Mortal Kombat at 30: Co-creator Ed Boon looks back on its creation and legacy
Thirty years ago this week, the original Mortal Kombat hit arcades. That game not only capitalized on the arcade fighting game craze spurred by Street Fighter 2 — it spawned a franchise that has endured over dozens of sequels, spinoffs, movies, and animated series.
At the now-defunct Midway Games, Mortal Kombat was created by an unthinkably small team: programmer Ed Boon, artist John Tobias, sound programmer and composer Dan Forden, and artist John Vogel. Together with Chicago-area actors and martial artists Daniel Pesina and Carlos Pesina, Richard Divizio, Ho Sung Pak, and Elizabeth Malecki, they created an instant classic packed with enduring characters like Scorpion, Sub-Zero, and Sonya Blade. Mortal Kombat changed fighting games forever and became a billion-dollar multimedia franchise.
The creation of Mortal Kombat also changed the conversation around violence in video games. Alongside 16-bit shlock like Night Trap, the spotlight on Mortal Kombat — especially its wildly successful home console versions — was largely responsible for the implementation of a video game ratings system. With its trademark blood splashes, decapitations, and gruesome fatalities, Mortal Kombat became better known for its graphic violence than its actual gameplay. Thirty years later, however, Mortal Kombat remains a beloved franchise, for its over-the-top presentation and its AAA quality.
Over the past year, Mortal Kombat co-creator Ed Boon has been looking back at the creation of the original game, releasing unearthed footage of its development on Twitter. Those videos show the challenges of working with relatively young technology — digitized graphics of real-life actors — and designing a video game on the fly. Mortal Kombat fans can watch those videos to see Boon and Tobias riffing in real time about how their game will work. There’s a DIY charm to these videos, which show martial artists and inexperienced game designers clearly unaware of the cultural phenomenon they’re about to unleash.
Earlier this week, I had a chance to speak with Boon, now chief creative officer at NetherRealm Studios, about his memories working on Mortal Kombat — and where the franchise is headed after the most recent entry in the series, 2019’s Mortal Kombat 11.
[Ed. note: The following interview has been edited and condensed.]
Ed Boon: I have to keep reminding myself that none of the 30 years of experience that we’ve learned is being applied there [laughs]. Everything was fresh and new — first fighting game, first everything. It was just us taking guesses: Yeah, this should work, and that should work. So there was a lot of innocence. We were in our 20s [during the development of Mortal Kombat], and it was a different time. But I look back at it very positively. It was a lot of fun. There was a lot of excitement — we had a lot of ideas that we wanted to try that we thought were going to end up being very cool. And a lot of them did.
I’ve read interviews with you and watched interviews with you where you talked about how Street Fighter 2 was big at the time, but what was it? Was it just Street Fighter is big, and we want to do something? Or was there more of a directive from Midway to make a fighting game, Mortal Kombat?
There was no directive. Again, the crazy thing about Mortal Kombat, it was four guys in their 20s who grew up on RoboCop, The Terminator, and Enter the Dragon — ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s movies — cut loose with pretty cutting-edge technology for the time — digitized graphics — and just hitting the sweet spot of our ideas, the acceptance of those ideas, [and] the technology. So I think it was the combination of these young guys with ideas, with state-of-the-art technology in their hands, nobody telling them what they can’t do, asking themselves, What would be cool? And then we did it. We had the ability to execute on the ideas. So it was no shackles, and that was the result. Plus, there was a lot of luck and timing — and the attention we got from [U.S.] senators and all that added fuel to the fire. It was just everything layered on. The movie came out. You know, it was unstoppable. And it was out of our hands before we knew it.
What was the reaction from Midway management? Did they have any concerns or feedback? Or did they look at it and go, like, Wow, we have a hit on our hands.
Probably the latter, if anything. If there was something that we would even say, ‘Is this going too far?’ our CEO was like, No, go even further. Plus we had [Midway game designer] Eugene Jarvis as our mentor; he was head of the department and he had just done Narc, which was a pretty violent game in its own right. So if anything, we were encouraged to go even further. But I do remember a few times, like the Sub-Zero spine-rip fatality, I remember saying out loud, ‘I don’t think we can get away with that.’ But everybody was so excited about it. It was pretty much, You can’t take that out. And, at the end of the day, I think they were right.
You couldn’t walk away from that game when you saw it. It was just, like, Wow, real people fighting. And then layered on top of that is, He just tore his head off… and there’s his spine! There were so many things that made that game. You couldn’t ignore it.
Mortal Kombat will be 30 years old in 2022. But 2021 marks 30 years since we actually BEGAN working on the game. To celebrate, it seemed like a fun idea to share some behind-the-scenes stuff. This clip shows how we created Scorpion’s iconic (GET OVER HERE!) spear move. (1 of 9) pic.twitter.com/3f1tdvjG9R
— Ed Boon (@noobde) October 12, 2021
The original pitch for Mortal Kombat was supposed to involve Jean-Claude Van Damme in some way. I know that he had some other deal with another party that nullified any kind of Van Damme game at Midway. Have you ever spoken to him? Does he know about the franchise’s ties to him?
I wonder that myself too. We’ve been pretty vocal with our story of wanting it to be a Van Damme game, and we actually made a presentation — like, a video [to show Van Damme]. I found it in my basement a few months ago. It’s an actual tape — I’m gonna probably release it online somewhere — but it’s our pitch to Van Damme. We took images of Bloodsport and talked about digitized graphics and how it’s going to be [Van Damme] in the game. At some point he passed. But we later inquired, maybe a couple of times, as recently as, like, [Mortal Kombat 9], if he wanted to be in a skin of the game. For some reason, it just never came through. But yeah, I wonder if he even knows that he was supposed to be the Mortal Kombat guy. He was supposed to be Johnny Cage.
Did you have any concerns about kids at arcades playing the game? Or being exposed to graphic violence? Or were you just like, This is what arcades are, like, people come here for this stuff?
I don’t remember stopping anybody from playing the game, no.
But I do remember that when it started getting attention, and people were saying that there should be a ratings system, like music and movies have — I remember thinking, Yeah, I agree, it makes sense to do that. You know, technology was just evolving so much; before there was only so much you can do in a video game. And then all of a sudden, you see real people on the screen, having real acts of violence being done to them. And then it’s natural to go, Yeah, there probably should be that gate here. Everybody shouldn’t see this.
Did the Senate hearings on video games, as it relates to violence and Mortal Kombat’s role in it, did that cause you any stress at the time?
It probably did, but I don’t remember a lot of it. Like I said, I remember agreeing with the argument. I don’t remember thinking, No, there should not be a rating. That was not in my mind. I remember thinking that if Mortal Kombat didn’t come along, another game would have come along, and the ratings system was inevitable. At some point, some other game would have crossed that line and garnered similar attention.
We saw [the hearings] on the news and that was part of lightning striking — the news bringing it to more people’s attention. Everybody was going, I’ve gotta see this game everybody’s talking about. Then they got hooked on the game, and… and it just kind of snowballed from there.
You talk about how the first game was just the four of you guys just spitballing, coming up with whatever you wanted to do that you thought was cool. But what was the transition like for you developing Mortal Kombat 2? Because there’s got to be some amount of pressure there, right?
One thing that stands out to me was when we did MK 2, we did not include Kano or Sonya. And I think that gave us the impression that the characters weren’t sacred. So for Mortal Kombat 3, we didn’t have Scorpion, and we didn’t have Raiden in the game. And we heard it [from fans]. We heard the blowback. The first thing we did with Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 was put Scorpion and classic Sub-Zero in the game. We really learned our lesson that there are things you just don’t touch: Don’t you dare do a Mortal Kombat game without Scorpion in it! But MK 2 was so big that we thought, Oh, everybody wants new characters. Let’s do that. Turns out they just want additional characters, as well as their favorites.
Between MK 1 and MK 2, we had a lot of new hardware and software for capturing the images coming online, and the results were dramatically better. So in the graphics department, we absolutely knew we would take a step up in graphics and presentation. We also knew we were going to have more memory, so we knew we’re going to have more characters there. There was so much that we learned on the first game that I kick myself for. I can almost not play Mortal Kombat 1. So there was a certain amount of confidence of, We know we can do better. There was an assumption that of course it’s going to be better. So I don’t remember being nervous. I just remember thinking, Yeah, we’re going to overdeliver on what people are expecting, and it just panned out nicely.
What makes you say that you can’t play the original Mortal Kombat?
Oh god. It doesn’t have cross-ups. It doesn’t have as nearly as good of a combo system. It doesn’t have as many elaborate combos. Some of them are too hard. I mean, the amount of special moves is so limited — I think, god, Sub-Zero has two moves? The slide and the ice, and that’s it! So again, a lot of the confidence [in making MK 2 was], we absolutely need to give them more special moves, two fatalities, and come back with a slam dunk.
We didn’t know what juggling was [when we were making Mortal Kombat] until we stumbled on it. I saw somebody doing it and thought, Oh, you can hit him before he lands? So we were like, OK, let’s play up on that.
You talked about learning lessons from MK 2 and MK 3 with these sacred cows that you can’t really sacrifice for games, but the series has also always tried to do something new with each iteration. You’re in a successful period right now with Mortal Kombat, but do you ever feel like there was a time when you didn’t really know where it was going? Or that this series was at a lower point, or had deviated from what you wanted to do with it?
Yeah, for sure. There was a period of time, probably around MK 4. You know, there were two adventure games — I actually didn’t work on them — but it was the Sub-Zero game [Mortal Kombat Mythologies: Sub-Zero] and Mortal Kombat: Special Forces.
And then there was Mortal Kombat vs. DC [Universe]. It sold really well, but it was a lot of compromise. If you were a Mortal Kombat fan, you didn’t get to see the gore and the fatalities and stuff like that. But we did introduce a really cool way of telling the story, with this cinematic presentation that plays out and you fight. And that was kind of like the birth of this kind of classic story mode format that we now have. So there were things that hit, but you’d be surprised by the [compromises we faced] — not just from the ESRB of being a Teen-rated game, but the owners of the IP. It was a different regime of people, and they were much more restrictive.
It was tough for me, because some of those games that didn’t do well, I wasn’t involved with them. It was hard to watch something come out that wasn’t up to standard, and for it to be out of my control. That to me was the hardest part. It took us some time to recover from that. And some people were turned off by the idea of Mortal Kombat action games, but thankfully, like, Mortal Kombat: Shaolin Monks came out, and that kind of, you know, countered that argument. But that was a challenging time that, thankfully, [has] passed.
You’re chief creative officer on Mortal Kombat now. How much control do you have over Mortal Kombat right now? Like, how much of that is built into your job, your contract?
Well, obviously, Warner Bros. owns the IP. But I’m actually more involved now. I’m involved with the animated series, and the next movie that’s coming out, so it’s very exciting, because there’s some really cool stuff that’s being worked on. Just being involved in the scripts and which characters we’re going to include [in projects], and all that stuff, is very exciting for me. Before, I was involved, but not in an official capacity. Now, it’s a little bit more official. And it’s an exciting time — I can’t wait to see people’s reaction to some of the crazy stuff that’s coming out.
You’re in a great place right now with this series, where people love the cinematic storytelling and the fighting mechanics are in a really tight place right now. But I’m also wondering what lessons you think you and the team have learned from Mortal Kombat 11. What do you think were your biggest takeaways there?
There’s a whole bunch of micro decisions, like little moments that happen [in a fight] where what should happen when you break a combo, or the mechanics of a wake-up attack. We change the game every time. Like for MK 11, we didn’t have a run like Mortal Kombat X had. At the end of every game we do a postmortem [where we look at]: What was great? What could have been better? What should we not bring back? Sometimes we don’t bring something back for the big picture of being different. MK X had character variations, and then 11 had create-your-own-character variations. But when we do another game, we probably won’t have character variations. Even though it did well, it’s time to move on to the next thing. So there’s a bunch of little micro decisions that we make.
Then there are the big macro things. What I thought worked really well with MK 11 was that the super move is not tied to the meter. Because the meter is your currency of, Do I want to enhance this move? Do I want to break this combo? Do I want to do [a super move]? So you’re always using that currency, and for the moment-to-moment fighting, good players constantly use it. So they rarely fill it up, let alone find a situation where they want to do the big super move. So we moved it out of that meter, and I think that was a good move, because now it’s more of a big comeback kind of thing. Then that currency of your meter, we split to offense and defense.
We’re always doing things, [altering] the mechanics and how they’re implemented, just to try to hit the sweet spot of competition [and] showmanship. We want special moves, we want X-ray moves, and the big super moves to happen. That’s fun to look at; it’s fun in a tournament. That’s part of the experience. It’s not just [about] the mechanics.
I know you’re probably thinking game to game at this point, but do you ever think about what the future of Mortal Kombat is going to look like in 30 years, what it’s going to become, and who’s going to take over for you?
One thing that’s cool about our team is we have team members who weren’t born when the first Mortal Kombat came out. Certainly, a lot of those new, fresh ideas come from them. And that really keeps things fresh. It’s not just the same people trying to come up with yet something new. I can easily see one of those team members taking over, taking the baton while I go to a beach or something.
And 30 years [from now], I’m trying to think of where technology would even be… But if you had asked me, ‘Where’s Mortal Kombat going to be in 30 years?’ in 1992? I don’t think I would have been saying polygons, X-ray moves, friendship moves, and all these kinds of crazy things [we’ve done]. So it’s hard to predict. I think at its core, it’ll still be a fighting game. Probably something embracing new technology.