[Ed. note: Out today, Arcade Perfect: How Pac-Man, Mortal Kombat, and Other Coin-Op Classics Invaded the Living Room is author David L. Craddock’s latest book looking back at the history of the video game industry. Below, we have an excerpt covering the release of the original Mortal Kombat.]
Two engineers from Midway pulled their truck up to an arcade, threw open the shutter door, and rolled out a plain black cabinet. They wheeled it into the cool, dimly lit den of flashing screens and plugged it in near two of Capcom’s Street Fighter 2 machines. Then they waited.
“It was like stepping into a ring against Mike Tyson at his prime. But, we flipped the switch and sat back and watched,” said John Tobias, co-creator of Mortal Kombat.
At first, the cabinet just sat there. Then the attract mode ran. Grainy clips of digitized actors running through sequences of martial arts moves played out. The screen faded, and two characters squared off atop a narrow stone bridge set against a cloudy night sky. They moved toward one another, throwing kicks and punches — and then one crouched down and swung a right hook that connected under his opponent’s chin, launching him into the air and splattering blood all over the walkway.
One of the players at the back of the line to play Street Fighter 2 stepped out of place, walked over to the black cabinet, and dropped in a quarter. A few seconds later, someone else wandered over. Two more joined them. Three more. By the end of that weekend, the Street Fighter 2 cabinets had been abandoned. “That’s when we knew MK had the potential to become a phenomenon of its own,” Tobias said.
On the surface, Mortal Kombat was one in a growing line of Street Fighter 2 clones. All were gunning for Capcom, the king of the one-on-one fighter. Thus far, no one had even come close.
“I was a Street Fighter 2 fanatic. I was competitive,” said Sculptured Software’s Jeff Peters. “I would go to tournaments at local arcades, and it was, all right, how long can you hold the machine and take on all comers? It started the whole fighting-game frenzy: Everybody was knocking off Street Fighter 2.”
None of the knockoffs seemed able to capture SF2’s perfect storm of vibrant graphics, unique characters, and fast gameplay. Until Mortal Kombat. “From the game’s inception we knew that it would not be a clone,” Tobias said. “If we looked at Street Fighter, it was to study how not to do something in Mortal Kombat. I remember we just sort of conceded to the raw look of digitized footage. I think that was the right choice because it went a long way in making sure that our game would stand-out visually from Street Fighter 2.”
MK’s most notable difference was its aesthetic. Where SF2 looked like a cartoon, MK looked like an R-rated film. Its environments were grungy and dark. Its characters were lifelike thanks to a process that involved recording real actors performing all the moves. “I also think that the time we spent developing the characters and story, which was an odd thing to do in an arcade product, helped build a larger world in the minds of our players,” said Tobias. “That impact lives with MK even in its most recent iterations. Of course, our brand of violence is in large part what gave us a seat at pop culture’s table.”
And Mortal Kombat had blood. The red stuff sprayed and splattered when players punched, kicked, and knocked each other into the air. But it was most abundant at the end of each match, when victorious fighters were given a short window of opportunity to perform a Fatality on their dizzied opponent. If the move was entered correctly, the screen darkened, and the blood flowed: the blue-clad ninja Sub-Zero tore off his opponent’s head with the spinal cord attached; movie star Johnny Cage, a nod to Jean-Claude Van Damme from when MK’s original design starred the popular martial-artist-turned-actor, punched his victim’s head clean off; and Kano, a master criminal with a metal plate covering half his face, ripped his opponent’s still-beating heart from their chest.
Mortal Kombat’s fatalities were so graphic that they had to literally be seen to be believed. One kid would hold court on a playground and strive to convince a jury of peers that he’d seen one character rip off his face and breathe fire, reducing the other guy to ashes and bones. Another kid swore up and down that a fighter in a white jumpsuit and straw hat could zap characters’ heads off with a bolt of lightning. “That breeds interest and foot traffic,” later GamePro editor Dan Amrich said of the rumors surrounding MK’s gory finishing moves, “and before you know it, you have people looking closer because that controversial thrill was so unexpected. And that’s going to be very powerful with kids whose media is largely — and rightfully! — gatekept by their parents. Here’s a game you’re know you’re ‘not supposed to play,’ even if you haven’t been strictly forbidden to play it. It tapped into the lure of the forbidden.”
At first, Jeff Peters didn’t know what to make of Acclaim’s offer to contract Sculptured Software for a Super NES version of Mortal Kombat. Midway’s bloody brawler seemed like just another SF2 imitator. Yet below the surface, he saw something special. “Finishing Moves were different and funny, so that was another attraction point. And as a fighting game, it worked.”
Putting his pro skills to work, Peters played the game for hours and wrote up a detailed analysis of what MK had going for it, and what he saw as the biggest hurdles standing in the way of a successful port.
Pros: It wasn’t a shameless Street Fighter 2 copycat; it had a unique art style that would resonate with older players put off by Capcom’s cartoonish visuals; and the violence was so over-the-top, so absurd, it was humorous and charming. There was no harm in fatalities and uppercuts, Peters concluded, because no one could possibly take them seriously.
Cons: The game’s art style, hundreds of frames of animation, detailed backgrounds, and flashy special attacks, would be a bear to port. Nintendo’s 16-bit hardware had its advantages, but paled in comparison to Midway’s coin-op innards.
“My first analysis was that it would not reach the same level of Street Fighter 2 because of how different it was, the audience Street Fighter 2 had already built, the number of units it sold, all that stuff,” Peters said.
Still, it was settled. Acclaim hired Sculptured to do the SNES port, while Probe, a studio based across the pond, would handle a Sega Genesis conversion. Farming out the same port to more than one studio was an unorthodox move, but one that Peters understood.
“By separating the two SKUs, Acclaim was hedging their bets,” he said. “They were compartmentalizing the work that each developer would do. So, although it cost Acclaim slightly more money to have two different developers making two versions of the same game independently, it at least allowed for more focus. I think that helped get the project done within their timeframe, because there definitely wasn’t much time.”
Peters enjoyed his quiet life. The peace and quiet of the suburb where he lived provided a pleasant contrast to the long hours and crazy demands of his work at Sculptured Software. His neighbors were friendly, and tightly knit by the bonds of Mormonism, the dominant religion for large swathes of Utah, including Peters’ neighborhood. Every morning on his way to the office, he’d make small talk with friends out watering lawns, fetching the paper, or getting ready for their own commute.
One morning, Peters said hello to a neighbor and got a chilly stare in return. Peters went cold. They know, he thought.
“I was ostracized in the neighborhood I lived in because they found out I worked on Mortal Kombat,” he said.
Peters didn’t realize he’d been cut out of the inner circle right away. Every now and then, his doorbell would ring, and he’d find one of the neighborhood kids peering in. “Do you guys do drugs?” one blurted. Startled, Peters said no. The kid scampered home.
“Do you worship Satan?” another tyke asked.
“Are you really gay?”
“My mom says you’re going to hell. How come she says that?”
His all-time favorite question never failed to brighten his mood. “My mom says we can’t play Mortal Kombat, but can we come in and play it at your house?”
Mortal Kombat’s violence bled into every aspect of the lives of developers assigned to its conversions. “One of the key things that Sculptured and Probe had to solve completely differently was the whole violence thing,” Peters recalled. “This gets into the backdrop of things going on with the gaming industry.”
Things were touchy at the office. One of the programmers went to Peters and insisted he could only work on Mortal Kombat if his name was not attached to the project. “If his family came to visit the studio, we’d tell them he was working on something else,” Peters said. “Half the studio had grown up here in Utah and refused to have anything to do with Mortal Kombat. This stigma, depending on your worldview, made Mortal Kombat something either really cool, or Satan incarnate.”
Mortal Kombat’s gore was a sensitive subject for American society at large. The moment word of fatalities spread beyond arcades and into schools, homes, and churches, parents and politicians went on the warpath. Editors at magazines like Time wrote special features that questioned whether video games, formerly the domain of happy-go-lucky cartoon characters like Nintendo’s Mario, had finally gone too far by depicting graphic death with character models that resembled real people instead of mushrooms and turtles. Senator Joseph Liebermann of Connecticut joined forces with other politicians to crack down on Mortal Kombat and other adult games, opining that their gruesome content was no different than an R-rated movie and shouldn’t be marketed toward children.
Nintendo was firmly on the side of politicians like Liebermann. The Japanese game maker had built a reputation as a purveyor of fun for the whole family. True to form, Sega opposed its rival, but only to a point. A number of court hearings that devolved into reps from Sega and Nintendo hurling insults at each other eventually led to the formation of the Electronic Ratings Software Board (ESRB) in the summer of 1994. Moving forward, games were assigned ratings intended to gives parents a heads-up about their content.
But late in the summer of 1993, with Mortal Monday fast approaching, the ESRB was still nearly a year away. Sega and Nintendo gave their consent to hosting Mortal Kombat on their platforms as long as Probe, Sculptured Software, Midway, and Acclaim held to certain rules. Sega’s compromise was sticking an “MA-13” rating on the Sega Genesis version, the rough equivalent of a PG-13 rating on a movie.
Nintendo went further than trusting parents to decide if their kids were mature enough to handle MK’s bloodshed. An internal division called The Mario Club exercised nearly total control over the publishing process. “You’d actually get game and feature criticism as well,” said Peters. “You’d get it from their gaming analysts. First, you’d get approval to make the game. Then you’d submit the game for approval. Then they would give you bug reports, and then they’d give you qualitative reports of, ‘Here’s the stuff that’s good, here’s the stuff that’s bad.’”
While content creators such as Midway owned their IP, the Mario Club, on behalf of Nintendo exercised control over what form that IP could take on Nintendo platforms. Content the analysts deemed unfit, for any reason, had to be changed. “Nintendo’s goal of their new publishing agreements was to avoid what happened with the [the market crash of ‘83],” Peters said, “by controlling and regulating the content so that shelves weren’t filled with unsold crap again.”
Nintendo’s Mario Club team sent word to Acclaim and Sculptured Software that Mortal Kombat had to be sanitized on Super Nintendo. Blood was changed to gray “sweat” that didn’t splatter on the ground, unlike blood from the arcade version. The change benefitted hardware concerns as well as satisfied Nintendo’s strict guidelines. “It was more like real sweat because it disappeared, and that made Nintendo happy,” Peters explained, “but [dissipating instead of splattering] also got sprites off the screen. There were only so many sprites we could render per frame. Having sweat linger on the ground meant more sprites, meant flashing or other issues with the characters.”
Sega operated under looser guidelines. Higher-ups knew that catering to older players would make Sega’s version more appealing to that demographic. A Sega engineer, Paul Carruthers, helped make it happen. Carruthers was on-site to help with bug testing near the end of production when permission to sneak blood and gore into the game came down from on high. “I moved down there for a period of maybe a month, three months at the worst,” he said. “They would put me up in a bed-and-breakfast in Croydon, and I became an honorary employee. It was close to the end that we found out things like Nintendo wouldn’t allow blood in the SNES version, and they wouldn’t allow blood in Germany. There was this backlash against what was, at the time, a very violent game.”
By default, Mortal Kombat on Genesis was clean, without even a drop of the sweat found in the SNES version. Sega had voluntarily scrubbed out blood and replaced fatalities with replacements even tamer than those designed by Sculptured Software: Johnny Cage kicks his opponent across the screen, and Sub-Zero simply uppercuts them, sending them flying higher than usual before they crash to the ground. That would satisfy the politicians and parents up in arms over the game’s violence, and it was the responsible thing to do. But at the main menu, players could press down, up, left, left, A, right, and down, spelling out DULLARD, to reveal a cheat menu. In the secret screen, they could do things like enable blood, which also reinstated the original arcade fatalities, and choose which arena to fight in. “I came up with DULLARD, because it just amused me to arrange everything that was at your fingertips: A, B, C, and D, U, L, R for the movement. There’s not much more you can do with that,” said Carruthers.
Later, someone at Acclaim worried that DULLARD would be too hard for players to remember. “The ABACABB code was forced upon me: I was instructed to put in a code word that only used A, B, and C,” said Carruthers.
He wanted a mnemonic, but the limited number of buttons on the Genesis controller — three by default, though players could pay extra for a six-button controller — left him without much wiggle room. He settled on ABACABB, a nod to the album “Abacab” by rock band Genesis. At a screen just before the main menu, players could press A-B-A-C-A-B-B to enable all the blood and gory fatalities from the arcade hidden behind the thin veil of censorship. (All other cheats remained hidden in the DULLARD menu.) Carruthers’ last-minute addition became known as “the blood code” among fans and journalists, and remains one of gaming’s most infamous cheats.
Sega and Probe knew the existence of ABACABB and DULLARD would incur the wrath of Liebermann and parental groups. They kept both codes secret, trusting that some enterprising player would discover them. From there, word-of-mouth would imbue the Genesis version with a mystique that — fingers crossed — would give Sega an advantage over Nintendo in the 16-bit “console war.”
Dan Amrich and a friend were among the first to use the DULLARD code. Amrich had just graduated college and had pre-ordered Mortal Kombat for the Genesis, his console of choice. It was due to release on September 13, but his local store broke the street date and sold Amrich’s friend Carl a copy of the game early. Carl called up Amrich and mentioned that someone on Usenet, a bulletin board system where users could post messages about virtually any topic, claimed there was a blood code for the Genesis that made it nearly identical to the arcade. Carl wasn’t able to test the code, so he asked Amrich to do it.
“DULLARD opened a developer debug menu that let you not only toggle the blood on and off, but several other dev-test things, like making Reptile appear,” said Amrich, referring to Mortal Kombat’s secret character.
Amrich entered the menu and found switches that could be toggled on or off. Some, like “Blood,” were obvious. Others were head-scratchers; Flag 0, Flag 1, Flag 2, and several others were set to on or off, but contained no context as to what they enabled or disabled. “The only way to determine what they did was to go through, methodically, and test them. So I did that basically all weekend and came up with the definitive guide for what seven of the eight flags did.”
Amrich wrote up an exhaustive document that detailed the functionality of each flag. He asked his dad to fax it to GamePro, his favorite magazine, which gave a free t-shirt to anyone who sent in a cheat that could be verified. “A few days later I got a phone call from one of their editors, asking me how I got the code and if I was using this on a retail copy of the game. They had the EPROM for review, but they hadn’t gotten final retail versions yet. I assured them that it was legit and told them how I’d figured out all the flags.”
The editor who called was Lawrence “Scary Larry” Neves. (It was GamePro policy for each editor to write under multiple pseudonyms to make the magazine’s scrappy editorial team appear larger than it really was.) Neves thanked Amrich for his submission, and complimented him on his writing. Neves informed him that the cheat would run as a two-page spread due to all the hype surrounding Mortal Kombat. As a bonus, he paid Amrich the ultimate compliment. “We don’t usually get cheat submissions that are this clear and complete,” he said.
Amrich mentioned that he just happened to be looking for freelance work. Neves said the magazine didn’t have the budget for it at the moment, but he was welcome to try again in the future.
Several weeks later, Amrich’s t-shirt arrived in the mail. It was too small. A few years later, Amrich landed a job at the magazine. His first official act as a GamePro editor was to claim what was rightfully his. “I remember finding a GamePro shirt in a storage area and loudly proclaiming, ‘This is mine! You owe me this!’”