mortal kombat

Mortal Kombat & The Captivating Power of Scorpion’s Fatality

Mortal Kombat grabbed me the moment I saw it thirty years ago. I didn’t even get to play it that first time I saw it, either. Too many other kids crowded the cabinet at that dingy bowling alley where it sat behind the lanes. Still, what I saw stuck with me. The ridiculous blood. The way the world quaked with every uppercut and hard knockdown. The realistic, cool characters. And the Fatalities – the crowning moment in a brutal match. It was Scorpion’s Fatality that captured my imagination that day, and to this day, it’s still what brings me back to the series.

In my home town, arcades were already pretty sparse back in 1992. The most you would get would be a stray arcade cabinet at a laundromat, movie theater, or other oddball location. The ones that were still kicking around didn’t much interest me, either. Playing some decaying Space Invaders or Ms. Pac Man cabinet just didn’t interest me. So, I was use to this roller coaster of emotions when I’d see a cabinet. I’d get excited, find out it was some dull old game, and I’d get disappointed.

However, at my dad’s work Christmas party that year, there was something cool. Something I remember strangely vividly given the foggy nature of my childhood memories. An arcade cabinet sat back by the nasty shoe counter. I wanted to know what it was, but I couldn’t see the screen. I couldn’t see through the crowd because there were so many kids around it. All I could see was the name high above them: Mortal Kombat. Which sounded pretty promising. A lethal fight? It HAD to be cool.

mortal kombat

I was supposed to be handing out bags of chips to the people at the Christmas party. What I ended up doing was wandering close to the cabinet, a box of chip bags in my arms, trying to see what was happening. The crowd separated just enough that I could see a digitized orange ninja punching the heck out of someone’s face. Blood flew back with every blow. I don’t remember who Scorpion was fighting. Not that it mattered in the shower of digital blood. I’d never seen anything even approximating blood in a game before.

I tried to get closer, but the crowd was too thick. The gap closed and I couldn’t see the screen again. I tried to move, but there wasn’t a gap anywhere. Not until someone asked me what the chips were for. In a moment of odd cunning, I said they were free. I guess free chips were more exciting to most of those kids than watching the game, because the crowd immediately turned its attention to me. I shoved the box in someone’s hands and moved to the cabinet to see that defining moment in Mortal Kombat. The one that made me need to play the game. Well, eventually.

I watched as “FINISH HIM” appeared on the screen. Scorpion stepped back from his dazed opponent, and the screen turned dark. He reeled back, tearing off his ninja mask to reveal a vacant-eyed skull. When you’re a kid, ninjas are pretty dang cool. Skeleton, ninjas, though? Skeleton ninjas that breathe FIRE, as I would soon discover? And burn their foes into nothing more than bony remains? It was incredible to see.

Mortal Kombat was a complete shock, to me. I had grown up playing Mario games. Double Dragon, where you punch people in the mouth but nobody bleeds anywhere. Contra, where the corpses simply fade away or blow up without any gore or sign of harm. I never felt that sense of realistic harm in the games I played. No real sign of the sickening aftermath of a brutal fight. There was no horror to the results of your actions. It was all play fighting in most of the games I played at the time. Things might be defeated, but it never looked like anyone actually got hurt.

Something about that lethal finisher captured my imagination. I’d been a timid kid growing up who avoided horror movies at all costs. I’d been too scared to go to the bathroom at night after watching E.T., after all. I thought the little weirdo was going to grab me in the night. The idea of scary things like skeletons and killer ninjas lost me a lot of nights’ sleep. This stuff normally terrified me, and yet here I was, oddly fascinated by this video game horror.

Something about Scorpion’s Fatality drew me into Mortal Kombat. It was that hint of all the things that scared me, but controlled by a human being. I vaguely remember the kid that did the Fatality, and how impressed the people around him were. Someone had pushed the buttons and made that happen. I could see the human workings behind the gruesome end, and something about that made the horror feel a bit less scary. My imagination would often get the better of me while watching scary movies or shows. It felt like they were forces outside of human control. But not this. A person did that. Just a regular person.

And, again, fire breathing ninja skeleton. It was ridiculously cool to see back then, and if I’m being honest, it’s still pretty dang cool now. I would eventually learn that there were many more gruesome ways to end an opponent’s life, but this was my first. This was the first time I’d see someone not just defeat, but utterly destroy the opponent. There was this overwhelming power in the Fatality. In other games, you got a Game Over. Lost a life, but then respawned. You could always put another quarter into this game, but the Fatality still felt ruthless and final.

I didn’t have a quarter to play the game that day, though. Just the same, I’d continue to chase down Mortal Kombat wherever I could find it from then on. At my parents’ friend’s house, after being subjected to Sunday school, to finally getting my own Game Boy copy, that moment at the cabinet drew me into the series and horror in general. It was an unforgettable move in a game that reshaped what I thought was possible in games, and awoke a fascination with the horrific side of games. I’ll never forget it.