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A timeline of Mortal Kombat ripoffs from the 1990s

NetherRealm’s winning formula kicked off a gold rush that never panned out

Graphic with four screenshots from various ripoffs of the Mortal Kombat video game Graphic: James Bareham/Polygon

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Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

The fighting games craze may have been fully underway by 1992, but it’s safe to say no title spawned as many clones, knock-offs, rip-offs, cheap imitators and expensive failures as Mortal Kombat and Mortal Kombat 2 did.

In a five-year span, video gamers in arcades and their homes were overrun by fighting games that followed the same format: battles to the death, often organized by some supernatural being; a sinister announcing voice commanding players to execute a helpless opponent; gratuitously brutal finishers that seemed designed to provoke outrage and controversy, and secret moves with inside-joke meanings.

Here is a timeline of nine unapologetic Mortal Kombat ripoffs. It’s noteworthy how many of them had launches that were scrubbed, and how many are linked to a platform’s demise in the late 1990s.

Time Killers (1992)

Time Killers is noteworthy for two reasons: One, it’s a fighting game brought to you by Incredible Technologies, the same people who make Golden Tee. Two, it was a “weapons-based” fighting game, and the combatants could fight on even after having both arms severed, which makes me wonder if this seed of an idea could have found better purchase with a Monty Python license.

animated gif of the scene in Monty Python’s The Holy Grail where Arthur lops off the Black Knight’s arms, and the Knight dismisses the injury as “but a scratch.”
‘Tis but a scratch!
Image: Python Pictures/EMI Films

Time Killers’ roster of heroes ranged from Thugg (20,000 B.C.), who battled alien invaders in his time, to Mantazz (4002 A.D.), a magenta praying mantis with two blade-like appendages. The closest fighter to our time is Rancid, basically Duke Nukem with a prison tattoo carved into his forehead. He’s from 2024 A.D., so look for him in the next presidential election.

Time Killers’ time as a Super Nintendo/Sega Genesis port didn’t go so well. It was actually reviewed by Electronic Gaming Monthly six months before it launched, and the poor marks caused THQ to shitcan the actually finished project. Nintendo bailed on a port around the same time. Black Pearl Software eventually published the game in 1996, but by then it looked seriously dated, on top of being a gratuitously violent, un-fun trash heap.

Survival Arts (1993)

Survival Arts was the first of four fighting games built by Scarab, three of which were critical flops. The fourth, Fighting Vipers 2, was a middling port that launched on the Dreamcast two months before the console was discontinued.

In Survival Arts, pretty much everything ended with an over-the-top fatality, which of course waters down the appeal of a staple feature in fighting games. All you had to do was drain your opponent’s health bar to see them electrocuted, beheaded, set on fire, or otherwise mutilated.

Scarab was eventually bought up by a holding company and renamed Feelplus, where it was responsible for the Wii port No More Heroes: Heroes’ Paradise that launched in 2010, shortly before Feelplus was closed.

Tattoo Assassins (unreleased)

Data East brought in Bob Gale — who co-wrote Back to the Future with Robert Zemeckis — to head up this direct match of everything that had made Midway millions in 1992 and 1993.

Like Mortal Kombat and Mortal Kombat 2, Tattoo Assassins had (or was supposed to have) unapologetically outlandish fatalities and snide humor. But in an effort to make good on a claim of “2,196 fatalities,” defeated opponents would turn into barely recognizable, digitized images of Elvis Presley, a sea lion, a car, a knight in shining armor, and other random items. That’s in addition to the “nudalities” (stripped-down competitors still covered up their privates) and flamethrowing fart-alities that burnt foes to a crisp.

Tattoo Assassins’ coherent features were unoriginal, and its original features were incoherent. Little of value was lost when Data East pulled the plug on Tattoo Assassins, following the feedback of its own developers and testers, and the (correct) feeling that it couldn’t stand out in a crowd that now included the much-better Killer Instinct and Primal Rage.

Primal Rage (1994)

Primal Rage is one of the most successful games, both commercially and critically, among Mortal Kombat’s imitators. Effectively a kind of fighting-games Rampage, the game saw a wide release on nearly every 1990s platform, so-so review scores (which is better than most of these), and a roster full of dinosaurs helped save Primal Rage from being remembered as just another MK rip-off.

Primal Rage provided an early test of the new ESRB ratings, which launched a month after the game hit shelves. Among the game’s fatalities, the Kong-like Chaos just straight-up pees on his downed opponent (creating a cloud of steam if it happens on the volcano stage). In 1996, a mom in Arizona saw the ape’s golden shower when her 11-year-old son played the game on the Genesis, and went straight to the media with her grievance.

The ESRB noted that the game was rated T for Teen, so her kid shouldn’t have it in the first place, and then later affirmed that an ape peeing on a dinosaur does not rise to the level of Adults-Only content. Good to know!

BloodStorm (1994)

Incredible Technologies got a second bite at the apple with 1994’s BloodStorm, another self-proclaimed, self-hyped “Mortal Kombat killer.” It wasn’t. As if revisiting what made Time Killers so absurd, BloodStorm also had a move that would tear off a foe’s lower body, leaving them writhing on the floor but still, technically, in the fight.

The Black Knight is now missing all four limbs, lopped off by a victorious Arthur
“All right, we’ll call it a draw!”
Image: Python Pictures/EMI Films

Like predecessor Time Killers, BloodStorm’s proposed ports (for the PlayStation and Sega Saturn) were likewise canceled.

Kasumi Ninja (1994)

Visually, it was probably the most blatant rip-off of the Mortal Kombat impostors that actually launched, but Kasumi Ninja mostly escaped detection by being an Atari Jaguar exclusive — the game was announced before the Jaguar even launched. It bore all the hallmarks of 1990s MK: digitized sprites and backgrounds, parallax-scrolling effects, a fight narrator, and health bars dripping blood.

Problem is, the action is so slow, and the visuals so dark and muddy, no one can really tell what is going on with those super-grody fatalities. That sort of obviates the in-game parental control system, making it one of the first console titles with an option to limit blood-and-gore effects.

Kasumi Ninja was the first Mortal Kombat ripoff published for a console after the infamous Senate hearings on video game violence that closed out 1993. (Mortal Kombat 2 launched for SNES and Genesis in September 1994.)

Way of the Warrior (1994)

Naughty Dog, the studio behind prestige titles like The Last of Us and Uncharted series, developed Way of the Warrior for 3DO, and it indirectly led to Naughty Dog’s long-running association with Sony. Way of the Warrior was published by Universal Interactive Studios, where Mark Cerny was a vice president in charge of development in 1994. Sony bought up Naughty Dog in 2001, and Cerny went on to develop the system architecture for PlayStations 4 and 5.

Critical response to Way of the Warrior was definitely not what one would expect for a Naughty Dog game 20 years later. Gameplay, character design, and visual appeal all got thumbs-down, with most folks seeing it as yet another Mortal Kombat clone.

Way of the Warrior got Naughty Dog a contract with Universal to make three games for PlayStation, and those titles turned out to be the first three Crash Bandicoot games. That set in motion Sony’s eventual acquisition of Naughty Dog in 2001.

Ultra Vortek (1995)

Lacking any Mortal Kombat port for its console, Atari had no choice but to inflict another clone on the Jaguar in 1995, less than a year before the console was discontinued entirely. Ultra Vortek earned a better critical reception than Kasumi Ninja, but reviewers were still unenthusiastic.

Ultra Vortek is noteworthy as the only officially published and launched Atari Jaguar title to support the Atari Jaguar Voice Modem, a strange peripheral that would dial up a friend with the game and initiate a multiplayer match. The JVM was scrapped after about 100 units were produced, though, making it quite a collector’s item.

A quick scan of that fatalities video above shows it, again, looks like a straight lift of Mortal Kombat, just slower, less competitive, and less exciting. Fatalities are called “annihilations,” and there’s even a “poopality.” Perhaps it’s a nod to Primal Rage’s famous urine fatality; perhaps it’s a commentary on itself.

Thea Realm Fighters (unreleased)

Atari had another Mortal Kombat doppelganger in the works for Jaguar as that console entered its death throes in early 1996. Thea Realm Fighters, by High Voltage Software, was revealed at CES 1995, and scrubbed one year later, a move pretty much everyone took as the obituary for the ill-fated console.

Thea Realm Fighters story wasn’t the only thing taken straight from Mortal Kombat 2; two actors — Philip Ahn (Shang Tsung in MK 2) and Katalin Zamiar (Jade, Kitana, and Mileena) —who had portrayed characters in that game also took roles among a roster of 25 fighters.

Developers would later say Thea Realm Fighters was practically finished right when it was canceled; several ROMs made their way into the wild in the decades since, released by collectors and preservationists who got their hands on the code.

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Ed reaching out and touching Stede’s cheek in a still from Our Flag Means Death

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