Thursday, September 25, 2014

Fighting Game Camps: Mortal Kombat: Part 1

You may have noticed that the fighting games I’ve looked over thus far have all been from Japan.  The truth is, Japan has the heaviest focus in making fighting games nowadays.  There have been a few more western-made fighting games in recent years, like the new Killer Instinct and Skullgirls, but the only western fighting game franchise that has managed to stick around consistently is one of the first: Mortal Kombat.

Mortal Kombat is defined in the public consciousness by its most distinguishing and (mostly) consistent element: violence.  Unlike the flashy hit effects of most Japanese fighting games, Mortal Kombat has always made every punch and cut make blood fly from the player on the receiving end with meatier sound effects.  Equally as famous are the series’ gory finishing moves, the fatalities, in which the designers wracked their brains to come up with as many outlandish ways to destroy a fleshy body as they could.

But there’s more to this franchise than the violence (I don't think any franchise with a camp could be that shallow). The combat plays into the violence, and the games are known by its fans for having more of a story to it that I find a surprising number of people outside of Kamp Kombat are quite knowledgeable of.  It probably helps that unlike other fighting games like Street Fighter or KOF, Mortal Kombat has always had the story in the games themselves instead of relying on a manual or online text page to tell players what’s going on.

With nine different games in the main series plus a tenth on the way, the story of Mortal Kombat is a long one with conflicts and underlying themes that sometimes seem to go beyond simply having a villain be evil and bringing in heroes to stop them, even if that is the most basic summarization of each game.  As for the more detailed summarization…


Mortal Kombat takes place in a multiverse of many different worlds, referred to as “realms.”  Each realm inhabits different people, races and terraformations, and are all given gods to oversee and protect them.  Though these gods keep watch over their assigned realm, Mortal Kombat’s entire universe is overseen by a higher power known as the Elder Gods.  The Elder Gods watch events from a higher plane of existence, but don’t interfere unless something happens to threaten their existence or break an explicit rule they set in place.

There are a handful of different recurring realms shown in the Mortal Kombat franchise, but the ones of focus are Earthrealm and Outworld.  Earthrealm is a realm very much like our own, while Outworld is an otherworldly realm full of monsters, magic, and demons.

The first three Mortal Kombat games revolve around conflicts between Earthrealm and Outworld, starting with the titular Mortal Kombat tournament.

Outworld has the ability to merge other realms with itself, which its evil emperor Shao Kahn uses to make the other realms into his own territory and conquer them.  In order to give other realms a fighting chance and prevent Outworld from merging with everything willy nilly, the Elder Gods made a rule that Outworld can only invade/assimilate a realm by having a team representing them defeat a team representing the targeted realm in a tournament called Mortal Kombat.  Originally in the story you only had to win once, but it was later retconned to Outworld having to win 10 times in a row.

The tournament in the first game is the last one Outworld needs to start the merging, so it’s quite upsetting to Shao Kahn that they lose in the end when the hero Liu Kang defeats their Outworld champion Goro and Kahn’s right-hand sorcerer Shang Tsung.

Or at least, that's what happens in that game now.  Originally the Mortal Kombat tournament in the first game was a shaolin martial arts tournament that was corrupted by its evil grandmaster Shang Tsung.  Outworld didn't even have anything to do with it originally, and some of the characters were characterized differently.  It only has the plot we know today because it's been retconned to hell and back.

In the second game, Shao Kahn challenges Earthrealm to one more Mortal Kombat tournament held in Outworld as a winner-take-all competition.  When that doesn’t work, he finds a way around the rules and invades Earthrealm anyway in the third game.

Every MK game after that until the most recent one has less to do with defending Earthrealm from Outworld and more to do with defending both worlds from varying evils up until one last gigantic clash in Mortal Kombat: Armageddon.  Try to guess what happens in Mortal Kombat: Armageddon.

The games after 3 are also where the story gets complicated.  The plot of the first three Mortal Kombat games are straightforward and simple enough, kind of like KOF, but after the initial trilogy is when the plot starts taking some twists and turns.

In Mortal Kombat 4, the fallen elder god Shinnok and his own right hand sorcerer Quan Chi start their own invasion of the realms with an army of evil built in their own realm, the Netherrealm.

In Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance, Shang Tsung and Quan Chi team up to kill Liu Kang and (supposedly) Shao Kahn in their preparation to invade the realms by resurrecting the invincible mummified army of the Dragon King, the previous ruler of Outworld before Shao Kahn.

In Mortal Kombat: Deception, the Dragon King himself, Onaga, comes back to take control of his army and try his hand at invading after having tricked a man named Shujinko into gathering a bunch of artifacts of power called the Kamidogu to resurrect him.

In Mortal Kombat: Armageddon, almost every character from every Mortal Kombat game gathers in one large area for a gigantic battle.  All of them are informed that the last one standing will be able to claim the prize of ultimate power by killing the fire elemental named Blaze at the top of the gigantic pyramid that rises from the ground.

The most recent Mortal Kombat on the HD systems, known as Mortal Kombat 9, takes place in an alternate timeline in which Earthrealm’s thunder god Raiden attempts to prevent the Armageddon he (somehow) sees in the previous timeline through a connection to his amulet.  The result is a similar basic plotline to the original three games, but with retcons and changes made in Raiden’s attempts to change the future and prevent the Armageddon.  It’s much like the recent Star Trek movies, in that sense.

"I must prevent this from happening.  What is the most clear and straightforward message I can send to my past self?

As I stated, Mortal Kombat can get kind of complicated, and the retcons and inconsistent endings scattered throughout don’t help.  It’s a good story if you take the effort to look into it though.  After all, a clash of good heroes and villains practically writes itself.

The Heroes

Please note that unless stated otherwise, the following descriptions refer to the games before Mortal Kombat 9’s alternate timeline.  Character roles and events of the first 3 games 9 recreates are, for the most part, the same, but with more character deaths and slight alterations.

Mortal Kombat has had many characters that could be classified as heroes, but only a few of them have the distinction of consistently acting as one for the franchise’s entire run.
The most important of them is the aforementioned god of Earthrealm, Raiden.




Raiden is the thunder god that oversees Earthrealm.  Being immortal, he has never aged and his powers have aided Earthrealm’s heroes many times.  He usually acts as the wise mentor to the people of his realm, since gods like him can’t interfere with their own realm unless it’s threatened, but since that happens a lot he gets the opportunity to kick a lot of ass.  Raiden is so dedicated to Earthrealm’s protection that he gives up his status as an Elder God, after his promotion in Mortal Kombat 4, in order to go back to Earthrealm and help beat the Deadly Alliance.  Sadly, the alliance gets the better of him and he dies, but being a god, Raiden is reborn in a more vengeful, darker form, furious with how humans had messed up Earthrealm.  He still fights evil in this form, but is more bitter and less forgiving of mistakes on the part of Earthrealm residents.

But if it’s not Raiden saving the world, it’s usually Liu Kang, Earthrealm’s greatest warrior. Liu Kang, along with his razor hat-wearing best friend Kung Lao, is an ass-kicking monk of the Shaolin recruited by Raiden for his fighting prowess and good heart. He brutalizes people just like everyone else, but only for the ones that are asking for it, kind of like Kenshiro.

As mentioned before, Liu is the ultimate victor and hero of the first four Mortal Kombat games, defeating Shang Tsung, Shao Kahn and Shinnok until the Deadly Alliance got the drop on him, but even after that he fights back from the grave.  After his death and rebirth, the reborn Raiden brings Liu back as a zombie, retaining his combat abilities, but lacking his soul and conscience, making him a mindless fighting machine.

Kung Lao shares many of Liu Kang’s values.  He wasn’t in the first game because he doesn’t advocate violence, but after their Shaolin temple was attacked by Outworlders, he deemed it a necessary evil and entered Outworld’s tournament in the second game.

"For the Shaolin!"
His impressive combat abilities can at least partially be contributed to him being a descendant of a warrior monk with the same name who previously defended Earthrealm until he was killed by Goro.  Kung Lao likely trained himself in combat specifically to defeat Goro and avenge his ancestor.  I thought revenge is against a monk’s teachings, but at the end of Mortal Kombat 4’s updated version, he makes peace with Goro anyway, so I guess after that it’s all good.  That is, until he goes to fight the Deadly Alliance to avenge Liu, abandoning his pacifist ways and training with Liu’s former master Bo Rai Cho, who also fights the Deadly Alliance.

The other primary heroes of Earthrealm have acted more on their own, again like Chun Li and Guile of Street Fighter’s story or the Ikari Warriors of KOF.  In Mortal Kombat’s story, the special forces team is referred to as the United States Special Forces, but is later reformed into the Outer World Investigation Agency after Shao Kahn’s invasion of Earthrealm in Mortal Kombat 3.

Who exactly was in charge of this organization before it became the OWIA is never made clear, but the two most prominent members throughout the series are Sonya Blade and Jackson “Jax” Briggs, the leader after the forces’ reformation.  Both of them are very protective of each other.

Sonya enters the first Mortal Kombat tournament in pursuit of Kano, the leader of a criminal organization of arms dealers called the Black Dragon, as well as the one who killed Sonya's former partner.

He got that plate from a fight with Jax.
Kano represents Outworld in the first Mortal Kombat tournament.  He was promised money and treasure.  He's kind of a greedy, self-centered and pathetic man with no honor, but Shang Tsung thought his power in the criminal underworld could make him a useful ally.

Unfortunately, Sonya’s mission didn’t have its conclusion, as both of them were kidnapped by Shao Kahn in the second game.  You can even see them chained up in the background of the final stage.

Too bad you can't attack background characters.
With them out of commission, Jax takes over for Sonya in the second game and later gets bionic arms for the third to whup even more evil butt.

Someone gon' get dey ass kicked.
It's strange that he felt the need to have those cyborg arms when nobody else from Earthrealm ever did.  He lost his arms in the new timeline, but in the first one he was probably fine without them.  Outworld and Earthrealm warriors seem to be pretty equal in terms of power potential.  In fact, one of the heroes is from Outworld, and initially serves Shao Kahn: Princess Kitana.

Kitana with her bodyguard Jade.
Kitana is the former princess of  Edenia, one of the many realms that Outworld consumed and Shao Kahn took over.  When Shao Kahn forcefully married Edenia’s queen Sindel, Kitana became his stepdaughter, unbeknownst to her.

After Shao Kahn reveals to Kitana her true origins, she joins the forces of Earthrealm to take back Edenia from Shao Kahn and prevent him from ever rising to power again.  Being one who has been by her stepfather’s side, her knowledge of Outworld makes her a big help, as does her deadly bladed combat fans.

Romantic interest in Liu Kang is heavily implied, especially at the end of Mortal Kombat 4 when Kitana offers him to rule Edenia by her side.  His answer is no, but I don’t think that would’ve worked out had Liu accepted anyway, considering Edenians age far far slower than people from Earthrealm.  Kitana is at least 10,000 years old!  She's a little old for him.

There are a couple of characters in later games that have been labeled as heroes in their respective games because they star in each one’s single player story called Konquest mode.  In Mortal Kombat Deception, the story revolves around Shujinko unwittingly gathering the Kamidogu to allow for the Dragon King to be resurrected, setting the events of the game in motion.

In Mortal Kombat Armageddon: A young man named Taven awakens from a century’s sleep so that he can fight his brother to determine in what way Armageddon will be prevented after defeating Blaze.

I don’t consider these two to be heroes of the story, however, because even though they have stories dedicated to them, they hardly matter to the main plots at hand.  Taven's actions end up being mostly irrelevant because neither he nor his brother end up killing Blaze, and all Shujinko does is set up the main conflict.  They’re side characters, not the focus.

The heroes that have continued to consistently fight long after Earthrealm’s invasion take the center stage, but throughout the franchise there have been many more minor heroes to back them up.  These include Kitana’s childhood friend Jade, former Black Dragon fighter Kabal (for a while, at least), magical Native American Nightwolf and groin-punching martial arts action movie star Johnny Cage.  Everyone loves Johnny.

The famous cryomancer Sub-Zero has also fought for the side of good throughout the franchise, but the sub-plot regarding his identity and assassin clan is so detailed it needs its own section.

The Lin Kuei Kerfuffles

Like KOF’s Hizoku and Guilty Gear’s Assassin’s Guild, Mortal Kombat has an organization of supernatural assassins, the Lin Kuei.

The first Lin Kuei assassin seen in the franchise is the infamous Sub-Zero, or rather, the first one, seen in the very first Mortal Kombat and its prequel Mortal Kombat Mythologies.

I’m noticing a pattern here.  Assassins are supposed to be good at swiftly killing their targets without anyone (sometimes including the target) knowing.  I thought for that kind of stealth you’d want to wear something harder to spot, like black suits or camouflage, and have a way to kill them in one motion.
But no, according to fighting games assassins wear bright blue jammies and flowing robes, and beat up targets with ice powers and elaborate billiard balls of death.

The closest character in these games to an actual assassin is Lin in KOF.  He dresses partially in yellow, but his clothes are tight so as not to get in the way, he moves superhumanly fast, attacks with piercing jabs that could quickly kill any normal person with precision, and even produces his own poison.  I think I'll spend my assassination budget on him.  Him or that fellow with the bar code on his head.

But I digress.

In Mortal Kombat Mythologies: Sub-Zero, the first Sub-Zero (named Bi-Han) was tricked into helping Quan Chi revive his god Shinnok using Shinnok’s mystical amulet, which in the end Sub-Zero took back to relinquish Shinnok of his power.

Doesn't really fit the outfit.
Later Bi-Han is hired by Shang Tsung to represent Outworld in the Mortal Kombat tournament.  There, he's killed by another participant: Scorpion, a vengeful hell spawn from an elite ninja clan called the Shirai Ryu.  Scorpion has an especially big problem with Sub-Zero.  For one, Sub-Zero killed him during a mission in which they both needed to get the same mystical scroll.  If that weren't enough, Scorpion believes Sub-Zero killed off the rest of the Shirai Ryu as well, but Sub-Zero had no part in that one.  Quan Chi was the one who really did it.

After dying, Bi-Han is brought back to life not unlike Scorpion.  With his soul corrupted by violence, he becomes the pitch-black wraith Noob Saibot (whose name comes from spelling the last names of Mortal Kombat’s creators backwards for some reason).

Believe it or not, for the longest time, Noob Saibot being the elder Sub-Zero was only very strongly hinted at by the creators.  It was never outright stated until Mortal Kombat Deception.  So what is now common knowledge was originally pure speculation.


Noob Saibot’s alliance since he became the wraith we know him as today is ever-shifting, but consistently he always looks after his own interests, which often means helping the villains.

After Bi-Han’s transformation, his younger brother Kuai Liang takes the mantle in order to get revenge on Scorpion and became the second Sub-Zero that has appeared in every game since.

When he realizes this one isn’t the same as the one he killed, Scorpion makes a nonviolence vow for the Kuai Liang (originally it was a vow of protection, but they retconned that).  With his vengeance settled on that end, Scorpion finds out about Quan Chi being the one he’s really after in Mortal Kombat 4 and goes after him in Deadly Alliance, after which he had to be saved by the elder gods and fight Onaga for them in Deception.

But Sub-Zero’s troubles don’t end with Scorpion’s leave.  After Mortal Kombat 2, the Lin Kuei start a new project called the Cyber Initiative, in which they make their members undergo highly advanced cybernetic transformations, basically turning them in to cold, emotionless killing machines.  Knowing that cybernetics eat your soul, Kuai Liang leaves the Lin Kuei, who retaliate by sending products of the cyber initiative out to kill him: Cyrax, Sektor and Smoke.

Sektor and Cyrax
Cyrax and Sektor willingly allowed themselves to become what they are, but not Smoke.  Smoke opposed the cyber initiative with Kuai, but was caught and forced into his new metal body, in which he’s forced to hunt his former friend.  Much later Smoke is reprogrammed by Noob Saibot to form a dual tag team boss in Mortal Kombat: Deception.

In the alternate timeline of Mortal Kombat 9, things go quite differently for Smoke and Sub-Zero.  In the new timeline, Raiden saves Smoke from being captured after his future vision shows what Smoke would become if he were.  Instead, Kuai Liang is later captured and transformed in his place, creating Cyber Sub-Zero, who follows his programming like the other cyborgs until a certain point when he’s given free reign and fights on the side of good again.

In the original timeline, Kuai Liang instead rises to the top and takes over the Lin Kuei to make it right.  While in his position of power, he raises an apprentice named Frost, who it turns out wants to get strong enough to kill her master and take his place.  That does not go well for her.

As for Sektor and Cyrax, they go in completely opposite directions after Mortal Kombat 3, metaphorically speaking.  Cyrax joins Sonya and Jax after they assist him in recovering his humanity, while Sektor remains a remorseless machine and makes his own cyber ninja clan called the Tekunin.

Mortal Kombat 9’s alternate timeline suggests that this is partially because of who they were before becoming cyborgs.  In the new timeline, a human Cyrax and Sektor enter the first Mortal Kombat.  Both of them use the same weapons they would later have built into them, but they have opposing views toward the Lin Kuei’s cyber initiative.  Cyrax believes the human soul and instinct is essential, while Sektor believes becoming cyborgs will make them more efficient and powerful.  Cyrax ends up trying to leave the Lin Kuei to get out of it, but is caught and turned into the cyborg we better know him as.
This explains why in the original timeline Cyrax was able to get his humanity back and not Sektor: Cyrax always wanted it.

The Lin Kuei aren't the villains of Mortal Kombat, but they definitely add to the conflict.  Since they're only doing their job, you could say a lot of them stand in a morally gray area, unlike the actual antagonists, who are so evil they practically sit on thrones of skulls.  Keep posted for part 2, where I will go into detail on the many villains of the Mortal Kombat mythos.

Special thanks goes out to ScrewAttack's Patrick Breeden, the biggest MK fan I know, for taking the time to look over this for accuracy.  You can find his personal website here.

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