No Scorpions allowed. Cyborg ninjas welcome.

Is Mortal Kombat 3 a good video game?

I don’t know how to answer that. A casual rabbit-holing down various Mortal Kombat wikias leads you to the conclusion that the third Mortal Kombat is controversial among fans of the series. There’s no Scorpion, no Raiden, no Katana; Johnny Cage only appears as a gravestone in the background. Earlier Mortal Kombat games had focused on the relatively straightforward notion of a martial arts tournament; in Mortal Kombat 3, there’s no tournament. But there is a space-demon-king who is destroying Earth so he can conquer Earth, or something.

In franchise terms, I don’t quite know what to compare this to. You know how Alien 3 kills off Newt and Hicks in the opening credits montage? Imagine if it also killed off Ripley, and it brought back Bishop but it gave him a new costume with skintight pants. And also somehow John Hurt from Alien 1 was still alive but wearing bright yellow robot armor and he attacked people by firing little alien babies out of his stomach. And also instead of aliens, the movie is about werewolves, and the werewolves all have cyborg gun arms.

All I can really tell you is that I played a lot of Mortal Kombat 3. A lot. I can’t say I was awesome at it. But I kind of loved it. This was the first Mortal Kombat game that pushed the backstory into overdrive. Much like its genre rival Street Fighter, you could groove onto Mortal Kombat‘s ambient mythology even if your idea of a “combo” was “hit all the buttons really fast and hope a fireball comes out.”

The game hit arcades twenty years ago today, followed by extensive releases for various home consoles. Because this was the mid-’90s—the era that brought us Street Fighter II: Championship Edition and Street Fighter II: Hyper Fighting and Super Street Fighter II and Super Street Fighter II: Turbo—there was a game called Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3, which added Scorpion back into the mix, and then Mortal Kombat Trilogy, which brought back Raiden and Johnny Cage. There have been two decades of Mortal Kombat games since. The franchise still has its fans; it’s never been the phenomenon that it was circa the mid-’90s, back when kids loved it and parents assumed it was turning their kids into sex-crazy blood goths.

What follows is a clear, logical, entirely subjective ranking of the game’s eighteen playable characters, counting bosses and Noob Saibot. (Rankings based partially on moves but mainly based on ambient style)

18. Kano

After skipping Mortal Kombat 2, the guy with the cool cyborg eye returns. “Cool Cyborg Eye” was the “gritty realism” of the ’90s. In Mortal Kombat 1, Kano was rocking one of the decade’s great cosplay outfits: a white karate uniform with a bandolier. Flash forward two games, and Kano’s rocking every bad fashion idea of nerd culture in the Rob Liefeld era. Pouches and shinpads and wide-brim tank tops, oh my!

17. Shao Kahn

The Big Bad from Mortal Kombat 2 returns, lamer than ever. Someone somewhere probably thought it was a fun idea to take Lord Humungus from The Road Warrior and give him a cape. The cumulative effect was, is, and always will be Flasher He-Man. Still, props if you ever rocked this look at a party.

16. Stryker

Stryker was, for some time, my favorite character in Mortal Kombat 3, partially because he had a gun but mainly because he had a gun. This always struck me as an entirely logical response to whatever was happening in Mortal Kombat 3. Oh, so there’s an army of martial arts space-demons transforming the world into a post-apocalyptic hellscape? Here’s an idea: Grab a gun and shoot them. Rinse, repeat, bang, bang.

This is before I realized that Stryker is actually a liberal’s nightmare of the American police state run absolutely amok. He practices the shoot-first-and-ask-questions-never model of policing. Even if he doesn’t shoot people, he’s a taser-happy law enforcement officer. (Maximum setting!) He’s the head of Riot Control in New York City circa 1995, which means he’s a prime archetype for Giuliani-era over-policing. “Riot Control”? Sounds more like “Keeping The Man Down Control.” We’re just trying to have a good time here, narc! Why are you trying to destroy us with your hate crimes?

Also, he can turn into a Tyrannosaur.


N.W.A. warned us about Stryker.

15. Liu Kang

Always the implicit hero of the Mortal Kombat games, always pretty boring. Complexity-wise, Liu Kang makes Ryu look like Commander Shepard. Hell, Liu Kang makes Dan look like Walter White. My friends who were actually good at Mortal Kombat 3 preferred playing Liu Kang because he was a balanced player, or whatever. I could never quite get over the fact that Liu Kang’s voice sounds like Mickey Mouse laugh-punching an opera singer:

14. Kung Lao

Similar to Liu Kang, but with a way cooler hat. Also, his kicks looked much cooler than almost anyone else’s kicks. I said this would be subjective.

13. Motaro

12. Sheeva

There aren’t enough four-armed women in videogames. Wait, no, there are just enough. Named after “Shiva” but with the spelling slightly changed, she possesses as many limbs as Vishnu—so all that’s missing is some kind of ambient reference to Brahma and you’ve got a Hindu Trinity Hat Trick. Twenty years later, I still can’t quite figure out: Were these games offensive to everyone, or to no one?

11. Sub-Zero

Remember the first time you saw anyone from KISS without their makeup on? Mortal Kombat 3 is Sub-Zero’s no-makeup moment. Behind that totally awesome blue-ninja mask you find…a pretty handsome doof with greasy hair and a boring scar.


As a side-note, I played about 75 percent of the game Mortal Kombat Mythologies: Sub-Zero, which tried to pretend that a fighting game could be an RPG and a sidescroller and an in-depth interactive story. It is generally considered one of the worst things to ever happen. But it is also a game where you play a ninja with freeze powers who kills five gods. I dunno, I’d watch that Guillermo Del Toro movie.

10. Noob Saibot

One of the classic ultra-hidden characters in videogame history. You know how, in a lot of major long-running TV shows, there are some characters who are talked about a lot in the early seasons, and so you assume that those characters must be awesome, and then you finally meet those characters and they’re not as awesome as you thought they were? Think Jacob from Lost. Or think Noob Saibot, aka “Scorpion and Sub-Zero except without any defining characteristics whatsoever.”

9. Shang Tsung

Previously: Cool old guy with a great mustache. By Mortal Kombat 3: Weird much younger guy with yellow tights. Still: Cool make-up, bro.

8. Sindel

Way cool backstory: Resurrected immortal queen of the evil world. Later turned good. Sort of the Julie Cooper of Mortal Kombat. Looks like Bride of Frankenstein Goes to the Skunk Dominatrix Beach.

7. Nightwolf

Has a tomahawk.

6. Sonya Blade

Should clearly be the lead character of any future Mortal Kombat bigscreen adaptations. Points added for looking cool while rocking sub-Olivia Newton John-attire throughout the original Mortal Kombat trilogy.

5. Jax

In comic books and video games and all the nooks and crannies of geek culture, the ’90s were the time when characters got rebooted with more “cyber” stuff. Cyber-eyes and cyber-arms, cyber-wings and cyber-guns. 1995 was one of the last moments in time when all anyone wanted to do was add “cyber” to everything. Literally the same month Mortal Kombat 3 arrived in arcades, DC released a comic book called Psyba-Rats, thus combining the “cyber” trend with the “misspelling” trend.

This is Peak ’90s. Like, if Psyba-Rats had been popular at all, DC would’ve made a cartoon called Psyba-Rats: Xtreme Hackz, where the Psyba-Rats hacked evil robot computers while catching sick waves with flying spiky cyber-surfboards and talking about how underrated The English Patient was.

All of which is a roundabout way of trying to explain how, in Mortal Kombat 3, the already-pretty-cool Jax character suddenly had bionic arms. Why not? “Bionic arms” was the “symphonic Hans Zimmer score” of 1995.

4 and 3. Sektor and Cyrax

“People seem to love all our color-coded ninjas,” said someone, somewhere, someplace, sometime. (“Color-coded ninjas” was the “teen dystopian adventure trilogy” of 1995.) “Hey, what if we make them color-coded cyber-ninjas?” responded someone else, somewhere else, someplace else, sometime else.

Thus: Sektor and Cyrax. Their moves are roughly equivalent; Sektor has homing missiles, Cyrax has a trendy green laser net. They both sound like the factory where James Cameron goes to end Terminator movies.

The only way to settle which one is better is to take a close look at their fatalities. Here’s Sektor, crushing people with his chestbursting trash compactor:


And here’s Cyrax rocking the slicing propeller-head:


And here is Cyrax dancing:

And here is what happens if you beat the game with Cyrax:


So, in conclusion:


2. Kabal

Trendy misspelled name? Check. Unnecessary kneepads? Check. Tragic beaten-half-to-death backstory that requires the constant presence of a cyber-respirator? Check. Ability to run really fast? Check. Hook swords? Che…wha? Hook swords? That’s right: The year is 1995, and all the obvious weapons have been taken, so some lucky intern had to dig through The Idiot’s Guide to Cool Martial Arts Weaponry. When he got to page 329 and saw “Hook swords,” he ripped the page right out of the book, faxed it over to Kombat Central, and sent a beeper alert to the whole company. The ’90s!

1. Smoke

Take a futuristic cyber-ninja. Now make him coal-powered, apparently, because smoke just pours out of him at all times. Now give him all the weapons that Scorpion would usually have, if Scorpion were in this game. Feels like a winner? Maybe. But there’s still something missing. What if—now, roll with me on this for a second—what if, for one of his fatalities, Smoke opens up his chest and lays a bunch of bomb-grenades at the feet of his opponent?


I know what you’re thinking, friendo. “Been there.” “Done that.” “Have you heard of Sektor, bro?” But what if—I ask you—what if, after Smoke laid down all those bomb-grenades, this happened?


Game. Set. Match. Smoke.

Mortal Kombat
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