The unstoppable Mortal Kombat franchise has accumulated a long and storied past. Even from the beginning, the groundwork was laid for some pretty complicated lore. And with all of that history, its characters have managed to develop a corresponding pile of grudges throughout the series’ elaborate plotting. Still, even when entire realms are frequently on the line, a great deal of the vengeance is actually a result of one personal injustice or another. For all of their powers, and foreign races, the majority of these characters are often prone to human behavior. So, here are some of Mortal Kombat’s best rivalries, many of which have become iconic. As such, expect some spoilers!
Sonya Blade was the first female character we ever had in the series, and is one of the few whose outfits don’t pander to teenage fantasies. The General of a Special Forces unit, she understandably seeks revenge against Kano for the murder of her former partner. The Australian mercenary Kano works for the Black Dragon crime cartel, and yes, all of this sounds a lot like countless cop movies. However, Kano’s filthy mouth and tactics make him a character you love to hate, so it isn’t hard to imagine that most people probably want him dead anyway. Also, having such an earth-bound relationship is a relief, given all of the endless magic in this franchise.
It’s always fun when the franchise is willing to embrace the martial arts genre that it’s built on. So, to have Sub-Zero recruit an apprentice that’s an arrogant hothead is not out of place. But what really makes this relationship so interesting, is that the rivalry was born out of forgiveness. When Sub-Zero finally forgave his clan’s longtime enemy Scorpion, Frost wouldn’t stand for it, and challenged her mentor. The archetype of a student-teacher conflict goes back to the oldest martial arts fiction. Frost’s entire backstory actually seems to be a compilation of cliches. The fact that Frost gets banished, and plots her revenge for years, seems to be deliberately cheesy—but she does eventually play an important role in resetting the timeline.
For someone so prone to betrayal, it’s interesting that Tanya is one of the few female ninjas to proudly display her face. She has served anyone evil that would allow her to survive the endless conflict in this universe. Tanya has consistently acted as a traitor against Kitana’s home, Edenia. Jade, however, was a childhood friend of Kitana—and even when Kitana turned against Shao Kahn himself, Jade disobeyed orders to capture her, and aligned with her friend instead. That fierce loyalty couldn’t be more of a contrast to Tanya’s selfish ways, basically resulting in a political rivalry. It’s simplistic, but in a mythology so full of various realms, it’s neat to have a more nuanced conflict that wasn't a result of direct violence.
The evil sorcerer Shang Tsung has no shortage of enemies in this series. That would include the blind swordsman, Kenshi, familiar to martial arts aficionados as a riff on Zatoichi and the like. With his powerful telekinetic powers, and having conquered his handicap, Kenshi's been a fan favorite for a while.
Shang Tsung tricked Kenshi into unsealing an ancient well, and the rush of released souls blinded Kenshi. Shang Tsung promptly consumed the souls for power, but they actually belonged to Kenshi’s ancestors. Kenshi’s noble cause to free his ancestors is a fascinating foray into the spiritual lore of the series.
This relationship is particularly interesting, because their hatred for each other boils down to race. Sheeva belongs to a species of half-human, half-dragon beings, called the Shokan. For no evident reason, they were longtime enemies with the Centaurians, and both races would compete for Shao Kahn’s preference. It isn’t until the Shokan ultimately transform the Centaurians into Minotaurs that a personal vendetta should arise, and yet their hatred was already established. It’s a great example of the senseless animosity that consumes people. This series focuses on grandiose mythology to explain its bloody fighting tournaments, and doesn’t need to rely on that kind of topic, so it’s very unique in that regard.
Given that Mileena is actually a clone of Kitana, can it truly be called a sibling rivalry? Either way, it’s very rote that her innermost desire is to simply assume Kitana’s life. She’s also merely a contingency princess for Shao Kahn, who only created her because he was worried that Kitana might discover what cruelty he once wrought upon her family.
However, Mileena’s questionable attire (or lack thereof) was combined with a disturbing Tarkatan face to create a great sense of irony. And given that she was ordered to spy on Kitana by Kahn himself, Mileena wasn’t exactly given a fair chance. She had no choice in her creation, or her personality. Unfortunately, Kitana has proven stronger in every confrontation with her, fueling the bitterness.
Sindel is a very captivating character, as the Queen of Edenia and mother of Kitana. She’s unique in her older age, and her vendetta against Shao Kahn could not be more warranted. Kahn invaded her kingdom, murdered her husband, and raised her child Kitana as his own. Even when Sindel tried to commit suicide, Kahn resurrected her into a mindless, loyal trophy. Without her daughter’s help, Sindel would never have become a force of good again. It may be cliche to have a terrible emperor that deserves harsh justice, but this is also another instance wherein a Mortal Kombat character finds their family and people tortured by evil.
Raiden probably has a rivalry with every villain that’s been introduced. He’s one of the most powerful characters in the mythology, and ultimately leads the forces of good in every conflict at hand. He’s the protector of Earthrealm, and we're constantly in need of rescuing. Of course, it wasn’t enough that Raiden was the God of Thunder—after beating Shinnok twice, he ended up a powerful Elder God. Unfortunately, Shinnok was actually an Elder God himself, a representation of death. As a result, he’s pure evil, so his conflict with Raiden physically embodies the franchise’s perpetual theme of light versus dark—Yin and Yang. With Shinnok’s defeat, all of reality itself was destabilized, and there can’t be a more affecting rivalry than that.
Ah, yes, the longstanding tale of fire and ice. Two opposing elements, wielded by two of the most famous Mortal Kombat characters of all time. Both of them have been a playable character in every single game, while others came and went. Scorpion’s sole purpose for existence has been vengeance, restored from hell in order to destroy anyone who was responsible for the death of his family and his clan. What’s interesting is that his rivalry with Sub-Zero amounts to a misunderstanding. He eventually discovers that the sorcerer Quan Chi was the actual culprit, for both his family and clan, which leads to Scorpion’s intriguing moral compass. Though he’s often painted as a villain, he’s only out for himself.
This one goes back to the very roots of Mortal Kombat. Liu Kang is a particularly skilled monk that represented the Shaolin, and ultimately became the first champion of the series. The sorcerer Shang Tsung was none too pleased with that outcome. Despite personally challenging Liu Kang after his victory, Kang ends up beating him twice over by the end of Mortal Kombat II. Feeling rather petty, Shang Tsung uses magic to impersonate one of Liu Kang’s friends, allowing him to snap the champion’s neck and consume his soul. Along with many other trapped souls, he’s forced to watch the cruelty that ensues through Shang Tsung’s eyes. After all of that torture, it’s warranted that even Liu Kang’s reanimated corpse had a grudge against Shang Tsung. Now that’s commitment!