Food for Thought: Martial Arts in Video Games Part 1: The 90s

By: Matthew J.R. Kohler


Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, and Tekken: all video game classics and staples of 90s pop culture.  What I personally love about these games is the variety of martial arts that are seen in them. In these games, we see very basic moves: roundhouse kick, jab, uppercut, and the classic low sweep. But after the initial game for each series, the styles became more advanced (read: legit).  You would have Balrog the boxer and his inability to kick (which was awesome because it made sense; boxers are not allowed to kick), Liu Kang’s kung fu that would show up in his special moves, and The King’s wrestling abilities.  All three of these game series re-introduced martial arts to pop culture, and even broke through onto the big screen.  Below is the overall story of what happened to these colossal franchises in the 90s, and what made them all special.

In the late 80s, Street Fighter was released by Capcom on Arcade.  The game was very basic, unlike Street Fighter II.  The original Street Fighter changed fighting games by introducing martial arts to the medium, as well as children.  Characters such as Zangief, Ryu, and Ken helped culture the world in the martial arts.  Because of the popularity of Street Fighter, a movie was made a couple of years later, and it starred Jean Claude Van Damme. Let’s discuss the movie for a second.  The movie did not do the games justice for many reasons.  For starters, the story was very bland.  It is about Bison’s country’s effort to become the world’s superior power by taking eighty men hostage.  The only people to stand in his way are the United Nations and Colonel Guile (played by Van Damme).  Late-80s Van Damme would have been awesome, but by this point–1994–he was clearly going through the motions.  On top of that, the fight scenes were atrocious.  I’ve never seen such slow choreography; the video game was a million times faster.

Hell, Jackie Chan’s two-minute spoof of Street Fighter was better than this movie.

By the time Street Fighter the movie was released, the video games had lost its momentum.  Fans were moving onto bigger and better video games.

In the mid-90s, the super-violent Mortal Kombat was introduced. This game did several things that Street Fighter did right and amped them up.  From spine removal and groin punching, to ninjas cutting other ninjas in half, the violence was the natural next step for martial arts in video games.  Scorpion and Sub Zero were the ninjas, Kano the street fighter, Johnny Cage the movie fighter (based on Jean Claude Van Damme), Sonya Blade the cop, and Liu Kang the Shaolin monk.  The unique spin on fighting games and diverse cast of fighters made this fighting game the new hit.

And just like the last time, a movie was produced and released during the height of the franchise’s popularity.  Inspired by Mortal Kombat II, Mortal Kombat (1995) is about a group of fighters who must defend Earth by fighting in a tournament called Mortal Kombat.  Now, the story and acting were mediocre, but boy is the film, as a whole, entertaining!  Audiences seemed to agree; unlike the Street Fighter movie, it was wildly successful and is still considered to be one of the best video game movies ever.  (Granted, that doesn’t say much when the competition consists of Prince of Persia and Super Mario Bros.).

What makes this movie so much fun is the combination of the action and music.  Unlike Street Fighter, the people behind Mortal Kombat knew the movie’s selling point.  Every detail of the fights was choreographed down to a tee.  Even the secret fight between Reptile and Liu Kang happens (this is a cheat in the first game!).  Also, there are fights for forty straight minutes!  That’s what a martial arts video game movie should be.  Street Fighter tried so hard to show interesting characters when all we wanted was to see our favorite characters try to kill each other.

Yes, the success of Mortal Kombat was monumental, but it slowly died out.  After the movie’s success, it was time to put the franchise to the test with a sequel and a television show.  I believe that a good rule for sequels is to not open with a recap of what happened in its predecessor.  1997’s Mortal Kombat: Annihilation did exactly that, and a lot more.

Well said, Shao Khan!

Annihilation is considered to be one of the worst sequels and one of the worst movies period for these reasons: the laughable line delivery, the choppy special effects, the cheap actors that replaced the cheap actors they already had (who, in turn, were replacements for the likes of Brandon Lee and Jean Claude Van Damme), and even the subpar music.  I would have loved to been in the meeting for developing the music.  “We love the first one’s main theme, so since this is the second one, why don’t we just make the music twice as fast?!”  And that is what they did.  The movie is a complete copy-and-paste job of the first one, minus the entertainment value.  Cool new characters (like Baraka, Cyrax, Skeptor, and Jax) appear, but they are either killed off within seconds of their introduction, or they are turned into the stereotypical black guy.

When I was a kid, I thought that Jax was played by a bulked-up Sinbad.  Boy, was I stupid back then.

The biggest sin that the Mortal Kombat live-action movies committed was produce incredibly lame fight scenes (yes, even the beloved first one is guilty).  Half of the time, you can see wires, or you can see that no one looks like they know what they are doing.  But, at least Ray Park and Tony Jaa’s careers were started (from the two movies, anyway).

As if Annihilation were not enough to tarnish the franchise, we were then subjected to the classic Mortal Kombat live-action TV show.  This is where we all gasp and say, “I didn’t know they had a television show!”  Yeah, there were twenty-four episodes (zero of which anyone cared about).  But, to be honest, the fighting was better on this show than Annihilation.  And that is the only positive, unfortunately.  The dialogue is the worst of this show; it makes the lines in Annihilation sound Oscar-worthy.

But hey, let’s stop talking about the negative and go to the best part of the 90s martial arts video game trend.  In 1997, someone finally got it right; Tekken 3 was released on the Playstation, and is considered by many to be the best fighting game ever (I’m one of the many).   Unlike SF and MK, the first two installments of the Tekken franchise were passable, but nothing crazy.  The third one, though, changed fighting games forever.  It ushered in the new generation of Tekken characters that showed creative depth – Marshall Law’s son Forest Law and King II.  Returning characters were fan-favorites Heihachi Mishima and Yoshimitsu.  The game revitalized the series by taking the story in a new direction and continuing to expand the universe.  This is something you can’t say for the other two franchises, in which the extent of change was color changes for the characters (see: Scorpion, Sub Zero, Reptile, and Rain for examples).


Tekken 3 is not only the second-highest-grossing fighting game of all time, but also consistently ranks in the top 25 highest-rated games of all time.  Sure, the Tekken franchise might not have a unique universe or look like MK and SF, but it has been far more consistently high-quality than both of them.  It took almost two decades to revitalize Mortal Kombat, and

Street Fighter is still trying to make a comeback.  Tekken never went downhill, or at least suffered as big of a fall as the other two.

Tekken also knew how to utilize the diverse fighting system and distinguish the first three games from one another.  What I like most about the first three is how the characters are constantly changing.  In Mortal Kombat, generally, the same beloved characters return for game after game.  With Tekken, you will notice that Marshall Law, Jak, and King are not in the third game.  Instead, they are replaced by new characters, in order to attract a new audience.  As a gamer and martial artist, knowing that characters are coming in and out of the game keeps me coming back.  If you never played the best of martial arts video game franchises, I highly recommend the third one.

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