Gather round, my amiibos, it’s time for a white guy to talk about race.
Assuming Wikipedia isn’t lying to me, Mortal Kombat (1) was released in 1992. That would be a year after Street Fighter 2, and well into the massive popularity of fighting games. It’s also about two years after the initial release of the animated series Captain Planet. Why mention such a fact? Well, because, for my money, the release of Captain Planet marks a certain point in human history: that time we (or at least Ted Turner) thought we could save the world by giving something a TV show. Representation matters, and getting ideas out there, through generally any means available, is important. However, the 90’s was a time when, fairly distinctly, people seemed to believe they could “cure” a problem by acknowledging it, and then proceeded to dispense many a back-pat in response to a job well done.
So, again, Mortal Kombat 1 was released right in the middle of this type of thinking. And I (to be clear: this is entirely the opinion of the white, male, mostly straight author of this piece) think initial Mortal Kombat actually did pretty well in some regards. There is one female fighter, and she’s practically a blonde supermodel. That’s not great. Beyond that, however, the rest of the roster includes seven humans (we’ll just go ahead and ignore the race of the Claymation monster man). Kano and Johnny Cage are, technically, the only kanon white guys. From there, you have a Japanese god of thunder, Scorpion, aka Hanzo Hasashi, of a Japanese Ninja Clan, and Sub-Zero of a Chinese assassin’s guild. In Mortal Kombat 1, the Chinese Liu Kang is clearly the hero of the piece (and, with his “shadowless” fatality, the only kharacter distinctly reinforced as “good” in the gameplay), and the descendant of the previous, Chinese victor of the tournament (that wasn’t a Goro). And Shang Tsung is the grandmaster of Mortal Kombat, at this point more “human Chinese man” than an Outworlder. This means that, in the original Mortal Kombat, “white” was technically the minority.
Of course, I say “technically” for a reason. Mortal Kombat 1 used real motion capture actors, and the ethnically distinct Sub-Zero and Scorpion were played by the same white guy playing Johnny Cage. Raiden was played by a gentleman by the name of Carlos Pesina (and I don’t think I need to remind anyone who played him at least once on the big screen). Liu Kang and Shang Tsung are actually played by Chinese actors… well… technically the same actor, Ho Sung Pak. And, if we’re not giving MK any latitude, we should probably acknowledge that pretty much everything from the original Mortal Kombat is just a Chinese/Japanese/”kung fu” pastiche, with a big emphasis on films like Big Trouble in Little China or Enter the Dragon. Mortal Kombat 1 has a cast that is not white-dominant, but it also is chiefly drawing from a white version of “Asian”.
(The same guy)
And, overall, Mortal Kombat has struggled with those same issues throughout its various plots. Raiden is a Japanese God wearing a Vietnamese/Chinese hat often portrayed to sound and look Caucasian. Liu Kang continued to be the hero of the piece, right up until he was killed and replaced by Chinese guy named for the Japanese word for “protagonist”. When Liu Kang was killed (again) in Mortal Kombat 9, the new timeline predominantly followed the adventures of the pretty, blonde (Cage) family until Liu Kang decided to be alive again. And Sub-Zero was confirmed Chinese when wearing a mask, but wound up white as a country club by his unmasking in Mortal Kombat 3. He seems to have regained some Asian features in time for Mortal Kombat 11, but it’s been a bumpy road getting there.
What’s my point in all this? Well, it seems like Mortal Kombat tries to be inclusive… but it’s still helmed by a bunch of dudes (inevitably dudes) that see Japan and China as generically “The Far East”. Korean, Filipino, or Indian people might as well not exist, we’re just looking at the “Asians” that can throw mean roundhouses. Basically, this might be a franchise that features a Chinese world savior more often than not, but he’s also palling around with a white god with a Japanese(ish) name.
I mean, at least he isn’t just Thor again…
But that white god wasn’t available for Mortal Kombat 3. The invasion of Shao Kahn shut Raiden out of Earthrealm, so we needed a whole new lightning guy. And who should answer the call but our new Native American friend, Nightwolf.
Nightwolf is one of the many Native American fighters to pop up in fighting games. This general era also birthed Thunder Hawk of Super Street Fighter 2, Chief Thunder of Killer Instinct, Wolf Hawkfield of Virtua Fighter, and the extremely confusing and not thunder/wolf themed Michelle Chang of Tekken. Basically, if you had a popular fighting game franchise, you were going to wind up with at least one Native American character. And, to this trend’s credit, none of these fighters were overtly offensive nonsense like Chief Scalpem. On the other hand, the majority of them were fairly generic in their histories and motivations. Usually, someone has been kidnapped or turned into a robot or something, and it’s up to Chief Big Dude to roll in and represent his proud tribe in a fighting tournament. Thunder and mystical birds are generally somehow involved, and, in the end, the tribe/land/person is saved or avenged or whatever. Pretty pat story.
At the very least, Nightwolf is about a thousand times more competent than his contemporaries. Shao Kahn invades the planet, and Nightwolf uses his mystical powers to enshrine his tribe and his people. When literally the whole world is metaphorically/temporarily killed by Shao Kahn, Nightwolf winds up leading the only functioning society on the planet. That’s pretty great! And, in expanded versions of Mortal Kombat 3 (basically, versions of the kanon where the whole invasion didn’t take like a few hours), Nightwolf becomes a sort of leader for the warriors of Earth, too, as Raiden is unavailable, the rest of the fighters aren’t exactly strategists, and Nightwolf is one of the few people that has any idea what is going on. In short, rather than being some simple “I fight for my people” Native American archetype, Nightwolf becomes instantly integral in his debut appearance.
…. And then he doesn’t appear again for years.
Okay, so here is where things get really culturally dicey. It’s pretty clear that, in the wake of the “woke 90’s”, a lot of companies seemed… I would say ashamed of their various token characters. The whole “Native American Warrior” seemed to die down as a general “thing” that was happening, and these characters were generally dropped from future titles (or, in Killer Instinct’s case, there were no future titles). In the event they survived to see other releases, they were not really integrated into the greater plots, and were simply there to be “the strong guy” or “the one with the really complicated inputs”. Basically, T. Hawk was never going to be the next Ryu. Or even the next Blanka…
When Nightwolf finally returned in Mortal Kombat: Deception, he actually had a germane place in the plot. Once again, Raiden was out of commission (having just exploded), and now Liu Kang was pushing up daisies by being a reanimated, murderous corpse that generally did not care for flowers. Thus, the forces of good were kind of down to the B-Team, and Nightwolf was one of the few kharacters to be consistently good in the first place. So they had to make him bad! Kinda! Nightwolf decided he would become a “sin eater”, devour the maliciousness of his tribe, become goth, and use that power to bind the nefarious (and otherwise infinitely revivable) Dragon King to Hell. This was successful, and, while Nightwolf expected to be trapped in the Netherrealm with Onaga, he was guided back to Earth/life by his spirit animal, a wolf. Then, since Nightwolf was doing pretty good with his magic powers, he spent MK: Armageddon sewing Liu Kang’s rotting body and blessed soul back together. Way to go, Nightwolf!
Except… well, this is all very similar to the “Far East” nonsense we see with some of the other characters from other cultures. For one thing, while the concept appears in many myths dating back to the Aztecs, the “Sin-Eater” as is described in Nightwolf’s tale (and the fact that it is literally called a “Sin-Eater”) is a predominantly Western Civilization invention that generally circles around medieval Christian practices (you can see the connection between Jesus Christ [The Walking Dead, Xenosaga] and the concept). And then Nightwolf using generically magical powers to manipulate souls and follow “spirit animals”… it’s not really something that belongs to any particular culture, it’s just identifying that Native Americans can be spiritual, and transforming that into “they’re wizards”. In short: good try on making Nightwolf relevant, Mortal Kombat, but you just made the poor guy an incredibly specific stereotype. Again.
Nightwolf returns in Mortal Kombat 9, where it is revealed that he participated in the first Mortal Kombat tournament for unknown reasons (not that there’s a mystery, simply no one cares to explain), and gets knocked out by Scorpion almost immediately. He regains consciousness just in time for Mortal Kombat 3 redux, and seems to, again, work as the driving force behind marshaling the forces of good during Shao Kahn’s invasion. He defeats and kills Noob Saibot (as much as you can kill an undead wraith that is going to come back in two games anyway), but is then murdered with the rest of the good guys during Sindel’s assault. Unlike his buddies, Nightwolf goes out pulling off the ol’ Raiden kamikaze attack, and is arguably responsible for the defeat of Sindel. The end result was that both fighters became Quan Chi’s all-purpose zombies and Mortal Kombat 11 DLC, which is not the best of fates.
And that’s about that for Nightwolf. He’s the only Native American with a name in the Mortal Kombat universe (there are literally more “last of their kind” lizard people on the roster), and he’s a good wizard. Native Americans are magic. Got it.
Next time: I promise to make the robots funny.