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Mortal Kombat strikes again with its third version


Geof LeBaron is a pumped mass of other-worldly flesh packed into a yellow fighting suit. His tendons throb, his endorphins fly and his fists are of fury. And it cost him only 50


For the afternoon crowd at Tilt arcade in the Laguna Hills (Calif.) Mall, it's enough to make adrenal glands sit up and scream. Mr. LeBaron has taken Scorpion, his video-game identity du jour, through level after level of stocky opponents, spitting fire and burning bones. It's a good 15 minutes before Reptile, a computer-controlled opponent, rips off his head with his tongue.

"Is it too violent?" asks Mr. LeBaron of his favorite video game, Mortal Kombat II. "If it were real life, probably."

The 25-year-old looks around the virtual reality of the arcade -- the flashing colors and computerized growls -- and adds: "But it's just pixels. Anything goes when it comes to video graphics."

That anything has turned into the hottest competition in the brief history of video games, as big players such as Midway, Capcom, Nintendo, Atari and Sega have fought the past three years to produce the ultimate fighting games.

Now Midway, whose game Mortal Kombat helped start it all, is planning an unprecedented marketing campaign to usher in its latest one-two punch: Mortal Kombat III, appearing in video arcades this month.

Since Midway unveiled the original Mortal Kombat in 1991 -- a game that made millions for the corporation and revolutionized arcade games with ultrarealistic graphics and characters -- knockoffs have hit the market every month. From Sega's Virtua Fighter to the king of the heap, Nintendo's Killer Instinct, every programmer has been trying to build the better bashing beast.

But where most entries fizzle in three months, Midway is hoping a well-timed movie and aggressive advertising campaign keeps MK3 on the minds of teen-agers for all of 1995. The genre hasn't seen anything like this since Pac-Man got his own Saturday-morning cartoon.

"It's probably going to be the most hyped release in video-game industry history," says Lawrence Neves, senior editor of GamePro magazine. "When something is new, kids eat that up -- new means better."

For the denizens of Tilt -- taking in a quarter lunch or flocking to joysticks after school -- there's never enough new. It's the same demographic that watches "Star Trek" and buys Gameboys; the same 10- to 27-year-old males who read Wired and dream about competing on "American Gladiators." Video-game manufacturers have tapped into their love of the chance to trounce an opponent, whether it be a computer or their best friend.

"Why is it popular? Probably because you can kill people," says Raul Duarte, 20, a Laguna Niguel, Calif., resident. "And if you play with your friends, it's that much more in their face."

Mortal Kombat was neither the first one-on-one fighting game, nor the first hit. The latter distinction would go to Street Fighter, the Japan-based Capcom release that spawned one sequel, several updates (Super Street Fighter II Turbo, etc.) and a flop of a movie last fall. Kombat, was, however, the first to become a phenomenon -- by sparking fan clubs and Internet discussion sites, which traded secret moves and insights on how to play the game better.

The Mortal Kombat characters have spawned comic books and short stories; the game itself, fan clubs and fanzines. Mortal Kombat II brought in an estimated $100 million in its first year of release. Home versions of the original game have sold more than 5 million copies. For a notedly fickle audience, distributors say, // the response has been tremendous.

"Only one out of 20 video games are hits. We usually just get the sample copy and that's it," says Scott Walker, a sales representative for C.A. Robinsons & Co., a video-game distributor in Los Angeles. But as testimony to the other Mortal Kombat's successes, Robinsons will order about 500 machines for Southern California before the game is even broadly released, about twice as many as most other games, Mr. Walker says.

What set apart the original Kombat was its realism. Instead of manipulating cartoonish characters on flat backgrounds, players of the Kombat series feel like they're controlling their own Kung Fu movie. To achieve the effect, graphic artist John Tobias and programmer Ed Boon videotaped actors and digitally translated their fighting moves onto the game. The experience was real enough to spark a congressional subcommittee to review video-game violence in 1993.

In response to the subcommittee, Nintendo, Sega and other home arcade manufacturers voluntarily put ratings on their home games in December. Midway puts "gore switches" in their arcade games, which allow venue owners to turn the graphic blood in Kombat on or off. But the gore switches usually stay on outside of family establishments such as Chuck E. Cheese. Arcade owners say turning off the violence tends to turn off players as well.

The creators say the games' signatures -- the realistic graphics, secret moves and, yes, violence -- set it apart and leave Midway unconcerned with competitors.

"Mortal Kombat has its own sort of play," says Mr. Tobias, 25.

Mr. Neves says that if all goes well, Midway shouldn't have to look over its shoulder for a year. To "see if they can suck as many quarters as possible," Mr. Neves says, Midway has added a password system to MK3.

The passwords, which will be distributed at the "Mortal Kombat" movie in August and during a live tour of characters next fall, add a different feature to the game to keep players coming back. It's a strategy that has not been tried before and one that the company is keeping quiet. No one knows how many passwords there are or how many hidden characters or moves they reveal.

Add to that new features (including a sixth button, Run) and possible movie tie-ins in a September update, and MK3's shelf life could be ancient in terms of video games, Mr. Neves says.

"It's very trendy, what kids are looking for in a fighting game," he says. "Most games don't last three months."

Mr. Neves estimates Midway could keep MK3 going for a year before allowing home versions to be distributed by Sega and Nintendo. It's enough time to sell collector cards, action figures, XTC movie paraphernalia and maybe even a Mortal Kombat cereal.

One controversy surrounding the Mortal Kombat series was its signature use of "finishing moves," a sequence of buttons players could hit to kill, impale and maim opponents at the end of matches.

Mr. Neves says that if MK3 hits all the right buttons, rival companies may end up the same way -- decapitated. The pressure is such that, Mr. Neves said, if and when Capcom unveils Street Fighter III, it needs to be "better than Mortal Kombat III. If it isn't, that kind of thing could really ruin a company."

I= Stephen Lynch can be e-mailed at

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