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When John Tobias was 12, he was playing Defender and Robotron, in a cruder era for the videogame industry.

At 24, he's one of the main designers of the most popular videogame franchise in the United States: Mortal Kombat and Mortal Kombat II.Tobias and partner Ed Boon, 29, were the main forces behind Mortal Kombat, a game they put together in 10 months in 1991-92 and which remains the top-rated video arcade game in the United States, according to Video Games and Computer Entertainment magazine.

From their offices at Bally's Midway Entertainment in Chicago, Boon and Tobias tackle what both say is their dream: programming the best incarnations of the games they played as kids.

Their latest accomplishment, Mortal Kombat II, has earned an estimated $100 million for Midway, according to Video Games and Computer Entertainment. Boon says he was floored.

"The game got way more play than any of us anticipated," he said. "It was incredible."

In 1991, Tobias, who draws most of the game's graphics, and Boon, who programs much of the game, were given an almost-impossible task by Midway: Come up with a combat game for release within a year.

Although both say the company just wanted to get out a new game in a certain time frame, Midway officials may have been motivated by Streetfighter, a popular combat game from the Japanese firm Capcom that had just been introduced.

Tobias recruited martial-artist friends, who came to Midway's video studio to film fighting moves in costume. The images were than transferred frame by frame into a computer, making for extremely realistic graphics.

Recordings of Boon and Tobias grunting and yelling were added for sound, helping to make Mortal Kombat the most realistic video game ever. The game was ready for test play in five months.

"It opened a million doors for what can be done," Boon said of the digitalized graphics.

Tobias says he was trying to make the best martial-arts game ever, the climax of the games he played as a kid.

"Karate Champ (1984) had really crude graphics," Tobias said of one of his early favorites. "But it was the first one that incorporated that whole martial-arts theme.

"Especially now with advanced graphics, you're able to put people into an environment."

Much of the game's appeal also came from hidden moves and characters Tobias and Boon added. The two admit to being swamped with letters and calls asking for gaming secrets, moves they keep well hidden.

"They get really mad when you won't tell them," Boon said, but he adds that many of the secrets already have been figured out.

Boon and Tobias have updated the game three times since it was released in October. The current version, 3.1, was made in January. Each update is only a matter of changing the main chip inside the games, but it brings even the most experienced players back for more tricks. Tobias says some hidden opponents and moves in the latest version haven't been found.

As for controversy over the game's content, Bally's Midway has a "no comment" on the subject, a policy to which Tobias and Boon adhere.

Betty Hallock, a writer for Video Games and Computer Entertainment, says the Beverly Hills-based publication is devoting up to 20 pages in five issues to secrets on Kombat II.

"Players want to know all the moves," said Hallock, 23. "Especially the fatality moves."

Even when Boon and Tobias visit arcades to watch kids playing their creations, they're careful.

"We try not to ever do secret moves," Boon says. "They're always looking at your hands."

Tobias says much of the interest in the game's cast of characters, which includes fighters based on many famous kung fu artists, stems from the constant newness of the game. With the chance to play any of 12 characters, fans who learn one fighter's moves have 11 others to learn. The chance to play a friend also keeps the game fresh.

"Playing a human opponent, there's never a set path," Tobias says. "There's an endless string of combos and an ongoing discovery process."

Although there is a movie based on the video-game characters in the works and the popularity of the second game is increasing, Boon says the designers are not necessarily planning a Mortal Kombat III.