For as long as fighting games have existed, there have been heroes in those games, from Ryu to Siegfried to Kasumi to Terry Bogard, the heroic protagonist type of character has been a constant in the genre. Liu Kang of the Mortal Kombat franchise is no exception, or at least he wasn’t until Ed Boon decided to take everyone’s favorite “not Bruce Lee” character and turn him and the formula on it’s ear. Twice.
In the first four entries into the MK franchise, it’s pretty standard fare with Liu Kang. He beats Shang Tsung in the first game, beats Shao Kahn in the second and third, and then defeats Quan Chi in the fourth. So when it came time for the fifth go-round, the team at Midway decided that things had gotten kinda stale and it was time to shake things up, big time. So how did they do it, you ask? By straight up murdering Liu Kang in the introductory cutscene in Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance.
For perspective, imagine if Star Wars Episode VII just cold opened to Luke Skywalker getting jumped by Kylo Ren and killed. That’s the level of jarring it was at the time, and while the chain of events that followed in the story as a result aren’t great (The kamidogu, Onaga, Dark Raiden, Armageddon, the very existence of Li Mei), there are two larger good effects on the plot that came from it, the first of which being the fact that Deadly Alliance and Deception have no clear hero. For the first time in series history, the player has to play through the game as every character on the hero side of things to piece together what actually happens in DA, since you can’t just play Liu Kang’s story to get it like you could before. The other is the eventual realization that just killing off your main character and making him totally unplayable isn’t exactly good business and neither is just reviving him in the next game and effectively nullifying your big shock in the previous game, so they decide on a solid compromise: Making him a damn zombie. It’s such a unique occurrence for any franchise to do something like this in this way. Not even Resident Evil, a game series that literally features zombies in every single iteration of it has never gone all the way to this level. The gumption to first of all kill off your hero and then go out of your way to explain how he came back with a reason that isn’t just “he got better”, is commendable at the least and admirable at the most.
When Netherrealm Studios rebooted the Mortal Kombat story in 2011, they decided that returning to the status quo with ol’ L.K. as the hero would be both too easy and too disappointing, so they had to come up with something to keep things fresh in this brand new world. So they killed him in a different way and made him a different kind of zombie. Instead of getting bodied by the combined efforts of the Deadly Alliance, he dies in an accident at the hands of his friend, Raiden and is brought back in the Netherrealm by Quan Chi as part of his army of revenants, but with a twist. He retained his consciousness and personality, and the anger he felt when he died, but corrupted. He became a twisted mirror of himself, and worst of all, he liked it. After the events of Mortal Kombat X, it is revealed that Liu Kang, now with no master, is the new apparent Big Bad. The only other fighting game franchise I can think of to take their main character and turn them into a villain is Tekken, taking both Kazuya Mishima and to a lesser extent, his son, Jin Kazama and moving their alignment along the scale over the course of several games and positioning new characters as new heroes. Mortal Kombat X introduced four new heroes, including Kung Jin, a distant cousin of Liu Kang, all of which have a certain edge to them in one way or another that Kang never did. The future of the franchise, or at least the eleventh entry, looks promising, or at the very least interesting, and you don’t get that kind of longevity in a story of this nature without shaking things up. But then again, maybe I’m just over analyzing things.