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MKK: Kung Lao

What you have to understand about Kung Lao is that there are essentially three Kung Laos… though not in a literal sense, as with Sub-Zero. Though there is a second Kung Lao, The Great Kung Lao, the Kung Lao that defeated Shang Tsung centuries ago, but was then murdered by Goro. That Kung Lao has nothing to do with these Kung Laos, and… oh my, this is getting to be a bit much…

Lookin' Sharp

Kung Lao is our first (introduced initially in) Mortal Kombat 2 kharacter in this rundown. What you have to remember about Mortal Kombat 2 is that, apparently, all creative juices had been spent in creating such luminaries as pants guy and ice dude in Mortal Kombat 1, so the new additions of MK2 wound up starting out as weapons delivery systems. You’ve got sword-arms, metal fans, missile sais, and even Jax was originally supposed to have his signature metal arms in his first appearance, but technology wasn’t quite there yet (even though Capcom’s Mega Man proved you could design a character with metal arms in 1987). Kung Lao appeared with this crop wearing his signature weapon: a metal, apparently lethal hat. According to interviews, Kung Lao’s headwear was inspired by the James Bond villain and Goldeneye walking cheat code Oddjob. And, yes, a regenerating, deadly hat does work well in a 2-D fighter.

Except it has nothing to do with Kung Lao.

As far as I know, Kung Lao’s hat has never been particularly explained in the Mortal Kombat kanon. There’s no it was the weapon of the ancestor. There is no secret sect of warriors dedicated to hat-fu. There is no ending where you find out Kung Lao was lost in a plane crash as a baby, and that hat is the only thing that is going to alert his mom to the fact that he’s still alive in Brazil. Nothing. Kung Lao just has a lethal Frisbee for a hat, and we all have to live with that.

Completely separate from Kung Lao: Hat Guy is Kung Lao: Peaceful Monk.

Lookin' Sharp

As you may be aware from these essays, Mortal Kombat 1 went poorly for Shang Tsung and his master, Shao Kahn. Shao Kahn was not pleased for obvious reasons, but Shang Tsung had a plan (to escape immediate, homicidal punishment). Liu Kang was the Champion of Mortal Kombat, but he could be challenged. So why not have a new Mortal Kombat tournament! In Shao Kahn’s Outworld! With blackjack! And hookers! Shao Kahn was into this plan, but there was only one hitch: why would Liu Kang enter a whole new tournament? Mortal Kombat is supposed to occur once a generation. And the victor is ageless until the next tournament. Why would Liu Kang blow that? An all-expenses paid trip to Outworld didn’t look very inviting, as that realm is almost 90% sewer mutant by volume, so what options did Shao Kahn have?

And that’s when Shao Kahn decided to send a pack of Barakas to kill every last Shaolin Monk they could find. That’ll do it!

So Liu Kang was good and pissed off for the duration of Mortal Kombat 2. Joining him on his quest for vengeance was Kung Lao, one of the few Shaolin Monks that survived the slaughter to tell the tale (“There were dudes with knives for hands! It was weird!”). Liu Kang was ready to slay Shao Kahn, but Kung Lao got the lesser personal vengeance duty of avenging himself against Baraka. Other than that, Kung Lao maintained that he was a monk of peace, and only fighting in Outworld out of a debt to his friend and fallen people.

And you see how that doesn’t exactly jibe with the whole “murder hat” thing, right?

Anywho, Mortal Kombat 2 went swimmingly for the good guys, and Kung Lao returned home to attempt to rebuild The White Lotus Society, his local chapter of Shaolin Monks. That was cut short by MK3, so Kung Lao went back to the battlegrounds. Then we had Mortal Kombat 4 (Gold, technically), and Kung Lao returned again, this time “coming out of retirement” so he could score a hit on Goro, the Trogdor that killed his ancestor and namesake. Kung Lao seriously landed one hat-hit on the dragon-dude, said he was satisfied, and then noped-out of a fight with a four-armed monster that would almost certainly have killed him immediately. Smart guy, that Kung Lao.

Lookin' Sharp

Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance saw Shang Tsung kill Liu Kang. What’s more, Shang Tsung was able to kill Liu by stealing Kung Lao’s form, thus guaranteeing Kang would have his guard down for that fatal back crack. This pissed Kung Lao off but good, so Kung Lao decided he was going to become the shaolin hero the Mortal Kombat universe now so desperately needed. Kung Lao traveled to Outworld, found Liu Kang’s former master, and diligently trained so he could defeat Shang Tsung and Quan Chi. Kung Lao mastered the bicycle kick, formed his own “deadly alliance” with Kitana, and, while Kitana battled Quan Chi, Kung Lao challenged Shang Tsung to a private duel. Kung Lao lost. He lost bad. Kung Lao died, and spent Mortal Kombat: Deception in the time-out crypt.

And then we met Kung Lao #3.

Through the Mortal Kombat franchise’s weird desire to not be a fighting game, Mortal Kombat: Shaolin Monks was created. This was a sort of beat ‘em up/adventure game that, more or less, retold the events of the finale of Mortal Kombat 1, and then proceeded to the whole of Mortal Kombat 2. It was a two-player title, and featured Liu Kang and Kung Lao as a permanent duo. Unfortunately, this simple concept immediately created a pair of challenges:

1. Kung Lao wasn’t actually in Mortal Kombat 1, how is he going to be playable during that time?
2. Kung Lao and Liu Kang are generally two peaceful, agreeable Shaolin monks. Their interplay is going to be boring as hell.

So a solution was found: Kung Lao was kind of a dick! Retcons (retkons?) now included the concept that Kung Lao was always in the background of Mortal Kombat 1, he was just disguised as a generic guard until his presence was necessary. And why was he doing that? Well, because Liu Kang was chosen to participate in Mortal Kombat, and Kung Lao was jealous, so he stowed away like he was living in an episode of Ducktales. And now Kung Lao has an excuse for having a new personality! He was always jealous of Liu Kang’s skill, and he has an obvious chip on his shoulder and desire to demonstrate himself as the better fighter. Liu Kang is a stoic, dedicated monk, and Kung Lao is the hot-headed rookie anxious to prove himself. Together, they fight crime!

Lookin' Sharp

…. Still no explanation for the hat though….

Anyway, MK: Shaolin Monks was technically not kanon (as the game kinda accidentally killed a healthy portion of the cast way too early for MK3 to happen), and it was ignored when a recently revived Kung Lao spent Mortal Kombat: Armageddon palling around with wind god Fujin as a sort of counter-balance to Dark Raiden and Undead Liu Kang running around. Nothing came of that, and then the universe rebooted.

Now, Mortal Kombat 9 theoretically takes place in a timeline where Mortal Kombat 1 started exactly the same as the first time. However, presumably because somebody really liked Mortal Kombat: Shaolin Monks, Kung Lao’s personality was switched into jerkass mode, and it was “revealed” again that Kung Lao snuck into Mortal Kombat 1 (reboot) in order to prove he was better than Liu Kang. And, yes, he maintains this generally… cantankerous personality straight through to the redux of Mortal Kombat 2. During the finale of that tournament, Raiden is still trying to figure out a cryptic message from his future self, and decides to choose not Liu Kang, but Kung Lao to fight the final battles. Kung Lao defeats Shang Tsung, Quan Chi, and Kintaro. Awesome! Then Shao Kahn shows up, and snaps Kung Lao’s neck like a twig. Whoopsie! At least you beat Shang Tsung this time!

Lookin' Dead

Kung Lao spends Mortal Kombat X as a member of Quan Chi’s undead army, and generally seems to be a surly zombie that (like most of his buddies) blames Raiden for his own death. Like some of the other heavies of Mortal Kombat X, Kung Lao receives a “son” type character in Kung Jin, his little cousin that joins the new generation of Mortal Kombat heroes. Buuuuut they barely interact at all, so I’m not sure why I even brought it up.

Mortal Kombat 11 grants us Undead Angry Kung Lao and Time-Displaced Younger, but Still Kinda Pissed off Kung Lao. Undead Kung Lao is basically just there to stand around and look menacing next to Undead Liu Kang, but Younger Kung Lao is at least a little friendlier than many of his recent incarnations. He acknowledges his rivalry with Liu Kang, but, likely because he was plucked out of the timeline literally minutes before his inevitable death (and every third person reminds him of this fact) he’s a little more mellow. In the end, Kung Lao the Younger is ejected from the final battle on a time technicality, and Kung Lao the Elder is obliterated by Ascended Liu Kang.

Okay, maybe Kung Lao has a reason to be so churlish…

Next time: The universe’s chew toy

MKK: Goro & Shang Tsung

Look out!

Back in the day, Mortal Kombat stirred up a lot of controversy. We were told the “fatalities” were beamed directly to Earth by space aliens in an effort to desensitize our youth, and, just when we had finally gotten over that “controversy”, there was the whole deal with Nintendo and Sega choosing different routes for censoring the home versions. While it seems almost insane to ponder now, ask any “90’s kid” what was the big deal about Mortal Kombat, and they’ll give you one response: the blood.

And somewhere in all of that controversy, people forgot one other important thing about Mortal Kombat 1: it was damn hard. Mortal Kombat 1 is the Dark Souls of fighting games from 1992.

As a quick reminder, beating Mortal Kombat meant you first had to beat the entire roster of fighters, including the iconic Mirror Match. That was followed by three Endurance Matches, which were a completely unfair set of 1 v 2 battles. Assuming you could beat opponents with technically twice as much health as your chosen fighter, the following match would be even more insane. Ladies and gentlemen, Goro lives!

Goro was pretty impressive for the time. In a game featuring motion-captured actors, he was a Claymation powerhouse meant to evoke monsters from the early days of cinema. Four arms, twelve fingers, a confusing number of pectoral muscles, an innate dislike for pants: he was basically The Incredible Hulk crossed with another Incredible Hulk (that had a lower set of arms). And he felt like an impassable brick wall, too. He was stunned very rarely, projectiles bounced right off those amazing abs, and when you got hit by Goro, you got hit by Goro. On paper, his moves were nothing special (a fireball and a jump stomp? Lame), but anyone that ever had a few quarters riding on defeating the half-man, half-dragon Champion of Mortal Kombat knew that all Goro needed was one good punch. Defeating Goro took skill, patience, and maybe a little luck. Goro is the Dark Souls of fighting game sub-bosses.

Unfortunately, Goro went downhill from there almost immediately.

Now he sucks!

Mortal Kombat 1 Goro was mute (save a roar or two), and his biography basically consisted of the fact that he was two millennia old (!) and had been the uncontested champion of Mortal Kombat for 500 years and nine generations (however that works out). He killed Kung Lao back in the day… and that was it. He was nigh immortal, he was going to kick your ass, and there are decent odds he beat your grandpappy’s ass, too. That is all Goro needed! But, when he surfaced for Mortal Kombat 4, he was literally back with a vengeance (for Liu Kang), and wound up being so lame, he lost to (this generation’s) Kung Lao (spiritually Liu Kang’s annoying little brother). Then he returned for Mortal Kombat Deception (or at least the Gamecube version), and there was this whole complicated story about becoming a general in Kitana’s armies, but he was back-attacked by Noob Saibot, and he was left for dead, and he was found by an injured Shao Kahn, and Shao Kahn shared his life force so Goro would live, so Goro decided to rejoin Shao Kahn, but first he had to fake his own death by putting his royal seal on a slain Shokan warrior, and now Goro lives, but in an effort to return Shao Kahn to his throne because he owes him a life debt. Got all that? I don’t mean to insult any wookies that might be floating around the forum, but, seriously, dudes? You made Goro the Unstoppable into friggen Chewbacca. Chewbacca is strong, yes, but he’s a giant teddy bear! Kinda literally! And, surprise, Goro’s return appearances after Mortal Kombat 1 were just about as threatening as fighting a teddy bear. By the time Armageddon rolled around, Goro was officially palling around with Shao Kahn and Shang Tsung again, and his former might was all but a memory…

Look out!  He's got a skull!

But in Mortal Kombat 9, Goro returned as Champion of Mortal Kombat, and he was a generally mute threat again. Hooray! And then he came back in a non-kanon DLC role for Mortal Kombat 10, and he’s just kind of an almost-mute threat, too! And in the Mortal Kombat X tie-in comic, he has some weird redemption arc that goes absolutely nowhere! And in Mortal Kombat 11, he’s dead for some reason! Okay! Whatever! Truly, balancing Goro’s character arc versus his status as a threatening foe is the Dark Souls of plotting.

Meanwhile, Shang Tsung has a pretty significant backstory that goes back before Mortal Kombat even got going. First of all, he started out as a human of Earth, and fought in at least one Mortal Kombat tournament some 500 years back, but cheated through some unknown means. Considering this is a fighting tournament that routinely involves magical skeletons from Hell fighting dudes with four arms wielding four spiked knuckles, I would really like to know what could be considered cheating. Regardless, Shang Tsung was disqualified for being a jerk, but Shao Kahn, Emporer of Outworld, decided to adopt Shangy, because I guess every organization needs a guy who cheats ineffectively. Shao Kahn taught Shang Tsung how to become a sorcerer, and then, in a marginally unrelated incident, Shang Tsung was cursed by the Elder Gods to devour souls whenever he committed homicide. Given how the MK Universe works, this would be akin to being cursed to eat a delicious chocolate cake every time you got a coffee. I guess the Elder Gods were trying to curse Shang Tsung to be fat? Soul fat? It’s a confusing universe.

More skulls!

Anyway, this whole “soul curse” thing spectacularly backfired, as Shang Tsung grew strong by feeding on the souls of his enemies and inheriting their skills and memories. When Shang Tsung showed up for his next Mortal Kombat (possibly under a soul-stolen new shape/identity), he won the whole thing, and Shang Tsung was set to be new Champion of Mortal Kombat on behalf of Shao Kahn and Outworld. But Shang Tsung was defeated by Kung Lao, an ancient warrior and ancestor of Liu Kang. Kung Lao reigned as champion for at least a generation (fun fact: Mortal Kombat Champions do not age, which is a pretty sweet prize for punching people to death), but then Shang Tsung returned with a four-armed monster man. Goro became the official Mortal Kombat Champion for the following 500 years, and, somewhere in there, Shang Tsung, ever the Don King to Goro’s Tyson, built his own magical island for future Mortal Kombat tournaments. In earlier games, this was just a random island where Shang stowed his gold and various monks, but later titles have made the island a magical place with forcefields, zombies, and Shang’s own private Soulnado. It’s a pretty impressive island fortress, and the only drawback is that, thanks to yet another curse by the Elder Gods, Shang Tsung has to do all the landscaping himself.

So, by Mortal Kombat I, Shang Tsung was snug as a bug in an evil island powered by the souls of the dead rug. Liu Kang defeated Goro, though, and Shang Tsung was a last-minute addition to the tournament in an effort to trounce the forces of Earth. Unfortunately, the dude that can transform into any fighter isn’t really much of a threat for the guy that has already defeated every fighter, and Shang Tsung’s reign was ended with a swift kick to the face.

Look out!  The most skulls!

Shang Tsung then becomes the toady-based through line for the next two Mortal Kombat tournaments. First, in a desperate attempt to not be homicidally punished by his boss Shao Kahn for fumbling a five century-long play at the goalpost, Shang Tsung suggested having a better, slightly more purple tournament in Outworld for Mortal Kombat 2. Shao Kahn really liked this idea, so he restored Shang Tsung’s youth. Or he just didn’t want to smell old man Shang Tsung anymore. Whatever the reason, a vibrant Shang Tsung fought as a “normal” participant in Mortal Kombat 2, though he did retain his shape-shifting abilities from Big Boss College (he got a BS in weak point reduction). When that plan inevitably failed, he was instrumental in the revival of Shao Kahn’s undead queen on Earth, so Shang Tsung once again earned a tournament invite for the forces of evil. Unfortunately, he lost, repeatedly, and, by about the time the forces of Outworld were being beat back to their outhouse dimension, Shao Kahn had had enough of the sorcerer’s sass mouth, and Shang Tsung wound up in a dungeon (probably in Kano’s used shackles).

Shang Tsung spent all of Mortal Kombat 4 on the bench, but he returned in Mortal Kombat Deadly Alliance to form the… Deadly Alliance. Neat! Quan Chi (the MK2/3 Shang Tsung of Mortal Kombat 4) had a plan to pilfer his boss’s magical amulet, revive the Dragon King’s Army, and conquer all of existence. Unfortunately, in order to reanimate an army of the dead, he needed a decent soulmancer on the payroll. Shang Tsung fit the bill, and, while Shang had had a rough year or so, he had been the king of Mortal Kombat for a solid few centuries. Shang Tsung and Quan Chi thus teamed up, and, first order of business: (kinda) kill Shao Kahn. Then it was off to (really) kill Liu Kang. After that, the duo set up shop at an all-new Soulnado, acquired some local real estate, fought the forces of good, and, in a surprise upset, Shang Tsung and Quan Chi actually won. With Liu Kang dead, the dastardly duo defeated all of Earth’s forces, and actually fulfilled their quest to revive the Dragon King’s Army. Sweet! Unfortunately, they also kinda sorta revived the Dragon King, too, who promptly killed everybody in attendance. So close!

No skulls...

Thus, Shang Tsung didn’t show up for Deception, but he did return for Armageddon, as, apparently, he had pledged his soul to Shao Kahn a few centuries back, and, so long as Shao Kahn lived, he could summon Shang Tsung back to life, too. Good thing Shang Tsung was so bad at killing Shao Kahn two games back! Shang Tsung wound up helping Shao Kahn regain the throne of Outworld, and, since Shao Kahn then went on to win Mortal Kombat Armageddon and thus prompt Raiden to reboot all of reality, Shang Tsung could totally note on his resume that he was partially responsible for the destruction of a universe. You know, if anyone could remember that universe…

Oddly enough, Rebooted Mortal Kombat 9 Shang Tsung had nearly the same Mortal Kombat 1-3 arc, though with one vital difference. When Shao Kahn revived his queen, he sucked all the souls out of Shang Tsung, and gifted them to his lady love. This had the side effect of making Sindel into an unstoppable monster, and making Shang Tsung super-duper dead. And he stayed dead! Mostly! Shang Tsung is Mortal Kombat 11’s first DLC character, and he’s a time-displaced version of his older/younger self. Apparently, it is kanon that the Goddess of Time identified Shang as too damn treacherous for her generally malicious schemes, so he had to be hidden in the DLC department until which time he was willing to play nice. But other than that, Shang Tsung Prime died a good two decades before the end of this universe.

Morphin' Time

WEIRD FACT: Shang Tsung’s ending for Mortal Kombat Armageddon sees Shang gain god-like power, and, when Shao Kahn objects, Shang Tsung transforms his old boss… “into a centaur slave”. Now I’m not going to jump to any conclusions here, but it seems very likely that Shang Tsung belongs to the loyal order of centaurphiliacs, and the writers have just not yet found a way to sneak that information back into the main kanon. Keep an eye out, true believers!

Next time: Cold-blooded ninja.