Back in my day, we had these things called “arcades,” which were sorta like Steam but in real life, typically found in archaic social/shopping structures called “malls.” (Malls were like IRL Amazon.) Video games were released in these giant wooden boxes that had controls and screens built-in, and instead of buying the whole game, you just paid a little bit every time you wanted to play one. We didn’t have the Internet back then, so most people learned how to play these games through word of mouth, and that lead to a lot of disreputable information getting spread around as fact.
The Mortal Kombat series, back in those days, traded heavily on its own mysterious nature. Fatalities, for instance, had to be figured out by players armed with knee-high stacks of quarters, which lead to many stories of “I heard Character X can do Y Fatality if you meet Z requirement.” Almost none of these stories were true, but the information about legitimate Fatalities followed the exact same formula, and that gave credibility to all the false ones floating around.
Much in the same way, legitimate secret characters like Reptile and Smoke often found themselves in the company of complete fabrications when recess story time rolled around. Four of these rumors were so persistent that they eventually became real Mortal Kombat characters, debuting in-canon as recently as 2011.
The oldest and perhaps most prolific of all Characters That Didn’t Actually Exist but Eventually Would, Ermac started life as a debug code in the arcade release of the original Mortal Kombat. Back then, arcade machines had secret menus that allowed technicians to test monitors, speakers, and the logic boards themselves, in order to troubleshoot where an issue was coming from. These menus also tended to have statistics about the game itself, a could tell owners how many times Reptile had been successfully summoned, for instance. The term “ERMAC” appeared in these menus in close proximity to the Reptile statistics, and this lead players to believe that an additional secret character named Ermac had yet to be discovered.
This rumor would slowly build upon itself as “ERMAC” continued to appear in the debug menus of future Mortal Kombat arcade revisions, with some individuals (and trade magazines) claiming that they had even seen Ermac in-game as a red ninja with unique abilities. Doctored photos would proliferate this rumor, but none of it was ever true — “ERMAC” was shorthand for “ERROR MACRO,” and was simply a programming variable that tracked error codes thrown by the arcade machine’s logic boards.
Still, the rumor persisted and Ermac eventually debuted in Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 as a playable character. At the time, the game’s developers never addressed the veracity of the rumors that lead to Ermac’s creation, which only fueled speculation that Ermac did, in fact, exist in earlier games.
With the arcade release of Mortal Kombat 2, rumors spread of the existence of a character named Skarlet, who was a red version of the game’s then brand-new kunoichi Kitana. Stories ranged from Skarlet being a simple programming glitch that would change Kitana’s outfit from blue to red, all the way to her being a unique character with her own abilities and ending. As with Ermac, many claimed to have seen Skarlet in real life, and “evidence” of her existence appeared on nascent internet communities and in gaming publications of questionable repute.
But unlike Ermac, whose rumor at least had some basis in the programming of the original Mortal Kombat, Skarlet was a complete fabrication of the community. “There was never a glitch that turned Kitana red, that never existed,” Kombat Kreator Ed Boon told the PlayStation Blog in 2011. “That was just an urban legend like Animalities and Ermac — a rumor that we eventually wanted to make true.” Skarlet would debut as a DLC character in 2011’s Mortal Kombat, and would return as a primary character in this year’s Mortal Kombat 11.
Around the same time, players began speculating about a character seen in the background of Mortal Kombat 2‘s “Pit 2” level. As with the original “Pit” level from the first game, Pit 2 had the players fight on a bridge above an enormous pit full of spikes, which could be utilized for a special, stage-specific Fatality. Another bridge could be seen in the background of this level, where two characters were locked in seemingly endless kombat. One of these two fighters was engulfed in flames, and word quickly spread that he was actually another hidden character.
He wasn’t, of course, but his inclusion got people talking, which was the whole point. While internal documents referred to the character as “Torch,” his name was changed to Blaze for his real debut as a secret character in Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance, in order to avoid copyright issues with the Human Torch. The lore that has since been established by games like Deadly Alliance and Mortal Kombat: Armageddon, fittingly, make it impossible for Blaze to have been on Shang Tsung’s island during the events of Mortal Kombat 2.
By the time Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 rolled around, director Ed Boon knew exactly how powerful the rumors around these games could get, so he decided to have a little fun. “Rain was me being a jerk, basically,” Boon told the PlayStation Blog. “There was no time to actually make a character, because the game was done. So I hacked into the attract screen a quick little sequence of this purple ninja running at Shao Kahn. We didn’t even have the word ‘Rain’ in the powerbar, so I manually built it using our font. So I included this quick glimpse just to drive people crazy.”
The addition of a purple ninja named Rain was Boon’s small homage to the musician Prince; an allusion to his album Purple Rain. Any craziness caused by Boon’s hijinks would be alleviated with Rain’s debut as a fully playable character in the Sega Genesis and Super NES versions of Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3.