Revisiting Mortal Kombat: the legend, the tech and the console ports

DF Retro analyses 16 versions of a truly classic game.

A key period for the evolution of the fighting game, the early 90s marked the arrival of two pivotal franchises that still exist and flourish today: Street Fighter 2 and Mortal Kombat. These are the titles that redefined the one-on-one beat 'em up and alongside SF2's cartoon stylings, Midway's digitised, violence-fuelled competitor captivated players with its memorable characters, surprisingly nuanced gameplay and buckets of blood. Highly innovative in many ways, it was put together relatively quickly by a development team of just four people.

Mortal Kombat started out as an experiment between friends John Tobias, Rich Divizio and Daniel Pesina. They filmed themselves performing martial arts moves with the idea of digitising them and putting into a game - an evolved approach to that taken by Atari with Pit-fighter two years earlier. Fellow Midway coder Ed Boon didn't think the initial pitch to Midway would work but did like the idea of a fighting game - suggesting that none other then Jean-Claude Van Damme should star in the title. Unfortunately, Van Damme declined the project forcing the team to rethink the concept and ironically, the actor would end up starring in the movie version of Street Fighter 2.

Work pressed ahead regardless, Boon joined the development effort, the digitisation technology was further refined and the game eventually shipped to arcades. It was a technologically advanced title for 1992, based on the Midway Y-Unit arcade board previously used in games including Smash TV and Total Carnage. Its impressive specs allowed the Y-Unit board to deliver large, high colour sprites and complex parallax background scrolling - high-end features that worked flawlessly in combination, outstripping the capabilities of the home consoles of the time.

Once the game hit arcades, its mixture of a stunning presentation, comically over-the-top violence and prodigious bloodletting made it an instant hit but the core appeal of the game goes deeper. Mortal Kombat is a simple yet nuanced fighter and while it lacks the depth of Street Fighter 2, it feels great to play at its core and learning how to wield its relatively small move set effectively is a lot of fun.

The Mortal Kombat story, as told by DF Retro. Every single version of the game we know to exist is covered in this one!

Then there are the secrets and fatalities - MK was great about teasing lore, secret characters and special moves. Much of this talk centered around the mysterious character, Reptile. This mysterious third ninja would appear every few matches dropping hints along the way. To fight him, you needed to make it to The Pit. If a shadow flies by the moon, it's game on. Don't block on the ensuing battle, win both rounds without taking any damage then end the round with a fatality and you're set for your confrontation with the mystery man. These specific circumstances were extremely difficult to discover at the time, leading to crazy speculation among fans - but crucially, it was concepts like this that continued to drive people to the arcade.

Home versions were inevitable, of course. Unlike multiplatform games today, these ports would be crafted separately by different developers for each specific platform, with Acclaim taking point as publisher. In total, 12 official console ports or emulations were put together and the differences between them are fascinating for a number of reasons. In the pre-ESRB age, the Super NES version of the game lacked bloodletting and cut back severely on the signature fatalities, while the level of fidelity in each console port was limited significantly by the core capabilities of the consoles themselves.

The story goes that Ed Boon wasn't entirely happy with the progress of the home console versions and didn't want them released but too much money was invested in the venture and he conceded. In retrospect, while it's clear that technical compromise was inevitable, there's much to commend the first wave of home conversions that arrived on Mortal Monday - especially the Mega Drive/Genesis rendition produced by UK developer, Probe Software. In several key respects, the Super NES version (coded by Sculptured Software) was technically superior, but the port was marred by some of the worst input lag seen on the system - a game-killing state of affairs for a one-on-one fighting game. However, technical issues were less important than the Super NES version's outright content cuts. In a game defined by violence, blood and fatalities, it was clear that Nintendo players were missing out.

The DF Retro video embedded above covers off every official - and unofficial - version of the game we believe to be in existence. The Acclaim conversions are all present and accounted for, home versions for PC and Amiga are also covered, plus we take a look at the pirate versions of the game developed for the markets still gaming heavily on NES/Famicom-based systems in the early to mid 90s. Dedicated handheld machines were released, but particularly fascinating is an unexpectedly brilliant homebrew port for the Atari Lynx. Take a look at the video to see it in action and just imagine if that had been available to play on Mortal Monday.

size
Mortal Kombat's arcade board was highly powerful for its time, delivering enormous sprites and detailed parallax backgrounds. Here's how the sprites in every version compare.

The MK story doesn't end there, however. Across the years, more ports would appear - including an impressive Mega CD/Sega CD version. Much later on in 2004, Mortal Kombat Deception launched for home consoles and included on a bonus disk with the PS2 version was an emulated version of the original arcade game. On the surface, this should be a great thing but it has some issues such as 480i interlaced visuals with poor filtering, plus occasional slowdown and audio problems.

This emulated rendition of the original also showed up later on via PSP in a couple of releases including Midway Arcade Treasures: Extended Play. It's a great version of the game in that the Sony handheld's native 480x272 resolution is a pretty close match for the arcade version's original 400x254, allowing for a 1:1 pixel map of the original assets for the very first time. Yes, this meant that there were black borders around the action, but everything is rendered just as it was in the arcade version even if the aspect ratio is now slightly wider. Still, as buried treasure goes, this was a nice surprise.

I've been planning this DF Retro project for some time and having played so many versions now, I do have some recommendations on what renditions of the game offer the best package for today's retro explorers. In terms of actual ports, it comes down to two versions - the Sega CD iteration and the MS-DOS CD-ROM version. I love playing both of these and while they have their faults, they're my favorites of the bunch. Of course, MAME emulation is probably the best way to experience it today unless you have an arcade cabinet which is even better.

Either way, the completion of this project marks the end of a long journey I've thoroughly enjoyed and it's reinforced my belief that Mortal Kombat is an important game worthy of this deep dive focus. There's no doubt that it was a crucial player in the evolution of one-on-one fighting games, while its role in defining age ratings for games in the US was essential in allowing more mature titles to flourish. In a genre defined by Japanese craftsmanship, the notion that an American-made fighting game series could remain relevant so many years later is a fantastic story and speaks volumes about the quality of the MK games across the years. And a Eurogamer recommended badge for the latest Mortal Kombat 11? 27 years on, this franchise is still delivering.

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About the author

John Linneman

John Linneman

Staff Writer, Digital Foundry

An American living in Germany, John has been gaming and collecting games since the late 80s. His keen eye for and obsession with high frame-rates have earned him the nickname "The Human FRAPS" in some circles. Hes also responsible for the creation of DF Retro.

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