Mortal Kombat: Sub-Zero and Scorpion’s Rivalry Explained

Sub-Zero and Scorpion have been feuding since Mortal Kombat was just an idea in its designers' minds. Here's what you need to know about this legendary rivalry.

Mortal Kombat
Photo: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment

Whether you’re a longtime Mortal Kombat fan or someone who is mostly just interested in the upcoming film, one of the first proper blockbusters of 2021, you’re probably at least aware of the feud between the series’ resident ninjas: Sub-Zero and Scorpion. It’s a battle that almost transcends the already legendary franchise and has entered the public pop-culture consciousness in a way that makes many almost subconsciously think “rivals” whenever they see the two characters.

While the truth is that nearly everything about Sub-Zero and Scorpion makes them natural rivals, only those who have dared dive into the details of this series’ mind-blowing lore know the fascinating story that has fueled this franchise feud. While filmmakers everywhere have rarely struggled to find reasons for two ninjas to fight each other, the story of Sub-Zero and Scorpion’s rivalry goes so much deeper than two warriors battling to see who is best.

We’ll stop short of recounting every event in this twisted tale that takes place across multiple timelines, but if you’re just wondering why Sub-Zero and Scorpion can’t seem to get along despite shopping at the same stores, then here’s a brief look at the history of a rivalry that ranks among the best in fighting game history.

Scorpion and Sub-Zero Were Rivals From the Start

Before we dive into the lore aspects of the Sub-Zero/Scorpion rivalry, it should be noted that their feud was no accident or one of those things that just happened as the games evolved. It was actually one of those rare pieces of long-lasting lore that was pretty much planned from the start.

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The story goes that Mortal Kombat co-creator John Tobias started reading a book called “China’s Ninja Connection” not long before the initial work on what would become Mortal Kombat began. The book tells the story of a clan of thieves and assassins in China that it claims essentially inspired the popular idea of the Japanese ninja. Fascinated by that concept, Tobias sketched a ninja warrior modeled after the story’s clan and lead characters. That fighter would go on to become Sub-Zero.

As Tobias revealed years later, he soon became aware that the cultural and historical claims in that book’s narrative were heavily disputed. As such, he decided to add a second ninja character to the game but that one would be of Japanese origins. That character eventually became Scorpion. 

The rivalry between those two fighters would be sealed by the MK team’s decision to rely on palette swaps for some of the game’s characters in order to ensure they didn’t need to come up with entirely new designs for every fighter. As such, Sub-Zero and Scorpion were given largely similar looks but aesthetically opposing colors (blue and orange). For a generation of MK fans, the fact that these two characters looked similar but wore different colors was actually their first indication that they were rivals.

Quan Chi’s Task Fuels the Sub-Zero/Scorpion Rivalry

In the spirit of their real-life origin stories, Sub-Zero and Scorpion were written to be members of opposing ninja clans in the MK universe. Sub-Zero (real name Bi-Han) belonged to the Lin Kuei clan and Scorpion (real name Hanzo Hasashi) pledged himself to the Shirai Ryu clan. Essentially, the two were natural rivals in the franchise’s universe before they even actually met. 

However, their rivalry wouldn’t properly begin until the sorcerer Quan Chi commissioned the Lin Kuei and Shirai Ryu clans to help him find an ancient artifact that he planned to use to resurrect his master, Shinnok. Naturally, the clans sent Sub-Zero and Scorpion as their respective representatives on this task.

As you can probably guess, Sub-Zero and Scorpion met while trying to complete their assignments and, despite the number of things they clearly had in common, decided to battle rather than strike a meaningful and lasting friendship that certainly could have saved everyone a lot of trouble down the line.  

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Sub-Zero Kills Scorpion

Sub-Zero would end up winning the first battle between him and Scorpion, but it should be pointed out that Sub-Zero had the undeniably useful ability to manipulate ice at that time while Scorpion was just a renowned warrior that possessed mostly human (though certainly enhanced) abilities. 

Not content with merely beating Scorpion in battle, Sub-Zero decided to kill Scorpion and end this feud before it could go any further. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that his plan would go on to fail spectacularly.

Scorpion’s hard times wouldn’t end in death. As part of his “payment” to the Lin Kuei, Quan Chi wiped out the Shirai Ryu clan, which naturally included Scorpion’s family. In any other universe, such a flawless victory (see what we did there?) would make it easy to proclaim Sub-Zero the winner of this feud. However, this whole situation would soon take a strange turn. 

Scorpion’s Resurrection and New Powers

In sudden need of allies after his initial plans go wrong, Quan Chi runs across the spirit of Hanzo Hasashi in the Netherrealm and offers to resurrect him if he agrees to serve as his personal assassin. To ensure that Hasashi feels properly motivated to seek vengeance against Sub-Zero, Quan Chi conjures an image of Sub-Zero leading the assault against Scorpion’s clan and killing his family. In reality, that was all Quan Chi’s doing. 

Nevertheless, Hasashi buys into the lie, is resurrected as Scorpion, and even gains some supernatural fire-based powers that would not only go on to define his early in-game fatality and special moves but would add another way for players to clearly distinguish him from Sub-Zero (fire vs. ice).

Scorpion is asked to enter the Mortal Kombat tournament depicted in the first game as Sub-Zero has also joined the tournament on an assignment for the Lin Kuei. Scorpion gets the better of Sub-Zero this time around and kills the ninja during their next battle. In what you’re probably realizing is quickly becoming a recurring theme, the death of Sub-Zero does not end this rivalry. 

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Sub-Zero is Reborn as Noob Saibot

Since resurrection is kind of his thing, Quan Chi decides to bring Bi-Han back to life (kind of) and turn him into the soulless warrior known as Noob Saibot. Initially, Noob Saibot was mostly interested in taking his ruthless aggression out on the residents and rulers of the Netherrealm. He quickly established himself as one of the underworld’s most fearsome forces.

Interestingly, the entire Noob Saibot character was created as a joke by Ed Boon who wanted to add another secret character to MK2 that even Tobias didn’t know existed until the development of MK3 was underway. That’s particularly hilarious when you realize that Noob Saibot’s name is a reverse play on Boon and Tobias’ names. 

Saibot would become a bigger player in MK lore later on, but he certainly wasn’t initially intended to be the reincarnation of Bi-Han, and Scorpion’s rivalry with Sub-Zero didn’t immediately detour into battles against Noob Saibot. Instead, the Scorpion/Sub-Zero rivalry would properly continue with the emergence of Bai-Han’s brother, Kuai Liang.

Scorpion and Kuai Liang’s Feud and Alliance

After Scorpion murdered Sub-Zero in the MK tournament, Bi-Han’s brother Kuai Liang decided to abandon his own codename (the admittedly awesome “Tundra”) and assume the Sub-Zero moniker as he searched for his brother’s killer. 

Scorpion sees the new Sub-Zero during the MK2 tournament, thinks “new Sub-Zero, who dis?” and proceeds to battle the frozen warrior in the usual manner. Scorpion gets the upper hand, but he soon realizes that this isn’t the same Sub-Zero that he still believes killed his family. We’ll dive into the difficult job of reporting what happens next in a bit, but for the moment, let’s just say that the two actually form a kind of bond that grows into an alliance.

Quan Chi is having approximately none of that and (in one version of this story) works his magic to make Scorpion believe that Kuai Liang was involved in the massacre of Scorpion’s family as well. Scorpion nearly kills Kuai Liang, but Quan Chi steps in to finish the job himself. In the process, he can’t help but do a full James Bond villain monologue by revealing that he was responsible for the pair’s rivalry this whole time. While he tries to banish Scorpion before killing Sub-Zero, Scorpion is able to overcome Quan Chi and manages to drag him into the Netherrealm before the sorcerer is able to murder Sub-Zero. 

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From here, things start to get a little weird.

Sub-Zero and Scorpion Settle Their Rivalry Across Multiple Timelines

There are several versions of what happens next (and even slightly before). Which one matters most depends on which game you’re talking about, which timeline you subscribe to, and how you choose to process a whole lot of multiverse shenanigans. 

To make things as simple as possible, there’s a version of this story in which Scorpion eventually dies in the Netherrealm while hunting Quan Chi. However, this ending is non-canonical and rarely refered to as anything more than a fascinating aside. 

There’s also a sequence of events that sees Scorpion escape the Netherrealm, become a servant to the Elder Gods, and eventually try to destroy those gods after they resurrect his clan as undead creatures. In that scenario, an enraged Scorpion is eventually killed by Sub-Zero. 

2011’s Mortal Kombat (which famously reworked the timelines as part of a massive series’ story retelling effort), suggests that Scorpion and Kuai Liang only battle after Raiden is unable to prevent Scorpion from killing Bi-Han. However, Scorpion is eventually sent to the Neatherrealm before he can kill Kuai Liang. In that game’s Sub-Zero ending, we see Kuai Liang learn what happened to Scorpion’s family and how Quai Chi’s deception is largely responsible for their rivalry. He shares that information with Scorpion, and the pair form an alliance. 

While Mortal Kombat X would play with that ending a bit by portraying the now-united Kuai Liang and Scorpion as specters, their humanity is eventually restored, and Scorpion is finally able to decapitate Quan Chi and claim the vengeance he sought after all these years. 

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Without diving too deep into the insane bits of lore that make up later MK games, Sub-Zero (Kuai Liang) and Scorpion continue their alliance and rarely battle in the series’ stories outside of those aforementioned timeline shenanigans that sometimes see alternate versions of themselves (as well as their kin) continue their war against each other for various reasons. 

Ultimately, though, Sub-Zero and Scorpion’s rivalry began as a natural feud fuelled by lies and outside influences. It essentially ended when Sub-Zero’s brother and Hanzo Hasashi realized they had common enemies and decided to unite for the common good. 

Given that the upcoming Mortal Kombat movie features the Bi-Han version of Sub-Zero, though, fans can expect that film to further the most classic version of this rivalry and the one that you probably think of when you imagine Sub-Zero and Scorpion battling. What happens next remains to be seen.