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The Martial Arts in the Mortal Kombat Franchise

Sebastian Quintanilla
13 min

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 The Martial Arts in the Mortal Kombat Franchise
Mortal Kombat owes a lot of its style from traditional Martial Arts, so why not learn more about them!

Since the beginning of fighting games, Martial Arts has been part of virtually all our favorite games in the genre. Whether as direct translations from real-life fighting styles, or merely as inspiration for some more fantastical feats.

Contrasting games like Tekken, which often devote a single martial art to one character, allowing it to fully display the range of that fighting style, Mortal Kombat’s hyper-violent approach often leads its characters to share their many roots or even to improvise their own styles.

It still shares in this fighting game tradition of melding the real with the exceptional, to bring forth some truly violent styles of fighting that go well beyond superhuman strength. Although the series has always mixed and matched its fighting styles, the inspirations for many characters may remain unconfirmed by the team at NetherRealm Studios.

Living as speculations in the minds of its fans, who are all too eager to learn every detail of our beloved Earthrealm protectors or would-be conquerors. That said, there is just enough for us to give you a rough idea of the background of some of the most iconic fighters. 

Be it the god-like power of Raiden, or the bone-crushing strength of Goro, we want to tell you all about the martial arts that inspired Mortal Kombat in the first place, and what those inspirations look like across the history of the games. Just in time for the next installment of the franchise.

Keep in mind that the videogame nature of Mortal Kombat means that even if a character is based on a particular martial art, that does not mean the character itself shares the advantages or disadvantages of them. For example, just because a character shows a bit of Judo prowess does not mean they are great grapplers and have a powerful throw, but that the style they use to do their throws, normals, specials, and the like all resemble in one or another a real-life counterpart.

Early Mortal Kombat

As you might already know, the early Mortal Kombat titles used a combination of rotoscoped graphics techniques to display all of the characters' movesets. In doing so, they used a small group of actors, many of which were martial artists, to achieve the desired moves.

The two critical performers in the early titles were the Pesina brothers, Daniel and Carlos, who were part of the first two entries of the franchise. The pair had been martial artists for years before being inspired by the Ninja Frenzy of the 80’s and pitching a ninja-based fighting game to multiple studios. The pair mostly brought forth a general collective of Karate, Judo, and Tae Kwon Do and mixed them up with other bits and pieces from Boxing and Muay Thai to complete the look and feel of those first games.

If you actually want to learn more about Mortal Kombat’s origins as a franchise, and some of our favorite entries, we made a video about it!

TOP 5 Mortal Kombat Games | DashFight

Daniel, Carlos, Ho-Sung Pak, and the rest of the cast mostly improvised the moveset on the spot, drawing from their martial arts experience as well as what was popular at the time in movies, but without thinking too much about giving each character a unique discipline to start.

Even as the original actors of that faithful first game parted ways from Ed Boon and the rest of Midway, the talent that replaced them was not lacking in their martial arts either and also made massive contributions that last to this day to characters like Sub-zero, Scorpion, Smoke, Sonya, and the rest of the core roster.

In a time without motion capture technology and where changing an animation likely meant painstakingly editing pixels on a sprite with a low-resolution monitor, the fact most Mortal Kombat moves from this era can immediately evoke the look and feel of martial arts is an achievement by itself!

Into the Digital World

As soon as MK left behind the prison of rotoscoping, the freedom afforded to  Midway’s artists skyrocketed. With the advent of 3D models, they could now create a full suite of moves that gave a style to each fighter. Not only that, they had the time to observe and copy real-life fighting styles and bring them to life in the classic Mortal Kombat exaggerated violence aesthetics.

Of course, the idea was to bring forth a new dimension to the characters through their fighting. For example, Sonya became an MMA fighter with a heavy emphasis on judo and Tae Kwon Do. By the same token, you have Jax, who is proficient in boxing lore-wise, and so many of his attacks impart that idea. With the two being part of the in-world military and special operations, it makes sense that their training would be similar to that of elite arm forces.

In these early 3D games, Midway decided to lean a bit more heavily into their Martial Arts influences, and for some of the games in the franchise, they went as far as to tie certain martial arts to in-game move sets directly. Much like you would imagine Mortal Kombat 11’s variation system, although they certainly showed up as influences for the moves, they remained as just that, and not direct 1 to 1 translation of real-world moves into the game.

Scorpion uses what can be interpreted as Hapkido, a Korean refined technique post World War 2 of various Japanese martial arts such as Taekkyon and Judo. Hapkido focuses a lot on grappling and throwing opponents as well as the use of weapons ranging from knives and swords to staffs and, of course, a Scorpion’s classic, the rope.

These days Hapkido remains a somewhat popular self-defense martial art in Korea, and although there are some sporting fights, the philosophical ideals behind the style often steer it away from such organized competitions.

As for Sub-Zero, he seems to lean on a lot of Shotokan, which continues even into Mortal Kombat 11. Like virtually all martial arts in Asia, the idea behind these styles of fighting is as much one of fists, throws, and grapplers as philosophical perspectives on life itself. For Shotokan, one of the first few branches of Karate in Japan, the idea of inward and outward calmness and a strong sense of humility, respect, compassion, and patience are all present in the teaching of this martial art.

In a fight, Shotokan fighters look to use their trained stability to make long powerful strikes. Much of the style is based on stability and lower body strength, and dexterity. The art also values speed and power when striking. These days, Shotokan is seen mostly as a non-sporting martial art, with the more mainstream Karate, as a collection of various techniques, on that role.

Jade’s use of a staff resembles that of those trained in Bojutsu, a Japanese Martial art whose name literally means “Staff technique”. Kitana also shares a direct lineage with her real-world martial art in Tessenjutsu, which focuses on the use of iron or wood fans. 

Almost all ninjas in the game lean into a Ninjutsu in some capacity. We actually talked briefly about the Ninjas’ roots in our mini-series exploring all of Mortal Kombat’s ninja characters.

As a recap, Ninjas were seen as a sort of mercenary, a way for rich and powerful interests to achieve all kinds of goals against a specific target. Assassinations are an obvious assignment, but things like spying, scheming, trying to influence others, and even outright fighting on behalf of their leader were all valid tasks a Ninja would carry out in the field.

In order to be effective however, the professionals began to codify part of its teachings into what is called Ninjutsu. Although we are focusing on Martial Arts for this video, keep in mind that the whole concept also relates to things like guerrilla warfare, tactic, and espionage.

Many of the ideas that would make up the style of fighting would come from warrior monks and samurais throughout the 13th and 14th centuries. In the following decades, the craft slowly combined with general military thinking as the famous Oda Nobunaga made use of a growing class of warriors, the Jizamurai who continued to use parts of Ninjutsu well into the 16th century.

History lessons aside, Milena, Kitana, Jade, Sub-Zero, Smoke, Reptile, and every other ninja share some of Ninjutsu’s various schools of fighting, as the craft extends to armed combat with all sorts of weapons.

Going over now to Shang Tsung, he has a fairly complex mix of styles, although most of them trace their origins to Kung Fu, and Chinese and its various schools of martial arts.

Most prominent among them is perhaps his use of the “Snake” style of Kung Fu. Derived from Shaolin Boxing, the style looks to strike opponents fast but with fluidity. It seeks to imitate the way a snake might strike its prey. Almost like a whipping motion that, when targeting weak points in opponents, can result in a very painful and debilitating strike to the eyes, groin, and joints.

To compliment that, Shang Tsung also brings forth some influences from all the other five animal schools of fighting styles. Those being the Tiger, Crane, Leopard, Dragon, and the Snake, as mentioned earlier. The sorcerer also dabbles a bit into other animal techniques, it all reinforces the idea of Shang Tsung as a master of mimicry and shape-shifting.

Modern Mortal Kombat

Coming then to the modern and Triple-A era of Mortal Kombat, starting with Mortal Kombat 2011, or Mortal Kombat 9 for short, we can see a huge bump to the budget afforded to Ed Boon’s highly motivated NetherRealm Studios.

The team would bring in the help of an emerging technology, motion capture, which had seen use in movies already to create complex yet human-like animations that artists behind the scene could tweak to bring forth the recognizable Mortal Kombat flair.

Many of the characters evolved to introduce multiple styles into their fighting. Johnny Cage grew into specific schools of Karate, such as Jeet Kune Do, which traces its beginnings back to Bruce Lee. Another character who leans even more heavily on the  Bruce Lee roots is, of course, Liu Kang, and if the trailer for Mortal Kombat 1 is anything to go by, becoming Fire God Liu Kang has only made his style even more brutal to look at.

Kano also brought in a lot of concepts from Martial Arts, including moves from Xing Yi Quan, a Chinese martial art based around intense, aggressive, and explosive single actions. Kano also showcases a handful of Aikido, especially when it comes to his takedown moves, which the style is well known for. The second idea that Aikido brings to the table for someone like Kano is its emphasis on combining and flowing motion, something that is less present in Xing Yi Quan teachings.

Another mercenary that goes the opposite direction in the globe is Erron Black, although the Wild West was the realm of gunpowder, and Eroon certainly carries with him a big stick of dynamite to prove it, he does seem to know how to handle people one-on-one. Wrestling skills, although not generally seen as a martial art unto itself, were common in the West and Erron being a mercenary and bounty hunter for the time would have surely practiced how to beat an equal or even larger opponent with just his fists.

Many of the supernatural and god-like characters in Mortal Kombat, such as Raiden, Shang Tsung, Shao Khan, and Cetrion have no real use for traditional human martial arts, they still show off some glimpses of the styles in fighting.

Raiden, for example, implements a handful of Judo and Jujutsu moves, including a lesser-known art called Nan Quan. A Southern Chinese fighting style developed during the Ming Dynasty in the 16th century. Shaolin Monks developed the style as a way to train local peasants in the area against attacks from pirate ships. Although Nan Quan did not become widely known, it would eventually be revived under the broader Wushu umbrella and still sees competition to this day.

These modern titles slowly moved away from outright tying a discipline to the fighting styles like those in the Argmaggedon era of MK did, but the visual style of those martial arts still permeates throughout them all.

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