Merchants of menace

Mortal Kombat fans don't just want to buy into the game's cross- media spin-offs, they need to. By Tim Green
From tomorrow children across the UK will be able to watchMortal Kombat the movie, with popcorn in one hand and notebooks in the other. They'll need the stationery because, if they play close enough attention, the film might give them a few tips on playing Mortal Kombat 3, the latest video game release.

Mortal Kombat is what the games trade calls a "beat 'em up". At the start of each game, two players choose from a roster of on-screen fighters who then scrap it out to the bloody death using kicks, punches, fireballs and knives.

Intellectual it isn't. But the appeal isn't just based on violence. The Mortal Kombat film is also filled with secrets that reveal hidden elements to the game. For fans the fun is as much about discovering these mysteries as it is about knocking seven shades out of their opponents. Mortal Kombat 3 takes this mystery element to new heights with "kombat kodes". Hieroglyphics appear before every contest and, when arranged in the right order, deliver all kinds of goodies.

The problem lies in discovering the correct sequences. Which is where the film comes in. Scattered throughout the movie are rows of weird signals. But not all appear here. More codes are hidden in the Mortal Kombat animated video. And the Internet site, and the advertising campaign, and the roadshow. Notebooks are a must.

Here is "cross-media marketing" at its most cunning - a campaign in which fans of the video game don't just want to buy into the spin-offs, they need to. It shows just how far video games have come since Space Invaders. In fact, Mortal Kombat is so successful that its rivals are not so much other "beat 'em ups" as branded products like Power Rangers, Batman and The Simpsons.

Mortal Kombat's popularity is laced with controversy. This is the game that gave players "the fatality", the moment at the end of a contest when a defeated fighter is impaled, garrotted or decapitated. Parents can look forward to cinemas full of little poppets shrieking, "Finish him!", when these events are replicated on the big screen.

Such brutal fun has netted the Mortal Kombat series and its merchandised spin-offs a staggering $2bn so far. Sixty licensees have shelled out for the rights to produce over 100 official Mortal Kombat products.

Clearly this game can compete with any other branded product for sheer clout. And often in unexpected ways. Who would have guessed that games would eventually send kids thronging back to rock venues? Mortal Kombat already has. The live tour started at New York's historic Radio City Music Hall in September and will go on to more than 200 cities worldwide.

The show features many of the stars who "appear" in the game. Mortal Kombat's programmers use film of actors to form the basis of the fighters, and these digitised men and women have become idols to fans. In the roadshow, they stage a Mortal Kombat tournament to a background of loud music and state-of-the-art sets. Maybe games are the new rock 'n' roll after all.

But at the very top of the license programme is, of course, the movie. Mortal Kombat is not the first film to have been spun out of a video game. Ever since games started outgrossing films (Super Mario Bros 3 bagged $500m in sales - more than any film, except ET), Hollywood has tried to claw back the lost audience. Mostly it's been woefully unsuccessful.

In 1992 Disney unveiled the Super Mario Bros movie, confident of blockbuster success. Here was a major motion picture event, a $50m film based on a character with popularity of Mickey Mouse proportions. But the blockbuster never came. Noisy and confusing, it grossed just $20m. Subsequent efforts, Double Dragon and Streetfighter, fared little better.

This might explain the strange decision of New Line, the studio behind Mortal Kombat, to play down connections to its source. Its stance has always been that "the film isn't based on the game but on the legends that inspired the game". Ultimately, though, the movie is doing well. It topped the US charts and did so without a big star (the lead is Christopher Lambert) or director (Paul Anderson, whose only other feature was the quickly forgotten Shopping).

Now both movie and game are ready to be released simultaneously, on a date the game's publisher GT is already calling "Mortal Friday". Entrails will fly, children will laugh and the bandwagon will keep rolling on.

n 'Mortal Kombat 3' is released for the PC by GT Interactive on 13 October. The film opens in Scotland on 13 October and nationwide from 20 October

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