June 13, 2015


WARNING: Some items on this page may contain graphic content. Remember: it's just computer animation.
(USA Network, September 21-December 14, 1996)

Film Roman Productions, Threshold Entertainment, USA Studios, New Line Television


            In 1992, Mortal Kombat ushered in the age of mature gaming.

Mortal Kombat ad.

            Originally intended as an adaptation of Universal Soldier starring Jean-Claude Van Damme from Midway Games, Ed Boon, John Tobias, John Vogel and Dan Forden turned to Chinese mythology and kung-fu movies for inspiration when the licensing deal fell through. They came up with the concept of six realms created by Elder Gods and a tournament held to maintain the freedom of one of the realms. Visiting pinball designer Steve Ritchie, upon noticing someone had written “combat” with a “K” on their idea board, suggested they call the game “Mortal Kombat.” The name stuck, and Mortal Kombat was born.

The Kombatants: Johnny Cage, Kano, Sub-Zero, Sonya Blade, Raiden, Liu Kang and Scorpion.

            What made the game different from the other prominent fighting game at the time, Street Fighter, was the fact that instead of using animated character sprites, they used motion capture to place actual actors into the game. That, and the fact that the game was the goriest at the time-- from the amount of blood spilled during combat to the fatal finishing moves dubbed “Fatalities” (although, compared to the characters the gore seemed a bit cartoony at times). The brutality shown in the game led to several controversies and public outrage, ultimately resulting in the creation of the Electronics Software Ratings Board which provides age ratings for all video game releases. 

            The game was a hit, and spawned two sequels: Mortal Kombat II in 1993 and Mortal Kombat 3 in 1995, which was later updated and re-released as Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3; all of which were eventually ported to home systems. Midway produced a series of comics tying into the official story of the arcade games, while Malibu Comics secured the license and published several series between 1994 and 1995. Hasbro also produced a line of action figures in the same style as their G.I. Joe line (in fact reusing some of those molds). In 1995, the popularity of the games reached the notice of Hollywood and a movie deal was struck.

Mortal Kombat was directed by Paul W.S. Anderson from a script by Kevin Droney and produced by Threshold Entertainment for New Line Cinema. It followed the basic plot of the first game (while adding bits from the first sequel), where chosen warrior and former Shaolin monk Liu Kang (Robin Shou), action star Johnny Cage (Linden Ashby) and Special Forces officer Sonya Blade (Bridgette Wilson) end up on a ship bound for an island to engage in sorcerer Shang Tsung’s (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) Mortal Kombat tournament. As it was the 10th tournament, if Tsung’s forces won the dimension known as Outworld would lay claim to Earth under the rule of its despotic emperor, Shao Kahn (Frank Welker). Overseeing and guiding Earth’s champions was Raiden (Christopher Lambert), the god of thunder and Earthrealm’s protector. Opening in August, the film spent three weeks at number one and earned $122 million worldwide. Several months prior, Threshold released a direct-to-video animated prequel called The Journey Begins, also written by Droney, which offered background on the film’s main characters and featured a 15-minute documentary about the movie. It was released to VHS and Laserdisc by Turner Home Entertainment and featured the characters in their MK2 outfits.

The Defenders of the Realm in their secret base.

Based on the film’s success, Threshold and New Line Television commissioned Film Roman Productions to create an animated series set in the movie’s continuity, although it also incorporated elements from both versions of MK3. The series focused on Raiden (Clancy Brown) assembling a group of warriors to defend Earthrealm from invaders that entered through portals from other dimensions. They would detect the openings in their hidden base and fly out in dragon-shaped jets to kombat the threats. 

Nightwolf, Liu Kang, Sub-Zero, Kitana, Jax and Sonya.

Carried over from the movie were main characters Liu Kang (Brian Tochi) and Sonya Blade (Olivia d’Abo), as well as Blade’s partner Jax (Dorian Harewood), who had bionic arms; Lin Kuei ninja Sub-Zero (Luke Perry), who possessed ice powers; and Kitana (Cree Summer), long-lived princess of Outworld who used deadly Japanese war fans. Joining them from MK3 was Stryker (Ron Perlman), leader of an NYPD Special Riot Control division, and Nightwolf (Todd Thawley), a Native American shaman and historian who could tap into spiritual energy. Nightwolf, although occasionally joining in battles, served as the team’s tech support. All of the characters’ designs were taken from the MK3 games, except for Kitana who featured elements of her MK2 outfit.

Shao Khan towers over Shang Tsung.

            Shao Khan (John Vernon) remained the primary antagonist, allowing the other realms to invade Earthrealm while only actually appearing in four episodes. Other Kombatants made appearances throughout the show’s run, including the undead warrior Scorpion (Perlman); Kitana’s ex-fiancĂ© Rain (Rino Romano) who served the Emperor; Sub-Zero’s fellow ninja and friend, Smoke (Jeremy Ratchford); Lin Kuei cyborgs Cyrax and Sektor (Harewood); Sonya’s arch-nemesis Kano (Michael Des Barres); and the four-armed Sheeva (Dawnn Lewis). Film villain and first game boss Shang Tsung (Neil Ross) also made several appearances. The series was notable for being the debut of sorcerer Quan Chi (Nick Chinlund) who went on to become the villain in Mortal Kombat Mythologies: Sub-Zero and Mortal Kombat 4 in 1997.

Rain hasn't learned that "no" means "no."

            Mortal Kombat: Defenders of the Realm debuted on September 21st as part of USA Network’s Action Extreme Team programming block. It was developed and primarily written by Sean Catherine Derek, with additional scripts from Steve Granat, Cydne Clark and Mark Hoffmeier. The music was composed by Jonathan Sloate. Some episodes were inspired by the games, but largely the series treaded its own path with original stories and content. Because of its being a Saturday morning cartoon, the violence was significantly toned down from the source material and the gore none-existent. Although some deaths were shown in episodes, their depictions were made as light as possible. As a result, the series was widely panned by both critics and fans of the games, feeling that neutering the very thing that made MK a success was a recipe for disaster. The series only lasted a single season of 13 episodes before it was quickly cancelled. 

Shao Khan with the Orb of Power.

As with the other entries in the Extreme TeamWing Commander Academy, Savage Dragon, and Street FighterMortal Kombat took part in “The Warrior King” crossover event on November 16. Developed by Will Meugniot, the titular barbarian (Michael Dorn) crossed between dimensions to find and acquire the Orb of Power, which could control the weather of any planet. While The Warrior King was seen in all four shows (albeit in an unspeaking silhouette cameo here), their respective characters didn’t cross over. It was coordinated so that each episode would air on the same day, resulting in each series being shown outside of their regular timeslots. However, the event received little to no promotion, and outside of the rearranged schedule there was no indication that there was anything special about that day.

One of the DVD covers.

In the United States, several episodes only saw individual release on VHS. All but one episode was released across three volumes in the United Kingdom while Australia saw all episodes across six volumes. The complete series was released on DVD in Russia and Brazil, each containing a language track specific to that country. 

Defenders of the Realm would become the franchise’s last attempt at a cartoon. In 1997, MK returned to theaters with the widely-panned Annihilation, followed by a new short-lived live-action series called Konquest. The next time MK would be successfully adapted into a program would be in the 2010 web-series Legacy, which so far had two short seasons. In the meantime, new entries in the franchise continued to be produced for arcades and later for home systems. The franchise, whose popularity became diluted through the introduction of clones and even more violent games trying to emulate its violence and gain its audience, got a much-needed reinvigoration when Midway was purchased by Warner Bros. Interactive and 2011’s Mortal Kombat was released. 

“Kombat Begins Again” (9/21/96) – The warriors face a pack of invading cybernetic units while Sub-Zero tries to warn them of a threat from Scorpion.

“Sting of the Scoprion” (9/28/96) – Scorpion amasses a legion of undead warriors and travels to the Outworld with the intent of resurrecting Shang Tsung.

“Acid Tongue” (10/5/96) – The Reptile-led Raptors attack, resulting in Jax’s arms being damaged. Sonya attempts to help repair them while the others deal with Sheeva’s Shokan warriors.

“Skin Deep” (10/12/96) – Kitana’s ex-fiance Rain returns to warn of Shao Kahn seeking a powerful scimitar, but he turns out to be a traitor and kidnaps Kitana.

“Old Friends Never Die” (10/19/96) – Sub-Zero reunites with his friend Smoke to find out if his friend still exists or if he was turned into a soulless killing machine by Oniro.

“Familiar Red” (10/26/96) – Kano and the Black Dragon gang open false portals all over, making Nightwolf’s detection system unreliable and forcing him to rely on the magic within.

“Fall From Grace” (11/2/96) – Sonya’s overconfidence results in Stryker being wounded, and the consideration of suspending her from the team due to her inability to use teamwork.

“The Secret of Quan-Chi” (11/9/96) – Quan Chi uses a magic crystal to turn the warriors against each other, leaving Nightwolf alone to stop Quan Chi from conquering the world.

“Resurrection” (11/16/96) – Shao Khan resurrects Shang Tsung and gives him a sphere that controls the elements, allowing him to severely weaken Raiden and trap the warriors.

“Sword of Ilkan” (11/23/96) – Kitana’s old enemy Zara returns, holding Jax hostage in order to force Kitana and Sonya to retrieve the other sword of Ilkan for her.

“Amends” (11/30/96) – Former Black Dragon Kabal returns to aid the warriors in defeating Kano and the Black Dragons’ latest scheme.

“Abandoned” (12/7/96) – Jax attempts to retire from the constant fighting, but is entangled in Shao Khan’s latest attempt to discover the warriors’ base.

“Overthrown” (12/14/96) – The warriors prepare for a final confrontation with Shao Khan, but the battle is fought from all sides thanks to old rivalries and subterfuge.

Posted in 2015. Updated in 2023.

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