Secrets were a weird thing in the old days because of the lack of internet. We only had two real sources of information when it came to video game news: magazines or hearsay from kids at school. The latter was problematic due to the strange phenomenon of, “My father/uncle works at Nintendo and…” Virtually everyone who grew up in the NES era knew one kid who insisted that he had a relative working at Nintendo, which meant he was going to be spouting off so much bullshit, like how there’s a way to play as Bowser in Super Mario Bros. 2 or a list of the various boss characters we’d see in the next Mega Man game.
Unfortunately, it was easier to be gullible because not only was there no fact-checking readily available, but video games were so ridiculous at times that these lies were sometimes completely believable.
Sure, magazines were more believable than your average attention whore 8-year-old, but even they once gave us one of the most legendary hoaxes in video game history when Electric Gaming Monthly did an April Fool’s joke about fighting hidden boss Sheng Long in Street Fighter II. The path to fighting him (getting a perfect in every match until fighting M. Bison and going ten rounds without ever getting hit) was impossible, yet strangely believable because there had to be someone out there good enough to do it, right? Many were fooled, including foreign publications and people doing leg work for Capcom. Not only did Sheng Long get a mention in the SNES Street Fighter II manual as being Ryu and Ken’s master, but he even showed up in various comics back in the day.
I can’t help but feel like an old man, telling the kids about how we had to walk ten miles to school each day. One of the things Mortal Kombat prided itself on back in the day was secrets.
It was all a big lie, of course, but the idea of a secret opponent in a fighting game was a novel one. Midway was the first to make such a concept a reality.
Mortal Kombat came out in late 1992, and the third version of the game featured the mysterious Reptile. Before random fights, the green ninja would pop in-between the kombatants and deliver some kind of clue. Stuff like, “FATALITY IS THE KEY,” “BLOCKING WILL GET YOU NOWHERE,” “ALONE IS HOW TO FIND ME,” “TIP EHT FO MOTTOB,” and so on. All together, the various messages gave you just enough direction to figure out how to find and fight him. You had to play a match against the computer on the Pit stage with some kind of silhouette flying across the moon. You need to never use block, not get hit in either round, and finish your opponent off with a Fatality. Upon completing that, you would be transported to the bottom of the Pit to fight Reptile.
Reptile was just a palette swap of Scorpion and Sub-Zero and even kept Scorpion’s name on his health bar. He featured the moves of both ninjas and was far faster and harder to beat than any of the game’s other opponents. Killing him would net you ten million points. Such a thing mattered once upon a time.
It was a perfect way to get more quarters into the machines. When taking on other players and trying to beat Shang Tsung wasn’t enough, fighting and defeating Reptile was the ultimate Holy Grail for arcade-goers.
Between the hidden character of Reptile and the game’s Fatalities (which were basically codes themselves), that just opened the floodgates and asked for players to make up rumors because how could you question them? If I told you that there was a way for Scorpion to impale someone with his spear and tear their head off, is it that much more unbelievable than how you can fight a green Scorpion under the Pit if you do a bunch of nigh-impossible stuff?
To be fair, the big urban legend of the first Mortal Kombat game had enough merit. During the diagnostics check of the arcade game, you would see a list of things like times Shang Tsung’s been defeated, times Reptile’s been discovered, etc. The bottom of the list said, “ERMACS.” It was shorthand for “error macros,” but speculation ran rampant. We’ve already had yellow, blue, and green ninjas. I guess Ermac was a secret red ninja. There were even claims that the ninjas would briefly turn red with “ERMAC” appearing in their health bar. Those rumors were unfounded.
While the so-called Ermac glitch was made-up, there was in fact a glitch-based opponent out there. In the Genesis and Sega CD versions of Mortal Kombat, there was a way to give Reptile a green companion of sorts. If you played through and unlocked the Reptile fight after doing an endurance round (where you fight two opponents consecutively), you would end up taking on Reptile and a glitchy, green version of whoever your initial second opponent was. For instance, if you defeated Liu Kang and Sonya Blade on top of the Pit, you would then have to fight Reptile and “Reptilian Sonya,” whose ring attack would freeze you. The extra character would have Reptile’s palette, but it wouldn’t match up right, making them look like some kind of St. Patrick’s Day version of Predator-vision.
Another hoax from that time was Nimbus Terrafaux, a character who got some play thanks again to EGM. This black kickboxer character was showcased in their magazine with photos supposedly sent in by a fan who unlocked him. The two images showed him doing his Fatality (a flipping kick that decapitates his opponent) and a look at him doing a “Test Your Might” mini-game. While believed to be an April Fool’s gag from EGM, this actually came out in the March issue.
1993 brought us Mortal Kombat II, which was bigger in just about every way. More characters, better graphics, more Fatalities, and a lot more secrets. Reptile became a regular part of the roster, so rather than go back to that well, they introduced three more palette-swapped ninja characters. Actually, that’s pretty much just going back to the well after all.
Much like Reptile in the first game, the gray male ninja Smoke and the green female ninja Jade would pop in to say some cryptic clues before matches. Smoke said things like “TOASTY,” “YOU CAN START FINDING ME,” and, “PORTAL.” To face him, you’d have to be in the Portal stage and uppercut your opponent. If Dan Forden (the game’s sound designer) pops his head in to yell, “Toasty!” then you press start and it’ll interrupt the fight and go directly to your battle with Smoke. He’s basically just a harder Scorpion, only gray and with smoke constantly coming off him.
Jade’s quotes were stuff like, “RESTRICT YOURSELF,” “BEFORE THE ?” and a lot of stuff that had nothing to do with anything. To take her on, you had to wait for the match prior to Shang Tsung (where a giant question mark appeared between your current opponent and Tsung) and win a round using only the low kick button for attacks. Jade was a much faster Kitana, only wearing green, and was completely immune to all projectiles.
The two could also be seen lurking in the Living Forest stage. The game really wanted to make it appear that they were around. Thing is, Midway included virtually no clues about the third hidden character. The most they had was Jade and Smoke each saying, “I AM ONE OF THREE,” during their random appearances. Luckily, the path to the third guy wasn’t the most complicated, albeit it was hard to stumble upon. By getting 50 wins in a row, you would be whisked away to challenge Noob Saibot (named after co-creators Ed Boon and John Tobias), another Scorpion knockoff, this time dressed completely in black, like a living shadow.
With the three characters identified, there were still rampant rumors about other hidden characters. Game Informer claimed early on that there was a second green female ninja named Emerald, but their word was less than solid when in the same paragraph they explained Smoke as a Raiden lookalike. The Mortal Kombat II Official Player’s Guide featured a couple of images of a red ninja named Robin (Red Robin. Get it?), but they were pretty blatantly doctored photos. Much like with Ermac, there were rumors of a glitchy red Kitana, referred to as Skarlet, but it amounted to nothing.
Then there was Hornbuckle and Torch/Blaze, which is when things went too far. When Jade would show up to hint at how to find her, sometimes she’d say stuff like, “ERMAC WHO?” and, “CHUN WHO?” which I’m pretty certain is the only knock at Street Fighter that Midway’s officially made. On SNES and Genesis, Jade would also occasionally say, “HORNBUCKLE WHO?” which was, in fact, a reference to Leanne Hornbuckle, a person who shows up in the special thanks credits. That was misconstrued as a reference to yet another hidden character, which is understandable.
Once again, EGM got involved. Someone asked about Hornbuckle and they reprinted a “reader letter” about Hornbuckle being a Liu Kang palette swap where the directions on fighting him are over-the-top complicated. At some point, it was decided by the fandom that Hornbuckle was the Liu Kang lookalike standing in the background of Pit II, fighting another Liu Kang lookalike who was covered in fire. That guy got the nicknames of Torch and Blaze, as of course there were some people who figured that they had to be actual characters for you to fight.
Midway got in on the fun, in their own shady way. Sometimes special messages would appear after beating the game: “Who is Smoke?” and “Friendship?” One message flat out stated that Ermac does not exist. But then you had questions like “Where is Sonya?” and “Where is Goro?” which only existed for the sake of getting people to speculate that they were somewhere hidden in the game. Even worse was the diagnostics check screen which had “KANO TRANSFORMATIONS” on the list, telling you that Shang Tsung could turn into Kano when he really couldn’t. But shove in those quarters anyway!
Mortal Kombat 3 came out in 1994, and Midway went a different direction with the codes. They created a system featuring Kombat Kodes, where a password screen would appear before each match on the versus screen. For the most part, these messed with the players in less-than-interesting ways (removing sweeps, making the health bar invisible) and weren’t worth using. It was through the Kombat Kodes that you could play as Mortal Kombat’s very first unlockable character, Smoke. This time, he was a cyborg and they made it apparent he was playable from the beginning as his image would regularly pop up on the select screen.
The other hidden character, while not playable, was also rather interesting. You could once again fight Noob Saibot thanks to a Kombat Kode. Except this game didn’t have any meat-and-potatoes male ninja characters to palette swap. Sub-Zero was unmasked, Smoke was a robot, and Scorpion and Reptile were missing. Instead, they used a blackened version of Kano without any of his special moves. Not that it made much difference since his stage would make him nearly impossible to see anyway. When the upgraded version Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 came out in 1995, Noob Saibot returned to his ninja form. Strangely, the Saturn port of the game kept him as being based on Kano sprites despite it no longer being necessary.
For a Mortal Kombat game, Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 was taken relatively seriously by the tournament crowd, but in terms of adding cast, it was hilariously lazy. Eight characters were tossed into the game and they were all either male ninjas or female ninjas. Amazing. With the exception of playing as Human Smoke, all the secret characters were again available via Kombat Kodes. Most notable was the introduction of Ermac, finally turned into a real character. Even his ending was about him hiding in the shadows since the first Mortal Kombat. He only entered Shao Kahn’s Mortal Kombat 3 tournament to prove his existence and that he would be back in Mortal Kombat 4. He was not in Mortal Kombat 4.
Midway once again went really sketchy by introducing Rain. A purple ninja (for the sake of a clever Prince reference), Rain appeared in the arcade’s attract mode sequence. He would run forward at Shao Kahn and unleash a combo, meaning that not only was he a character that existed, but you could play as him. This was completely bogus. There was no Rain. It was false advertising. He was there to keep people playing the game in hopes of figuring out how to find something that simply couldn’t be found. I always thought that was a dick move of Boon and the rest. He was finally playable in the console version.
Meanwhile, the diagnostics included a line for “JOHNNY CAGE TRANSFORMATIONS.” No, he was not in the game either.
The next update to the series came in Mortal Kombat Trilogy for Nintendo 64 and PlayStation. Each game had a hidden character, though with very similar names and gimmicks. PlayStation had Chameleon, a male ninja who would constantly cycle through the colors and attacks of his ninja brethren. He was usable by selecting a male ninja and holding back and all the other buttons before a round. The Nintendo 64 version had Khameleon, a semi-transparent female ninja in gray, who would constantly cycle through the other female ninjas’ move sets. You can play as her by pressing a combination of buttons during the opening story screen.
While all the boss characters were immediately playable on PlayStation, only Shao Kahn and Motaro were playable on Nintendo 64, and you had to unlock them on a round-by-round basis. Between Kahn, Motaro, Khameleon, and Human Smoke, the game brought back the old gimmick of having secret characters pop in before rounds to say something cryptic.
You would think that by this point, with the internet being in full swing, we would be done with the whole fake characters thing. Not so much. Supposedly, a later PAL version of Mortal Kombat Trilogy for PlayStation had a character named Aquilluxborg Hydroxybot (or Aqua) in it. Official UK PlayStation Magazine featured several images of Aqua as a recolored ninja with a duckbill on his face. An ending image also popped up, which looked just a little too clown shoes to be believable. The biggest piece of evidence towards his intended existence was the claim that there’s an audio file on the game’s disc of Shao Kahn saying, “Aqua wins.” I’m a little too skeptic on the matter. To me, it sounds like somebody just took, “Baraka wins,” cut out the first part and distorted it a little. Either way, it’s off.
1997’s Mortal Kombat 4 had one of the stranger and more pointless secret characters in Meat, a bloody skeleton. Well, “character” is a stretch. He was actually, ironically enough, a skin. By winning 15 versus mode matches using each character once, you would get to play the next game as Meat with the moves of whoever you chose. Not really worth the trouble, but little of Mortal Kombat 4 was.
The home versions had unlockable characters in Goro and Noob Saibot. To unlock them, you had to beat the game with a specific character (Shinnok for Goro and Reiki for Noob) and then press a series of buttons at the select screen. For Noob, you also had to do a Kombat Kode at one point, because I guess it wasn’t complicated enough.
If you had access to the GameShark, the Nintendo 64 version allowed you to play as Kitana. Kitana was originally intended to be in the arcade game, but with the lack of original characters, Midway decided to just change Kitana’s coloring, alter her moves, and create Tanya instead. Kitana’s code remained in the game, as did her character model, considering she shows up in Liu Kang’s ending. She was complete enough that she had Fatalities and her metal fan as a weapon, but her lack of character portrait made the game crash at times.
Dreamcast got an upgraded version in 1999 called Mortal Kombat Gold, which included more characters. The hidden characters were easier to unlock, which included the return of Sektor. The only real curiosity of the game was Belokk, a demon character shown in magazine previews, who was later removed due to lack of time. Still, some figured that he had to be hidden in the game and tried to find him regardless.
In 2002, Mortal Kombat finally returned from a hiatus to give us Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance. Having no arcade edition to base it off of, they went with a different route for unlockables: an almost endless map of mysterious treasure chests (or “koffins”) called the Krypt. From there, you could stumble upon finding nine different hidden characters. Only after completing the game with everyone could you unlock the final two characters, Mokap (a man covered in motion capture balls) and Blaze. Blaze was in fact the “Liu Kang on fire guy” from Mortal Kombat II, finally turned into a real deal thing. Apparently, he and also-not-Liu-Kang standing on a bridge were in actuality Blaze being ambushed by a group of evil cultists.
The 2004 follow-up, Mortal Kombat: Deception, was a bit of a turning point in how the programmers dealt with hidden characters. A bunch of them were once again available through Krypt koffins, but the secret to unlocking Liu Kang was kind of bonkers. The game had a quest mode called Konquest where you played as gullible jackass Shujinko as he wanders around the various realms and unknowingly causes the game’s threat. Though minutes moved as fast as seconds, you could actually see the time of day as well as the day of the week. So with that in mind, you had to go to a very specific spot in the realm of Edenia, right behind a tent. It had to be Friday between 12 and 12:30 am. Then and only then would a treasure chest appear with a key to unlock a special koffin in the Krypt that would let you play as Liu Kang. Goddamn.
The fanbase figured this out in about a day. I remember speaking with Midway employee and story-writing guy John Vogel about it years ago and he seemed just a little frustrated that such an elaborate task was unraveled so easily thanks to the internet.
Meanwhile, Shujinko was unlockable by finishing Konquest. That would become the usual way to unlock characters from there on out. In both Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe and the 2011 Mortal Kombat reboot, characters were simply unlocked by completing story mode. Simple as that.
Mortal Kombat’s classic arcade legacy would not be forgotten, though. The 2011 Mortal Kombat featured the ability to fight Reptile, Smoke, Jade, and Noob Saibot as special hidden opponents. Through tasks that were very similar to the old school early ’90s (ie. wait for Smoke to show up in the Living Forest, then press select and down), you would not only fight harder versions of these characters, but they would look like their classic early ’90s selves. Despite having his design changed to a lizard monster over the years, Reptile went back to looking like a human being in a green ninja suit and had Scorpion’s spear and Sub-Zero’s ice ball back in his repertoire. Jade even had Kitana’s fan!
Keeping the nostalgia alive, the DLC included none other than Skarlet, the red female ninja who joined Ermac and Blaze as a fake hidden character come to life.
Mortal Kombat X, while very lean on secret characters, did feature one — and an awesome one at that! If you bought Triborg as a DLC character, you actually got three fighters for the price of one: Sektor, Cyrax, and Cyber Smoke. But there was a fourth variation: Cyber Sub-Zero, aka the best Mortal Kombat character in history! Hell of a way to celebrate the milestone 10th game in the main series.
Maybe when the next Mortal Kombat hits, we’ll finally be able to play as Nimbus Terrafaux. All you have to do is win thirty matches in a row using only kicks, press pause, go make a sandwich that includes at least a half pound of baloney, hold block for exactly fifteen and a half seconds, use a stage Fatality, eat that sandwich, throw five projectiles, get a little bit louder now, shout, get a little bit louder now, shout, get a little bit louder now…
Anyway, do you remember any weird BS rumors from the early Mortal Kombat games that some jerkass from school insisted were real? Fatalities or hidden characters? Sound off in the comments.
Gavin Jasper doesn’t even know how to pump his own gas, yet he knows all this crap. Oh well. Follow him on Twitter.