‘Mortal Kombat II’ 20 Years Later: An Undeniable Character Ranking

The 20th anniversary of the home release of Mortal Kombat II arrives this week. As such, we are going to rank all 12 of the game’s characters. But first, a short story:

The first time I played Mortal Kombat II was at an arcade called Robotar in a small mall in an unimpressive part of San Antonio, Texas. I was 12 years old. I don’t think I’ll ever forget it. I went there with my Uncle Brian, who was the youngest and coolest of my mom’s five brothers. Uncle Brian seemed to have life all figured out. He drove a sweet car (a Mazda RX-7, which was basically a Lamborghini with giant diamonds for wheels). He was good at basketball (he possessed a devastating pull-up jumper). He knew how to break-dance (he could spin on his head). He owned a Sega Genesis (I swore off the Super Nintendo as soon as I found out he preferred Sega). He liked karate movies (he took me to see Kickboxer, which was the greatest thing that had ever happened to me to that point). And, maybe most significant, he had a subscription to Playboy (which immediately became the new greatest thing). He taught me a lot and showed me even more. But the most important thing he ever exposed me to was Mortal Kombat.

He took me to see and play the original Mortal Kombat arcade game when it first started making noise in 1992. I fell in love almost instantly. After that, all I ever wanted to do was play. When the Mortal Monday commercials first began, oh my god, I think I had a boner for a week straight.

Uncle Brian bought a copy of the original Mortal Kombat the day it was released on Genesis; he even paid the few dollars to call in to the MK Hotline to get the code you had to enter at the beginning of the game to activate the blood, because that’s a thing you had to do back then because it was the early ’90s so people weren’t entirely sold on the idea of blood in video games. I loved Mortal Kombat. I loved it like I’d never loved anything. But then Mortal Kombat II came out. And holy shit.

Mortal Kombat II, which was released to arcades in 1993, was better than the original in every way possible. It was faster, sleeker, smarter, allowed you to be more reactive, had more characters, more fatalities, cooler bosses, and bigger ideas. Its 1994 home-version launch, which included a $10 million marketing campaign, centered on a breathtaking commercial (“Mortal Friday,” as it were) and resulted in first-week sales of more than $50 million, which was more than Forrest Gump and The Lion King earned during their opening weeks that same year. For a time, it was the highest-selling video game ever (it was eventually unseated by Donkey Kong Country), and it still remains a contemporary power draw. (When Sony released it on its online PlayStation Network in 2007, it remained in the Top 10 Sales category for three years.) In short, it eventually became the most important, most impressive, most transcendent fighting game on any console of any era of your whole dumb life.

The first time I played it was at Robotar. There were two MKII machines in the arcade. One was surrounded by kids and had several quarters already positioned up on the screen, effectively claiming next. The other machine was occupied by one tall, thin, fully mature man sitting on a bar stool, which is how I should’ve known he was unbeatable — that bar stool meant he knew he wasn’t planning on going anywhere any time soon. But I saw the crowd and all the quarters on one machine, and I saw the man and the empty spot on the other, so I went to that one. I put my quarter in, selected my guy (Sub-Zero), watched him select his (Mileena), then waited for the fight to start. And then it was over.

The guy played like he’d invented the game. The whole first round lasted all of eight seconds. I’d never been beaten so badly at anything. I still haven’t. I didn’t hit him once. I didn’t even get close to hitting him. I barely had time to even consider hitting him before my poor little fighter was sprawled out on the floor, a bloody, pixelated, defeated blue mess. I can only imagine the terrible things Sub-Zero was saying about me as he lay there, his dignity having been karate-kicked out of his butthole.

For the second round, I decided to lay on the block button to survive as long as I could, but that only postponed the defeat for milliseconds — it was like taking a big breath before diving into an ocean of lava. He executed Sub-Zero posthaste (using the fatality where Mileena sucks you in through her shredder teeth and then spits out your bones), then sat there looking at me with an amount of contempt in his eyes matched only by his pity.

Before I could gather myself, he reached into his pocket. “Here,” he said, putting another quarter into the machine. “Try again.” I did, this time with Scorpion, and the results were no different. “One more time,” he said, putting another of his own quarters in the machine, because I guess being a genius of that level really is a lonely existence, and so I played him one more time. I picked Mileena that time, hoping to mirror the speed and agility with which he maneuvered her. Instead, I looked like an overweight middle school kid trying to mimic LeBron on the basketball court. It was a true tragedy.

When it was over, when he’d decided he’d had enough of clawing my face off, I walked away. “He was good,” I said to Uncle Brian. “Yup,” Uncle Brian muttered back. “Let’s go try the other machine,” I said. “That’s probably a good idea,” Uncle Brian said.

I wish I could end this by saying that after the home version came out that September, I practiced and practiced and practiced and then went back to Robotar and beat that guy. But I can’t. Because I didn’t. I went back there a bunch of times but never saw him. Maybe he moved to a different part of town or maybe he found a better arcade or maybe he dove inside the Mortal Kombat II arcade cabinet to become a part of the game because that’s where he truly belonged. Who knows? Not me. Not you, either. Nobody. Maybe Mileena?

The Rankings

The methodology here is not very complicated: Each fighter was given a score for fighting ability, a score for how effective their special moves were, a score for how easy those particular special moves were to pull off, a score for how gory/funny/creative their fatalities were, a score for how interesting their backstory was, and a score for general coolness. Those numbers were combined and averaged to form the final rankings.

We polled regular humans, video-game nerds, and video-game industry folks, and took information from previous MKII questionnaires and various online Earth-realm and nether-realm message boards. The result: the most accurate ranking of the fighters of the most amazing fighting game of all time.

Mortal Kombat II Chart

12. Jax

Cumulative Fighter Score: 12/100

What a dud. The fatality he did where he yanked his opponent’s arms off was first-rate, and so was the in-game move where he could grab people out of the air and administer a backbreaker, but not even that was worth laboring through a match with this clunky, derivative, fun-less character. He was supposed to be a military bro but did exactly zero cool military-bro shit. If you ever meet a person that tells you Jax was his or her favorite MKII character, then please send me an email and let me know, because I’d definitely like to hear all about the worst person God’s ever made.

11. Johnny Cage

Cumulative Fighter Score: 23/100

It seems like anybody modeled after Jean-Claude Van Damme would’ve finished higher here, but Cage’s skill set gets overtaken almost entirely by his own ego. Nearly every person polled remarked on it, saying something about how playing with Johnny Cage was too dark a trade-off to make. Pierre Shorette, whose name maybe you know because he wrote The Walking Dead for Telltale Games, remarked, “MK2 came out when I was 12 years old. Even at that tender age I’d find myself muttering ‘Fuck this guy’ every time I saw that sunglassy face.” Sorry, Johnny.

10. Reptile

Cumulative Fighter Score: 37/100

The dope thing about Reptile was that fatality he did where he would lizard-lick your head off and then eat it. The non-dope thing about Reptile was everything else. Like literally EVERY single other thing was dumb. I mean, his best move was to turn himself invisible, but then when he turned invisible and you were using him, you were just there like, “Well, what the fuck do I do now because I CANNOT SEE YOU, REPTILE.” The only reason he beats out Johnny Cage and Jax is because he looks so much like Sub-Zero and Scorpion.

9. Kung Lao

Cumulative Fighter Score: 46/100

I have been trying to buy a hat with a blade for the bill for the past 20 years. I won’t say what I’m going to do with it once I find one, but I will say that a lot more shit is going to start going my way.

8. Kitana

Cumulative Fighter Score: 52/100

Absolutely infuriating to fight against. Every time you tried to jump-kick, she’d do that STOOOOOOOOOOOPID fan wave thing and stun you in the air. If your attack was primarily aerial-based, and if she happened to be one of the last fighters on the road to the end (they got harder and harder to beat, the higher up that mountain they were), the only thing you could do was reset the game and hope she was randomized down near the bottom somewhere. Still, as unstoppable as she was when the computer was controlling her, she was basically impossible to master for regular humans. Kitana was the first woman who let me know I would never be smart enough to defeat a woman in anything, let alone understand her moves, be they in fighting games or in real life.

7. Baraka

Cumulative Fighter Score: 57/100

My sons, who are 7, were gifted a PS3 last Christmas by their great-grandfather (he won it at work and didn’t know what it was, so he gave it to them). I tried to play regular PS3 games on it, but they were too complicated. So I hooked up the console to the Internet and downloaded the first three editions of Mortal Kombat, NBA Jam, and NFL Blitz. The boys already love Mortal Kombat as well. We can play, me versus them, and they’re good enough that I don’t have to let them win anymore. Baraka is not their favorite character, but he’s the one with whom they play best. They just sit there for the entirety of the match doing nothing but blocking — then, when you get close, they do that ridiculous blade-chop thing. That’s it. That’s their whole game plan. It’s infuriating. When Boy B beat me three times in a row like that, I made them go to bed at, like, 7:15 p.m. That’s a little thing called being a good dad.

6. Shang Tsung

Cumulative Fighter Score: 63/100

You had to have a motherfriggin’ PhD to be able to remember all the shape-shifting and whatnot that Shang Tsung could do. Playing with him was always a better idea than it was ever an actual wise strategy. Mostly, you’d just end up spending half the match trying to turn into Scorpion or whomever. I’m not sure how he scored so high here. Probably just off reputation.

(I had the boys rank the MKII fighters just to see how their brains worked. Boy B ranked Shang Tsung no. 1. I said, “Shang Tsung is your favorite?” He said, “No, sir.” I said, “Then why do you have him no. 1?” He said, “He’s not my favorite; he’s just the best fighter.” That’s the realest shit he ever said in his whole life.)

5. Mileena

Cumulative Fighter Score: 70/100







Far as I’m concerned, she should’ve been up around the no. 2 spot.

4. Raiden

Cumulative Fighter Score: 74/100

The most I was ever offended in my whole life was when they cast James Remar as Raiden in Mortal Kombat: Annihilation after Christopher Lambert was so wonderful as Raiden in the original movie.

3. Sub-Zero

Cumulative Fighter Score: 85/100

The part in the Mortal Kombat movie where Sub-Zero and Scorpion are introduced is probably the most well-executed, most important moment in the history of video game–to-movie cinema. It’s the Godfather: Part II of the genre.

Truly perfect.

2. Liu Kang

Cumulative Fighter Score: 87/100

Sneak attack, Liu Kang getting up this high. He had the corniest fatality of all (the one where he transitioned from a wheel kick into an uppercut, which resulted in you getting knocked up into the air but keeping possession of your head), but also one of the most futuristic ones (the one where he turned into a dragon and bit you in half, a move that preceded the Animalities of Mortal Kombat 3). He was never especially cool, but always especially functional. He was never very exciting, but always very dependable. Liu Kang was just a guy who was gonna get the job done, and sometimes that’s all you needed. He’s basically the Subaru of Mortal Kombat II fighters.

1. Scorpion

Cumulative Fighter Score: 92/100

The most fun name: Scorpion.

The most enjoyable color palette: black and yellow.

The most clever troll: His outfit is actually meant to mock Sub-Zero’s, whom he hates desperately.

The most underrated special move: when he teleports behind you.

The most intriguing categorization: antihero.

The most complex existence: morally neutral, but by necessity not due to apathy.

The most relatable backstory: revenge.

The most iconic special move: the roped spear.

The most unforgettable saying: “Get over here!”

The best Mortal Kombat character of all time: Scorpion.

Lead illustration co-designed by Bob Dominguez

Filed Under: Video Games, Mortal Kombat II, Liu Kang, Sub-Zero, Scorpion, Jax, Johnny Cage

Shea Serrano is a staff writer for Grantland. His latest book, The Rap Year Book: The Most Important Rap Song From Every Year Since 1979, Discussed, Debated and Deconstructed, is a New York Times best seller and is available everywhere.

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