Scorpion
  • The character of Sub-Zero

From its creation in 1992 to its most recent game, Mortal Kombat 11, the franchise became an absolute reference for any video games fan. Thanks to iconic elements and a development on other platforms, Mortal Kombat succeed to become a pop culture icon with each generation having its favourite game… or movie…

And you… what’s your favourite Mortal Kombat game ?