This story was originally published in October 2017, so we're republishing today in honor of Mortal Kombat 2's 25th anniversary.
Before the faces of Mortal Kombat were punching off heads in 1992, they worked up a sweat at a small athletic club in Chicago. At least, that's the story that Elizabeth Malecki, the former fitness instructor turned Sonya Blade in Mortal Kombat, told me. As for her once-colleagues, they parrot their tale of friends banding together to change gaming history forever.
Except at the start, they didn't know they were doing such a thing. Mortal Kombat began with humble origins at developer Midway, tasked as a Street Fighter competitor that was more of a risk than a guaranteed hit. But Mortal Kombat had something that Street Fighter never had. Real people. Faces. Folks performing actual moves on screen. Violence that could rival the best action movies out there at the time. Mortal Kombat stood apart from Street Fighter in tone and look, where it needed to stand apart most.
But long before that, the group in front of Mortal Kombat were just friends, and later colleagues. "The roots of how a lot of this stuff began goes back to when I was 13 and there was a kid in my class who brought some nunchucks, or whatever they call em," said Richard Divizio, who portrayed Kano in Mortal Kombat. "He was twirling 'em around like Bruce Lee and I said 'How did you learn to do that?'—I think we were like in eighth grade or something—and he says 'Oh well I take kung-fu from this guy named Danny.' That guy Danny ended up becoming Pesina. So you know the ending, right?"
Fist of Fury
Danny, better known as Daniel Pesina, is sort of the mastermind behind Mortal Kombat, at least to some extent. He imbued the game with its martial arts flavor—something he pushed for incessantly. He was the fists behind most of its fighters: Sub-Zero, Reptile, Scorpion, and Johnny Cage. Pesina was around ten years older than Divizio and the others when he first met them (sans already knowing his own brother, obviously), becoming their martial arts instructor when they were teens, long before Mortal Kombat began. Eventually Daniel Pesina, Carlos Pesina (Mortal Kombat's Raiden), Richard Divizio, and Ho-Sung Pak (Mortal Kombat's Shang Tsung and Liu Kang) began playing Dungeons & Dragons together. Much later, Pesina worked at an athletics club with Malecki, then an athletics instructor. Naturally, they became friends.
Before Mortal Kombat in 1991, Pesina, Divizio, and Pak worked on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie, The Secret of the Ooze. Pak was stunt coordinator, while Divizio and Pesina appeared in the movie as miscellaneous foot soldiers. Soon after, the scrappy work on Mortal Kombat began. Through happenstances of injuries and drop outs, Malecki and Pak eventually joined the ride too.
Pesina was the first to be involved with the project, recording three eight hour days of performing martial arts moves in a storage room at Midway, filmed against a blank wall. The footage was unusable for digitizing into the game, but it was prime for studying for John Tobias, co-creator of Mortal Kombat. The warm-up helped Tobias gather an idea of what sorts of moves would make it into the game; and from there, development fully went underway.
At the start though, the game was set to be a vehicle for a well-known action star: Jean-Claude Van Damme. Everyone else's job was to help formulate the game in advance, specifically its identity, its moves. Everything that made Mortal Kombat, well, Mortal Kombat. "The owners thought it would be a better idea to give [the game] to Van Damme," said Pesina. "You know Rich [Divizio] and I and Carlos were kind of sad because we gave all these ideas for the game and now we were going to give [it] to Van Damme and going to be cut out of it. But apparently the deal didn't go through so we went back to the game, and that's when we were like all going to poke a little fun at the idea. I'm going to have a couple of Van Damme moves."
Even if Van Damme didn't make it into the game literally, he was there in spirit. Also there in spirit: a history and admiration for Chinese martial arts.
Pesina credits wushu, a sport derived from traditional Chinese martial arts, as inspiring him long before entering production of Mortal Kombat. He grew up studying martial arts, later teaching it. As a martial arts expert who had seen other forms of it saturate media, Pesina wanted to put a focus on the Chinese discipline of it: to help give exposure to the creative area of martial arts that he adored. When the time came for John Tobias to pressure putting ninjas in the game, Pesina pushed back. He wanted something never seen before in games, like the ancient Chinese clan Lin Kuei who predated the existence of Japanese ninjas.
"Nobody ever does that. [The Lin Kuei had] never been in movies or anything like that," said Pesina. "[I thought it'd] be really cool to have them in this game because it would be the first time. We wanted to create a game for gamers and geeks, and I was like we have to have these characters in there. [...] So John got the books [on Lin Kuei] because I wouldn't lend him mine, we still rib each other about that. [...] Being a geek and a martial artist really bought a lot of ideas to the game that would not regularly be in a game."
General geekery naturally bled into Mortal Kombat from a combined love of kung-fu, action movies, comic books, and more, not just from the people behind the game, but in front of the camera too. The violence the game came to be known for grew in particular from the team's love of kung-fu and action movies. For the crew, the violence was nothing new, it's what they grew up watching in movies like Indiana Jones, Big Trouble in Little China, and Deadly Hands of Kung-Fu, even if for video games that didn't yet have a ratings system, it was. In 1993, Mortal Kombat (along with FMV cult classic Night Trap) was cited in senate hearings that called for video game violence to be regulated. The hearings resulted in the formation of the ESRB, the Entertainment Software Rating Board.
"I'm Not Going to do Wonder Woman"
Filming Mortal Kombat was a collaborative experience, filmed in a time before motion capture was around and actors were just filmed in front of a blank background before being digitized into the game. The digitization process wasn't perfect, and it definitely shows its age today, but back in its time it was revolutionary.
As for the collaboration, each character had a sliver of personality from the actor who portrayed them too. Special moves were largely dreamed up by the performers themselves. Memorable quotes, like Scorpion's signature "Get over here!" happened by accident on set. Mortal Kombat wouldn't be what it is today without a little bit of creative finesse.
"Together we sort of collaborated on the special moves; [mine] was the handstand," said Malecki. Malecki wasn't a martial arts expert like the rest of the Mortal Kombat cast—but with her dance and athletic background, she managed to keep up just fine. "They call it the leg grab. I had done that move in a dance performance. Of course not throwing anybody, but I had done a handstand where my legs kind of went over and back up. So we just used it. We sort of collaborated on what could our special moves be, and I came up with that one. Then Dan came up with the kiss of death." The kiss of death from Sonya Blade is perhaps one of Mortal Kombat's most memorable moves: a seemingly innocent blown kiss, turned fatal.
Usually even if Pesina wasn't set to shoot for the day, he'd be at Midway anyways, ready to help collaborate and shoot. That's sort of how everyone felt on set: they were all creators, nobody was "just" a performer. So when an unfortunate accident involving a weight and a broken foot happened, Pesina stepped up to the plate to help film for a character. Little did Pesina know, that accident would lead to another memorable moment in Mortal Kombat history.
John Tobias, Pesina noted, wasn't as eager to suggest things until ninja content was being shot for the game. It was like Tobias had suddenly been struck with inspiration. What he desired ventured into an uncharacteristic place considering what was being filmed. He wanted a character to have a lasso, like a cowboy.
"You know I'm not going to do Wonder Woman," Pesina recalled telling him.
Then Pesina was struck with an idea too. He remembered reading about an ancient Chinese weapon, a dagger tied to the end of a rope called a rope dart, often used to pull people off their horses. After spotting a rope on set, Pesina had his eureka moment: they'd use that in the game. Pesina also wasn't alone on set that day either: Divizio was there too, just because. "I said Dan, when you're pulling it back [you should] say, 'Get over here!' then when they're closer that's when you do like an uppercut, or you do the fatality," Divizio said. "But when I said 'get over here,' real loud, kind of like the way you hear in the game. [While] I wasn't the one that did the audio on it but those words, that phrase. I coined that."
There were other collaborations—like Malecki said, everyone pitched in at least a little bit when on sets, whether they were in front of the camera or not. Divizio noted that his character Kano's heart ripping out move was an homage to a similar scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. There was a little bit of extra grossness though, since the heart in Mortal Kombat continues to pulse in hand long after being stricken from a foe's body. Also Divizio's idea was Scorpion's secret skeleton face, another idea that spawned from another film he adored, Jason and the Argonauts. ("I loved skeletons," he told me. Don't we all?)
Collaboration was only natural for the scrappily made game. Midway, at the time, was a relatively small studio. Without animation like other games at the time, everything on screen was filmed by the slim five-person team at hand. (Except, of course, for the claymation of multi-armed character Goro.) When it came to choosing who would portray each character, given the collaborative nature of the game, everyone seemingly fit the characters they portrayed in some fashion. "Like if you ever hung out with Rich, I'm sure you got the sense of talking with Rich, how he's really Kano," said Pesina. "Same thing with Raiden. My brother [Carlos] is kind of a little bit more mysterious and a little more mature for his age."
That was a core thing that set Mortal Kombat apart from other games at its time: real people were in it, and players not only saw them in it, but saw them doing impossible things. No one can jump as high as they could in video games, nor literally blow a kiss to a foe's death. But in Mortal Kombat, it made the impossible seem possible and endearing, available only for the cost of a pocket full of change at an arcade cabinet. The seams of the game were visible—hell, Pesina recalled buying what would be the Sub-Zero costume a size too small because it was cheaper and in their budget; later tearing and being held together with literal straight pins (safety pins were too small), poking him at every move. It wasn't as perfectly polished as perhaps Street Fighter even was in its heyday. But none of the rough edges mattered: all that fans cared about was the people at its forefront.
Not Just Another Fatality
When Mortal Kombat released in 1992, it was a hit across arcades. People flocked to its cabinets in droves, enamored by its purposefully goofy and violent imagery. It appealed to a specific demographic: people old enough to go to arcades at all, people that wouldn't mind a bit of action-oriented violence either. Mortal Kombat was a hit for developers Midway, pinned against the fully-animated Street Fighter and looking to give it some fists to compete with. For the five faces that starred in the game, the sudden rush of fame was the least expected occurrence.
"We had no idea how popular it had actually become," Malecki told me. "[The first time] we were at McCormick Place signing autographs, I just couldn't believe that there were people—there were kids and young adults but mostly kids—standing in line for hours, like all day. That was memorable to me because I don't think I'm very special, but here there was all these people wanting me to sign my autograph."
Mortal Kombat ended up being a big break for the people within it. Pak managed to break into Hollywood after his work in the game, even appearing in a few martial arts movies including the Jackie Chan starring Drunken Master 2. Everyone else on the cast continued working on other Mortal Kombat games, and beyond. A lot of the people behind the game continue to work on games today, even Carlos Pesina is works as Lead Animator under NetherRealm, Mortal Kombat co-creator Ed Boon's post-Midway game studio.
Its popularity hasn't dwindled either. Just in September 2017, Kombat Kon happened in Illinois. Even in light of Mortal Kombat's 25th anniversary, Malecki was astounded by how many people from across the world were still delighted at the chance to meet the people from a 25-year-old game. Little did Malecki know, until Kombat Kon organizer Don Mack explained it to her, the answer was always staring her in the face. It was the fact that it was people in the video game, people that fans could actually meet, face to face. People had a deep connection with Mortal Kombat, because in a small way, they could see themselves in it, kicking just as much ass as its stars once did in front of a dingy camera.
Malecki still has one regret though, even in the face of surprise fan adoration that exists even today. "I wanted to be a positive influence for girls, and especially to both be fit and to be confident and strong," said Malecki. "And I tried to find opportunities in schools to speak to children and the principals and the teachers wouldn't let me, because they thought [Mortal Kombat] was violent. Here I was trying to give a positive, confident thing and let the kids know it's good to be strong; it's good to be fit and have a discipline like learning martial arts. And so that's one of the things that I remember that I wanted to do and was unable to do. Being lifted up by children as being someone important, when I didn't feel that I was. But if they're going to put me there any way I wanted to be a positive influence in those ways for girls."
Mortal Kombat hit that sweet spot: it was a power fantasy for all arcade goers and it was inspiring for young women who hardly saw themselves in games at all during that time. Since Mortal Kombat had literal digitized renderings of people in the game, players from all around resonated with it. Mortal Kombat, even 25 years later, ended up not being just another Street Fighter clone or competitor. Mortal Kombat paved its own path. In the words of Daniel Pesina, arguably the dude who's responsible for most of your favorite things in Mortal Kombat, the game wouldn't exist if they weren't given the outlet to put their enthusiastic, artistically-inclined geeky selves into.
Against all odds, Mortal Kombat fostered a more personal sort of game. A game players adored because of the people that starred in it. Controversial violence be damned, Mortal Kombat will always be known as the game that dared to dream big, that showed girls it was cool to be strong and showed teens and young adults that it was okay to have geeky interests. Mortal Kombat's lasting legacy is that it made everyone's dream to be in a video game feel closer than ever before. Nothing's impossible, except maybe blowing a kiss of death.