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The evolution of Scorpion and Sub-Zero

Liu Kang might be the nominal “hero” of Mortal Kombat, but to fans, the yowling Bruce Lee clone has never really been the star. That honor is instead shared between a pair of palette-swapped badasses whose bloody moves and ever-evolving feud instantly defined Mortal Kombat as a franchise – and continued to do so for 19 years.

Scorpion and Sub-Zero began as more or less the same character, with only their different special moves and shared supernatural-revenge backstory to set them apart. They’ve since become much more, however, and with next week’s sequel/reboot about to knock them both back to square one, let’s take a look at how far they’ve come since the first time we saw them.


Mortal Kombat (1992)

When Mortal Kombat began, Scorpion and Sub-Zero looked like what you’d get if you asked a seven-year-old boy to design his ideal ninjas: a pair of baggy doofuses in bright primary colors, with names that were less “ninja” and more “G.I. Joe.” Scorpion was the yellow one, who kept one arm cocked back behind his head, while Sub-Zero was the blue one who kept one arm guarding his chest.

But they had the moves to back up their ninja status, with Scorpion packing not only a teleporting suckerpunch, but also a nasty harpoon and a signature catchphrase.


Above: “Get over here!”

Sub-Zero, meanwhile, had an anemic slide-kick move and, more significantly, the ability to freeze his opponents with something that was like Street Fighter’s familiar Hadouken, but much more useful:

If you got too enthusiastic with it and tried to double-freeze your opponent, however, the result was the dreaded “double ice backfire,” which would not only free your opponent, but freeze you instead.

The ability to temporarily immobilize an opponent was a big deal in early-‘90s arcades (as evidenced by the number of Street Fighter fans who crashed machines trying to pull off Guile’s infamous “handcuffs”), and the fact that Scorpion and Sub-Zero could do it so effortlessly made them the instant characters of choice for serious arcade ringrats. It was soon widely acknowledged that if you picked any other character, you were either a formidable expert or there was something wrong with your head.

True, there wasn’t much to differentiate the ninjas (or Lin Kuei, whatever) apart from their stances and special moves (although the same could be said of all the characters in the first MK), but those who paid attention to the story soon learned that there was more to their relationship than the usual “friendly rivals” nonsense so common to Ken/Ryu-inspired duos. Instead, Scorpion was the vengeful ghost of a man Sub-Zero had murdered, reincarnated as a demonic warrior and dressed in a mocking yellow version of Sub-Zero’s outfit. (Apparently he’d also been a ninja in life, although that wasn’t spelled out until later games.)


Above: Also he looked a lot like Johnny Cage, which isn’t surprising given they were both played by martial artist Daniel Pesina

Scorpion’s supernatural origins were further revealed by his first Fatality, which saw him whip his hood off to reveal a gleaming skull.

A gleaming, fire-breathing skull.

A gleaming, fire-breathing skull that could skeletonize whatever it decided to breathe fire at.

By contrast, Sub-Zero’s fatality was pretty simple, but it nonetheless became infamous enough to help inspire a congressional probe into the pressing issue of videogame violence.

Unsurprisingly, Sub-Zero’s iconic spine-rip was toned down for (most of) the console releases of MK, with the replacements varying from a lame sliding chest-punch on Game Boy to this oddly more appropriate Fatality in the famously neutered SNES version:

Interestingly, this version of Scorpion was widely perceived as the “good” half of the rival ninja duo, while murderous assassin Sub-Zero was pretty clearly the bad guy (despite having been originally sent to kill Shang Tsung, and despite having inspired one of the greatest songs ever recorded). That perception would change pretty drastically over the next few games, but not before one of the fighters underwent some pretty major changes.

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42 comments

  • ulmxn - April 15, 2011 1:15 a.m.

    I loved the hell pit level in mk3, especially super uppercutting someone up into the level above. Let's hope the new MK will have all the greatest stages from the first 4 games.
  • ulmxn - April 15, 2011 1:12 a.m.

    Did everything need to blow up in MK2? By the way, I grew up (I'm 14) playing the originals! Nostalgia ftw!
  • fakesmilesofasadclown - April 14, 2011 5:51 p.m.

    Ok um just wondering, but why was scorpions animality a penguin?? surly it shold have been ohhhh i dunno a freaking scorpion?? lol
  • Synchronatic - April 14, 2011 7:26 a.m.

    I can't believe somebody actually went this in-depth in researching and documenting Scorpion and Sub-Zero. I salute you sir. It made for a fucking fantastic read. Kombat Week is knocking my socks off! I can't get enough.
  • FETALJUICE - April 14, 2011 3:40 a.m.

    I love the MK storyline and I can't wait to play MK next week!
  • ViolentLee - April 14, 2011 2:01 a.m.

    Come on...no mention of the "white" Sub-Zero looking like Henry Rollins? It's a dead-on match!
  • SillyPigeon - April 13, 2011 10:25 p.m.

    Never been a MK fan but found this utterly fascinating and funny. Nice one Mikel!
  • MinxRiot - April 13, 2011 7:22 p.m.

    Anyone else notice that Cyber Sub-Zero looks kinda like Predator?
  • MechaGecko - April 13, 2011 7:20 p.m.

    Wow i just thought they were just polygons with some issues but this is a revelation. Thank you Mr.Reparaz
  • jackthemenace - April 13, 2011 6:53 p.m.

    OMG, it's out next week...!? I want it so badly, but i have NO CASH...
  • FauxFurry - April 13, 2011 6:53 p.m.

    I'VE NEVER SEEN A CYBER SUB-ZERO TRANSFORMATION. I expected Cyber-Zero to look a lot more like an ice-box, to be honest. Why no 'Thermometer' transformation for Scorpion? I've always wondered why there was no mystical love-hate child of these two, Steam, simply because the hate was so potent, at least early in their relationship. Then again, a name like that might fit a female ninja from the Mortal Kombat universe. Bone-Chiller sounds more appropriate for a guy fresh out of frozen Hell. Thinking of which, it is for the best that Sub-Zero started dressing more warmly again like a proper frigid ice que...King of Kold Kombat. He should leave that kind of get-up to the real hot-blooded flame flinging pros like Mai Shiranui before he hurts himself (or at least his ego, which is bound to be brittle, considering how cold his heart supposedly is, if that one song is to be trusted).
  • Wazzle - April 13, 2011 5:28 p.m.

    Scorpion turns into a egg bomb dropping penguin... OF COURSE!
  • md1292 - April 13, 2011 3:51 p.m.

    Amazing article. I've never owned a MK game, but it was cool to find out about arguably the two most iconic characters from the franchise. I might buy the new game because of this article.
  • CitizenWolfie - April 13, 2011 3:48 p.m.

    "GET OVER HERE!!!" That and "SHORYUKEN!" always bring me back to my childhood. Seeing the beat 'em up having such a great revival warms the cockles :) On topic, I can't believe Scorpion was missing from the original MK3. My mate had it and I hated the fact he wasn't in it. Both characters seemed to go off the rails (look wise) towards the later days, but good to see them back on track.
  • AntistasMetroid - April 13, 2011 2:33 p.m.

    Damn Wikiparaz! This must have taken some serious time to create! Awesome work on this feature. I didn't think all that goofy MK lore went so deep. Loving the MK week. Excellent feature. Very comprehensive.
  • Japanaman - April 13, 2011 2:18 p.m.

    I didn't understand Sub-Zero looking old one bit. I mean, how does the original Sub-Zero's YOUNGER brother who has black hair go to mostly black hair, to silver hair, to white hair in four games? No one else aged that much! It's like they want him to look like Cable or something.
  • philipshaw - April 13, 2011 2:07 p.m.

    I love when you do features like this Mikel,great stuff
  • Outlander - April 13, 2011 1:23 p.m.

    Great article! With MK being my second favorite franchise, I'm really enjoying this "Week of Mortal Kombat."
  • TheElephantManchurianCandidate - April 13, 2011 12:14 p.m.

    Loving MK week! brilliant article I can't wait for this game
  • NightCrawler_358 - April 13, 2011 11:56 a.m.

    Awesome article. I really want to get Mortal Kombat, but I want to get Portal 2 first so I get to try Steamworks, and get the PC version. (I'd buy P2 or MK on PS3)

Showing 1-20 of 42 comments

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