I recall falling in love with Mortal Kombat 1 thanks to an arcade cabinet in a local ice cream spot (a primate-themed shop called “King Kone”) near my childhood home. By far I was most enthralled with Sub-Zero, because he was simultaneously my two favorite things: blue and a ninja, and remember soaking in every single detail about his visuals so I could accurately play pretend Mortal Kombat later in the backyard. (I even remember correcting my dad’s closed fist to a knife hand position to properly emulate Sub’s resting pose.)
Here some 30 years after, series co-creator Ed Boon has posted footage of the creative capture process that led to the very first iterations of Scorpion and Sub-Zero. We get to see a team paying similar levels of attention to details that likely would not even register in my brain today. I suspect if you remember seeing the first Mortal Kombat in arcades, you’ll get a nostalgic chuckle or two out of this as well.
Mortal Kombat is known for having the most notable fighting game example of palette swap characters, meaning roster members who use the same basic model and lots of common animations. The term palette swap has become something of a pejorative that implies laziness on the part of developers, but that surely was not the case in terms of MK1.
The two minutes and 15 seconds are all of actor Daniel Pesina dressed as Scorpion and posing for the camera. We can hear Boon and Tobias creatively working their way through the shoot, contemplating consequences of including certain motions and movements.
This is all before Scorpion even had his name, and plans for Sub-Zero (or as Boon notes in the video, “the cold guy,”) were simply to take a handful of the Scorpion captures and change the character color. Both characters would have the same basic punch, kick, and jump animations, but had to get there from different resting stances.
“As the most recognizable Mortal Kombat characters, the origin of ‘palette swap ninjas’ came from both a fantastic story rivalry and a technical solution we needed to fit the game in the limited amount of space (memory) we had,” Boon explains in the ensuing text thread. “One reason we made them ninjas was to get two fighters out of the same motion shoot & memory footprint. But we did have some unique frames made exclusively for one ninja. For example, we felt giving them different stances was worth the 7 extra frames of animation it cost us. “
What’s especially interesting here is how much of the now-iconic animations of Mortal Kombat’s two most famous characters was developed on the fly.
“One thing worth pointing out is how spontaneous our decisions had to be, based on what we were seeing right at that moment,” Boon continues. “John suggesting that Scorpion spin his fists. Me suggesting Sub-zero tuck his hand to his chest and sway back and forth. All based on what we were seeing.”
You can check out the footage as well as all of Boon’s insider commentary via the embed here:
Continuing our celebration of Mortal Kombat’s 30th anniversary, here’s another video showing more behind-the-scenes moments. This time you can see how we decided to give Scorpion & Sub-zero different fight stances so they would look & feel like two separate characters. pic.twitter.com/t8fJmYexcu
– Ed Boon (@noobde) March 10, 2022