Sometimes a genre needs something that makes people sit up and take notice. Sometimes a classification of games needs some innovation, or a means in which it can stand tall and say "we're not like those other games" despite it being exactly the same with just some new characters. In the realm of beat-em-ups (not brawlers like Final Fight and Double Dragon) games like Street Fighter 2 tended to rule the arcades with its bright colourful graphics, its following of loyal fans watching as someone in a karate gi smacks a large fireball into another different coloured gi wearing karate man's face.
Of course Street Fighter 2 didn't start the beat-em-up craze, before that obviously was Street Fighter the original, other older games included Yie Ar Kung-fu, Karateka, Barbarian and such on home machines and older arcade games. But what Street Fighter 2 did do was to make the genre more appealing and more accessible with the special moves easier to do, (most of them were quarter circles with a button, charge moves or just hit a button REALLY fast). It went largely unchallenged until the arrival of something that popped up and caused international controversy with its excessive (at the time, nowadays tame) violence, gore and above all else, Fatalities.
Yes I'm talking about My Little Pony. (Like hell I am... I'll make people suffer that later) Mortal Kombat hit the scenes around 1992 depending upon your location in arcades and was quickly followed with a series of complaints and abuse hurled at it for some of the more violent aspects of the game.
At release, it was a game with 7 characters having been made initially by just a team of 4 people. 2 Colour Swap ninja characters (Sub Zero, Scorpion), token female (Sonya), lightning god (Raiden seemingly based on Big Trouble In Little China characters), Kano (Semi cyborg crime lord... any more clichés to add there?) and Johnny Cage (Jean Claude Van Dam rip off, but seeing as the game was originally an idea to movie->game Universal Soldier, you can see where that originates).
Each character had a standard series of moves from low and high punches, low and high kicks, sweeps, roundhouses and uppercuts. Blocking was implemented by not holding away from the target, but by pressing another button entirely and would result in a lot of Street Fighter fans being slaughtered at first by trying to 'block' incorrectly. Special moves were almost entirely unique to every character and required combinations of buttons rarely seen in fighters, from holding an attack button and pressing various directions, holding block and tapping directions, double tapping directions and then attacking with just a few using similar quarter circle moves from the aforementioned Street Fighter series.
What was more immediately obvious was that there was no cartoony approach to the game, the graphics were entirely digitised from photographs of actors dressed up to perform/pose for the moves and then placed into the game directly, rather than the designed and drawn out images of virtually every other fighter game out there.
The plot was almost entirely ripped from Enter The Dragon (cited as being inspirational) in which a group of people are called to an island to fight to the death against each other and then fight the main guy who has been a shitbag for quite a while, in a plot to take over the world if he wins 10 contests, he's already won 9. Shang Tsung being the final boss but not before having to fight your way through every other opponent (6 fights) your mirror self (another fight) 3 endurance fights (you vs 2 people on one life bar) and the "not quite lass boss" Goro, a 4 armed monstrosity that did far more damage than you ever could with a nuke. Only then could you fight the last boss, a wisened old man that could morph (Terminator 2 made it popular) into other characters, including Goro.
Each character has their own reason for joining the fray. Ranging from on-the-run criminal, to chasing-said-on-the-run-criminal cop, death seeking, thrill seeking, honour seeking, wanting to stop the bad guy, wanting to stop elder gods taking over Earth and getting some more recognition beyond shitty-film-star, the value added to each character ranges rather wildly for those trying to find purpose. "I need more cash" vs. "Saving the planet" firmly sorts out the pricks from the chivalrous ones.
The real "fun", if remembering button combinations like a surprise test-paper answer sheet is fun, was the option after the fight, to "Finish Him/Her" with a special move that simply killed the opponent. From burning them alive, to blowing their head off with lightning, punching the head off, ripping out the beating heart, pulling the head off with the spine attached and so on. It was this that would cause the greatest controversy. Not only would the fight have been over but unlike any other game at time, you could visit horrific and graphic violence upon people by pulling their heads off and letting the spine dangle freely, uppercut them off bridges and send them hurtling to their deaths in a pit of spikes which, unsurprisingly, were populated by a few decomposing bodies and heads.
Moral guardians went apeshit, the game's popularity soared and it became a standard to set other games to. That's not the say the game was any good. As with anything controversial, just because it IS controversial does not mean to say it's any good. Mortal Kombat was a mixture of hits and misses as a result.
With most of the memory of the game focused on digitised graphics, the character roster wasn't as large as that of other games (SF2...), the enemy AI could absolutely cakewalk any player when it chose to unless some severe AI exploits were utilised, computer characters were able to perfectly time attacks to dodge and counter with inhuman speed. Not to say that humans could do it at all, the reaction times and speeds of the computer could be set in such a way that no human alive would be able to do those moves because of the very nature of the moves. As such it was possible to be ludicrously punished by an AI looping a perfect series of moves.
The most fun however was rarely found in beating the AI, but in taking on other people and THAT is where the game found a loyal and eager fan base. Now could you not only fight someone one-on-one but unlike other games, you could choose to punish them at the end of the fight with a killer button combination that would humiliate the other player, and likely leave their character with fewer body parts than they had begun the game. There were however flaws in even this.
The game engine, had allowed for various impossible to escape from situations, akin to being constantly hit with the sweep move. If the other person didn't try to jump out of the attack, or didn't know to block and hold to crouch at the same time, there was nothing else to do but being butchered by a repeated series of hits that would end the game shortly after it had begun. Likely wise with punching, a series of punching could stagger an enemy and hold them into a combo unless they hit the block. Muscle memory from playing other games could leave them defenceless while they tried to block by holding backwards.
Characters were a little unbalanced in that some only had two special moves while some had three. Some of the moves could freeze or stun an opponent for a more powerful move (usually an uppercut) to boost the damage output of a move; some moves could be repeated ad inifinitum similarly to the sweeping exploits mentioned above.
Graphically the game looked impressive for using digitised images of real actors, sounds from real actors mimicking moves and pains, though the sample rate of the audio left a lot of arcade machines lightly muffled by the audio being exhibited. The music was barely recognisable aside from the attract audio that had almost everyone humming it as the arcades usually upped the volume for the new machine and it became its own ear-worm for anyone nearby. Even now, I can still remember the attract music theme but I'll be damned if I at any point, could remember any of the stage music, so vague are they that I'm not entirely sure they're not just the attract music again. Having said that, I can clearly remember various music from stages in street fighter 2.
The actual engine of the game always seemed unpolished and incomplete as a fighter. The moves and timing of the game seems to be clunky and awkward, which is not something often found in the later games of the series, though it was designed and coded by very few people, one could forgive that on a man-power basis, it still doesn't get around the fact that the control system in the game is finicky at best and frustratingly awkward at its worst when control is wrested away by others performing moves and combinations of attacks that can't be escaped from.
But then, what are controversies for. Were it not for the excessive violence of the game, the fountains of blood and claret being spilt and a huge moral outcry causing the birth of a games industry age rating system, it is unlikely that this game would have ever been anything more than a quick flash in the pan of unpopular gaming. However, with such high levels of public focus and attention, raising the name from an arcade discussion to international recognition which caused more people to go out and actually try to Sub Zero rip off someone's skull, this game became one of the most established franchises in the gaming industry for fighting games.
Not bad for some photos of cos-players and a few extra red pixels here and there, but as a game, I'd move on and look at the later instalments of the series. Particularly the #2 and #3 games. It has its place in history but it really should be left there to serve as a firm but flawed starting point.