Mortal Kombat 1 and 2 were influential to Nintendo in quite the controversial way.
In 1994, the “console wars” were reaching their apex. The Sega Genesis and the Super Nintendo were competing for console supremacy, and any major arcade hit that came to home consoles was treated as high fare. But there was something completely different about Mortal Kombat in comparison to Street Fighter II. While the latter can definitely be considered a violent game, Mortal Kombat reached beyond just being violent- it was excessively so, to an astonishing degree that few games before its time could even come close to. Fatalities, the end result of two rounds of victory, were the talk of the town. Fighters did finishing blows that not only ended the match, but seemingly the fighters’ lives. Kano ripped out the heart of his opponent. Sub Zero ripped out their spine. And Johnny Cage just straight up decapitated people with a strong uppercut that decapitated the poor loser.
This was an interesting test for Nintendo, who has always maintained a family friendly image over the years. When the first game in the series came to the Super NES, Nintendo had to make changes in order to maintain that family image. The end result was some major censorship. Fatalities were now called “finishing moves”. The gruesome final acts for some fighters were altered or outright changed completely to appear less devastating. Blood, a big part of the arcade version, was removed. Instead, characters’ “sweat” flew off every time there was a roundhouse kick, or whenever Scorpion plunged his spear into the chest of his opponent. To say that Nintendo nerfed what made Mortal Kombat so popular was an understatement.
The Genesis version, while also censored, had a code that unlocked the blood and fatalities that the arcade version touted. Word began to spread that this was the definitive version of the game, and that the Super Nintendo version was inferior and sales showed that the Genesis won out in the end. During wartime, an enemy getting an advantage is never a good thing. So when Mortal Kombat II was due for release in 1994, they decided to change their tune regarding heavy censorship. At the Consumer Electronics Show that summer, George Harrison (then director of Marketing and Corporate Communications of Nintendo of America) announced that they had changed their internal internal guidelines pertaining to violence. In other words, red, as well as green, flowed the streets of the Nintendo kingdom upon that announcement. Mortal Kombat II was left pretty much unaltered when it was released in the United States for the Super Nintendo, and future Mortal Kombat games, which were as bloody as the next one, received the same treatment.
In the end, Mortal Kombat II was one of the most hyped games of the 1994 fall season, as well as one of the best-selling games of the year. In fact, Mortal Kombat II was one of the best selling games of all time up to that point, until Donkey Kong Country took over just a few months later. The Genesis version of the game still outsold the Super Nintendo version (1.78 million to 1.51, respectively), perhaps due to the issues with the original. But in the end, it’s hard to argue business wise that Nintendo made the right move.
That doesn’t mean that Nintendo completely eradicated it’s censorship guidelines. Anything involving sex and religious affiliations were still toned down in North America, Final Fantasy VI being an example when it was released. And shortly after Mortal Kombat II’s release, the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) was put into effect, it becoming the primary source for content ratings for North America. But violence was thereafter free to be as gory and inhumane as possible. Whatever the official reasons may be, Mortal Kombat I and II paved the way for violent video games to roam free on Nintendo consoles. If it was for better or for worse, one can argue for days, but in terms of gory warfare Mortal Kombats I and II can be considered as some of the most influential games to come out in the 1990s.