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FLASHBACK REVIEW: HASBRO'S MORTAL KOMBAT SERIES
By Thomas Wheeler

Arguably the two most popular "fighting" style video games of the 1990's were STREET FIGHTER and MORTAL KOMBAT. Both enjoyed a number of sequels (even to this day), and both enjoyed a level of popularity that took them well beyond the video game realm. Comic books, movies, TV series -- and of course, toys.

Hasbro latched onto the Street Fighter license first, actually tying it into their mega-popular G.I.Joe line. But it was only one year after that when they went after Midway's Mortal Kombat series, as well.

The Mortal Kombat concept was the work of Ed Boon and John Tobias. The game was distinctive for the time because, unlike most games which used animation, Mortal Kombat filmed live actors performing the fighting moves of the characters in the game. This gave Mortal Kombat a level of realism that was otherwise unheard of for video games at the time. Of course, these days, the MK games are completely CGI, as are most.

The concept behind the Mortal Kombat games was simple, and yet also fascinating. There was a dimensional link between Earth and a mysterious realm called Outworld, which was ruled by a tyrannical emperor. Once every generation, a tournament of fighters, called Mortal Kombat, was held. If the Emperor's forces won, they could invade the Earth through this dimensional link.

Hasbro turned out the first series of Mortal Kombat figures in 1994. As with Street Fighter, the figures used G.I.Joe body molds, with new head sculpts. This was arguably the most interesting "common toy factor" since Mego latched onto both the DC Comics and Marvel Comics properties in the 1970's. Back then, it was finally possible to have the likes of Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, Captain America, Thor, Green Arrow, and others all in the same toy line. Now, characters from two different-yet-similar video games, and yet from two entirely different companies, could meet in action figure form, entirely compatible in appearance. Could Sonya Blade beat Chun-Li? Could Guile defeat Scorpion? But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Unlike the Street Fighter line, whose initial assortments bore the G.I.Joe logo on their package cards and vehicles, if not overly emphasized, there was no attempt to connect Mortal Kombat with G.I.Joe whatsoever. Sonya Blade would not suddenly reveal that the Special Forces Unit she worked for happened to be the G.I.Joe Team.

(Although, if I may be allowed another digression, one does have to wonder about the alliance between Cobra and the Black Dragon, which first turned up in the 2003 Convention Set but which has since appeared in a couple of other G.I.Joe sets, since the Black Dragon organization is part of the Mortal Kombat storyline -- but I'll admit to being nit-picky here. Still, it's amusing...)

The Mortal Kombat action figure line stood entirely on its own, without any support from a certain Real American Hero. The packaging was basic, but appropriate, emphasizing the well-known dragon logo, and using a largely red-orange-yellow color scheme. The line did borrow a few aspects from G.I.Joe, in that there were character file cards on the back, but that's hardly unique to G.I.Joe anymore, and wasn't even then.

The original assortment of Mortal Kombat action figures included Johnny Cage, Liu Kang, Scorpion, Sub-Zero, Sonya Blade, Smoke (a distinctly difficult figure to find for some reason), Rayden, Shang Tsung, and a two-pack featuring a different Johnny Cage and Goro!

Goro was a masterpiece. There was no way to do the immense, four-armed, half-dragon warrior from existing molds, so he had to be designed entirely from scratch, and the end result was very impressive.

As with Street Fighter, many of the Mortal Kombat bodies were from G.I.Joe's Ninja Force line, and as such had built-in spring-action features. Many, but not all. Notable exceptions were Liu Kang, Sonya Blade, one of the Johnny Cage figures, and Goro.

There was quite a bit of mold re-usage in the Mortal Kombat line, but a lot of it is entirely understandable. In the first couple of Mortal Kombat games, all the ninjas really DID look alike, except for their uniform color, so making Sub-Zero, Scorpion, Smoke, and Reptile out of the same set of molds actually made sense -- and was pleasing to Hasbro's accountants, I'm sure.

There were several vehicles in the line, each of which came with a figure. Two of these vehicles were from G.I.Joe. The Ninja Lightning was released as the Kombat Cycle, and came with a figure of Kano. The Cobra Piranha boat was renamed the Dragon MK-1, and came with a Reptile figure.

The third vehicle actually came from a very short-lived Hasbro line that was based on an equally short-lived animated series called "Pirates of Dark Water". Think of it as "Treasure Planet" without the Robert Louis Stevenson inspiration -- or for that matter the Disney inspiration -- and you've pretty much got it. It was sci-fi on the high seas, and it didn't fly too well. One of the toys was a massive sailing ship, which was reworked with a new set of sails and repackaged as Shang Tsung's malevolent Dragon Wing sailing vessel, complete with a Shang Tsung variant figure.

There were also three 12" G.I.Joe Hall of Fame style figures for Mortal Kombat, featuring Johnny Cage, Rayden, and Scorpion. All very nicely done figures, I might add.

The toy line did well enough, but unfortunately came at a time when Hasbro, having recently acquired Kenner and its properties, was undergoing a rather tumultuous time. And the 3-3/4" G.I.Joes had just been canceled, and it seemed that Hasbro didn't want anything out there that would remind people of it.

But the Mortal Kombat line wasn't quite finished. As with Street Fighter, a live-action Mortal Kombat movie had just been released. Unlike Street Fighter, the Mortal Kombat movie featured a lot more action, and was generally better received by its primary audience -- video-game addicts.

The movie was produced by Larry Kasanoff, who had recently left his position as president of James Cameron's Lightstorm Entertainment to form his own company. Having helped develop a video game for Terminator 2, he had a good understanding of what would work between a video game and a movie. He brought in director Paul Anderson, and the two were determined tomake a movie as faithful to the concept as possible.

To that end, they hired well-known Asian actor Robin Shou for the lead role of Liu Kang. Shou was not known in the United States, but he was fluent in English, and a master martial arts expert. He wasn't the only one. Martial arts experts from many different disciplines were brought in to either play certain roles, such as Sub-Zero and Scorpion, or to train the actors playing more prominent roles, such as Johnny Cage and Sonya Blade, in certain fighting techniques.

A good level of star power was added to the movie when Christopher Lambert was hired to play the role of Rayden. Between all of this and a truly amazing Goro, who was not CGI but arguably some of the most incredible costume and animatronics work ever seen (even the "Making of" book won't go into it, claiming that the producers actually traveled to Outworld and managed to hire the real Goro to play himself in the movie -- who am I to argue?), the Mortal Kombat movie was a definite hit.

Unfortunately, Hasbro didn't take that much advantage of the movie. They did release a revised assortment of basic action figures, but the figures proved extremely difficult to come by. Ultimately small assortments would turn up on clearance at K*B.

The packaging was essentially identical to the first figure line Hasbro had released, although there was now a sticker on the plastic bubble which read "SPECIAL MOVIE EDITION". In fairness, Hasbro did make some substantial and rather interesting alterations to the figures.

Sonya Blade, who had used the body of Jinx, was now remolded in black, and had different feet. It took me a while to figure out whose boots they were, too, but I finally tracked them down to -- of all figures-- the 1994 Flint from G.I.Joe. Wonder how Flint felt about Sonya swiping his footwear -- and having it fit that well.

Goro was recolored, molded in a slightly darker plastic and given more overspray paint details. I've never been convinced it was that much of an improvement.

Scorpion and Sub-Zero were both given cloth tunics -- a nice touch, and of special interest is the fact that Sub-Zero was remolded in TRANSPARENT blue plastic. The frigid, ice-tossing ninja was definitely living up to his name in his appearance now.

Of particular interest, though, is what was done with Shang Tsung, Liu Kang, and Rayden. All three of them used body molds that were from an unreleased assortment of G.I.Joe figures called the Ninja Commandos.

When the G.I.Joe line was scrapped in late 1994, there was one set of figures that a lot of collectors tended to believe had probably reached some level of production. Even though it was technically designated part of the 1995 line, pictures that had turned up of this series seemed to indicate the toys had reached production level. That, and one special team intended for 1994, offically called "Battle Corps Ninja Force", never made it to the stores.

My theory has always been that somebody didn't care for such a big mouthful as that, shortened the name to Ninja Commandos, and fully intended to release the already-produced figures in 1995. But when the line was scrapped, that was the end of that.

In recent years, a handful of production-level Ninja Commandos sets have turned up. I've seen them twice on eBay for prices that would generally get you a decent car, and one set on display at the G.I.Joe Convention. But in 1995, the only evidence that anybody "in the know" had that the Ninja Commandos had reached any level of production -- were three Mortal Kombat movie figures.

It was pretty compelling evidence, though. Ask any toymaker, and they'll tell you that the single most expensive part of producing a toy -- is making the metal molds for the plastic to be poured into. If the Ninja Commandos, which were all-new figures, had reached that level, then it's not surprising that Hasbro decided to use some of their body molds in the Mortal Kombat line to try to reduce some of the cost they'd put out on molds which, ultimately, would not see substantial use.

The Ninja Commandos would have included Storm Shadow, Flint, Budo, Road Pig (and how the heck that brain-dead Dreadnok got to be a ninja is something I'd love to read the file card of), and a new character called Knockout.

The movie-based Liu Kang figure uses the body of Ninja Commando Road Pig. The Shang Tsung figure is a head-to-toe recoloration of what would've been the Ninja Commando Budo. And Rayden uses the body of Ninja Commando Flint with, hysterically, the head of the Street Fighter Ken Masters figure! In fairness, there's just enough of a resemblance to Lambert's Rayden character to get away with it, but talk about your weird crossover mold use!

That was, alas, the end of the Mortal Kombat action figure line from Hasbro. And it's a darn shame, because the characters in that series of games are tailor-made for a good line of action figures. Quite a few more from the sequel games can be rendered using G.I.Joe molds. I've done quite a few myself, but that's a "Custom" article for another time.

There have been a few additional attempts at Mortal Kombat action figures. A fairly small toy company called Toy Island actually scaled up the G.I.Joe-based ones to about 5" or so, and turned out their own assortment, later sculpting their own half-way decent molds and adding a number of characters that Hasbro didn't made. They also produced a 10" line that was arguably as good as Toy Biz's Marvel Universe line at the time. These MK figures were pretty much exclusive to K*B Toys.

A company called Infinite Concepts turned out a painfully small assortment of really nicely made Mortal Kombat action figures, that were about 7" in height, amazingly well articulated, and heavy enough so that if you dropped one on a bare foot from countertop height you'd probably break a toe. I had high hopes for this series, but it faded after the first assortment, despite pictures of a second assortment emerging from that year's Toy Fair.

There are also rumors, as I write this at the tail end of 2004, that Jazwares might be making Mortal Kombat figures sometime in 2005. Jazwares has contracted SOTA to make cheaper versions of their own Street Fighter figures for Jazwares to sell to K*B Toys (which shows you how weird the toy business world can get), so if this rumor is true, it could be interesting, but we'll see what happens.

The Mortal Kombat concept certainly continues. Two new video games for most of the major systems have emerged in the past year or so, the most recent of which as of this writing is subtitled "Deceptions". There are rumors of a third movie, with Lambert possibly returning to the Rayden role, which he did not have in the second film. If this goes, hopefully they can bring back Robin Shou, as well.

But there are, to my knowledge, no concrete plans for a Mortal Kombat action figure series at this time. That's a shame, but at least I have my Hasbro ones to enjoy. They remain quite popular, too. I've had several inquiries about them following eBay auctions. If you never owned them, and you can find them, and you're either a G.I.Joe fan or a Mortal Kombat fan, I guarantee you'll like them. I know I do.