David L. Craddock writes fiction, nonfiction, and grocery lists. He is the author of the Gairden Chronicles series of fantasy novels for young adults, as well as numerous nonfiction books documenting videogame development and culture, including the bestselling Stay Awhile and Listen series, Shovel Knight by Boss Fight Books, and Long Live Mortal Kombat. Follow him online at www.DavidLCraddock.com, and on Twitter @davidlcraddock.

David L. Craddock writes fiction, nonfiction, and grocery lists. He is the author of the Gairden Chronicles series of fantasy novels for young adults, as well as numerous nonfiction books documenting videogame development and culture, including the bestselling Stay Awhile and Listen series, Shovel Knight by Boss Fight Books, and Long Live Mortal Kombat. Follow him online at www.DavidLCraddock.com, and on Twitter @davidlcraddock.

Long Live Mortal Kombat: Round 1 by David L. Craddock

To politicians and parents, Mortal Kombat was a menace to society. To gamers, it was a way of life. From dedicated hustlers who put thousands of miles on their odometers driving coast to coast to challenge the top players in arcades, to fans who devote their free time to collecting action figures, setting world records, and plumbing the depths of its lore, the Mortal Kombat franchise has topped sales charts for 30 years, and its popularity shows no signs of waning.

But before Mortal Kombat offended politicians, flooded arcades with quarters, and sold over 12 million units (and counting), executives at Midway saw it as filler—a stopgap between more promising games like NBA Jam.

Co-creators Ed Boon and John Tobias felt differently. They believed their creation had potential. But not even they could have imagined the phenomenon Mortal Kombat would become when it hit arcades in October 1992, or the controversy that would follow in its wake.

Based on extensive interviews, Long Live Mortal Kombat: Round 1 chronicles the arcade era of the video game industry's most infamous fighting series, the creative and technical hurdles its team had to clear, and the personal stories of the fans whose passion has made Mortal Kombat a pillar of popular culture.


I was such a big fan of Mortal Kombat through middle school and high school that kids and teachers called me "Mortal." I channeled that fandom into Long Live Mortal Kombat: Round 1, a book that explores how MK's arcade games were made, how they were ported to home platforms, and more. -David L. Craddock, curator



  • "Long Live Mortal Kombat is utterly comprehensive, delving into the behind-the-scenes details of how this cultural phenomenon of a beautifully violent fighting game was made. A must read!"

    – Cliff Bleszinski, creator of Gears of War and Unreal
  • "David's passion for Mortal Kombat is evident in this very enjoyable and heavily researched history."

    – Warren Davis, co-creator of Q*BERT
  • ""Get over here" and read the definitive history of the early life of Mortal Kombat. David L. Craddock leaves nothing to wonder as he digs deep into the founding and success of one of the greatest fighting series of all time. This is a must for anyone who considers themselves a Mortal Kombat fan. "

    – Hilary Goldstein, former editor-in-chief, IGN



BULGARIA'S OPIOID CRISIS DIDN'T happen overnight. The country was part of the Soviet bloc, a totalitarian regime whose agents policed drug channels in and out of regions under their control. Residents of countries such as the United States and Europe had access to a plethora of recreational drugs, but a drug network taking root in Bulgaria was viewed as next to impossible.

That changed in 1968 when Bulgaria's International Youth Festival allowed young people to meet attendees from other countries. They traded stories of where they lived and what they liked to do for fun. Drugs, a staple of the counterculture movement in the US and abroad, were a huge part of the gathering. Still, Bulgaria avoided an epidemic until the fall of 1990. At the Hemus Hotel, located downtown in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia, Iranian refugees who had fled to escape the politics of their homelands spread word that they were open for business. They were careful, operating out of locations such as the underground shopping area of the National Palace of Culture. Rates of heroin usage climbed over the next two years. In 1992, incidents involving heroin addicts soared by 31 percent as the drug spread.

As those who ran the drug market grew bolder, their dealers emerged from the underground and set up shop in public places. Amusement parlors became prime spots to conduct business. Most patrons were children and teens who were unsupervised, and the latter group showed an interest in substances that promised a good time. The market's reach grew as dealers traded secrets and strategies. To avoid detection by law enforcement, they stashed heroin in pockets or, bolder still, held it in their hands until they made a sale. With nothing to do between customers, they commandeered coin-op games until a buyer approached. Soon, they were unafraid of police intervention. Local law enforcement had no clue what was going on.

By 1993, Bulgaria's dealers thought of themselves as kings. Anyone who frequented game rooms knew not to approach cabinets occupied by a dealer, who was usually surrounded by underlings who were there to protect him, or push their own supplies, or both. If you weren't there to buy drugs, the cabinets with their flashing screens may as well not exist. No one dared oppose them.

No one except a 10-year-old boy with preternatural hand-eye coordination and enough strength to tear a head free of its body.


Growing up, Andrey Stefanov had zero interest in video games. He wanted to build kingdoms out of LEGO bricks. He dabbled in home games like Super Mario Bros. 3, but always returned to his bricks. Then he discovered Mortal Kombat. However, Bulgaria's Kombat cabinet looked nothing like the hardware in North America. Coin-op games were expensive to import, so Bulgarian operators would buy kits to install in the cabinets of older games no longer earning. "We had MK1 with a three-button layout. It was not the original arcade design; it was used in some other game," Stefanov says.

Stefanov watched older kids play Mortal Kombat and didn't see what all the hype was all about. The graphics were great, with characters that looked more realistic compared to Street Fighter II, and the bloodshed was kind of cool. But so what? Take away the gore and it was just another punch-and-kick game. Then, at the end of a match between a ninja clad in black and yellow and a cocky Hollywood star, the sky turned dark and the ninja peeled off his face to reveal a skull. Turning to his dazed and bloodied opponent, the ninja breathed fire. The opponent's skin vanished, leaving a charred skeleton that folded to its knees.

"I was like, 'That changes everything.' The real reason for me to start playing was Scorpion's fatality in the first game," he says.

Every day, Stefanov's parents gave him five coins for lunch at school. Every day, he made the five-minute walk to the mall near his apartment, climbed to the second floor, ventured into the arcade, and spent his lunch money on Mortal Kombat. The game's learning curve was steep. His three-button layout had one punch, one kick, and block. With two buttons missing, he had to do certain moves differently, such as throwing Sub-Zero's ice by rolling the joystick from down to forward, then pressing the block and punch buttons together.

The second and larger obstacle was the drug dealers. As Mortal Kombat's popularity exploded, the dealers dictated who could play. Their rules were simple: they played, and everyone else could watch or get the hell out. When they weren't throwing fireballs, they stole lunch money from kids who wandered into the parlor. Some dealers knew Stefanov, so they took it easier on him. "The biggest threat I received was them taking my money for school," he says.

Sometimes the dealers let him play. They weren't doing him a favor or showing kindness. The dealer on duty would wait until Stefanov got near the end of the Battle Plan, then insert coins, thrash Stefanov's character, and finish the game in minutes. "It was kind of humiliating," he says.

Bullying was not enough to keep Stefanov away from the game room. He peeked his head in and played when the toughs weren't around, and resigned to being chased off when one of the dealers decided it was his turn to play. Instead of running away, Stefanov hung back and picked up on strategies like punching characters out of the air and thought about how he might string moves together to form combos. One with Sub-Zero was simple: hit a jumping kick, then immediately slide into them before they crashed to the ground.

Soon, a larger problem materialized. Stefanov only had so many coins. Then a wealthy friend from school who had a Sega Mega Drive (known as Sega Genesis in the US) with a copy of Mortal Kombat loaned him the system and game. "It is very different from the arcade, but you could practice on it, at least."

Owning a Mega Drive was a status symbol. Bulgaria had been a communist country until mass demonstrations forced the government to adopt democratic reforms in the early 1990s. Part of the result was Bulgaria opening its borders to do business with foreign companies like Nintendo and Sega. Before democratic reforms were adopted, those and other game companies had no way of selling their products. That left the market open for imitators like the Terminator, a bootleg console that played Nintendo Famicom cartridges and some NES titles. Sega and Nintendo could release their 16-bit platforms in Bulgaria, but their machines proved too expensive for most consumers. Instead, most Bulgarians who had money for games bought the Terminator 2, a console with Super NES-like chassis colored black, and only cost 23.09 Bulgarian Lev, or $13.68 in 2021 US dollars. Most games cost one Lev, or 59 cents.

Stefanov's friend loaned him the Mega Drive and Mortal Kombat cartridge. After his family went to bed, Stefanov sat awash in the television's glow, practicing special moves and combos. It was the first of many nights he sacrificed sleep. One morning a week later, Stefanov dressed, collected his lunch money, then ditched school and headed to the arcade. One of the dealers was hogging the cabinet. He was playing as Sub-Zero. After every win, he boasted no one could play the ice ninja better than he could. Stefanov approached and politely asked if he could challenge him. The dealer smirked and beckoned, a king granting one of his peasants an audience.

At the character select screen, they both chose Sub-Zero. Two rounds later, Stefanov's character stood over the doppelganger's corpse, blood dripping from his severed spinal column. The dealer shot him a nasty look, then deposited more coins. This time he waited until Stefanov made his choice—Sub-Zero again—then counter-picked, a tactic where one player chooses a character based on their opponent's choice. The dealer selected Johnny Cage.

A crowd formed around them. Stefanov risked a glance at the dealer as they played. The man's face had gone from scarlet to puce. This was bad. Stefanov dropped his right hand from the buttons. With his left hand, he tilted the joystick one way, then the other, causing his character to pace back and forth. The dealer took the first round with Flawless Victory. The onlookers, mostly friends of the dealer's, cheered and applauded. The dealer turned to his Stefanov wearing a smug grin. "It's fine. You can play. I'll beat you, anyway."

Stefanov placed his right hand on the buttons. Within one minute, he'd won a round. Within two, he'd separated the dealer's head and spinal column from his body again. The dealer swore and shoved Stefanov against the cabinet, slapping him again and again. Then the man stormed off. Wincing, Stefanov left the arcade.

He returned the next day. To his surprise, the dealers, including the one he'd killed twice, let him step up to the machine. This time, instead of bumping him off the cabinet or roughing him up, they asked questions. A grin split Stefanov's face. "You had to learn to play the game so you'd be able to do well even on single-player mode," he says. "You had to learn respect to not be terrorized."

The more Stefanov played, the better he became. Mortal Kombat had so much to offer. The graphics were incredibly lifelike, the blood was cool, and then there were the secrets. "They never end, even with the newer titles," he says.

More than beating other players, Stefanov loved peeling back MK's layers to uncover what its creators had hidden. The first time he fought Reptile was as exciting as the first time he entered an arcane string of button presses and joystick movements that caused his character to perform a fatality. The thrill of discovery kept him playing and digging.

One afternoon, Stefanov watched a dealer playing as Scorpion fight Goro. The match began—and Scorpion vanished, leaving Goro to wander his cave alone. This, Stefanov learned, was a glitch. If done correctly, it trivialized the fight against Mortal Kombat's toughest character. The trick to pulling it off is to choose Scorpion and reach Endurance Match 3, a contest that always takes place in Goro's Lair. When "FINISH HIM!" or "FINISH HER!" appear, hold your joystick to make Scorpion walk backward instead of performing his fatality. When the time limit to execute the finishing move expires, the defeated opponent crumples to the ground, Goro drops from above, and the penultimate battle begins. After waiting a few seconds, jump away from Goro. If your timing is spot on, your character will disappear, leaving only a shadow. Goro will seem aware of where you are, but cannot hit you.

"I was already good at the game, but I was like, 'Whoa, what was that?'" Stefanov says of seeing the invisibility glitch for the first time. "There were always new things to discover."

By the time Stefanov was a teenager, he considered himself the best Mortal Kombat player in his area. His attention turned to finding other top-level players and pitting his skills against them. An arcade near the heart of Sofia attracted the best Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat players around, so he showed up one afternoon and realized he was the youngest player in attendance. Everyone else ranged from college students to adults in their thirties. When it was his turn to play, he stepped up to the cabinet and grimaced. His stick was broken. Not that it mattered.

"I beat them," he says, broken stick and all. "They were really not that good. That's how I got into competitive play."

By the time Mortal Kombat II hit Bulgarian arcades, Stefanov had changed. He was still just a kid and his opponents were still drug czars, but Mortal Kombat had given him the means to humble them. To his astonishment, they had gained a measure of respect for him. Being good at a video game revealed a path to a different life. "I work in the IT industry. The reason I got hooked on computers was because of Mortal Kombat."

Over the past 30 years, Stefanov has continued to dissect every new Mortal Kombat game and share his knowledge with other players. Known online as "ded," he writes in-depth guides on every entry in the franchise and publishes them as free strategy guides. Some players who discover his guides may be fans curious to know more about their favorite games. Others, however, may remind him of himself: Powerless in real life and searching for a way to fight back.

"Those were crazy times," he says. "I really enjoyed them."