Ed Boon liked to keep secrets. During the development of the original Mortal Kombat, he quietly sneaked in a hidden character named Reptile — a green-colored palette swap of Scorpion — without telling anyone.
“It was sort of an experiment to see how long it would naturally be discovered,” Boon told me about his hidden character, who required special circumstances to summon in the game.
Boon programmed the early Mortal Kombat games by himself, so he had carte blanche to include anything he wanted. This was the man who created the series’ first Fatality as a hidden finishing move. (It was Johnny Cage decapitating himself, because Cage was the only character in Mortal Kombat at the time. The move shocked the actor who played Cage but delighted Boon’s fellow developers.)
Reptile’s discovery took a while. Not even his co-workers at Midway, including Mortal Kombat co-creator John Tobias, knew the green ninja was in the game until players found it in the wild.
“I vaguely remember confronting Ed on it and asking him to please let me know when he adds a secret character or secret anything to the games,” Tobias said in a Twitter thread reflecting on the origins of Mortal Kombat’s earliest Easter eggs.
But Boon liked the trick. So for the sequel, he performed it again. This time, however, Tobias and fellow Midway artist Tony Goskie were involved in the creation of Mortal Kombat 2’s secret characters. They made special graphics for Jade and Smoke, two hidden kombatants based on Kitana and Scorpion. The developers explicitly teased Jade and Smoke in one of the game’s stages, the Living Forest. But Ed wanted to squeeze in another secret of his own.
That character was Noob Saibot, an all-black version of Scorpion. Noob’s unusual name, of course, comes from the creators’ last names, Boon and Tobias, spelled backward. Knowing that, you might think that the other half of the creative team would be involved in the character’s creation. But Noob Saibot was a total surprise to Tobias, who didn’t find out about the character until the studio was already well into development on Mortal Kombat 3.
“Many months after MK2’s release in the arcades, rumors began circulating about a third secret character,” Tobias said. “In fact, we were deep into MK3 development and none of us knew anything about a third secret character in MK2 ... except for Ed.”
“Not only had Ed snuck a third secret character into MK2 behind our backs, it felt like he was poking fun at me by naming it Noob Saibot. It was like... ‘Hey John, I got your secret character right here.’”
There’s actually video evidence of Tobias (and other Mortal Kombat developers) being blissfully unaware of Noob Saibot’s existence in the very game they’d worked on. Footage from Josh Tsui’s Midway Games documentary Insert Coin shows Tobias, Goskie, Steve Beran, John Vogel, and Dave Michicich trying to come up with names for new characters for MK3. Vogel proposes reversing the developers’ names, and jokingly suggests “Legov.” Tobias appears to scoff at the idea, but says, “I think Saibot’s cool.”
“Saibot is cool!” says Goskie, realizing that it’s Tobias backwards. Michicich suggests using Saibot for “the robot” — meaning Mortal Kombat 3’s cyber-ninjas Cyrax and Sektor. Vogel quickly regrets his own idea, when he realizes, “Then we’ve gotta have Noob, and that sounds stupid.”
Apparently, Vogel didn’t know then that it was already too late.
“My guess is that we weren’t aware of Noob Saibot’s existence, and us discussing using names backwards was just coincidental,” Tobias said in an email to Polygon. “The funny thing is, had we shared the Noob or Saibot idea with Ed, he would’ve been forced to reveal the hidden character to us.”
“For [Mortal Kombat 2], John gave me several color ninja palettes so I could hide more stuff in the game,” Boon said in a message over Twitter. “I thought I told him about everyone with the exception of Noob Saibot. I may have wanted to keep that one for myself — again to see how long he would naturally be discovered.
“I do remember coming up with that (dumb) backwards name as another layer to let players discover. That might also explain why he is just all black pixels [because] if John made his palette, it would have looked a lot better. [...] There is certainly a chance that the meeting the other guys had was before Noob Saibot was discovered and they coincidentally came up with the same secret backward names.”
It’s easy to see why Tobias and other members of the development team hadn’t seen Noob Saibot in action themselves, even months after Mortal Kombat 2’s release in arcades. Finding Noob was difficult: Players had to rack up 50 straight wins in the game’s versus mode for a chance to fight him.
Tobias would go on to create a backstory for Noob Saibot for Mortal Kombat Trilogy, the console and PC-exclusive update for MK3 released in 1996. Noob was described as a member of the Brotherhood of Shadow and a servant of the sorcerer Quan Chi. Later, the developers would expand Noob’s origin story further, revealing that he was actually the original Sub-Zero from Mortal Kombat and was succeeded by his younger brother as the ice ninja in subsequent games. Noob Saibot was later given a new canonical name, Bi-Han. That’s the Sub-Zero we see played by Joe Taslim in the new Mortal Kombat movie, which opens the door for Noob Saibot to potentially appear in future films. (Noob also briefly appeared in the 1997 movie Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, a movie many Mortal Kombat fans might prefer to forget.)
In other words, the secret Mortal Kombat character with the “dumb” name is now deeply woven into the game’s lore. Players love him, despite the silliness of a character named Noob, three decades later. He wasn’t the first Mortal Kombat Easter egg, nor will he be the last.
“To this day, when I am asked if all of MK’s early secrets have been found ... I’ll answer with a semi-confident ‘yes?’” Tobias said. “Only Ed truly knows.”