Mortal Kombat's Ed Boon reflects on 30 years of stomach-turning violence, and why rebooting is right for the series

Sub-Zero and Kenshin face off in Mortal Kombat 1 screenshot
(Image credit: NetherRealm Studios/Warner Bros. Games)

When the very first Mortal Kombat launched in 1992 – first exclusively on arcade cabinets; a year later on consoles – the world wasn't ready. Then developed by Midway Games, its use of digitized live actors marked a new direction for video games at the time, and while the likes of Pit-Fighter had already used the technology in the fighting game space, Mortal Kombat's wanton, over-blown violence shook up the status quo so vigorously that it was discussed in the UK's parliament and the US senate.  

Ed Boon, the co-creator of the Mortal Kombat dynasty, can't quite believe it's now approaching its 30th anniversary, but is still wowed by the warm reception each game receives whenever it pokes its head above ground. Mortal Kombat 1 – a reboot of the long-standing series, and the fourth mainline game from Boon's NetherRealm Studios – is the latest to do so, and it's the prettiest, most sophisticated, and, crucially, most violent MK game of the lot.  

"In the early ‘90s, Midway Games were doing loads of arcade games – the likes of Narc, Smash TV, and Terminator. We have many team members who weren't even born then!" says Boon. "A lot of those games used that live-action-style technology, and we were thinking at the time: What kind of game have we not made? We'd made shooter games, we'd made gun games, we'd made beat 'em ups, but a one-on-one fighting game would be perfect. Street Fighter 2 was just hitting its stride, so we thought Mortal Kombat was the perfect fit, so long as we could make our characters even bigger." 

"I think the objection to the violence Mortal Kombat portrayed in the beginning was because there was no ratings system,” continues Boon. “People were asking: how can you do this in a video game? And just like the movie industry, and the music industry, they started putting labels on the stuff that you were buying. Once we got past that, there wasn't much discussion of it. Our Fatalities are just so ridiculous, too. What's interesting is that around 90% of the reaction that we get from a Fatality is laughter. Players will see something especially out there and say it's absolutely ridiculous. So as long as people are laughing, then we feel like we're in the right zone. Once someone starts saying they're disturbed by what they see, then we're like: 'Okay! Let's not do that.'"

The good fight

Mortal Kombat 1

(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

Ridiculous is a fitting way to describe some of the gore-spilling, over-the-top and science-defying Fatalities Mortal Kombat 1 has teased so far. It's Mortal Kombat as we know it, basically, but between its Kameo system and narrative reboot, it definitely feels like the most approachable MK we've seen for years. "One of the things about Mortal Kombat that's amazing even to me is that it's still big," says Boon. "When we release a Mortal Kombat game, it still gets a lot of attention, it still gets a lot of excitement. So, to be able to be still around and still as strong as ever, that's a great feeling." 

"I didn't really think about Mortal Kombat 1 being a jumping-on point for new players until people like yourself started mentioning it over the last couple of days,” adds Boon. “I suppose it is; there's a big number 1 in the title. If a player was looking at MK11 and thinking to themselves: ‘I've missed the first 10, I can't jump into this one,’ then yeah, maybe this one is a better game to on-board new players. The fact is we are telling a new story, literally from the big bang of this universe, it's a new story that we're creating."

"Kameos evolved from the basis of two ideas,” says Boon. “I had always wanted to do something with other characters being on the screen or assisting. Our design team came up with a cool idea – they wanted Sonya to have a drone that would follow her and help her. But I was pushing back on that. I thought that if we were going to come up with these assisted things, then everybody needs to use them because that would make it a lot more interesting. And then we just combined the two ideas by having that assist idea simply being characters. Once we got that going, we knew that we were onto something special."

Mortal Kombat 1

(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

"The Kameo fighters, for instance, when they come out, it's just a push of a button. We don't want that to be a complex thing".

Ed Boon, co-creator of Mortal Kombat

Of course, getting the balance right between welcoming new faces and keeping legacy fighters on their toes isn't always easy. From the little I've played so far, I reckon Mortal Kombat 1 feels tailormade for new players, but Boon is keen to point out there's plenty under the hood for the veterans to discover and, inevitably, master.  

Boon adds: "Striking the balance between making the game inviting for new players but not watering it down for the hardcore is a challenge for sure. We don't focus too much on the complexities of perfecting the moves. The Kameo fighters, for instance, when they come out, it's just a push of a button. We don't want that to be a complex thing. But there are things that we're not even talking about in our demos and presentations, like more nuanced features, this high-block feature that we've not mentioned yet, that's for the hardcore players. Those are the ones who are going to discover it, and use it to their advantage." 

And so the stage is now set for players new and old in Mortal Kombat 1 as it stares down its September 19, 2023 release date. Things are bound to move quickly from here, but the Mortal Kombat 1 characters roster is beginning to fill out with a line-up of familiar and fresh faces, and it'll be interesting to see which stars span both main fighter and Kameo camps, and which are resigned to one or the other. Boon cannot wait to send his and NetherRealm Studios' latest labor of love into the world, but has he thought much about what might follow after that? 

"If we did another game in this lineage of Mortal Kombat games, I think I'd want to call it Mortal Kombat 2," he says. "We could do Part 1, or Part 2 like The Last of Us does. We certainly won't call it Mortal Kombat 13." 

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Joe Donnelly
Features Editor, GamesRadar+

Joe is a Features Editor at GamesRadar+. With over seven years of experience working in specialist print and online journalism, Joe has written for a number of gaming, sport and entertainment publications including PC Gamer, Edge, Play and FourFourTwo. He is well-versed in all things Grand Theft Auto and spends much of his spare time swapping real-world Glasgow for GTA Online’s Los Santos. Joe is also a mental health advocate and has written a book about video games, mental health and their complex intersections. He is a regular expert contributor on both subjects for BBC radio. Many moons ago, he was a fully-qualified plumber which basically makes him Super Mario.