An Arcade Expert Opens Up on Being Hired by ‘The Last of Us’ To Do ‘Mortal Kombat II’ Right

Ellie and Riley in 'The Last of Us'

Image via HBO

You’d think it’d be fairly simple to put Mortal Kombat II in The Last of Us. The arcade cabinet shifted 27,000 units and remains a staple feature of any self-respecting barcade. So, just hire a cabinet, plug it in, and have the actors play during the scene. Well, it turns out the reality was far more complicated.

In a discussion on the Arcade Museum forums, Josh Brown, one of the arcade experts HBO tapped to work on the show, went into detail on exactly how Mortal Kombat II worked on screen, and it’s far, far more involved than we’d ever have dreamed.

One of the major issues is that an original CRT monitor won’t look good when filmed as the refresh rate of the monitor won’t synchronize with the camera. It’s possible to solve this, but in a scene featuring multiple CRTs in the arcade, another solution had to be figured out. As per Brown:

“Inside the Mortal Kombat II cabinet was actually a 46 inch OLED panel that we rotated 90 degrees. The gameplay footage was all played and captured ahead of time by myself while Chance and I worked through the script, making sure we got all the moves down that they wanted to show (fatalities included). I treated the footage with scanlines, some curvature, and rounded the corners off so it looked a little more like a real CRT.

We programmed an interface we could control remotely on the day that would instantly play a clip from the game on demand and basically played it back in real time with the actors as they shot the scene. So when you see them drop one coin in, thats an individual clip, 2nd coin, another clip, character selection, yet another clip and so on.”

Getting this to look right was apparently expensive and time-consuming, though this was an important moment for Ellie and Riley, so they had to get it right. Brown went on to discuss which games they were able to feature:

“We had a Ms Pac-Man that wouldnt clear because they were not allowing a license at that time. Golden Axe was axed, no BurgerTime, NBA Jam, or TMNT either. WWF Pinball, Evel Knievel, Comet. New titles from the 90s were all mostly too expensive to license or use, let alone trying to find some of them as most conversion games were all restored to original around here. Also forget about doing anything with Nintendo. Some licenses only allowed for showing the game in the deep background, or couldn’t feature game play, but only attract modes (Street Fighter II for example).”

After all this talk of modifying arcade cabinets to make them work on screen, it’s worth wondering whether some were sacrificed for their art. After all, many of these machines are in very limited supply and need to be carefully maintained. Fortunately:

“We didnt trash anything at all. No arcade games were harmed in the making of this show.”

The Last of Us official podcast goes into detail on how both Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann wanted to be sure to get the arcade as accurate as possible, which is quite right for a show itself based on a video game. For us, our reaction to its unveiling in the show exactly matched Ellie’s sense of wonder. For a few hours in there with a bucketful of quarters, we’ll take the risk of being munched on by an infected…

The Last of Us airs Wednesdays on HBO Max.