On Mortal Kombat and Sound Design
If you were alive and between the ages of 10 to 27 at any point in the ‘90s, you’ve probably played at least one installment of the Mortal Kombat series. If you haven’t, well, i quote the almighty Shao Khan:
“You weak, pathetic fool!”
I grew up down the street from an arcade throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s. And despite my hometown being extremely small and somewhat economically depressed, this arcade had it all, including all five Mortal Kombat machines. If not for my bed and school, I probably would have lived there. My friends and I had birthday parties there, I spent a ghastly amount of money weekly, and I served as the official “new game lookout.” Since I was always at the spot, I would use the employee phone to call a friend when new games showed up, and they would summarily disseminate the message. And you know what I did there the rest of the time? Among many other games, I punished people at Mortal Kombat. When it was time to go school clothes shopping, my family and I would go out of town, I would get the deed done, then post up at mall arcades and work those people too.
In 1992, Mortal Kombat debuted in arcades, but before my town actually got it, we read all about it in the news. Coverage was thick and effusive in my video game magazines, apparently this game had some extremely lifelike depictions of human beings beating the stuffing out of each other. When I saw it show up in my arcade, I had to hit the line. It was on. My friends were there within the hour, and we took turns beating the stuffing out of each other until dark. I would casually roll up to the arcade on a random afternoon and clear out the riff raff accumulated around the game on one credit. My mom sure appreciated that I was spending less money.
Despite the novelty or ripping someone’s head off with the spine still attached, I kind of kept going back to Street Fighter II. Sure, you couldn’t kill people, but that’s not really why I play video games. To summarize, Mortal Kombat felt like you were playing underwater. The animation was stiff, the characters were somewhat generic, fight locales were extremely boring and most importantly, the gameplay had no sense of urgency. From top to bottom, there was not one moment in Mortal Kombat that matched the fever pitch of the Vega or M. Bison fights in Street Fighter. As it stood in 1992, Mortal Kombat was at best a young up-and-comer with potential.
The very next year, Mortal Kombat II was released and to keep it concise, it was better in every way. The game speed was almost doubled, hit recovery was lessened to open the door to intricate juggle combos, and each character got two fatalities and a slew of other new moves. Characters were given interesting backstories, new fighters were added, and the backgrounds were much improved. It looked and felt like a game. Many folks consider Mortal Kombat II as the pinnacle of the arcade franchise, and it was that sentiment which drew in more casual players. I had their numbers the second they walked in those doors. My body count reached epic proportions. The clink of my quarter against the cabinet’s glass was a death sentence.
My interest in the franchise waned in the following two years, and honestly Mortal Kombat was almost out of my head completely by the time the third installment rolled around. The public’s interest did not match my own, as Midway spent a world-record amount of advertising dollars on Mortal Kombat 3. It came to my arcade, and it was fine. It featured an expanded cast of characters, as well as more finely-tuned visuals and gameplay. New to this version was a combo system, which let you chain button presses together for an unblockable deluge. As if to taunt you (or in my case, the opponent), a brief message appears on screen upon completion of one of these combos, letting you know how many hits were executed and what percentage of the victim’s life bar was depleted as a result. Eventually arcade operators upgraded the chipset and converted their cabinets to Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3, which added in a staggering amount of characters and extra features. As it appeared to be an anthology version, there was no way I was going to let my abilities languish a day longer. I took the cheaters’ route rather than waste time and money on experimentation; back then, players such as myself had to buy magazines explicitly for the strategies contained therein, and that’s exactly what I did. I bought the UMK3 issue of Electronic Gaming Monthly, saw that Kabal was the character with the highest-damaging combo, and went to work. At some point I got absolutely mangled at an out of town arcade by a guy playing as Cyrax. Convinced that this was my only weakness, I abandoned Kabal and became a dedicated Cyrax player. Thank you, mysterious stranger at the Tilt in Eureka, CA.
It wasn’t until years later that I got into sound design, and a huge inspiration for that came from playing video games both in the arcade and at home on a console, and not just Mortal Kombat. But one particular facet of that game’s soundtrack really stuck with me: FM synthesis. Back then, I couldn’t really put a finger on what made the Sega Genesis sound palette so unique, but both the Genesis and the first two MK cabinets used the same sound chip, the Yamaha YM2612. Yamaha’s own DX7 used the same chip, which was a hallmark of ‘80s synth in general. It is primarily this synthesis method that earned digital synth tech the reputation of sounding “cold” compared to analog devices, and though the sound quality between arcade games and console games varied wildly, the Genesis chip was FM synth at its most primitive. Long after its implementation came and went, many people went chasing this sound, myself included.
In the halcyon days of 2006, the Nintendo Wii was released; my roommates and I pooled our money and bought one. At the time, the novelty of using a game console to access the Internet was quite a spectacle. I had been on the hunt for an Alesis Bitrman, the only box I knew of at the time that had an FM synth mode, but even back then, they were expensive and rare. When we got the Wii hooked up to the router, the very first website I visited on a test run was eBay, on my 500th search for the elusive Bitrman. To my shock, one had been listed just minutes prior for $25. The comedy of having to fumble around with the Wiimote and enter my credit card info directly into the Nintendo was not lost on me.
At any rate, I had just started my journey into sound design, and acquiring that pedal for the purposes of FM tone chasing really showed me the potential that lies within even the most demure of enclosures. The Bitrman never really produced the squelchy leads that Mortal Kombat used but it didn’t stop the search, leading me to get into this industry to make sounds I couldn’t find elsewhere.
Decades later, I got a job as a bouncer at an arcade bar and continued my dominance there, and to this day I still pop into similar establishments and give randos the business. Next up: you. Yes, you, reader. If you’re reading this, consider this an open challenge to come play me at MKII or UMK3 at the NAMM Show, April 13-15 at the Anaheim Convention Center, booth 5243.
“Is that your best?”