Summer, 1994. I was eleven years old and just starting sixth grade. I, like many kids at the time, was obsessed with fighting games. Well, the two fighting games that really mattered: Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat. The former was such a massive hit in both arcades and on consoles that if you pick up a gaming magazine published between 1991 and 1993, there is more than a fair chance that there is some kind of Street Fighter II art on the cover. The latter reached similar heights, due in no small part to its controversial violence. I lived in Chicago at the time, near the Brickyard Mall, and as often as I could I would haul a handful of quarters to the mall’s arcade, or to a corner store near me that replaced its sole arcade cabinet, Mortal Kombat, with its sequel shortly after its release.
You have to understand, these games were huge at the time. Their reach was similar to Minecraft or Fortnite in that many people who did not consider themselves regular gamers played them. My classmates and many others shared tips, talked favorite fighters, and obsessed over what we wanted from sequels. When Mortal Kombat II was released in 1993, we were enthralled with the new characters, like Baraka and Kitana, the elaborate new levels, and the many new fatalities, babalities, and friendships. We would huddle around the cabinet, trying our best to master new characters and moves, and, when we’d win, nervously try (and often fail) to perform a finishing move. Unlike most of my other gaming experiences, it was an incredibly active social event. I was regularly playing with friends from school, from around my neighborhood, and even strangers, despite not usually spending much time with most of them otherwise.
This engaging social aspect of the game aside, myself and most of the people I knew could not wait for the home release, and the closer the release got, the more excited we became. Can you imagine? We wouldn’t have to scrounge together quarters, or walk to the mall, or wait in line to play! We could practice as much as we wanted, whenever we wanted, and finally see all of the finishing moves. We were counting down the days.
My family, like many in the area, was lower middle-class, so my parents rarely bought me new video games, particularly at full price, and especially when we could rent them from the local Blockbuster Video. Of course newly released games were more expensive to rent and you could only keep them for two days, but I took what I could get. Unfortunately, I wasn’t even sure I could get a copy of Mortal Kombat II. The anticipation for this game was immense and my local Blockbuster said they were expecting copies to fly off the shelves as soon as they hit.
And they did. I convinced my dad to drive me to Blockbuster as soon as he got home from work that release day, and the entire way over I was saying “what if they ran out? What if we’re too late?” He assured me that with such a popular game they would doubtless have plenty. They did not. They had four full shelves of display boxes, but the guy at the counter said they didn’t last long. On the way home, I felt sick. My dad noticed and felt bad, thinking I must be (perhaps unreasonably) upset by not getting the game, so he agreed to drive me to the Blockbuster that was farther away. I had very low hopes. If one Blockbuster had run out so quickly, any other in a densely packed urban area was sure to be out as well.
We arrived and as sickly as I felt, I zoomed over to the video game section. They also had four shelves of Mortal Kombat II display cases, and, again, there were no games behind them. I was devastated. My friends would probably have gotten a copy and I was going to be stuck at home (probably sick, given how I was starting to feel) with no way to get a copy for at least a few days, when people started returning them – if I was lucky. On the way out, with no expectation, I asked the guy at the counter how quickly they ran out of copies. “We never even got them on the shelves. People were asking for them before we finished putting them out.” Just as I’d thought. Sigh. “We still have one copy left, if you want it.” W-what? A single copy? Of the most sought-after game in the world? How? How could I have gotten so lucky? I accepted his offer, but even as we were checking out I was convinced something was going to go wrong and he was going to say “on second thought…” He did not have second thoughts, however, and as we drove home I took the game cartridge out of the plastic case and just looked at the label… and I was feeling more nauseous than ever.
When I got home I ran inside and excitedly told my mom the whole story. As I explained how significant, monumental, and historic this event was, she interrupted me. “You feel okay? You don’t look so good.” I did not, and I said as much. She took my temperature and as luck would have it, I had a fever of 101. I wasn’t too surprised. I felt like a pile of burning human garbage. “Can I still have friends over?” I asked. She advised against it, but if I was feeling up to it and if they wanted to, I could, she said.
I began calling all of my friends. “Matthew? Did you get it?” “Robert, I got it!” “Marcin, wanna come over? I’m sick but we can still play.” Not a single friend of mine had gotten a copy, and they were all eager to come over and get some turns in. You know how when you’re that age and you have friend groups that never hang out together, even though you spend time with each of them separately? Those divisions didn’t matter. I had friends that hated each other coming over, willing to ignore social insecurities and elementary school politics for the opportunity to play this long-awaited game.
As I waited for this eclectic group of friends to arrive, I decided to pop the game in and get a few practice rounds in before I would surely demolish my fri- *grrp* My, uh, fri- *grrrrp* My frien- *violent vomiting* Many aspects of this story are stitched together from hazy memories, but I can very, very clearly remember thinking “oh no. This can’t be. Not now. Why?” with my face thrust in the toilet bowl, spewing up my school lunch. When it felt over, I splashed my face, brushed my teeth, and went back to my SNES. I started a match and… I played, I guess. But it wasn’t fun or exhilarating, like it should have been. I felt like I was going to puke again, and my head was throbbing. I lost the match and ran for the bathroom again.
My friends began trickling in, abuzz with excitement to take as many turns as they wanted without pumping quarters into a slot. I played a match against one of them and then passed the controller to another. After one of them lost, they offered the controller to me. “No, thanks. I don’t feel so good.” They shrugged and went back to virtually pummeling each other, and as more friends piled in, I retreated to a green, plastic-feeling couch we had in that room. My mom had brought me a bucket at some point, in case I needed it, and some ginger ale and crackers. I did need it. As my friends got more and more intensely competitive, I grew more and more distant. I watched them at first, but they kept offering me the controller and I had to keep refusing. “Are you sure? I feel bad. It’s your game and you’re not even playing it,” one of them said. “I know. It’s fine. I’ll play later,” I replied. I got tired of them asking, so I eventually curled up on the couch and rolled away from them, turning back only to occasionally throw up bile, ginger ale, and crackers into the bucket next to the couch.
And that’s how I spent the day of Mortal Kombat II’s console release. Feverish, shivering, and vomiting into a paint bucket just feet behind the largest group of mismatched friends I’d ever had over as they tried every level, character, and fatality that they could.