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.
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…
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.