A reversal of direction in the zeitgeist shows up in so many areas of the culture. That's why it makes sense to talk about a zeitgeist in the first place. To show just how broadly a change in the social-cultural atmosphere can reach, let's take a look at a mass phenomenon in youth culture of the early-to-mid-1990s -- the explosion of video games where two players fight against each other in a best 2 of 3 format. It was comparable in intensity to the Davy Crockett craze of the '50s.
First, the player vs. player genre as a whole was a qualitative change from the '80s, where video games that involved beating people up had both players teaming up together to beat up hordes of enemies controlled by the computer. These included Double Dragon, Final Fight, Golden Axe, and many other quarter-eaters. With greater social isolation, kids weren't as interested in team play, and the player vs. player games sprang up to meet the new demand for anti-social ways of playing video games.
By far the two most popular fighting games were Street Fighter (II) and Mortal Kombat. Street Fighter (1991) had one foot still in the '80s, while Mortal Kombat (1992) was unmistakably '90s and quickly displaced Street Fighter. Contrasting their main features will therefore show how the zeitgeist began to shift. You may recognize some of these changes from other domains, several of which I've covered here as well. It does seem a little frivolous to look for these changes in video games, but in the archaeology of popular culture, I say leave no stone unturned.
Visually, Street Fighter has a more stylized look, and Mortal Kombat a more gritty representational look. Take a look through a whole gallery of screenshots here and here. Notice several things in the comparison below:
Street Fighter looks like the work of an illustrator. The guy getting electrocuted is shown in X-ray view, right out of a kid's cartoon. Mortal Kombat shows digitized "animation" of footage taken of live actors performing their moves. The backgrounds look like digitized photos too. The technology for digitized characters in fighting video games existed earlier, in 1990 with Pit Fighter, but it wasn't very popular. Not until Mortal Kombat.
In Street Fighter, the only effluvia you see is an occasional, cartoony vomit if the guy gets struck really hard. In Mortal Kombat, they try to make the blood look as real as possible, and you see it more often.
This shift from stylized to photorealistic shows up everywhere else in the visual culture. Remember when movie posters and album covers featured illustration rather than photography?
Throughout the game, Street Fighter also shows a broader spectrum of colors, greater use of contrasting colors, and higher saturation levels than the more monochromatic and washed-out Mortal Kombat, which looks like a prelude to The Matrix.
The background environments in Street Fighter are more distinctive: you know you're in a Brazilian rainforest, a Spanish flamenco bar, and so on. In Mortal Kombat, it feels like it's all taking place in a void with a few props thrown in, again like The Matrix. Contrast that with Videodrome, where you get a strong flavor of the city, generally not very palatable. The rise of pure fantasy movies also feel like they're taking place in the middle of nowhere, totally generic, not some distinctive real place that we just haven't been to before.
Mortal Kombat's explosion of gore also puts it squarely in the more unwholesome period of the past 20 years. In the image above, you can see the guy on the left hurling a spear into the other guy's chest, and it's attached to a rope that he's going to use to drag him over in a daze, setting him up for a free cheapshot.
But Mortal Kombat went even further -- everything had to be EXTREME in the '90s -- by adding an element of gameplay that Street Fighter lacked. At the end of your second winning match, it didn't just end there. You were given the chance to perform a special move, called a "fatality," on your helpless opponent. These were so over-the-top, like ripping the guy's head off with the spinal column still attached, blood dripping down, while the headless body slumps to the ground.
This level of goriness heralded the rebirth of mid-century unwholesomeness, which back in those days showed up in comic books. That caused a panic over horror/crime comics, led to Congressional hearings, and ended up with self-censorship (the Comics Code Authority). The exact same course played out again in the '90s, with the panic over violent video games, Congressional hearings, and self-censorship (the Entertainment Software Rating Board).
Come to think of it, we looked forward to pulling off one of these ultra-gory, humiliating fatality moves more than actually winning the best 2 of 3. It was part of the trend away from good sportsmanship and toward that whole "In your FACE, bitch!" and "Suck it!" kind of attitude.
Mortal Kombat II from 1993 slathered thick layers of '90s meta-aware ironic dorkiness on top of the finishing moves. They retained the EXTREME fatalities, and added animalities, where you turned into a fierce animal before ripping them in half or whatever. But now you could perform harmless finishing moves, like turning them into a crying baby, or doing overly cutesy friendship things for them, like cutting out a set of paper dolls to offer your defeated opponent. Huh-huh, I get it.
And then there was that fourth-wall-breaking moment when a digitized photo of one of the game designers, or whoever he was, popped in the corner of the screen to yell "Toasty!" every once in awhile. If you pressed the right buttons then, a special level would open up. The main thing you took away from it was, "Huh-huh, this game is so wacky and zany and quirky!" And lame.
To play well at Street Fighter, you only needed to memorize a handful of button combinations to execute certain moves. But you didn't really need these special moves much anyway. The characters were differentiated and specialized enough in their skills that any one you picked had a natural advantage over at least some of the other characters (like fast vs. slow). Not much memorization or repetition required. With Mortal Kombat, the characters are just about all the same in their speed, jumping, and other basic skills. That required you to memorize all of their special moves to gain the upper hand in what would otherwise be a stalemate between clones.
This shift toward memorization, mindless repetition, and checking off all the boxes on a list (of special moves to master) is part of the broader trend toward OCD behavior over the past 20 years. It got even worse with the sequels to Mortal Kombat -- the only person who could master so many moves in Mortal Kombat II was some geek who spent all his free time alone in the movie theater lobby hunched over the arcade cabinet.
That was compounded by the Pokemon-like proliferation of characters to choose from in the sequels. Gotta master 'em all! The first Mortal Kombat had 7 characters, the sequel had 12, the next had 15, and so on.
Because of its more rule-structured, OCD type of gameplay, kids didn't crowd around Mortal Kombat and get as excited as they did around Street Fighter, whose gameplay was more loose. The group of dudes hanging around Street Fighter were always more in worry-free, hanging-out mode; around Mortal Kombat, they were more in high-pressure, test-taking mode. It's like a bunch of friends having a couple beers while shooting the bull on the front lawn, as opposed to following the rules of beer pong or flip cup, with no interaction. Mortal Kombat is more choreographed, not spontaneous, kind of like the fake-looking fight scenes in the new Star Wars trilogy compared to the original ones.
Street Fighter thus also allowed younger kids to play alongside the older ones. When it blew, I was just 10, but the teenage kids didn't mind me hanging around the arcade cabinet with them. At the mall where I played it the most, there was one guy who could kick just about anybody's ass. Usually I didn't even bother putting my quarter next in line on the monitor when he was there. But a few times I did, and one of those I was this close to beating him.
But with Mortal Kombat and its sequels, fucking forget about it. If there was some nerd who'd memorized and practiced the list of moves and knew who to play against who else, there'd be no way a 10 year-old non-fanatic player would be able to hold his own.
Those are some of the major differences I remember, and that echo so much else in the broader changes underway during the '90s. The Street Fighter craze died off pretty quickly after Mortal Kombat came out. My friends and I still played Street Fighter a lot at home -- that was an easy way out of a slump in the course of a sleepover. But I don't remember any of the sequels coming out in arcades at all; they must have been very limited. I remember some of the variations on Street Fighter II coming out for home consoles, not with much enthusiasm from us kids.
Mortal Kombat kept going and going, though. I clearly remember the popularity of II in the arcades, and the snack shop near my freshman dorm had a cabinet for 4. Not to mention the home versions. The Genesis version of the original was particularly popular because they kept the blood in it, and you didn't see that too much on home games at the time.
Both series got feature-length movies, and Mortal Kombat earned $122 million, while Street Fighter took in $99 million. Mortal Kombat also produced a fairly popular, ear-grating techno song, while Street Fighter didn't. It belonged more to the very end of the '80s phenomenon of the action movie that had an engaging, motivational soundtrack (Rocky III and IV, The Karate Kid, Top Gun, and so on).
Guess my boredom with Mortal Kombat was yet another case of not wanting the '80s to devolve into the '90s. Alternative music, saggy jeans, the Jerry Spring Show... and Mortal Kombat. Some of us only flirted with those things and quickly looked to anything cool from earlier times -- punk music, thrift store clothes, the archive at the local video rental store. The birth of vintage mania, as what was new became so boring, embarrassing, and degrading.