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How Mortal Kombat conquered gaming

DAVID GURA, BYLINE: Before my colleague Scott Detrow took off this weekend, he got back into Mortal Kombat, a video game from his childhood - really into it, actually. A friendly warning, because this is Mortal Kombat, there are sounds of over-the-top video game fight scenes.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: When writer David Craddock was 10 years old, he walked into an arcade with his dad.

DAVID CRADDOCK: We're going into the arcade where I would normally play games like Golden Axe, Final Fight, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. And when I got into the arcade, right at the entrance, there was this mob of people surrounding an arcade cabinet.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO GAME, "MORTAL KOMBAT")

STEVE RITCHIE: Fight.

CRADDOCK: The crowd was so thick, you actually couldn't see what game it was. And on that screen, I look up, and I thought I was looking at a martial arts movie.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO GAME, "MORTAL KOMBAT")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Ya (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Ooh.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Ya.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Ooh.

CRADDOCK: I saw the screen go dark, and I saw one punch his hand through the opponent's chest and rip out his heart.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO GAME, "MORTAL KOMBAT")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character, screaming).

(SOUNDBITE OF BLOOD SLOSHING)

RITCHIE: Kano wins - fatality.

CRADDOCK: And that was when my dad, who was standing behind me, goes, nope, nope, nope, nope, and escorted me out of the arcade.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TECHNO SYNDROME (MORTAL KOMBAT)")

THE IMMORTALS: Mortal Kombat.

DETROW: That game - 1992's Mortal Kombat, a video game that quickly became known for its over-the-top violence. It took arcades and, later, American homes by storm.

CRADDOCK: Suddenly, parents were going to go out and buy this cartridge and, you know, let their kids, you know, rip out hearts and pull off heads in the living room.

DETROW: Soon it grabbed the attention of members of Congress, like Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOE LIEBERMAN: Like the Grinch who stole Christmas, these violent video games threaten to rob this particular holiday season of a spirit of goodwill.

DETROW: But more than being just a lightning rod for moral outrage, Mortal Kombat became a pop culture phenomenon with comic books, toys, movies.

CRADDOCK: It's not just a great fighting game. It is actually the best-selling fighting game franchise of all time.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DETROW: Thirty years on, millions are still playing Mortal Kombat. A new version is out now. In fact, last week I was dismembered by my co-host Juana Summers.

Ooh.

JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: Could really use that in real life - love this. OK.

DETROW: I want you describe that you just kicked through my chest. I'm fine. Oh.

SUMMERS: I think I just drove two fans into Scott's skull.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO GAME, "MORTAL KOMBAT 1")

JAMIESON PRICE: Kitana wins.

SUMMERS: Oh.

DETROW: Yeah.

SUMMERS: That was very satisfying.

(APPLAUSE)

DETROW: This little bout of bloody competition in the new Mortal Kombat game happened right here in the ALL THINGS CONSIDERED office. But back in the day when Mortal Kombat first came out, these kinds of battles happened in rowdy, crowded arcades. And Mortal Kombat's signature violence was just one way the game differentiated itself from all the others.

CRADDOCK: Part of the over-the-top violence - not just the blood but, you know, upper-cutting someone and knocking them 20 feet into the air - was a way to kind of catch your attention, no different than Killer Instinct a couple years later with that announcer who would shout...

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO GAME, "KILLER INSTINCT")

CHRIS SUTHERLAND: Ultra combo.

CRADDOCK: Operators would crank the volume up to 11 because they wanted you to be across the arcade and go, oh, what's that, and kind of make your way over to the games.

DETROW: That's writer David Craddock, who you heard from earlier. His book, "Long Live Mortal Kombat," chronicles the history and legacy of the series. In fact, he's been writing about the game for a while now.

CRADDOCK: My first paid writing job was - as a sixth grader, my mom got me the strategy guide. I went to our school's computer lab. I typed up all the fatalities, printed out, like, 50 copies and sold them for a quarter each.

DETROW: All these years later, he's still writing and thinking about it. The game still has those fatalities.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO GAME, "MORTAL KOMBAT 1")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Ooh.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLOOD SPURTING)

PRICE: Fatality.

DETROW: But in a lot of other ways, it's changed. For example, new Mortal Kombat games aren't released in the arcades. Serious competition happens elsewhere - in big online arenas at esports events that draw tens of thousands of viewers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER: And that's going to be it. The breakaway is used, and the grab seals the deal. NinjaKilla has done what no MK11 player has ever done before.

DETROW: Ouassima Belmoussi became a fan of Mortal Kombat at a tournament in the Netherlands.

OUASSIMA BELMOUSSI: I was thinking first, like, oh, am I getting accepted as, like, a girl, a woman? So for me, it was, like, really hard to make a choice. But then I was like, hey; I need friends who, like, share the same interests and passion and stuff.

DETROW: And she found that in the competitive Mortal Kombat scene.

BELMOUSSI: Yeah. It was, like, one of the most fun experiences in my life.

DETROW: Now, better known by her handle LOSTyGIRL, she plays the game on the streaming service Twitch. It isn't just the competitive scene that's grabbed the attention of newer Mortal Kombat players like her, though. It's the game's story, which has 30 years of lore to draw from now. Belmoussi says her favorite character is Mileena, often a villain in the series and often pit against her own sister, Kitana. But in the latest release, called Mortal Kombat 1, that relationship has changed.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO GAME, "MORTAL KOMBAT 1")

KARI WAHLGREN: (As Kitana) Mother is only trying to protect you, sister.

BELMOUSSI: I was always dreaming about Mileena and her sister Kitana being, like, besties. I was so glad. Like, oh, my gosh. They made my dream come true.

DETROW: That's just one of the ways co-creator Ed Boon is trying to continue to engage fans.

Ed Boon, get over here.

ED BOON: I'm already there (laughter).

DETROW: That was a polite laugh. I'll take it. We asked him how he went from making pinball games to building a multigenerational franchise.

BOON: In 1986, I went for an interview with a company called Williams Electronics, and I was under the impression that it was for a video game programmer. And at the interview, I was - kind of learned that it was for a pinball programmer. And so I joined kind of with the hopes that eventually I could move over to the video game department. And that's exactly what happened. I programmed pinball games for about three years and then joined the video game department after that.

DETROW: What were the original conversations like? Like, what was the first idea? What were you trying to do when you first started thinking up what became Mortal Kombat?

BOON: This was in 1991, and a game called Street Fighter 2 had come out, right? It was - you know, it's a similar kind of format - two fighters basically in an arena fighting.

DETROW: More sonic booms, fewer Scorpion throws, yeah?

BOON: Exactly. You know, and they had kind of like an anime art style, right? It was hand drawn. Our main focus was with digitized graphics, right? Like, we would point a camera at a person and record them doing a motion, and that's how we would make our sprites, our animations. And we were thinking, you know, I bet you if we did a photorealistic version of a fighting game like Karate Champ or Street Fighter or whatnot, we can really stand out visually. That was basic - the base conversation that started that.

DETROW: When did you first realize how big of a hit it was? Is there a particular moment that sticks in your head of like, whoa, this - we made it, this is a thing?

BOON: It wasn't until the next year that Acclaim Entertainment pulled me aside at a Consumer Electronics Show, and they put in a videotape. And it was basically the commercial, the TV commercial, that famous one of the kids yelling Mortal - you know, Mortal Kombat in the streets of New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Mortal Kombat.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Mortal Kombat.

BOON: They said something like, we're going to put $10 million in the marketing of this game. It's going to be the biggest thing ever. And I remember saying to them, you know, hey; I think you might be overinvesting in this, you know, and kind of assuming it's going to be bigger than it is. And I could not have been more wrong.

DETROW: What are the biggest differences in creating a video game now compared to back then? I mean, obviously, the technology is exponentially different. The platforms are exponentially more powerful. It's so much more part of the culture than it was back then. How does that all change how you start thinking about, like, the planning and the production and the scripting and all of that? Like, what are the biggest differences?

BOON: Well, you hit that nail on the head. The technology is exponentially bigger, but in addition, the scope of the game is exponentially bigger. You know, to give you an idea, the first Mortal Kombat game was four people doing the entire game. And it was just one programmer, myself, two graphic artists, John Tobias and a guy named John Vogel, and an audio composer engineer, a guy named Dan Ford. He's the guy who pokes his head out and says toasty in the game.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO GAME, "MORTAL KOMBAT")

DAN FORD: (As character, singing) Toasty.

DETROW: Nine-year-old me would have demanded that I ask you, like, why? What was the backstory on the toasty guy?

BOON: At the time that we did Mortal Kombat II, we realized how effective hidden features in the games were, you know, mysteries, basically. You know, what is that? What's that character standing there? So with Mortal Kombat II, Dan Ford, the audio engineer, he used to say - he used to use the phrase toasty all the time. And so I thought it would be funny, when you do an uppercut, to make the - his head come out and say...

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO GAME, "MORTAL KOMBAT")

FORD: (As character, singing) Toasty.

BOON: ...It would just make the player go, what the hell was that?

DETROW: Could you - if you put in a certain cheat, could you get to the final level if you put it in when he said toasty? 'Cause that was the hot rumor in school, and I never knew if it was true 'cause I could never get it right.

BOON: What you could do was if - when the toasty guy came out, if you held - I think if you held down on the joystick, and you hit the start button, then a secret fight with a character, Smoke, would come up.

DETROW: I tried so many times.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BOON: Yeah, that was undocumented. Again, a lot of the secrets that we put we never documented. We never told people how to do it. It just became a seemingly random event that would just get somebody talking and go run to their friends and say, I swear I saw this.

DETROW: So the hot rumor at lunch was you get to the final level. I'm glad that you're - fact-checked this.

BOON: (Laughter) That's right. That's right.

DETROW: You know, one of the storylines of this all along, at least in the real world, is the various ways that people have reacted to the violence over time. Mortal Kombat was right in the middle of kind of culture war panic moments of congressional hearings and in the middle of political campaigns and things like that. What was that experience like for you? What did you make of that time?

BOON: You know, video games were maturing, and there was no rating system. And that was the main objection, right? You had this violent game coming out, and there was no rating system like, you know, you'd see explicit lyrics label on a CD. And so that was the kind of - the uproar that had happened. And we were, like, yeah, that makes sense. And by the time Mortal Kombat II came along...

DETROW: Yeah.

BOON: ...The rating system, ESRB, had come along, and we were rated M for mature. and ever since then, that whole issue has been, you know, really not really there.

DETROW: But of course, for so many players, the violence is the appeal. And it's not just violence. It's cartoonish, over-the-top finishing moves. You know, it's so violent, it's funny in a way at the end. What are the pitch meetings like? Like, how do you come up with the fatalities and the moves like that for the next version of the game? What - how do those conversations even start?

BOON: You know, we have to come up with, you know, 40, 50 fatalities per game. So it's not like one person comes up with them. It's pretty much a committee. There's a committee of team members - anybody who really wants to attend. And they sit around, and they throw out ideas. And the ones that resonate with the group are usually - OK, let's storyboard that out, and see how it looks. And then they'll send it to me, and then I'll either say, no, no, no, we're not going to do that. That's for sure. Or I'll say, OK, yeah, let's do this, but let's punctuate this moment. Let's do that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) Ah.

(SOUNDBITE OF GLASS BREAKING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As Johnny Cage) Vroom, vroom.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLOOD SLOSHING)

DETROW: Who's your favorite Mortal Kombat character?

BOON: Scorpion.

DETROW: And you do the voice, right?

BOON: Yeah. Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BOON: (As Scorpion) Get over here.

Oddly, I have the "Guinness Book Of World Records" of the longest voice representing a video game character. I just edged out Mario by, like, four months or something crazy like that.

DETROW: And I think he just retired. So you can expand that record.

BOON: He did. He did. I actually felt bad when I read that, so...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RITCHIE: Scorpion wins.

DETROW: What do you hope the lasting legacy of Mortal Kombat is or will be?

BOON: The lasting legacy - well, it's probably unrealistic, but I'd like to think that its legacy is going to be something similar to DC Comics or Marvel Comics or something, you know, the - "Star Wars," right? - an ensemble type of license that has tons of characters, all of which could be spun off into their own things. Some people call it a forever franchise, right? Like, you're never going to say, OK, well, that's the last, you know, DC Comics we're ever going to read. There's an assumption that DC will always be around, and I'm hoping that Mortal Kombat is eventually put into that category where there's always an assumption that it's going to be around.

DETROW: That's Ed Boon, co-creator of Mortal Kombat. Thank you so much for joining us.

BOON: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.