“Finish him!” might be Mortal Kombat’s most memorable line. This gory spirit helped launch modern video game ratings.
On this day in 1993, the home version of Mortal Kombat was released for the Super Nintendo console by Nintendo–a company previously known for relatively cute and cuddly Super Nintendo games like Super Mario Bros. and Donkey Kong. “It was the equivalent of Disney distributing Reservoir Dogs [or] American Psycho on Sesame Street,” writes Rob Crossley for the BBC. It was natural that it made waves–but Mortal Kombat ended up being at the forefront of a moral panic about video gaming that changed the pastime forever.
Mortal Kombat was, by all accounts, a creative game that built on past milestones in arcade and home gaming. It was also, by the standards of the time, incredibly violent, writes Crossley.
“Conception of Mortal Kombat began in 1991 when [arcade game maker] Midway tasked series creators Ed Boon and John Tobias with designing a new kind of combat arcade game,” writes T.J. Denzer for Arcade Sushi. At the time, Street Fighter II was incredibly popular in arcades and few games were in direct competition with it. Boon and Tobias took it upon themselves to create something similar to Street Fighter II, yet all their own.”
“The original Mortal Kombat is a tournament organized by the mysterious and treacherous sorcerer Shang Tsung and his champion, the half-human, half-dragon Goro,” Denzer writes. “They have remained undefeated for five centuries and now a new crop of warriors must rise to attempt to regain control of the Mortal Kombat tournament.”
While more recent games like the DOOM series, the Killing Floor series and Grand Theft Auto are all violent and more realistic than Mortal Kombat, the fighting game was staggeringly violent and extremely gory for its time. When parents saw their children decapitating opponents amidst splashes of blood and guts, reactions were… less than amazing.
The backlash started when Mortal Kombat was still an arcade game, Crossley writes, prompting Nintendo to make some changes for its home version, like removing the heads on pikes that were part of the game setting. Around the same time, Sega, the other big home console maker, opted to double down on violence in the home version, writes Caitlin McCabe for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.
“It was the beginning of video games coming of age,” said Greg Fischbach, then the CEO of the company that created the home ports of the arcade game, told Crossley. Although gaming had previously been thought of as a pursuit for children, video game designers were beginning to acknowledge an adult market for the games. But satisfying adult interests meant making games that many parents thought weren’t appropriate for nine-year-olds.
Near the end of 1993, then-Connecticut senator Joe Lieberman testified before a joint congressional hearing on video game violence and minors. The hearing was prompted mainly by Mortal Kombat and concerns that Nintendo and Sega were irresponsibly selling violent games to children, writes Christ Kohler for Wired:
The usual suspects were paraded forth: A representative of the National Coalition on Television Violence said that violent games were “training early killers,” and a university professor said that Nintendo games were not just violent, but “sexist and racist,” too.
It didn’t help that the two video game console-makers took the opportunity to slag each other about their choices regarding censoring Mortal Kombat or making it more violent. As a result of these hearings and pressure from government to self-regulate, Kohler writes, the video game industry launched the Entertainment Software Rating Board, which still rates games from “E for everyone” to “Adults Only.”