Blood & Bore : The forgotten Mortal Kombat klones of the 1990s

Some of us might complain about the constant deluge  of mediocre imitations of great games in today’s market.  But as these interviews reveal, it’s far from a new trend 


Mortal combat


One of the enduring clichés  of the video game industry  is the compound adjective  ‘hit-driven’. Usually used  to describe itself, it’s  the idea that most commercial games  follow an inextricable pattern: a hit game  suddenly appears in the mind of the  Genius Designer, emerges fully-formed  from the sheer power of his brilliance  – for it’s always a man – and the money  comes rolling in, hand over fist. As with  most clichés, there’s at least some dusting  of truth on this age-old blueprint. Even  today, in an industry that’s larger and  more diverse than ever before, we rarely  read about modest successes – no, we  want to read about the smash hits, the  record-breakers. But over time, as games  have become more complex, the titles that  truly capture our collective imagination  are not the originators of a new idea, but  the ones that perfect it – or, alternatively,  in today’s increasingly uncertain digital  economy, concoct the right monetisation  scheme. After all, 

PLAYERUNKNOWN’S  BATTLEGROUNDS 


might’ve sold millions  of copies, but it’s the free, ever-evolving  Fortnite that every live game is tripping  over themselves to emulate.  In gaming’s distant past, the rush to  capitalise on a growing trend was even  shorter and bumpier than today, but  the stories rarely get told, especially if  the process failed to produce another  blockbuster hit. Consider, then, the  crimson flood of violent fighting games  that followed the overwhelming arcade  success of the original Mortal Kombat  in 1992. From the bizarre (and never-
released) Tattoo Assassins to Midway’s own  subpar 3D fighter War Gods, the next five  or so years were marked by bloody B and  C-tier fighters that hoped to cash in on  the pile of gold that had leaked out of SubZero’s famous ‘spine rip’.  These days, with the advent of lengthy  Early Access periods and open betas  that precede an official release, it’s not  uncommon to see what we might term  ‘clones’ emerge on the market at the same  time as their inspiration. (For example,  Blizzard’s watershed hero-shooter  Overwatch came out in May 2016, and the  similar free-to-play Paladins followed just a  few months later.) For Mortal Kombat, the  first imitator came within a month, with  Incredible Technologies’ weapon-based  fighter Time Killers. According to David  Thiel, the sound engineer who worked on  the game, Incredible intended Time Killers  as their first bold venture into the video  game market, and the pressure on the  team was very high.


Mortal combat

MIXED INFLUENCES

“I think a lot of people think of Time Killers  as a Mortal Kombat-kind of thing, which is  definitely fair,” Thiel says. “But I think it’s  important to remember that in those days,  trends moved really fast. [Mortal Kombat]  didn’t exist when we started development,  we were looking at all the money that  Capcom was making with Street Fighter 2  and we thought, ‘Let’s get some of that.’  So we started putting something together,  and I think the guys at Midway thought  the same thing… I think what people  sometimes forget [now] is that those were  the days of the arcade, where you had all  of two seconds for someone to look at  your game and say, ‘Oh, this is its thing.’  You needed a hook. We thought blood was  our hook, and clearly, others did too.” Today, Thiel is best known as one of the  devs behind the arcade classic Q*bert, but  he describes the year-long development  of Time Killers as one of the highlights of  his career in games. While the studio had  notched several respectable successes in the arcade space in the late  eighties with sports fare like  Capcom Bowling and Winter  Games, Thiel describes Time  Killers as their first attempt to  compete with larger players  in the space. Unlike Mortal  Kombat, where the ultra-violent finishing  moves could only take place at the end of  a match, in Time Killers the fighters could  chop off an opponent’s limb at any time,

“For us, we always   thought it was very silly, like a cartoon”

or even behead them with a lucky shot for  an instant win.   “When some people saw [the violence],  I guess they thought it was upsetting,”  Thiel says. “For us, we always thought it  was very silly, like a cartoon. You can chop  off somebody’s arm and leg, and they’ll  keep coming at you. The inspiration for  that was the scene in Monty Python and the  Holy Grail, with the Black Knight that says,  ‘I can fight!’ even though he doesn’t have  any limbs left. We wanted it to be funny  like that".

Mortal combat

A CHANGING PARADIGM

For his part, Thiel emphasises that the  game came out at a transitional era for  coin-op companies like Incredible. While  the arcade industry continued to burn for  a few more years, once the likes of Mortal  Kombat and Street Fighter 2 launched on  the consoles of the day, publishers began  to realise that there was a lot more money  in selling millions of copies of the home  version on the Super Nintendo and Sega  Mega Drive versus tens of thousands of  arcade machines; as such, the resources  shifted accordingly. Though Thiel admits  that Time Killers came in a distant third  compared to the hit fighting games of the  day, he pushes back on its reputation as  a failed also-ran, which he blames on the  disastrous Mega Drive port that didn’t  emerge until the mid-nineties, which  garnered embarrassing scores from the  era’s magazines.  “It made us quite a bit of money,” he  says. “We were definitely far behind the  big guys, but the pie was so big that even  that tiny slice was enough to make a big  profit. As [for] the Mega Drive port, I wasn’t  involved, but I knew it was going to be a  hell of a job. The soundboard in the arcade  cabinet had more processing power than  the Mega Drive itself. I’d actually never  seen the port until recently. I was doing  some research on YouTube, and I saw  footage of it – it was just brutal. It was like they took my baby from me and just did  horrible things to it. I couldn’t watch much  of it, to be honest.”

LATE IN THE GAME 

early on the blood and gore  bandwagon might’ve made Incredible  Technologies a tidy sum, but the Mortal  Kombat clones continued well into the  mid-nineties, from unlikely corners of the  industry. Just ask Andy Gavin, co-founder of  the much-acclaimed Naughty Dog studio.  While you’re probably familiar with many of  their creations, including Crash Bandicoot,  the game that first put the studio on the  map, you most likely haven’t heard of the  one that preceded their breakthrough, a  very strange fighting game that they called  Way of the Warrior. Released in 1994 for  the ill-fated 3DO – one of several systems  that valiantly attempted to bridge the  gap between nascent 3D tech and the  stalwart 2D of the era – Way of the Warrior  is perhaps the most brazen rip-off of  Mortal Kombat ever made, complete with  regrettable ethnic stereotypes, multiple  claymation characters, and loads and loads  of fatalities. When asked why Naughty  Dog decided to experiment with a kung-fu  fighter, Gavin just laughs.  “Our first games were radically original,  I’d say,” he says. “[Isometric RPG] Rings of  Power definitely had some antecedents  in Ultima IV-VI, but its interface was very  unique, and it has a design vocabulary that  was very unusual. However, because EA  convinced us to use this weird save-game

Crunch  Bandicoot While talking about the subject  of crunch, Naughty Dog’s Andy  Gavin revealed a somewhat  troubling fact: “With Way of the  Warrior, the crunch wasn’t so  bad, to be honest… In the Crash  Bandicoot era, from January  1997 to September 1997, I  was in the office every single  day, and I didn’t go into a store  during that period. I went into  mini-marts and gas stations  when I was driving, but I didn’t  step foot in a grocery store.  That’s just how it was then.”


hardware instead of the battery backup,  a lot of retailers wouldn’t take the game,  so we ended up selling a fraction of what  we would’ve – maybe 400,000. Way of  the Warrior was the first game where we  looked at the market, looked at what was  popular, and tried to make that kind of  game. We knew that we would make that  kind of game for cheap, so even though  the game ended up selling only around  100,000 copies, it still made money for  [publisher] Universal, which is a big part of  what enabled us to make Crash. It was a  transitional game.”

KEEPING IT CHEAP

To keep costs down, Gavin and cofounder Jason Rubin worked strictly out of  what Gavin calls their “dude apartment”,  imitating the technique that Mortal Kombat  famously used to digitise and capture its  character models from real-life standins. However, since the duo didn’t have  the budget to rent a studio space, or to  pay their actors, they ended up inviting  their friends, acquaintances, and even  their girlfriends to clumsily imitate kungfu moves in front of a curtain in said  apartment. (For example, the stick-wielding  Australian Shaky Jake is played by Gavin’s  own brother.) They didn’t even have room  in the tiny apartment to film, however, so  they had to open the front door and hang  the curtain in the hallway, which drew  strange looks from those who also lived in  the building.  Their creative process was ramshackle,  but organic: when they had a new idea  for a character, they simply put Rubin in a  ninja mask, so he wouldn’t be recognised  as another fighter in the cast. They added  unconventional mechanics to the basic  fighting system, including ‘magic spells’ that  allow savvy players to heal mid-fight, as

“It was like they took my  baby from me and just  did horrible things to it”

well as a secret, unauthorised copy of the  pioneering space combat game Spacewar!,  hidden behind a code. According to Gavin,  the two of them voluntarily worked brutal  hours that were typical for the era.  “We would get up at four in the  afternoon after having gone to bed at  dawn, work on Way of the Warrior until  dawn again, get takeout, or go to a Costcotype place to load up on candy, then do  it all over again,” Gavin says, laughing. “In  many ways, that era of Naughty Dog, from  five employees to 40, was our apartment  on steroids. It was just, ‘Live and breathe  video games, never do anything else.’   I wouldn’t do it the same now, but it  worked for us, and I think if you go back  and ask anybody who worked during that  era, they would say they had a good time  doing it… We hardly fired anyone. People  self-selected, they quit if it wasn’t for them.  By virtue of the people we knew, we were  in our early-to-mid twenties, this similar  age bracket, so it worked. I recently did  some consulting for a small game, it’s a  little more PC these days, and they have  more best-practices. But the basic feel  of ‘game people’ is still there. Sitting in a  room, getting it done.” All-in-all, it’s clear that most aspects  of games production have changed  dramatically over the years, even when it  comes to cranking out what some might  call ‘rip-offs’ of bigger games, most of  which are mostly forgotten as time passes.  But even as the market has shifted, there’ll  always be room for imitators. And who  knows? Every now and then, they might  strike gold themselves.


This is the Way    

While Andy Gavin fondly recalls  the development of Way of the  Warrior, it was also marred by  tragedy. His brother Mitch’s  best friend, Tae Min Kim,  volunteered to be put in the  game as the shirtless Liu Kangesque Dragon. Shortly after the  game’s final release, Kim was  killed in an automobile accident  in late 1995. “Somebody just  ran a red light and hit his bike,”  Gavin says. “My brother was  very sad about it at the time.”

Mortal Combat











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