In 1995, Mortal Kombat was at the height of its popularity. Not only did was there a movie on the way, but Mortal Kombat 3 was also making its way into the arcades. How big a deal was Mortal Kombat 3? Big enough that it had its own commercial… For an arcade game! You simply did not do that. Ever.
The game featured classic characters, new characters, and old characters with redesigns. Mortal Kombat 3 also scrapped the palette-swapped male and female ninjas, instead giving us robot ninjas and a new look for Sub-Zero. This was the only one-on-one fighter Mortal Kombat game to not have Scorpion in it. While he’d make his return soon enough, in the meantime, he was to be replaced by a new masked anti-hero trying to play up the mystique.
His name was Kabal.
Back during the original trilogy, Mortal Kombat games really liked to play up the mystery aspect of its masked characters. Their profiles were vague and we’d only discover their identities through their unmasking-based Fatalities and their endings. For instance, Scorpion’s bio in the first game explained that he hated Sub-Zero for an unknown reason, likely relating to being from a rival ninja clan, but by digging deeper, we’d discover that he was an undead, fire-breathing skeleton out to avenge his own death. Mortal Kombat II had similar backstories for Reptile, Kitana, Mileena, and the new Sub-Zero.
Kabal was no ninja, but he had the same deal. He wore a mask, nobody knew where he came from, and the only way to find out was to play the game.
When developing Mortal Kombat 3, the folks at Midway referred to Kabal as “Sandman.” His design was a bit of a mishmash of various ideas, but his look was mostly inspired by the Sand People from Star Wars. He was armed with hook swords, which were initially going to be used by Baraka back in Mortal Kombat II before Midway decided to give him Wolverine arm blades. Kabal also got a super-speed attack based on Ed Boon’s childhood love for how cool it looks when the Flash runs into a blur. He was also going to have a trench coat, but that would have been too difficult to animate well with the digitized style. In a fun connection to the previous games, Richard Divizio, who also portrayed Kana and Baraka, played this new, masked enigma.
So reviewing Mortal Kombat 3’s storyline, it went a little something like this: after losing two tournaments, barbarian overlord Shao Kahn decided to straight-up invade Earthrealm using some kind of magic loophole that involved resurrecting his dead queen. He started absorbing the souls of everyone on Earth, but Raiden was able to protect the souls of a few dozen warriors. Kahn shrugged and sent his armies to go wipe out any and all survivors.
Although Kabal’s bio didn’t outright reveal who he was, it did say that he was one of those survivors. Kahn’s extermination squads caught up to him and tore him up something fierce. He barely survived the ordeal and survived only because of some makeshift respirators.
Of his two Fatalities in the game, one required he take his mask off, which revealed him to be horribly burned into some kind of horror whose screaming visage could scare his enemies to death. The visual was so effective that his opponent’s ghost would literally run away from his or her body. Also, his Animality move saw him turn into a glowing rhinoceros skeleton…because that’s rad as hell.
Finally, his ending revealed his identity. Kabal had been a member of the Black Dragon criminal syndicate, much like Kano. The difference was that this experience had changed Kabal for the better (outside of his physical appearance, of course). Kabal turned on his former life and turned to life as a vigilante in the shadows, destroying injustice in all forms. Sounds like a pretty cool guy. Even if it wasn’t intentional, Kabal was there to fill the void of Scorpion’s absence. While his design was different enough, he fulfilled the role of freaky-looking, masked force of vengeance. He was the badass loner with the rad weapon.
So of course, Kabal fell to the wayside that fall when Midway released Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3. Not only did Midway nerf Kabal, making him less powerful, but the game was centered around the return of Scorpion. More specifically, the return of Scorpion, Kitana, and a bunch of people who looked exactly like them.
Kabal wasn’t completely left in the dust, though. A year later, he got his very own episode of Mortal Kombat: Defenders of the Realm. This Saturday morning cartoon was a quasi-sequel to the first Mortal Kombat movie and played up the idea that various heroes would hang around in a cave all day and wait for bad guys to invade Earthrealm so they could send them back from whence they came. Some guys refused to wear shirts, Kitana refused to wear pants, and most episodes would have a moment of serious conversation to drive the plot forward, like how Jax was bullied for being fat as a kid or how Sonya needs to confide in Kitana about lady stuff due to the team being such a sausage fest.
“Amends” was the eleventh episode and dealt with Sonya coming across Kabal, voiced by Kevin Michael Richardson. Kabal aided Sonya against Kano and the Black Dragon, all the while acting like the Phantom of the Opera due to his scarred face. His backstory was that, although he worked as an assassin for Shao Kahn, the evil ruler saw a prophecy that Kabal would one day try to redeem himself and turn to the side of good. Ergo, he had a bunch of ninjas mess up Kabal with multiple swords to the head. All things considered, he looks pretty good!
Sonya was sympathetic towards Kabal, likening his scarring to a girl she knew who was in a wheelchair. Kabal helped the heroes stop Kano and we got one of my least favorite cartoon tropes: the Superhero Team Status Quo Rejection. In a moment overused in the X-Men animated series, Liu Kang offered Kabal a spot on the team and he refused because of reasons.
Seriously, why couldn’t they have had Colossus join the cartoon X-Men?! Is it that much of a bitch to alter the intro animation?!
Anyway, it didn’t really matter. The show only had two episodes left after that.
At least the cartoon had a faithful depiction of Kabal, unlike Mortal Kombat: The Live Tour, which depicted Kabal as a machete-wielding black dude with an African shield.
Kabal was only briefly mentioned in the movie Mortal Kombat: Annihilation. In an earlier version of the script, he and Kurtis Stryker were supposed to be potential heroes captured by the villains who would be forced into slavery, only to lead a revolt thanks to Liu Kang’s assistance. It’s just as well since that movie featured too many characters as is.
It would be several years before Kabal was acknowledged again. Pre-scarred Kabal was supposed to be a boss in Mortal Kombat: Special Forces, but that didn’t take. While it made a ton of sense – what with the villains being the Black Dragon gang – the game had a rough developmental cycle that forced Midway to cut the character. The game was so rushed that ever Sonya Blade was scrapped.
2002’s Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance finally brought back Kabal! Unfortunately, it was to announce that he was dead. Kabal’s one-man reign of terror against crime didn’t do so well once he came up against new villain Mavado, the leader of the Red Dragon, which was like the more refined version of the Black Dragon. Not only did he seemingly kill Kabal, but he also took his hook swords, adding them to his bungee cord-based offense.
Not as cool as laser eyes, but whatever.
2004 gave us Mortal Kombat: Deception and it turned out the news of Kabal’s demise was greatly exaggerated. Kabal survived thanks to the help of psychotic chaos cleric Havik, who convinced Kabal to go back to crime and rebuild the Black Dragon from the ground up. Kabal agreed to it, hunted down and killed Mavado (he got better), got his swords back, and then went and recruited a couple new soldiers for his team.
These new Black Dragon members included Kobra and Kira. Kobra was a Ken Masters lookalike who was desperate to use his karate skills in acts of violence and fights to the death. Kira was an aimless terrorist with moves that made her a hybrid of Sonya and Kano. As agents of Havik, the Black Dragon trio acted as a wild card third party in the war between the good guys and the ultimate villain, Onaga the Dragon King.
Kabal’s ending saw him betray Havik (to Havik’s amusement) so he could weaponize Onaga’s heart. Kobra’s ending had them massacre all the weakened heroes after Onaga’s death. In Kira’s ending, Kabal set his protégés against each other in a fight to the death, with Kobra dying. None of those endings would come true, considering what was next.
But before I get to that, Midway released another side-game: Mortal Kombat: Shaolin Monks. Easily the best of the three non-fighters, Shaolin Monks acted as a retelling of the end of Mortal Kombat up to the end of Mortal Kombat II featuring Liu Kang and Kung Lao beating up countless enemies and straight-up murdering their more well-known opponents despite the usual plot armor.
There’s an optional side quest where you can rescue Kabal in Outworld. This is pre-mutilated Kabal, so he doesn’t have the helmet yet. Instead, he has big sideburns and a voice that can best be described as, “Elvis long after his bed time.” While he doesn’t join your team, he does drop his hook swords to the ground as a sign of gratitude, allowing the heroes to use the weapons themselves.
Kabal and his krew returned for Mortal Kombat: Armageddon, which featured every single playable Mortal Kombat character up to that point. Kabal showed up briefly in the story mode in order to try and recruit new main character Taven, but otherwise didn’t have much of a role. He didn’t even have a bio!
Armageddon’s storyline was about a big king of the hill fight on a pyramid with the winner gaining ultimate power. Kabal’s ending saw him power up while challenging Mavado to a final fight to the death. Shin Kabal kicked the shit out of Mavado enough that the Red Dragon leader killed himself as a final middle finger.
Kabal didn’t appear in Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe, but he did get a neat little shout out. Upon seeing Flash zip around, Kano described him as giving Kabal a run for his money. Thirteen years later and Ed Boon’s fanboy design choice finally paid off!
Kabal returned for 2011’s Mortal Kombat, otherwise known as Mortal Kombat 9 for simplicity’s sake. The game showed that Kabal – much like near everyone else – got killed during the big Armageddon fight. To save reality from an overly-powerful Shao Kahn, Raiden used time travel to “fix things,” while also giving us a more detailed look at how the original trilogy of games played out.
We finally got to see Kabal’s origin story. While the earlier games made it seem like Kabal turned his back on the Black Dragon due to the events of Mortal Kombat 3, that wasn’t the case after all. He’d turned away from that life far earlier and became a police officer. He was partnered with radical action cop Kurtis Stryker and remained as such until Kahn’s Outworld invasion.
Kabal’s injuries actually came from Kintaro’s fire breath, which spread burns all over his body and blinded him in one eye. He would have died had his old comrade Kano not stolen him away and had Shang Tsung use his magic to heal him up. Well, mostly. Tsung could only do so much for Kabal’s lungs, so Kano added some respirators built by the same man who gave him his snazzy laser eye. Kano wanted to bring Kabal back into the fold and have him serve Shao Kahn, but Kabal escaped and joined up with the rest of the Earthrealm heroes.
Unfortunately, in this new timeline, Kabal wasn’t long for this world. Shao Kahn amped up Sindel’s power and let her loose on most of the Earthrealm heroes while Raiden and Liu Kang were off on an errand. Sindel effortlessly killed most of them. Kabal was her first victim. Yes, after surviving being engulfed in flames by a tiger dragon man, Kabal was killed a few hours later by a stomp to the chest. It wasn’t even a dramatic Bruce Lee stomp. Just a boot to the chest and he never got back up. Since then, Kabal has been a revenant. Just an undead soldier of Quan Chi, doing his bidding, technically flipping to evil yet again. He’s like the Big Show of Mortal Kombat characters.
He did have an interesting non-canon ending in that game where he was able to kill Shao Kahn, but at the cost of his respirators being shot. With little time left, he tracked down Kano, who took him to the doctor who created the device in the first place. Said doctor rebuilt Kabal better than ever in exchange for his services as a fighter.
As a revenant, Kabal hasn’t had much to do with the overall story. Mortal Kombat X has a subplot about how Raiden is able to resurrect undead heroes via Quan Chi, but then Quan Chi is killed and Kabal’s stuck being a ghoul.
BUT! Mortal Kombat 11 is here with time travel and alternate timelines and all that jazz. Now it doesn’t matter that Kabal’s been killed off three times. Fantasy/sci-fi is fun like that.
Gavin Jasper writes for Den of Geek and feels that Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 ruined the “mystery fighter” concept with Ermac and Classic Sub-Zero’s non-endings. Read more of his stuff here and follow him on Twitter @Gavin4L