35 Years Ago, A Controversial Video Game Didn't Hit The Way You Think
Here’s what really happened with Mortal Kombat 2 came out.
Blood, guts, and blisters on thumbs! A fistful of quarters added up to countless after-school sessions of fatalities, as 1993 saw Mortal Kombat 2 arrive in arcades across the country. The first game revolutionized 2-D fighting games with realistic graphics and a barbaric new level of gore. This brutal button masher stirred up serious controversy, making it more popular in the face of opposition. While the sequel celebrates its 30th arcade anniversary this year along with a new game on the horizon, its history has a checkered, and confusing, past, that altered video games forever. Let’s talk about the infamous Mortal Kombat 2, which, celebrated its birthday on June 25, 1993. Or did it?
The development of MK2 happened not long after the first Mortal Kombat was released, intending to achieve what the first game couldn’t. Armed with a bigger budget and state-of-the-art equipment thanks to the success of the original, Ed Boon and John Tobias took the sequel to new heights. But when did it happen?
What was Mortal Kombat 2’s actual release date?
Here's the thing: MK2’s first arcade release date seems to be a mystery no one on the internet can agree on. Googling it claims June 25, 1993, as the date, with Giant Bomb sharing that info. But that same search offers a sidebar claiming the initial release was in April. Clearly, if you want real knowledge, this kind of cursory info isn’t enough. So, we went a little deeper.
A scanned operations manual for the cabinet is dated October 1993. This means that the actual manual given to arcade owners seems to have been printed in October. This seems to check out with Wikipedia which has a November 1993 release date, which is echoed by IMDB. Most articles from magazines of the time seem to indicate that Fall 1993 is closer to when it first hit arcades. Now, to be clear, it wasn’t actually playable on home consoles — like Super NES or Sega Genesis — until the following year, in September 1994. So, if you have fuzzy memories of playing MK2 at home, or at your friend’s house, that’s 1994, not 1993.
How Mortal Kombat 2 displaced the first game
No matter when it actually came out, every element of Mortal Kombat 2 was overhauled and updated from the first game. In a sense, this is the most successful video game sequel of all time, so much so that it basically displaced the first game. When we think of “classic” Mortal Kombat imagery, we’re inevitably thinking of Mortal Kombat 2, not the sequel.
MK 2 included a much larger roster of characters; the original game only had seven fighters, whereas the sequel had twelve. Playable characters Reptile, Jax, Kitana, and Mileena all made their debuts here. Also, although not a playable character, the four-armed “boss” Kintaro also entered the arena in this game first.
Despite the overwhelming reputation the game had for bloodshed, the sequel incorporated a lot of quirky humor. Instead of splattering your rival’s guts, “Babalities” were possible, in which the winner transformed their opponent into a diaper-wearing toddler. Equally non-violent, “Friendships” allowed players to spare lives by offering balloons, gifts, or disco dancing.
The Mortal Kombat ‘90s Backlash
While gamers were reveling in Mortal Kombat 2, advocacy groups were preparing for a different battle. Multiple organizations were concerned with the content, and a moral panic swept the nation, leading to a congressional hearing by the end of 1993.
These attacks on gaming placed the first MK game and the laughably-bad Sega CD game, Night Trap, at the core of the argument. The success of MK2 stoked the flames of this chaos, worrying advocacy groups about where games could go next. Led by Senators Joe Lieberman and Herb Kohl, this panel insisted the violent and crude content in games was poisoning the youth of America, inciting dangerous aggression, and needed to be regulated. “Instead of enriching a child’s mind, these games teach a child to enjoy torture,” Lieberman stated in December ’93, before showing Sub-Zero tear his opponent's head clean off his shoulders. Today, the number of Mortal Kombat copycat crimes is somewhere close to zero. Today, the nostalgia that parents have for this ‘90s video game property is so strong, that new Mortal Kombat products, including the 2021 movie, are directly aimed at parents. Greg Russo, the writer of the 2021 Mortal Kombat movie told Fatherly, “I grew up in that age bracket of going to the arcade and, you know, playing there for hours every day after school back in the mid-nineties...I’m a father. I didn’t show the red-band trailer to my four-year-old. I didn’t do that. I think you need to use your own judgment and your own sensibilities there. It’s a violent movie.”
Back in a 2010 interview, Ed Boon, the creative director of NetherRealm Studios said “I wouldn't want my ten-year-old kid playing a game like that.” Essentially, he sympathized with the hearings, which were, famously backed by Tipper Gore.
The game industry reacted by creating the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, which still exists today to voluntarily rate games similar to how the MPAA rates films. MK2 earned an “M for Mature” rating, although is far tamer than the current MK games on the market. In fact, the legacy of Mortal Kombat 2 might simply be that the controversy surrounding it feels quaint today. Studies are generally spilt as to how much contemporary video games contribute to actual crime, but in the 1990s, the connection we tenuous at best. Plus, what seems to get forgotten in all of that backlash is that the people behind Mortal Kombat, both then, and now, agree that not all of it is suitable for young kids. The fatalities of Mortal Kombat may be infamous but for those of a certain generation — who remember jokingly yelling “Get over here!” — these cage matches existed in a much simpler, and more innocent time.
Mortal Kombat 2 is accessible to play via unofficial emulators, or available to buy as a modern arcade cabinet in different sizes via Arcade 1Up.