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Can you watch this? mortal combat turned 30 this past Halloween season! The legendary arcade fighting game known for its quirky characters, competitive 1v1 gameplay, and brutal violence endures after three long decades and is stronger than ever. The road to get here wasn’t always a rosy, laid-back stroll through the park, but rather riddled with controversy, bans, censorships, and even government congressional hearings. In honor of the 30th anniversary of the original mortal combatwe wanted to focus on the controversy it faced and the ramifications it would have on the gaming industry forever.

Released on October 8, 1992, mortal combat set the arcade world on fire. Of course, there were games like street fighter which was already perfecting the fighting game concept and had become a household name, but mortal combat broke the mold by featuring extreme graphic violence using digitized actors. The violence ranged from blood spattered all over the stage throughout the fight, to endgame fatalities that would directly murder the losing player in gruesome fashion. It was unheard of to have a game graphically depicting someone getting their spine ripped in a bloody fashion at the time, and predictably some parts of the general public didn’t enjoy the game too much. idea that a child randomly stumbles upon this level of violence in their local arcade.

Enter Senator Joe Lieberman. Lieberman had been approached by his Chief of Staff regarding the level of extreme violence in the Sega Genesis port of mortal combat (the Super Nintendo version was notoriously censored by replacing red blood with gray “sweat”). Lieberman had heard of increasing levels of violence in video games and conducted his own investigation into Night Trap, a horror video game with (at the time) very adult content. Lieberman took it upon himself to hold a press conference with other children’s rights advocates and argue that the video game industry was marketing extreme child abuse based on statistics; he said at the time, “We’re talking about video games that glorify violence and teach kids to love inflicting the most gruesome forms of cruelty imaginable.” What followed would evolve into a real moral panic that would change everything.

This was eventually presented to the United States Senate in December 1993 with the intention of passing a bill that would allow the government to come up with its own content rating system. The games industry banded together and announced on the day of the first hearing that it would develop its own content rating system instead of a government-controlled one. This would allow them to assign their own ratings and content warnings rather than being at the mercy of presumably more blunt government advice. In 1994, they presented to Congress the Electronic Systems Rating Board (ESRB). A voluntary, industry-wide ranking system that lists the content of each game and categorizes it according to an appropriate age group. Satisfied with the outcome, Congress decided not to get involved in rating game content, and the ESRB became the industry standard.

But where does mortal combat get into all this? In addition to triggering all the political moral panic, it established itself as one of the first “Mature” titles. Soon gone would be the time when video games were only associated with children and teenagers and mortal combat would look at the “hard edge” side of gaming and advertising. For the best or for the worst mortal combat was free to continue increasing the levels of violence in the sequels. The identity of mortal combat the franchise was born. The “Mature” rating has become a hallmark of the series just as much as Fatality or its cast of colorful characters, to the point that when a game comes out in the series that is NOT M-rated, it raises many eyebrows. This was the case in 2008 with the release of Mortal Kombat vs DC Universe; this game ended up being rated “Teen”, and all the graphic bloody violence that mortal combat fans have been waiting for from the series. As a result, the characters on the MK side felt a lot less interesting.

mortal combat persevered though. Although it was literally judged on the game’s levels of violence, it embraced those aspects. It all became central to its identity, and the moral panic and outrage eventually made the series increasingly popular to the point that it’s now a household name. Sure, a leaderboard may have been created as a direct result and forever changed the gaming industry with it, but now… well, the violence of mortal combat is as expected as the sun rising at dawn.

And we wouldn’t want it any other way. Happy 30, mortal combat!

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