Platforms: Arcade, Genesis, SNES, Sega CD, PC, MAC, Game Boy, Game Boy Advace, Game Gear, PlayStation 2, Xbox, GameCube
Publisher: Midway Games, 1992
Developer: Midway Games
Mortal Kombat made its debut in 1992 in arcades and arguably influences games to this day. The classic fighting game placed players against one another or the CPU in arena settings ripe for medieval death fantasy. Brutality was the order of the day, and some found this disturbing. In fact, many did. GameSpot's executive editor Greg Kasavin said Mortal Kombat was the first time many people got to see "lifelike, realistic violence in a video game...whether they liked it or not." He continued, "While MK fans will tell you that it's the gameplay that kept them coming back to this classic fighting game, many (overly) concerned adults jumped to the conclusion that the game's extensive amount of blood and gore was 'obviously' what enticed all those impressionable children and teenagers to keep playing it. These concerned people were half right; MK's sheer audacity was hard to ignore, even in the midst of a crowded, exciting arcade setting."
Jeff Greeson, the editor in chief and site manager for The Realm of Mortal Kombat , a Web site dedicated to the game franchise, said it is important to note that Mortal Kombat launched in the competitive world of arcade games, all vying for the same quarters, and that standing out amid the competition meant survival. "Mortal Kombat not only stood out, it grabbed you by the shirt collar and demanded your attention. Mortal Kombat had the biggest and most realistic characters ever featured in a video game at that time. You were literately watching digitally animated photographs of people flying through the air and beating the living hell out of each other."
What made it stand out? "Everything was over the top," said Greeson. "From the pools of blood spewing from your character, to the outrageous gruesomeness of the game's fatalities. Mortal Kombat not only shocked anyone who had ever played the game, but those who simply walked by the game were mesmerized by its gore."
Mortal Kombat was generally quiet in the arcades, at least as far as lawmakers were concerned. "Once Acclaim received the rights to bring the game to the home console markets, they brought [it] into the spotlight of the general public," noted Greeson. "The media picked up on the fears that the public had of bringing such violent imagery into their homes through a device that children played with. ... When you pinpoint and highlight the game's violence and nothing else, it was hard to be a defender of the game during that time."
Video and PC games got a taste for the hot seat long before Mortal Kombat, but the Interactive Digital Software Association or IDSA (now the Entertainment Software Association or ESA) formed the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) at the tail end of 1993 to offset the impending congressional hearings mounted against the games industry and spearheaded by Senators Lieberman and Kohl.
Borland and King wrote in Dungeons and Dreamers of a highly publicized notion that Nintendo was "angry" with rival Sega for trumping Nintendo's sales by selling violent video games. "In the hearing, a Nintendo representative attacked Sega for its release of violent games and said his own company had tried to mitigate the industry's worst excesses. In response, the Sega representative pulled out a prop--a bazooka-style gun accessory used by some Nintendo games--and asked if that was the appropriate means to teach nonviolence to children," Borland and King wrote.
The formation of the ESRB as a self-regulated entity deflected potential government regulation, and Mortal Kombat stayed in stores. The ESRB serves as an alert system for parents interested in buying appropriate game software for their kids by ranking games "E," suitable for everyone; "T," appropriate for teens aged 13 and older; "EC," for early childhood; and "M," for mature or 17 and older. The "Adults Only" or "AO" rating is for people 18 and older, although the major difference between "M" and "AO" is not age but rather the fact that retailers won't generally carry AO-rated games. The group's ratings are presented as boxed-in, black and white scorecards on the packaging of most retail games. Game companies present their products voluntarily for ratings, similar to how movie studios submit to the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA).
Before the ESA formed the ESRB, Sega and Nintendo had agreed to their own ratings system, similar to the ESRB's, but neither successfully came into fruition. Another ratings board was the Recreational Software Advisory Council (RSAC), which became the Internet Content Rating Association (ICRA) in 1999, whose goal is to "protect children from potentially harmful content while preserving free speech on the Internet," according to the organization's Web site.
The ESRB reports that only 8 percent of the video and PC games rated in 2002 received the "Mature" title. Sixty-three percent received an "E" or "Everyone" rating, while 27 percent received a "T" for "Teen." While there are few AO-rated games, most of them are published by MacDaddy Entertainment or Peach Princess and involve strong sexual content or nudity. In August 2003, Peak Entertainment published Peak Entertainment Casinos, which received an AO for gambling, the first of its kind listed on the ESRB Web site. Companies creating and distributing AO games have a tendency to reliably submit their titles for rating, if anything, as a fail-safe in case their games fall into the wrong hands. Steve Kent said, "As long as you have that 'M' or that 'AO' or that 'T' on there, and you've done everything you can, when some parent screws up, which they sure seem to have a great proclivity for doing, you can say, 'You know what? We did everything we could possibly have done.'"