Back to the future.
Though the games are mostly about crushing the bones and organs of other players and taking them out with gory, brutal fatalities, there's a lot going on under the surface of Mortal Kombat. After 10 main games and a few spin-offs, the series is steeped in lore, and the story has become pretty intricate and convoluted--there are the various dimensions, the different gods, a huge number of characters, and various schemes filled with sorcerers, spells, zombies, and even time travel.
With Mortal Kombat 11 quickly approaching, we've dug back through the stories of the Mortal Kombat games to bring you up to speed on everything you need to know--and, honestly, probably some things you don't. It's all about Raiden trying to save Earth and prevent the end of all reality, and long-time baddie Shao Kahn basically mucking that up. But there are a huge number of evil players, and they're all likely to be relevant once again in Mortal Kombat 11, which promises more time-bending weirdness.
Here's the entire story of the Mortal Kombat series thanks in large part to the Mortal Kombat Fandom wiki and a few handy YouTube videos, from the first release in 1992, all the way through the following 27 years.
Before The Games
First and foremost, it's important to understand how the world of Mortal Kombat is laid out. There are special, powerful Elder Gods, who preside over multiple distinct dimensions known as the realms, and a bunch of lesser gods who hang around those various realms, with their own agendas--usually to protect places and people from the scarier folks of other realms.
The major realms are Earthrealm (Earth as we know it, more or less), Outworld (a conquest-happy barbarian wasteland), Edenia (a beautiful magical paradise), and the Netherrealm (Hell). There are more but they vary in size and importance, but if they exist, Outworld wants to dominate them. In Mortal Kombat, that doesn't just mean sending occupiers to another dimension to take over; when a realm is conquered by another, they literally merge together, mixing their landscapes.
The Elder Gods figured they should regulate all this realm-merging nonsense somehow. They created the Mortal Kombat tournament, in which, once a generation, champions from competing realms would face off. If one realm beats another realm 10 times in a row, the victor wins the right to take over the loser.
Outworld wasn't just warring with other realms; it was creating an empire. For centuries, Outworld was ruled by Onaga, who was obsessed with taking over as many other realms as he could. Onaga was particularly scary because he could raise the dead, making his army effectively invincible. He and his followers were also noodling on a way to make him invincible.
Onaga eventually was betrayed by his lieutenant, Shao Kahn, with the backing of the Elder Gods. Shao Kahn took over the role of ruler and protector of Outworld, but like Onaga, his lust for power got the better of him. Shao Kahn took on his own campaign of conquest, with the help of Shang Tsung, his sorcerer minion. His primary target: Edenia.
Meanwhile, On Earth
Separate of all the scary Outworld stuff were the events going down on Earth. One of the Elder Gods, Shinnok, decided he wanted to take over Earthrealm and make everyone worship him and be all-powerful. Shinnok was more than a regular god thanks to his special amulet, which was linked to his powers and allowed him to travel between the realms without the Elder Gods being able to stop him.
Luckily, Earth had Raiden, the god of thunder, who wasn't an Elder God but powerful nonetheless. He battled Shinnok in an intense war that lasted millennia, caused the extinction of the dinosaurs and toppled civilizations, and even tore holes between realities. A race of dinosaur-descended folks (e.g. Reptile) came through those tears, and while most were wiped out with the extinction, some made it to the realm of Zaterra.
Raiden eventually defeated Shinnok, snagged his magic amulet, and imprisoned him into the Netherrealm for all eternity. For untold centuries, Shinnok was tortured and stuck in Hell, which was a pretty good result for Raiden.
Shao Kahn Comes For Earth
When Shao Kahn took Edenia, he next turned his attention to Earthrealm, which apparently is, like, the best one. In Edenia, he killed the realm's king and took its queen, Sindel, for his own. At Sindel's urging, Kahn spared the princess, Kitana; instead of killing her, he raised her to be a skilled assassin and member of his guard.
Sindel might have been conquered, but she wasn't done fighting. She commited suicide in order to create a magic ward on Earth, which prevented Shao Kahn from stepping foot in the realm, which made it a lot harder for him to conquer.
Shao Kahn sent Shang Tsung to kick off the Mortal Kombat tournament on Earth. Raiden had prepared for this, though, and created an order of Shaolin monks dedicated to seeking out the best fighters on Earth every generation to fight in the tournament. The Great Kung Lao won the tournament, and Earthrealm was safe.
Shang Tsung had a trick this time, though. He brought the four-armed Goro to serve as Outworld's champion, and the monstrous fighter promptly kicked the Great Kung Lao's ass and killed him. The plan worked beautifully, and despite Raiden and Earthrealm's best efforts, Outworld won the next eight tournaments. One more, and they'd be able to invade and merge Earthrealm with Outworld.
Shinnok's Not Done
But wait! Shinnok is still a thing. After being tortured in the Netherrealm for a quarter of forever, Shinnok met Quan Chi, a sorcerer wandering around the realm. The pair made a deal: Quan Chi would help Shinnok in exchange for being his right-hand man and gaining the power to rule with him. They teamed up and eventually took over the Netherrealm. But even being King of Hell kind of sucks, on account of it's still Hell, so Shinnok and Quan Chi started working on getting out and back to Earth.
On Earth, Quan Chi hired the Lin Kuei to find a map that would eventually lead to where Raiden had hidden Shinnok's amulet, which is what's depicted in Mortal Kombat Mythologies: Sub-Zero. Quan Chi also hired the Lin Kuei's rivals, the Shirai Ryu, for the same job to increase its chances of success. Sub-Zero, the ninja sent by the Lin Kuei, was successful in finding the map, and in the process killed Scorpion, from the Shirai Ryu. Quan Chi repaid the Lin Kuei by wiping out the Shirai Ryu, and when Sub-Zero tracked down the amulet, Quan Chi stole it and took it back to the Netherrealm. That was when Raiden decided to clue Sub-Zero in on what was happening, and the ninja went to the Netherrealm to undo the mess he'd created.
Sub-Zero defeated Quan Chi and got the amulet back before Shinnok could use it to escape the Netherrealm. He returned the amulet to Raiden, and then allowed Shang Tsung to hire him to fight in the next Mortal Kombat tournament--although he had secret orders from the Lin Kuei to assassinate the sorcerer.
Finally, The Original Mortal Kombat Games
That brings us (oh my god, finally) to the original Mortal Kombat. Shang Tsung had orchestrated the tournament yet again, Outworld was one victory away from taking over Earth, and Goro was ready to wallop all challengers. But Shang Tsung didn't bank on Raiden and his new flock of champs, including Sonya Blade, Johnny Cage, and Liu Kang (or on Sub-Zero, sent to kill Shang Tsung, or Scorpion, resurrected by Quan Chi and driven by revenge against Sub-Zero). Liu Kang went on to defeat Goro and Shang Tsung to win the tournament. Meanwhile, Scorpion killed Sub-Zero, whose soul went to the Netherrealm and became Noob Saibot.
In Mortal Kombat II, Shang Tsung tried doubling down in repentance for his failure. He and Shao Kahn sent forces led by Baraka to attack the Shaolin monks, baiting Earth's fighters to Outworld for another tournament to get around the usual rules of Mortal Kombat. The idea was that if Earth won the Outworld tournament, Outworld would stop bothering them altogether--but if Outworld won, it would count as the tenth victory and allow Outworld to take over Earthrealm. It was a dumb gamble, but the Earth fighters were all upset, so they decided to go for it.
Luckily, Liu Kang defeated Shang Tsung and Shao Kahn to win the tournament, again. He and Kung Lao headed off to restart the Shaolin monk order that would stand ready to defend Earthrealm. Meanwhile, Sub-Zero's brother (now bearing the name Sub-Zero) showed up in the tournament with his bud Smoke in an attempt to find out what happened to the original Sub-Zero. They were also fleeing the Lin Kuei, who had started turning their clansmen into cyborg ninjas--namely, Sektor and Cyrax. Sub-Zero and Smoke were apparently in line for the conversion and bailed on the clan instead, an act equivalent to treason, which was why the two cyborgs began hunting them. Sub-Zero got away, but Smoke was captured and got the robot treatment.
Oh, and Kitana switched sides, realizing that Shao Kahn was a jerkbag and that her sister, Mileena, was not her sister at all, but some monster clone person created by Shang Tsung.
In Mortal Kombat III, Shang Tsung and Shao Kahn's other shadow priests managed to resurrect Sindel and brainwashed her into being evil and loyal to Shao Kahn. That broke the ward over Earthrealm, and it also gave Shao Kahn the ability to cross into the realm to go after Sindel for some reason. Apparently, this is a significant loophole that allowed him to skip doing a bunch of stupid tournaments and just invade Earthrealm outright.
Raiden gathered a bunch of Earth heroes to fight Shao Kahn, again, and again, Liu Kang beat him, this time liberating Edenia in the process of saving Earthrealm. Kitana managed to save Sindel, Johnny Cage was killed by Motaro, Kung Lao almost killed Baraka but didn't, then was supposedly killed by Shao Kahn. Anyway, Earth was saved.
Another Invasion Though
On to Mortal Kombat 4. With Shao Kahn defeated, Quan Chi and Shinnok were ready to execute their plan and attack Earthrealm and the heavens, where the Elder Gods live. With the help of Noob Saibot and the Edenia traitor Tanya, Shinnok escaped to Edenia to wage his war, kidnapping Sindel and Kitana in the process. Mostly, Shinnok was very mad everyone let him rot in Hell for like a million years, and was out for vengeance on everyone, but specifically Raiden. His ultimate plan was to corrupt the Jinsei, the sort of life force of Earthrealm, to gain even more power.
As usual, though, nobody planned for Liu Kang, who beat Shinnok and sent him back into the Netherrealm. Meanwhile, Quan Chi revealed himself as the guy who orchestrated all the events of Mortal Kombat Mythologies and who killed Scorpion's clan and family, just as he was attempting to banish Scorpion back to the Netherrealm. Enraged, Scorpion grabbed Quan Chi and dragged him back to Hell along with him, wrapping things up pretty nicely for everyone who was not Scorpion.
Crucially, though, we learned that when Quan Chi took Shinnok's amulet from Sub-Zero way back in Mortal Kombat Mythologies, he switched it out for a fake. That meant the one Raiden took back to Earthrealm was, in fact, the copy. Quan Chi still had the real one.
Quan Chi And Shang Tsung Team Up
The deadly alliance of Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance is one between Quan Chi and Shang Tsung. Quan Chi used Shinnok's amulet to escape the Netherrealm, and at some point, he found out about Onaga's unbeatable mummified army. He approached Shang Tsung about filling those soldiers with souls--which Shang Tsung routinely steals from people, it's kind of his whole deal--so they could use them to take over all the realms. They started enacting their plan by taking out key opposition. They headed to Outworld and took down Shao Kahn, then went to Earthrealm and killed Liu Kang. (It turned out that Shao Kahn, in fact, faked his own death, hoping to see how things shook out as he worked to regain the Outworld throne.)
Despite his best efforts in rallying a bunch of heroes to his cause, this time, Raiden wasn't able to turn back the bad guys. In Mortal Kombat: Deception, we found out that Raiden and a band of top fighters, including Kung Lao, Sub-Zero, Sonya, Jax, and Kitana, challenged Quan Chi and Shang Tsung at Shang Tsung's palace, but were ultimately defeated, with all the mortals getting killed (except for Sub-Zero, who wound up elsewhere). Raiden tried to stop the deadly alliance on his own but couldn't handle it. In the final moments, Quan Chi and Shang Tsung turned on each other for control of Shinnok's amulet, with Quan Chi emerging victorious. But hold that thought for a second...
The Deception In Mortal Kombat: Deception
The Konquest mode of Mortal Kombat: Deception sets up the events of that game, ranging back 41 years before the battle between Raiden, Shang Tsung, and Quan Chi. A warrior named Shujinko was visited by Damashi, who claimed to be an emissary of the Elder Gods. Damashi put Shujinko on a quest to collect special artifacts, the Kamidogu, from each of the realms and gather them together. Shujinko was deceived, however--decades later when he completed the task, he discovered Damashi was actually Onaga, with the Kamidogu allowing him to be reborn into the world once again.
Onaga's plan: get Shinnok's amulet; control everything. So Onaga showed up at Shang Tsung's palace to get the amulet and his invincible army at the start of Mortal Kombat: Deception's main story. Quan Chi briefly teamed with Shang Tsung and Raiden against their common foe, but they were beaten. Raiden tried to sacrifice himself using all his god powers to blow up the whole place, but Onaga emerged pretty much unhurt. Onaga claimed the amulet, and Raiden eventually reconstituted, but came back as a red-eyed, corrupted, villainous version of the god.
Onaga resurrected the other Earthrealm warriors to fight for him. Mileena disguised herself as Kitana (deception again!) to lead the Edenia forces against Onaga, and the Elder Gods saved Scorpion, who Shang Tsung and Quan Chi had seemingly destroyed in their "Soulnado" (yes, it's a tornado of souls), to be their champion. The ghost of Liu Kang and the telekinetic ninja Ermac also managed to unbrainwash all the resurrected Earthrealm warriors, and they stood against Onaga, too.
In the end, it was Shujinko who stopped Onaga. He did a thing where he summoned all the power of the other warriors, and used it to destroy Onaga's Kamidogu. That weakened Onaga, which allowed Nightwolf to do a magic thing to chuck him into the Netherrealm.
Mortal Kombat Causes The End Of The Worlds
Now it's Mortal Kombat: Armageddon. The rise of Onaga brought out all the bad guys everywhere and banded them together under one banner. All the warriors on the good side were converging to defeat them.
This is actually all part of a prophecy made centuries earlier by Delia, the wife of Edenia's protector-god, Argus, according to the Mortal Kombat Fandom wiki. She foresaw a battle in which all the super-strong Mortal Kombat warriors fought each other until they destroyed all the realms with their power. To stop it, she and Argus enacted a plan: zap the warriors' powers. They created Blaze, a fire elemental that would draw all the warriors to the right place, because whoever beat it would get insane power. Then they put their two sons, Daegon and Tavin into stasis, with the idea that when the armageddon battle came, they'd get woken up and go on a quest to defeat Blaze, get its power, and either kill all the warriors or magically remove their powers. Shinnok messed that up, waking up their son Daegon centuries too soon. He turned super evil, and spent the years preparing to kill his brother, Taven, so he could get Blaze's power, which would turn one of the two brothers into a god.
Taven awoke and completed his quest, then managed to defeat Daegon. But Taven failed to stop the warriors and defeat Blaze, like he was supposed to in order to ward off armageddon. Instead, it was the worst possible person who wound up on top with Blaze's power: Shao Kahn. All the other warriors were killed in the process and by Shao Kahn. The apocalypse had not been canceled, in fact, and now the realms would be dominated by an unstoppable Shao Kahn.
Except, that is, for one last thing. Raiden, defeated and dying, used some kind of magic amulet to send a message through time to his younger self to try to prevent the apocalypse. The young Raiden realized he had to prevent the future, but he only had one clue to work with. Those were old Raiden's final words: "He must win!"
Mortal Kombat: Groundhog Day
So now we're back to the beginning (sort of), but it's the 2011 Mortal Kombat (or Mortal Kombat 9), which used time travel to reboot the series timeline and covers a new version of the events of Mortal Kombat, Mortal Kombat II, and Mortal Kombat III. Raiden knew something bad is coming, but didn't have much information. Not knowing what the message meant, Raiden assumed it referred to Liu Kang defeating Shang Tsung in the first tournament.
The events of Mortal Kombat mostly played out the way they did in the first timeline, but with Raiden trying to make some changes for the better. He convinced Scorpion not to kill Sub-Zero, for instance, but Quan Chi showed up during their battle and manipulated Scorpion into murdering Sub-Zero anyway, creating Noob Saibot. Raiden stopped things from going too wrong, like when he talked Cyrax out of killing Johnny Cage, and eventually Liu Kang won the Mortal Kombat tournament like the first time. But Raiden's magic amulet, the one he used to send the message back in time, cracked a little--telling him that Raiden hadn't stopped the bad future from happening.
Next up are the events of Mortal Kombat II, which saw the heroes heading to Outland for Shao Kahn's tournament. Raiden tried to change some things again, guessing that "He must win" meant Kung Lao in the second tournament, rather than the always-winning Liu Kang. But Shao Kahn wound up killing Kung Lao, and Liu Kang won anyway. When Raiden tried to save Smoke from getting turned into a cyborg ninja, the Lin Kuei captured and converted the younger Sub-Zero instead. More cracks in the amulet.
Mortal Kombat III came next with Shao Kahn launching his invasion of Earthrealm. Again, Raiden tried to make some changes to alter the future, but continued to suck at it. He saved Johnny Cage's life and Sub-Zero was reprogrammed by the Earthrealm fighters to give him back his free will. But Shao Kahn killed Shang Tsung and used his power to strengthen the brainwashed Sindel--and she, in turn, killed a bunch of humanity's best fighters.
Desperate for the answer, Raiden went to the Netherrealm to ask for Quan Chi's help--but got turned down. But his conversation with Quan Chi did finally help Raiden figure out what "He must win" meant, which has probably been obvious all along. "He" in this case is Shao Kahn. Liu Kang constantly defeated Shao Kahn in the original timeline but was never able to kill him, which allowed Shao Kahn to keep hanging around until he finally brought about armageddon. If Earthrealm lost and Outworld merged with it, the Elder Gods would be forced to step in.
And step in they did. Shao Kahn won his invasion but broke the rules of Mortal Kombat. The Elder Gods powered up Raiden and he fought Shao Kahn, defeating him and blowing him apart once and for all. Everyone was saved, except Liu Kang--Raiden accidentally killed him when he disagreed with the plan to let Shao Kahn win.
As it turned out, though, this was all part of Quan Chi and Shinnok's plan, somehow. That might not, uh, make sense, but this was all about bringing Shinnok back to take over. Thanks to Raiden being terrible at time travel, most of the best fighters on the good side were now dead, and Shinnok would be able to take over a whole lot easier.
Shinnok Comes Back
Finally, we're coming to Mortal Kombat X. Shinnok and Quan Chi made their play, backed by undead versions of the warriors that had died in Mortal Kombat 9. It turned out, though, that Johnny Cage, who replaced Liu Kang as Earth's best fighter, was a member of a long line of warriors created by the gods. His special powers kicked in to allow him to defeat Shinnok and imprison him in his amulet. Quan Chi tried to kill Johnny and resurrect him as a member of his undead forces, but Raiden used all his godly powers to fight the move--and the interaction of their powers not only saved Johnny, it restored the other undead folks in the room to their human forms.
Quan Chi got away, but Shinnok was defeated and everybody got to chill out. Sub-Zero and Scorpion remade their clans and finally buried their hatchet, while Johnny Cage and Sonya Blade had a daughter together, and Jax had a daughter of his own. Twenty-five years later, Kano managed to get hold of Shinnok's amulet and sell it to Mileena, causing the next generation of fighters to go hunting for it.
The Earthrealm fighters had an uneasy alliance with Kotal Kahn, the new leader of Outworld, who sent is lieutenant D'Vorah to help them find Mileena. When they did, Kotal Kahn kept the amulet--but didn't know that D'Vorah was actually working with Quan Chi to get it. The Earthrealmers worked together to find and capture Quan Chi, but Scorpion and his clan showed up to get his vengeance on the man who caused the deaths of his family. Scorpion killed Quan Chi, but not before D'Vorah delivered the amulet and he used it to release Shinnok.
Back once more, Shinnok was able to corrupt the Jinsei, the Earthrealm's mystical life force, with his evil magic, just like he planned the first time. That gave him intense powers and turned him into a demon--but Johnny and Sonya's daughter Cassie Cage fought Shinnok and defeated him, thanks to Johnny's special warrior bloodline. Raiden sacrificed himself to purify the Jinsei and save the world. Unfortunately, Raiden came out corrupted again. Now he's back to being sort of evil Raiden, with Shinnok's amulet and Shinnok's severed head--still living, thanks to him being a god.
More Time Travel In Mortal Kombat 11
We don't know too much about the story of Mortal Kombat 11, but comments from Ed Boon suggest that time travel is coming back in a big way. It seems we'll be seeing another time rewind at the hands of Kronika, the Keeper of Time. The new villain was apparently pretty happy with the way history had turned out, and didn't appreciate Raiden's meddling with the plan and rewriting history, as is apparent from the game's story trailer.
This won't just be another return to the beginning of the story, though. Apparently, Kronika is causing the various timelines are going to "fold" together, with past events merging with present ones, and characters will run into themselves from the past and future. Perhaps most notably, that means Shao Kahn is back, and various forces of Earthrealm and Outworld are going to need to band together to defeat him and stop Kronika and her time-bending plans.