a total knockout

The Team Behind the Mortal Kombat Theme Song Had No Idea They’d Created a Knockout

Photo-Illustration: by Vulture, Photos by New Line Cinema and Warner Bros.

If you’re excited to see the new Mortal Kombat movie, which hits theaters and HBO Max on April 23, you’re also probably walking in with some familiar expectations. You’ll see iconic characters like the icy Cryomancer Sub-Zero and the ferocious ninja Scorpion. Fighters will vanquish their foes with extremely graphic “fatalities.” And, never fear, you’ll hear that iconic Mortal Kombat theme music — the pounding, rapid techno beat interrupted by a bellowing “Mor-tal Kom-baaaaat!”

The theme, which appears as a remixed version in the upcoming film, has a breakneck, almost frenetic pulse — which makes sense, especially when you consider that the original song and additional nine tracks that rounded out 1994’s Mortal Kombat album were all written in a similarly hasty four-week period. Belgian musicians Olivier Adams and Maurice “Praga Khan” Engelen, known for their work as electronic group Lords of Acid, were tasked with making an original album to promote the home-console release of the classic arcade fighting game, but were only given a month between tours to do so. The tight deadline led to a now-iconic theme that has since lived on across movies and games and has been covered constantly. Twenty-six years later, Adams and Engelen now say they didn’t know the life span the project would have at the time.

The Mortal Kombat album is credited to The Immortals, but that name is just one of many musical projects the pair were involved in. They started making music in the late ’80s, right as the electronic-music scene was really taking off in Belgium. Theirs is a discography that folds house, acid house, and techno into its creases, but Engelen and Adams’s most popular project, Lords of Acid, specialized in the Belgian-born New Beat genre, blending New Wave elements and plenty of eroticism. (“We used a lot of samples from porn movies,” Engelen remembers.) Even when the New Beat sound started to die down, Lords of Acid found success outside Belgium in the United States and Japan. It makes sense, then, that the creatives behind Mortal Kombat — itself an eclectic, trendsetting, and controversial game — turned to similarly genre-blurring musicians with a sweeping understanding of every in-vogue sound to help build hype for their upcoming release.

“We got a call from our U.S. manager because Lords of Acid was starting to get more and more popular in America,” Engelen tells Vulture. “He said, ‘Are you interested in doing music for this game?’”

Engelen was familiar with Mortal Kombat from its popularity in arcades and because the game was originally meant to be based on Jean-Claude Van Damme, a fellow Belgian. So Midway Games, the developer behind Mortal Kombat, got them set up with a copy of the game, detailed information about the various characters, and a library of sound effects they could sample in their songs.

“We made a song about every character — Sonya Blade, Luke Cage, Goro,” Engelen says, listing off a few of the franchise’s most iconic fighters. The sound effects Midway provided were a huge boon, allowing the pair to sample the actual sound of Sub-Zero freezing somebody rather than attempting to re-create it. Eight songs (one for each playable character in the original game, plus one for the four-armed Goro) served as the bulk of the album; two additional tracks about the Mortal Kombat tournament more broadly rounded things out. Of those two, “Hypnotic House (Mortal Kombat)” came first. As the name suggests, it’s slightly more kicked-back and trance-y than the song most typically think of as the main theme. It was the one of the bunch Engelen thought would be the breakout, but with just the techno mix left to do for the album, he recalls having to leave the session to go to a meeting for the record label he was running at the time, leaving the final song, “Techno Syndrome (Mortal Kombat),” to Adams.

“I remember the sound effects came afterward,” Adams says of how he put the song together using an old Atari ST 1040 home computer and other equipment that seems archaic by today’s standards. “I started the song. I got the beat and the groove in, and then I started to place the samples on it.” (People have since claimed that “Techno Syndrome” is a remix of another song from 1992, 2 Unlimited’s “Twilight Zone”; while the two sound similar, Engelen and Adams claim the resemblance is mere coincidence, and no legal action was ever taken.)

Listening to “Hypnotic House” encapsulates the feeling of walking into an arena and taking your place in the crowd before a CGI fight begins; “Techno Syndrome,” on the other hand, feels like you’ve suddenly been pushed into the ring, barraged with nonstop blows. For that reason, it’s an enduring high-school sports pump-up song to this day, joining the pantheon of timeless jock jams like “Get Ready for This” and “Jump Around.”

Of course, “Techno Syndrome”’s enduring and not-so-secret weapon is that bellowing, forceful “Mortal Kombat” scream — a call to action if there ever was one. “I think that’s it,” Adams agrees, matter-of-factly. “The shouting made the song so good.”

That shout, one of the many audio samples Engelen and Adams had to work with, came from Texas-based actor Kyle Wyatt’s powerful pipes and was originally recorded for a TV commercial promoting Mortal Kombat’s home-console release. In a recent Slate interview, Wyatt said he “had no idea, bro,” that the commercial was even for the video game when he took the gig, and it wasn’t until a decade afterward that he learned his voice was the key part of what had become the Mortal Kombat theme song. Wyatt also noted, “I really didn’t find that out until somebody called me up years ago and said, ‘Hey, dude, we know you did this work here. Did you know it’s being used in a song?’”

Engelen and Adams weren’t nearly as in the dark as the man whose voice they sampled, but it took them a while to learn that their Mortal Kombat music was a hit. After crashing the album’s production into a month of intensely creative work, the pair sent off the songs to their American bosses and didn’t hear much of anything about it until much later. Engelen says they’d gotten accustomed to, especially in those pre-internet days, hearing occasional updates about how well Lords of Acid was doing overseas via faxed (!) DJ charts. “But Mortal Kombat, we didn’t hear a thing,” he remembers. “We sent it, and then we didn’t hear anything about it. [It was] just a thing that we did, and then, no feedback at all.”

Then, in 1995, the original Mortal Kombat movie famously featured “Techno Syndrome,” giving its creators some idea that their music was being appreciated. But even then, they say they didn’t know they’d crafted a cult classic. With time, though, the album’s reputation — led by its breakout song — grew and magnified as more fans discovered its heart-pumping hits. Adams readily admits it’s become “the most-known song that I’ve made —that’s for sure.”

The Mortal Kombat theme endures because it’s more than just a piece of video-game music. (It technically isn’t, since it originated in a one-off promotional album before getting consumed by the larger franchise.) Remixed versions of the theme would continue to appear in future Mortal Kombat games, and the upcoming movie features another by Benjamin Wallfisch, who composed all the music for the film. “Techno Syndrome” has transcended Mortal Kombat, though, even as it gets its power from that unmistakable shout of the tournament’s name.

While neither Engelen nor Adams was involved in the upcoming movie reboot beyond approving the song’s usage, the producer has revisited “Syndrome” on his own terms in the past year. Last May, Adams released a somewhat inexplicable, somewhat delightful, utterly unhinged pandemic-themed remix of the track. “I just did it for fun,” he explains. “But it didn’t go viral, because I used the word COVID, so you couldn’t promote it on YouTube.” [Editor’s note: YouTube reportedly has censored videos about COVID-19.]

Though Engelen and Adams never made anything else as The Immortals and never performed any Mortal Kombat material live, both continued their prolific music careers (though Adams says he took a much-needed eight-year sabbatical living “in the middle of nowhere” in Portugal with his family). For something that only took four weeks to make, though, the music of Mortal Kombat remains an outsize part of their legacy. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. In preparation for our call, Engelen went to relisten to the album for the first time in a while, turning to YouTube because he didn’t have his own copy. He was proud to find that it holds up — and he’s not the only person who thinks so.

“I saw comments saying, ‘Oh, this was the soundtrack of my youth,’” he says. “And, ‘I was playing it over and over again when I was 14, and it still sounds good 25 years later.’” Because for fans old and new, it’s both a dated time capsule of a bygone era in electronic music, and also a totally timeless hit.

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The Mortal Kombat Theme-Song Creators on Their Knockout Hit