This past school year, Columbia student Kenny Voong wanted to make a videogame. He just didn't quite know how.
Like many new to this kind of thing, he had a direction but needed a map.
Then one day, on his normal walk up and down Chicago's North Clark Street in a part of town flooded with strip malls and "BYOB" restaurants, Voong noticed a sign for "Chicago Wushu" on the side of the road and randomly decided to look it up online. There he found an odd coincidence: Daniel Pesina, master of the guan, was in a former life a Mortal Kombat actor.
In an industry where creative leads typically stay behind the scenes, in-game actors found cult success in the '90s by giving players faces to identify with. And when Mortal Kombat became one of the industry's most popular fighting games, Pesina grabbed his handful of fame, appearing on the covers of magazines like Time and VideoGames, guest starring on TV shows like the UK's Gamesmaster and being noticed by fans in the dentist's office.
He played Johnny Cage
, the Hollywood star that was as close as the original game had to a main character — showing up as the first fighter on the character select screen, with his image stretched across the side of the arcade cabinet — as well as Sub-Zero and Scorpion, the masked ninjas who became two of the game's most popular characters.
Voong figured this was his shot. He had his game idea — a first-person shooter that would morph into a fighting game when players got up-close. He had his team — a group of friends at Columbia. And one day he stopped by Chicago Wushu looking for help.
Pesina's reply: "Of course."
This, as you'll come to learn, is normal for the now 50-plus year-old Pesina, who in recent years has acted in a film poking fun at Mortal Kombat, has made a cameo in a low budget movie about video games and doesn't flinch when I ask him to put on sunglasses for a "Johnny Cage 20 years later" photo shoot.
Former Mortal Kombat co-star Ho Sung Pak (Liu Kang) describes him as someone who's so nice he doesn't know how to say 'no.'
"You wish more people in life were like that, so life would be a little easier and people would get along a little better," says Pak. "And yeah, I'm sure it's gotten him into many different messes."