March 28, 2013

Street Fighter vs. Mortal Kombat in a broader perspective

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.


  1. 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.

    I dunno man. Pong (1 player vs 1 player) is anti-social? Computers are just pretty dumb unless they cheat or use their perfect reactions, and they're not interesting to compete against like humans (autistic people may argue otherwise, but...). You can argue that a more pro-social and teamwork oriented world would have seen greater strides in AI, I guess.


    Mortal Kombat was kind of an interesting standout series, in terms of being a relatively popular 2d fighting game.

    It is very US centric, and other, less violent and longer falling violence nations never really had any perceivable interest, preferring more visually stylised Japanese origin stuff (which is still the most popular in the UK). Even the fighting game scene in the US is largely disdainful of Mortal Kombat, particularly the fatality aspect.

    The Japanese companies largely went on making 2d fighting titles with increasingly stylised graphics - e.g. Vampire Saviour, Street Fighter 3rd Strike, Marvel Vs Capcom, King of Fighters, Guilty Gear.

    Realism came though in Japanese games in the form of 3d fighting games like Virtua Fighter (currently the most popular in Japan since the 2000s afaik), which did tend to have fairly empty stages (as they need to be not to get in the way of the fighters, like a boxing ring) and realistic / polygonal designs, but with absolutely no gore or blood (less than Street Fighter 2).

  2. I had some fun sleepover parties involving Street Fighter II back in 3rd grade. I was indifferent about Mortal Kombat because learning all the finishing move button combinations was way too hard when there were better things to do.

    In keeping with your point, the sequel-sequels Street Fighter II: Turbo and Street Fighter II: Championship Edition added more characters and more moves to the existing characters, following the same trend as Mortal Kombat.

    Regarding character fungibility, I remember a lot of the newer players liked Chun Li because there was a low learning curve due to her jumping ability. You just had to jump around and wail on the kick buttons. If you were really good, on the other hand, you could challenge yourself with Zangief.

  3. Funny, just a couple hours ago I was talking to a co-worker about Mortal Kombat, mentioning that I was a Street Fighter partisan. She played Mortal Kombat on Sega Genesis though.

    There were hordes of Street Fighter II sequels. World Warriors became practically synonymous with SF2 (I think it just added a few more characters). Then there was Street Fighter Alpha. My brother and I would play co-op mode of SFA3 on our Dreamcast, sometimes having a hundred-hand-slap equivalent on both sides of the computer opponent. We figured it deserved that for being cheap to us so often. I also recall seeing Street Fighter 3 in arcades (a looong time after SF2), but I don't think that was as popular as the Alphas or the Marvel vs Capcom (previously X-Men vs Street Fighter) games, though more popular than the game based on the Street Fighter movie. I think Capcom also crossed over with SNK, known in Japan for the King of Fighters games.

    One thing I liked about SF vs MK is that the special move combinations were smooth and could more easily be performed on a joystick. With MK you had to tap rather than hold the direction buttons. I thought the focus on snazzy graphics & fatalities distracted from gameplay. Later on MK switched to using 3D animation rather than 2D photo/videographed images, but I didn't care for that either.

    But on one thing, I think everyone can agree: The original Street Fighter game sucked.

  4. "Pong (1 player vs 1 player) is anti-social?"

    In Pong you're not beating the other player up, it's more abstract competition like a board game.

    "they're not interesting to compete against like humans"

    Though these days you can play online with a bunch of other people, and typically that takes the form of all-against-all, not people on team A vs. people on team B.

  5. "I had some fun sleepover parties involving Street Fighter II"

    Easy way to kill an hour or two when there was nothing else going on during a sleepover. I don't think other games were that fun. Maybe Mario Kart. Later it was GoldenEye and Mario Kart 64, though only Mario Kart was any real fun. GoldenEye just puts you into zombie mode somehow.

  6. "There were hordes of Street Fighter II sequels."

    Yeah, but they weren't commonly played. We might have rented the updates for the Super Nintendo just to fool around with the turbo option or play as the bosses. But they weren't like totally new games that we kept up with buying and playing regularly.

    Especially after that Super Street Fighter one -- that was way different, making use of combos, which put it more in the study-hard / test-taking category. Most of us never knew about any new ones after that, like the Alpha series.

    You said you played one from that series on a "Dreamcast" -- what was that? I remember seeing one of those in college, and that was it.

    Compared to Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat was everywhere. Especially in the kind of mid-'90s when II was huge in the arcades and in homes. People weren't still crowded around the Street Fighter arcade games by then, and it felt like it had stalled out on home consoles too.

    " I think everyone can agree: The original Street Fighter game sucked."

    I actually found an arcade cabinet of that one in an Ames (like K-mart) around '93. What a huge disappointment.

  7. "character fungibility"

    They even looked more similar than the characters in Street Fighter. Scorpion and Sub Zero were the same guy in two different colors. It got worse with II, where Reptile was that way too. And the two chick characters were the same but different colors. That Kung Lao guy always seemed like a rip-off of Liu Kang too.

    With Street Fighter, Ken and Ryu were very similar, but at least looked different. Otherwise they all looked and played differently.

  8. In Pong you're not beating the other player up, it's more abstract competition like a board game.

    I can see what you mean, but it's not like players are actually trying to hurt anyone. Kung fu and martial arts can be friendly competition and as terms show linear growth from the 70s to today, in terms of popularity. (Boxing and wrestling seem to map up better as slightly more popular in the 30s-50s than before or after, even inc 1990s-2000s pro wrestling goofiness).

    Though these days you can play online with a bunch of other people, and typically that takes the form of all-against-all, not people on team A vs. people on team B.

    I don't really know much about it, but google search doesn't reveal a clear sign that cooperative multiplayer modes are less popular.

    Purely team based first person shooters like Left 4 Dead and Team Fortress seem pretty huge, as do team based modes in other games that aren't like that.

    I think the primary play mode of MMORPGs (big world multiplayer games, typically role playing) which are among the most popular is player versus monster, where a group teams up against a monster.
    That being the case, even if there is no more anti-social intent, team based games might take a bit of a beating from a general trend to be less sociable (so it's hard to get a team together and even if you don't have any more anti-sociality, team based highs might not hit people so much).

  9. NB According to the wiki for (what I believe) is the most popular current FPS - "Team Deathmatch is usually the most played game mode at any given time, and is considered the most popular"

    Hard to find any stats, but this link claims to have some, , wherein the team based modes have about 5-10x popularity.

  10. In Europe AFAIK Street Fighter 2 was more popular than Mortal Kombat, FWIW.

    Street Fighter had a lot of sequels, and SF4 is going quite strong, but it's no way near mainstream. Most people never played anything else than SF2. Virtua Fighter and Tekken are mostly geek affairs.

    Fighting games are pretty much dead, I wonder what that says about millennials.

  11. My recollection is that if you include the crossover spinoffs I mentioned, the Street Fighter arcade cabinets were more common than Mortal Kombat.

  12. "Fighting games are pretty much dead"

    It seems like they were displaced by the first-person shooters. I should write up a little something on that too.

  13. "Hard to find any stats"

    And you'd want to make sure you got all the major games, like the Grand Theft Auto series, which (from what I saw of my brother playing it) seems to be the worst for all-against-all multiplayer.

    The Wikipedia articles for GoldenEye and Perfect Dark say that you can play the multiplayer in team mode, but we never did. It was always free-for-all.

    Maybe there's a change in the last couple years, though.

  14. this was a thrilling take on the unconventional conservativism of mortal kombat. what jewish links do you see in the repeated upgraded editions of mortal kombat 3 and stret fighter 2 that were nothing more than palette swaps and wasted quarters?

  15. Only Jewish link here is some dweeb trying to start a slap fight on the internet.

    If you were aiming for funny, you should've introduced a new title. Like, "Would be stoked to hear your take on the unconventional conservativism of Boogerman."

  16. I knew there were reasons I always preferred Street Fighter.

  17. GoldenEye was pretty cool, but now that I think about it, it did kinda put you in zombie mode. Plus the friend I always played would always hide in one area where he could see you but there was hardly any way of shooting him. So I usually got dominated.

  18. Pretty interesting stuff.

    Mortal Kombat had a bunch of faceless ninjas and monks, and weird-looking monsters. Street Fighter had more human characters(except for that green guy).


You MUST enter a nickname with the "Name/URL" option if you're not signed in. We can't follow who is saying what if everyone is "Anonymous."