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The Mortal Kombat series explained

For over 25 years, we've seen the mightiest and most brutal fighters in the universe engage in the unholy tournament of Mortal Kombat. When a series has managed to stay alive and relevant as long as Mortal Kombat has, it's all too easy (reference fully intended) for creators and players alike to literally lose the plot. Indeed, the fatalities aren't the only thing that have gotten more involved and elaborate for Mortal Kombat over the years. 

What started as a relatively simple Enter the Dragon-esque fighting tournament has ballooned into a multiverse-spanning, time-traveling fantasy web of a narrative, and with Mortal Kombat 11 promising yet more time-warping shenanigans, now might be a real good time for everyone to get their story straight. Luckily for you, we've done all the legwork, and using all the media at our disposal, we are more than happy to present the story of Mortal Kombat, as lovingly accurate and streamlined as we can muster.

It has begun

In the beginning, the Elder Gods created the Heavens and the Earth.  At least, that's how it goes in the universe of Mortal Kombat. MK's creation myth is basically handed out piecemeal, in multiple games at this point, but to keep a long story short, there are multiple realms, ruled by a race of Elder Gods each governing an aspect of reality. Earthrealm, our world, is the hub for them all, protected by the Elder God Raiden for millennia.

One of the other realms, however, is a draconian hellhole called Outworld, ruled by a warlord emperor named Shao Kahn, who has figured out that with enough energy stolen from the dead and slain, he can merge Outworld with other realms, and expand his rule. He's already done this to a peaceful realm called Edenia. Now he has his sights on Earth, and might have found a way to pull it off, thanks to an Earthrealm warrior-sorcerer named Shang Tsung.

Your soul is mine

The Shaolin Tournament was originally established as a simple invitational contest held once a generation, pitting the greatest warriors of the age against each other. According to the Collector's Edition comic from the first game (yeah, the one they kept pimping on the attract screen), centuries ago, Shang Tsung managed to kill his way to the top, and kept his title for nine generations. He used sorcery to harvest the souls of his vanquished enemies, keeping himself young while appeasing his new master, Shao Kahn. That all stops when a warrior named Kung Lao finally defeats him. Cut off from his diet of dead souls, Shang Tsung starts immediately showing his age.

In the next tournament, a prematurely decrepit Shang Tsung returns. Having somehow weaseled his way into a position as Grandmaster for the tournament, he invites a new challenger to compete: a massive, four-armed monstrosity from the Outworld province of Kuatan named Goro, who defeats Kung Lao and ushers in a more brutal era of the tournament. Goro stands as undefeated champion for generations.

A handful of people on a leaky boat (Mortal Kombat [1992])

That brings us to the modern day. A new group of fighters is invited to compete in the Mortal Kombat tournament on Shang Tsung's island. International action star Johnny Cage accepts to try and prove to the world that he's the real deal and not a fake. Special Forces soldier Sonya Blade accepts in an attempt to chase down her mark, the murderous Black Dragon gang leader Kano, who also scored an invite. A ninja from the Lin Kuei clan known as Sub-Zero accepts an invite, but so does Scorpion, a resurrected ninja from a rival clan whose family was murdered by Sub-Zero. The thunder god Raiden takes human form to compete. Finally, Liu Kang, a chosen fighter from the Shaolin temple, accepts the invite.

Things actually go pretty straightforward from here (for a while). Scorpion does in fact get his revenge on Sub-Zero. Sonya, Johnny Cage, Raiden, and Kano all survive the tournament. However, it's Liu Kang who makes it all the way to the top, defeating Shang Tsung. The sorcerer's island is destroyed, but he manages to make an escape to Outworld. Raiden rescues Johnny Cage, and Liu Kang survives. Goro, however, isn't so lucky. Sonya and Kano wind up trapped in Outworld, and are eventually held hostage by Shao Kahn.  Still, in general, chalk up a win for the good guys.

Winner: Liu Kang

You weak, pathetic fools (Mortal Kombat II/Mortal Kombat: Shaolin Monks)

Back in Outworld, Shang Tsung gets read the riot act by Shao Kahn. However, Shang manages to convince the emperor to spare his life by concocting a new plan: if he is able to keep the portal to Earthrealm open, the rules of the tournament allow Shang Tsung to challenge fighters to Mortal Kombat even across realms. Shao Kahn agrees, even giving Shang Tsung his youth back because he's such a nice guy.

And so, a new Mortal Kombat tournament takes place. This one takes place in Outworld, meaning that a weirder group of fighters from various conquered realms get to compete. That includes Princess Kitana of Edenia; her cannibalistic clone sister, Mileena; the Tarkatan Baraka; and Kintaro, another Kuatan monster seeking revenge for Goro. In secret, however, Shang Tsung will be gunning for Earth's warriors outside the tournament as well, bringing them to Shao Kahn to harvest. 

Raiden brings Liu Kang and Johnny Cage back for more, but also invites Sonya's partner, Jax; another Sub-Zero (the original's brother); Scorpion; and the direct descendant of Kung Lao, who teams up with Liu Kang to specifically stop Shang Tsung's plot. Despite the heavy treachery, Kung Lao and Liu Kang manage to defeat Tsung, Kintaro, and Shao Kahn in the tournament. They take their allies home, but not before an Outworld sorcerer named Quan Chi scoops up Shao Kahn's amulet in the mayhem.

Winner(s): Liu Kang and Kung Lao

The fate of billions will depend upon you (Mortal Kombat 3/Ultimate MK3/MK Trilogy)

Having failed to breach Earthrealm yet again through the normal rules of Mortal Kombat, Shao Kahn decides to toss out the rulebook out the window. He executes a full scale invasion under the pretense of raising his long-dead bride — and Kitana's mother — Queen Sindel, from the dead. He has Shang Tsung perform the ritual on Earth, and the act itself weakens the barriers between realms just enough for Kahn to start merging Outworld and Earthrealm together.

The result is a catastrophe. Billions of souls are stripped from their bodies in the process, with only a scant few warriors protected by a mostly de-powered Raiden. The survivors are hunted down by an army of Outworld's most vicious creatures, led by the centaur Motaro, with Liu Kang as a priority target. Shao Kahn isn't even the only danger the Earthrealm fighters have to deal with, since Kano has escaped capture, the Lin Kuei have built cyborg assassins to hunt down the rogue Sub-Zero, and Johnny Cage is killed before his soul is restored by Raiden.

Even with all the chaos, Liu Kang is still victorious. Sindel remembers her past, reunites with Kitana, and helps Liu defeat Kahn, saving Earthrealm. The souls of the newly dead are restored, and everyone lives happily ever after.

Winner: Liu Kang

Great wealth and almost god-like power (Mortal Kombat 4)

"Happily ever after" only lasts until the sorcerer Quan Chi finally makes his move. The amulet Quan Chi stole from Shao Kahn isn't actually the emperor's, but a tool used by a fallen Elder God named Shinnok, banished from godhood for attempting to usurp Earthrealm rule from Raiden when the dimensions were new. He spent millenia in the Netherrealm, waiting and plotting. With Quan Chi's help, the amulet allows Shinnok to be reborn in the realm of Edenia, bringing a few of his Netherrealm buddies with him. After defeating Sindel's forces with the help of an Edenian traitor named Tanya, Shinnok sets his sights on his true goal: getting revenge on the Elder Gods for banishing him.

Knowing what kind of threat Shinnok poses to the realms, Raiden enlists the help of a few of Earth's strongest fighters to head to Outworld yet again, and while Liu Kang gets the job done of defeating Shinnok, Quan Chi gets taken down by an unlikely source: Scorpion.

See, while enlisting help from the Netherrealm, Quan Chi entices Scorpion into the fray by telling him the new Sub-Zero is the real one who killed his family. After the defeated Sub-Zero clues Scorpion in on the truth, Quan Chi appears. He tries to use his magic to send Scorpion back to the Netherrealm, but Scorpion makes a kamikaze run and drags Quan Chi to hell with him. What a twist.

Winner: Liu Kang (but Scorpion helped)

The deadliest of enemies (Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance/Mortal Kombat Deception)

Speaking of twists surely nobody saw coming, Quan Chi does eventually escape Netherrealm using Shinnok's amulet. He ends up in Outworld with an all new plan. Phase one involves forming — wait for it — a deadly alliance with Shang Tsung. Phase two involves the destruction of their enemies — Namely, Shao Kahn (who they murder on his own throne in Outworld) and, in one of the biggest shocker moments of the entire series, Liu Kang.

Thus begins phase three, in which the deadly duo attempt to resurrect the mummified armies of Outworld's first ruler, the Dragon King Onaga, using — what else? — the souls of vanquished warriors. Raiden, as usual, catches wind of what's going on, and doesn't just bring an army of new warriors to Outworld, but surrenders his own Elder Godhood so he can go to Outworld with them.

In an even more shocking twist, the plan fails. Miserably.

Several of Earthrealm's warriors are beaten trying to stop the sorcerers, leaving it up to Raiden himself to try and get the job done, and even he takes the loss. It seems like nothing can stop them until the sorcerers find out somebody might've gotten their math wrong, because the resurrection spell doesn't raise Onaga's army, but Onaga himself. Raiden and the sorcerers combine forces to try and defeat Onaga, but despite their best efforts, the Dragon King stands triumphant.

Winner: Onaga

Face your worst fear (Mortal Kombat: Deception, Mortal Kombat: Armageddon, Mortal Kombat [2011])

Onaga's reappearance is a harbinger of the endtimes. There is so much war and bloodshed among the surviving fighters across the realms, it basically triggers Mortal Kombat's Golden Snitch scenario. Long ago, the rulers of Edenia constructed a pyramid temple to the Elder Gods. The pyramid is home to a warrior named Blaze, whose sole purpose is to bring balance. Whoever defeats Blaze is granted ultimate power over all the realms. Of course, getting to Blaze involves a whole lot of murder and mayhem. In a full scale war called the Battle of Armageddon, every warrior in existence fights it out for the chance to take on Blaze.

After all the blood and guts and shattered bones, only one warrior remains to deliver the coup de grace on Blaze: Shao Kahn.

Having created a decoy of himself to sit on the throne of Outworld after his defeat in MK3, Kahn gathered his strength and waited for just the right time to take what's his. Becoming all-powerful after Blaze's defeat, Kahn turns his attention to a battered and broken Raiden to finish off the Elder God for good. But Raiden, in desperation, punts victory away from Shao Kahn. With his last breath, he uses his own Elder God amulet to send a single vague message across the veil of time to his past self: "He must win."

Winner: Shao Kahn

Like being back in high school (Mortal Kombat [2011])

The message does get through to the Raiden of the past, just as the Kombatants are being welcomed to the first modern-day Mortal Kombat tournament. From there, it's like Groundhog Day, where the events of the first three games play out once again much as they did before. There is one crucial difference: Raiden is highly aware of his Elder God amulet, which seems to be cracking, even when Liu Kang defeats Shang Tsung, even when he defeats Shao Kahn in Outworld. Nothing is changing, and Raiden doesn't know why.

Right around the time the climax to MK3 takes place and Liu Kang is having a final showdown with Shao Kahn on Earth, the problem becomes crystal clear. Armageddon's Raiden wasn't talking about Liu Kang, as his past self thought. He was talking about Shao Kahn.

Raiden attempts to stop Liu Kang from facing Kahn, but Liu Kang, ever the hero, decides to fight Raiden for standing in his way. Raiden accidentally ends up killing Liu Kang during their fight. With Liu Kang dead, Raiden surrenders Earthrealm to Shao Kahn. Kahn achieves victory, which is right when the other Elder Gods, long silent, finally decide to step in. Noting that Kahn has broken protocol with the invasion, the Gods imbue Raiden with enough power to lay a holy smackdown on Shao Kahn and save Earthrealm once and for all.

Winner: Raiden

Simply changing the place (Mortal Kombat X)

We reach the events of Mortal Kombat 4 with Quan Chi resurrecting Shinnok. This time, instead of Liu Kang, there are two very pissed off Elder Gods waiting for Shinnok: Raiden and the wind god Fujin. While Quan Chi flees, Shinnok is easily defeated, and Earthrealm and its heroes live happily ever after.

No, seriously, they kinda do. Sonya and Johnny Cage tie the knot and have a daughter named Cassie. Sub-Zero squashes his beef with Scorpion, who remembers his true name — Hanzo Hasashi — and Outworld signs a peace treaty with Earthrealm. The peace lasts for 25 years, and even when Quan Chi resurfaces (thanks to an Outworld traitor named D'Vorah who steals Shinnok's amulet) Earthrealm's more than ready. They put Quan Chi under lockdown on Earth until the amulet's found, assemble a new team of young warriors — made up of Cassie Cage, Jax's daughter, one of Scorpion's students, and Kung Lao's cousin — to protect the realm, and while Quan Chi succeeds at summoning Shinnok while in custody, Scorpion lops off Quan Chi's head before he can enjoy it.

The resurrected Shinnok makes a beeline for the Elder Gods' Sky Temple, absorbing and corrupting enough of the pure energy within to change into a demon, but Cassie Cage puts him down for good, and Raiden purifies the temple of Shinnok's evil.

Winner: Cassie Cage

A taste of things to come (Mortal Kombat 11)

There's one little problem. See, Raiden had to use Shinnok's amulet in order to absorb the corrupted energy from the Sky Temple and return Shinnok to human form. The process appears to have changed him for the worse. Instead of just killing him or imprisoning him, Raiden spends most of his days continuously torturing Shinnok in the Sky Temple, eventually culminating in Raiden just lopping off his head and sticking it on a stone altar as a warning to any who would dare breach the temple ever again.

A harsh intervention might be on its way, however, in the form of a woman named Kronika, known as the Keeper of Time. And while the realms do seem to be at peace now, it appears there are supreme forces out there that are none too happy that Raiden went tampering with the very fabric of time to make it happen. They will be coming to collect their due. And the realms are about to get a whole lot less peaceful.

We'll find out more in April.