Mortal Kombat. The original gruesome fighting game. Every game that comes after Mortal Kombat owes its bloody gibblets to the pioneering spirit of Midway Games’ entry to the hitherto fledgling fighting genre. Whenever you rip the spine out of your opponent and beat him over the head with it, you’re paying homage to Mortal Kombat. Whenever you yank off your enemy’s legs and play a xylophone with them, you’re playing the dirge of Mortal Kombat. Whenever you plunge your fist into the chest of your foe and pull out his still-beating heart you’re... well, you’re actually making an Indiana Jones reference, but Mortal Kombat perfected it.
Mortal Kombat’s legacy is more than just grisly combat. The invention of a dedicated block button meant you could psych out your opponent by charging up to them and then pressing block, negating their blow and leaving them open to counterattack. MK also brought us the concept of “juggling,” which is knocking your opponent into the air and using a combination of attacks to keep them airborne and add a horrific amount of red to their health bar. Mortal Kombat 3 would invent “chain combos” (also known as “dial-a-combos”) whereby hitting a certain sequence of buttons would cause your warrior to unleash devastating flurry of attacks, many of which could be chained together through the use of the aforementioned “juggling” technique.
The series also brought us “babalities,” which I always found a little disturbing given the juxtaposition of a gore-spattered battlefield and a mewling babe. With all the blood and guts, at least Mortal Kombat never actually murdered a baby.
With that small mercy, let’s tie on our cliché kung-fu headbands and see where the original Mortal Kombat characters stack up. Also, quick note: we’re sticking with the playable characters from Mortal Kombat and MKII, so Shao Khan and Goro are on the sideline this time.
Jax would eventually become a pretty cool character. He’d get neat bionic arms, he’d get cool guns and explosives, he’d even eventually get the ability to turn into a giant and squish his opponent under his boot heel (see fatalities of Mortal Kombat 3). But at his introduction, he was just some dude that showed up who was supposedly Sonya’s boss. This made me immediately dislike him as a video game representation of “the man.” Not only that, but he actually replaced Sonya in MKII since she was busy being kidnapped by Shao Khan, except Sonya was the infinitely better character.
To top it all off, his moves were utterly generic and uninspired. In a game where everyone gets cool fireballs, or blades, or ice beams, or teleportation, Jax could body slam. Wooo.
Disappointment, thy name is Jax.
I never liked Baraka. Setting aside the desperate need for orthodontics and the bland “I simply serve my masters” backstory, he had a particularly annoying move called Chop Chop Blades. Metal blades would extend from his forearms Wolverine style and then he’d just wave them around. If you touched them FOR ANY REASON, you'd get chopped and lose a bunch of health. It was the video game equivalent of spinning your arms to beat up your baby brother.
Baraka’s only redemption is he’s better than Jax.
Fun Fact: Baraka’s entire character is owed to a Nosferatu mask picked up at a costume shop. While brainstorming ideas for characters to add to the Mortal Kombat sequel, the game’s designers came across a vampire mask and then they just added in fake nails to the mouth so it looked like he had enormous, creepy teeth.
Well, he isn’t some mindless evil servant, but that’s about all that Kano has going for him. I guess he had a cool cameo in the Mortal Kombat movie before pretty much immediately dying in a fight with Sonya. He was also a super low-tier pick in the original MK as he had a paltry two special moves and one of them - his Spin Attack - was almost impossible to perform reliably.
Kano would see quite a bit of love since his debut and, in the current batch of Mortal Kombat games, he’s considered one of the best fighters out there. But in the beginning, he was - to put it mildly - bad. He wasn’t as flavourless as Jax or as annoying as Baraka though, so he gets a free pass to 12 on our list.
Personally, I would have put Mr. Cage a little higher up the rankings, maybe at a five or a six, however my editor has assured me that Johnny is known colloquially as a “crybaby wussypants” (whatever that is) and this was as high up the list as I could get him. Sorry, Johnny.
Seriously though, Johnny Cage kind of fills the niche of the narcissistic wrestler that everybody loves to hate. Even having a particularly useful kit of moves like the Shadow Kick and directional Energy Bolts aren’t quite enough to overcome his abrasive movie star personality.
And then there’s his infamous Split Punch, a move so dishonourable it goes a long way to explaining his poor reputation. It also sort of explains my affinity to Mr. Cage, as it very closely mirrors my own fighting style: punch ‘em in the nuts and run away screaming.
I am not currently taking apprentices, so don’t ask.
Kung Lao sort of has the unfortunate problem of being essentially the same kind of character as Liu Kang, just with a fancy hat. With all the ancient Chinese mysticism going to his predecessor, it’s really hard to come up with a compelling backstory for Kung Lao. And it really shows in the series, as he’s alternated from being a completely passive monk, with absolutely no desire to fight for Earthrealm’s freedom, to being Liu Kang’s bitter rival after being passed up as Earth’s champion. He just doesn’t know who he wants to be.
Fortunately he’s got a fancy hat to fall back on and a bunch of inexplicable teleportation tricks when the hat fails. The hat even shares the same teleportation abilities, always appearing back on his head after being thrown. For this reason, and this reason alone, he ranks above Mr. Cage (sorry, Johnny).
As an amalgamation of Sub Zero and Scorpion (blue + yellow = green, get it?) Reptile was destined for glory. A secret character from the original Mortal Kombat, his inclusion in MKII as a playable character was met with a lot of excitement from fans. Then he actually showed up and was a bit of a let down when we found out he was just an underling that kinda looked like our favourite ninjas, but had none of their charm.
There was one thing Reptile could do that was amazing: he could go invisible. For gamers of today this sounds great; your opponent can’t see you! You can strike with impunity! But this was back in the days before the internet, where fighting games were played split screen. Going invisible did indeed mean your opponent couldn’t see Reptile, but neither could the person playing him. Games would devolve into button-mashing versus fireball-spamming as the opponent tried desperately to find Reptile, while Reptile would desperately try to remember where he was on screen.
If we’re going to talk about bad guys with a little bit more character, Mileena is the girl for you. A clone of Kitana using Shang Tsung’s arcane magics, all she wants is to eat her sister’s face and take her place as princess. Finally, a bad guy narrative that’s not only better than “generic henchwoman number three,” but also saves on development costs by casting the same actor twice.
Being armed with sai (I’m pretty sure the plural of sai is still sai) also gives her a Raphael aesthetic that just adds to her charm. Too bad her move set was particularly weak for her introduction (she only had three special moves, and one was a teleport). Still, the inclusion of a back story that wasn’t horse manure lands her in the middle of our rankings.
I remember when I first played Mortal Kombat, the very first special move I learned was Raiden’s Torpedo special attack. Spamming that move throughout an entire match would often result in flawless victory against my erstwhile opponent. It would also result in me getting punched in the shoulder hard enough for me to cry. This would inevitably lead to fisticuffs, where I would eventually be forced to unleash my “punch him in the privates and run away screaming” technique.
But enough about me; Raiden is a God, also has a fancy hat, and also has good special moves in addition to the Torpedo. These facts combined bring him up over and over the median, although not quite high enough to reach the top five.
The second unplayable opponent to become playable in the sequel, Shang Tsung is the big baddy of the original Mortal Kombat. An evil sorcerer who uses his power to steal the life force of his victims and fuel his own unnaturally extended life span, he’s an easy guy to hate, but a true power-house of the franchise.
Shang Tsung is a shapeshifter and has the ability to become any character in the game. Along with being any character comes access to all their attacks, which means that technically Shang Tsung is always the best to choose because he is every character.
Where Shang Tsung falls down is being a creepy old vampire dude with an awful haircut. Seriously, it’s like he hasn’t updated since the 6th century BCE.
Coming in at number 5, we have Kitana, easily one of the top tier characters of the original Mortal Kombat games. She was absolutely impossible to attack from the air because her fans could be thrown either on the ground or mid-leap, and she had the completely bizarre Zip Punch which allowed her to travel up and across the screen in a Superman punch shaped like a rectangle. The weird geometry of the attack would often catch her opponents off guard, allowing her to string together a devastating combo.
She also looks damn good for 10,000 years old. Not a day over 7,000 in the looks department I say. Plus she’s a princess. As mom would always say, that’s marriage material right there.
Who would have thought that someone who was originally just another Bruce Lee knockoff would grow into being the longest running protagonist in game franchise history? And let’s be honest, in Mortal Kombat he was totally just another Bruce Lee, with the black parachute pants and the white sneakers and the constant “KIAI!” shouting. Then he’d grow up, put on some real pants and save the world from the forces of evil for a quarter of a century. I wish a change of pants could give me that kind of staying power.
Besides being a quintessential force for good, he’s also been a consistently powerful character throughout the franchise. Adaptable, strong, and highly mobile, he’s easily accessible for new players and hard for veterans to master. Plus he turns into a fire-breathing dragon. I really couldn’t put him any lower on the list without my house getting burned down.
Being taken out of MKII to be used as a damsel in distress has got to be one of the worst moments in video game history. But there she is, chained to the wall, waiting for useless ‘ol Jax to save her. I swear, if there was any justice there would be some alternate timeline where you could unlock Sonya in MKII as a playable character with the explanation she chewed her own arm off to escape and compete in the second tournament. And she’d still win, ‘cause she’s a freakin’ badass.
Sonya almost didn’t make it into the original Mortal Kombat either. Her origin story originally belonged to Kurtis Stryker, however after realizing they’d made an all-male cast, Kurtis was dropped and Sonya Blade was born. Stryker wouldn’t enter into the series until Mortal Kombat 3.
Oh, and remember Kitana’s Zip Punch move? Sonya had it first. And she did it better.
It takes a lot to get to number two on our list. First, you need to have a cool origin story. Then, you need to have some style, flair, and panache. Finally, you need some real power backing it all up. Sub-Zero has all of this in spades and is only just barely edged out from the top spot by our number one pick.
As a bonafide ninja, Sub-Zero has automatic cool factor built in. Who doesn’t think ninjas are cool? But on top of that, he can freeze anything solid. In the first games of the series, this was a real boon as it left your opponent wide open to a devastating combination attack.
Then there’s the backstory worthy of a daytime soap opera. There’s not one Sub-Zero, but two; the original Sub-Zero dies at the hands of Scorpion in the first Mortal Kombat, and then his little brother picks up the title and vows revenge. Later in the series, we learn that Sub-Zero the second isn’t really so bad and he becomes the mysterious hero character who always shows up at the last second to save the day with a giant freeze-blast.
So remember what I said about story, flair, and power being the keys to success? Scorpion easily tops the list in all categories.
We’ll start with power. He’s a resurrected ninja-demon who can spit fireballs, propel his signature harpoon at will, and teleport. If this isn’t enough to convince you, he’s also a ghost which means he cannot be killed since he’s already dead. Defeating him in the tournament just means he’ll pop up again later to try and murder you all over again with the tirelessness of the already deceased.
Then there’s the flair. While Sub-Zero has the cool ninja factor going for him, he never says a word, whereas Scorpion has his signature, “Get over here!” catchphrase whenever his spear catches his victim.
Then there’s that backstory. If Sub-Zero gets the Emmy, Scorpion gets the Academy Award. After his entire family and clan is murdered (including himself) at the hands of the elder Sub-Zero, he rematerialized in Hell as a vengeful spirit and vows death to Sub-Zero and his entire clan in retribution. So simple and yet so powerful, it’s no wonder Scorpion and Sub-Zero have been the mascots for the franchise for over 25 years.