THE MAKING OF: Mortal Kombat

January 17, 2022

Mortal Kombat creators Ed Boon and John Tobias have stated that Midway Games tasked them with the project of developing a "combat game for release within a year", which the two believed was intended to compete with the popular Street Fighter II: The World Warrior.


According to Tobias, he and Boon had envisioned a fighting game similar to Data East's Karate Champ but featuring large digitized characters even before that, and the success of Capcom's Street Fighter II only helped them convince the management of their idea. Boon said the development team initially consisted of four people — himself as programmer, artists John Tobias and John Vogel, and Dan Forden as sound designer. The game's budget was around $1 million.


According to Richard Divizio and Daniel Pesina, Mortal Kombat had actually begun when Tobias along with Divizio and the brothers Daniel and Carlos Pesina planned to create a ninja-themed fighting game, however this idea was rejected by Midway's entire management. Instead, Midway sought to make an action game based on the upcoming movie Universal Soldier and featuring a digitized version of martial arts film star Jean-Claude Van Damme, but he was already in negotiations with another company for a video game that ultimately was never released. Divizio then convinced Tobias to return to their original project. In the end, Van Damme was parodied in the game in the form of Johnny Cage (with whom he shares his name's initials, JC), a narcissistic Hollywood movie star who performs a split punch to the groin in a nod to a scene from Bloodsport. Tobias credited other inspirations as having come from the Asian martial arts cinema.


Boon later said, "since the beginning, one of the things that's separated us from other fighting games is the crazy moves we've put in it, like fireballs and all the magic moves, so to speak." According to Tobias, the game's ultraviolent content had not been originally intended and was only implemented gradually as the development progressed.


The concept of Fatalities in particular evolved from the "dizzied" mechanic in earlier fighting games. Boon said that he hated the "dizzied" mechanic, but that it was fun to have one's opponent get dizzied and get in a free hit. Boon and Tobias decided they could eliminate the aggravation of getting dizzied by having it occur at the end of the fight, after the outcome had already been decided. An early version of the game used two more buttons for middle punch and kick attacks.


Mortal Kombat was reportedly developed in 10 months from 1991 to 1992, with a test version seeing limited release halfway through the development cycle. As a demo version of the game, which featured only six characters (all male), became internally popular within Midway offices, the team was given more time to work on it, resulting in the addition of Sonya to the roster. Footage for the game's digitized characters was filmed with Tobias' personal Hi-8 camcorder. The final arcade game used eight megabytes of graphics data, with each character having 64 colors and around 300 frames of animation.


The team had difficulty settling on a name for the game. Ed Boon has stated that for six months during development "nobody could come up with a name nobody didn't hate." Some of the names suggested were Kumite, Dragon Attack, Death Blow and Fatality. One day, someone had written down "combat" on the drawing board for the names in Boon's office and someone wrote a K over the C, according to Boon, "just to be kind of weird." Pinball designer Steve Ritchie was sitting in Boon's office, saw the word "Kombat" and said to him, "Why don't you name it Mortal Kombat?", a name that Boon stated "just stuck."


John Tobias recalled this a bit differently, saying it "came about during the trademark process in naming the game. We really liked Mortal Combat as a name, but it couldn't get past legal." Since then, the series has begun frequently using the letter K in place of the letter C when it has the hard C sound.


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