After more than two decades and countless fatalities, Mortal Kombat releases its 10th main installment Tuesday. This shamelessly gruesome fighting game franchise has been pushing the boundaries of video game gore since it was first released in 1992 as an arcade fighting game for up to two players. The controls, the blocking capabilities, and the crazy moves players could make were groundbreaking from the beginning, though at first there were seven characters to choose from, and they all looked pretty similar: one ninja, two ninja, yellow ninja, blue ninja. But, over the years, the game’s legendarily graphic death sequences have evolved considerably.
The game was graphic even back in 1992, when puddles of blood looked more like globs of bright red melted Play-Doh. But there was also something playful—as though the developers all had their tongues firmly planted in their cheeks. And that early incarnation of the game introduced Mortal Kombat‘s most distinct and enduring feature: The fatality, an absurdly brutal finishing move that kills a defeated foe. As in, “FINISH HIM!!”
Starting with Mortal Kombat IV in 1997, the games began their transition into 3-D—first with graphics, and then with gameplay. In 2002, Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance was the first game to transition from two-dimensional gameplay, to three-dimensional. Spines get ripped out, faces get eaten, and blood reliably soaks the arena. But somewhere in there, the games started to fizzle.
In Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe in 2008, the games’ gruesome, snickering fighting spirit seemed to dissolve. The game was even rated Teen—a demotion in bloodshed from the game’s traditional Mature rating. Instead of blood and guts, there were things like freeze moves and remarkably clean incinerations. Fatalities like the Joker shooting Batman in the face only produced a quick squirt of blood.
Then came the reboot. 2011’s Mortal Kombat was an updated blast from the past—a return to the games’ 2-D roots that re-energized longtime fans and once again committed to testing players’ tolerance for gore. Whereas Scorpion’s incineration fatality in MK vs. DC basically makes an opponent’s body turn black and fall over, engulfed in flames, MK9 takes its time, offering a close-up of the burning body as little pieces chip off during charring. Also, you get some pretty well-illustrated close-ups of skull cross sections, complete with brains. And also, nailing a guy’s feet to the floor before ripping his torso off his legs—with red spurting everywhere. This installment also made the narrative easier to follow by recapping the story from the first three installments—with minor adjustments—as one cohesive narrative. But, more importantly, the blood was back.
And now Mortal Kombat X is set to be the most gruesome installment yet. The new fatalities are a whole new level of depravity. (As in, you can knock someone’s entire jaw off, and then take a selfie next to their destroyed face.) “It wasn’t until I saw MKX that I had that same feeling of amazement again that I saw in MK1,” one Reddit user, refrainblue, recently wrote. “The graphics are outstanding, the fatalities are more brutal than they’ve ever been. I feel like MK is once again pushing the boundaries [like it did] in 1992.”
Thanks to all the Redditors who helped educate me with background information in this Reddit thread and through direct messages.