Belonging to an unspecified race, Shao Kahn hails from Outworld, where he rose to power by betraying the previous lord of the realm, the evil Dragon King Onaga. Being no less malevolent than his predecessor, Kahn immediately set out to complete his former master's ambition by taking control of all the realms, and eventually achieving immortality. Since his ascension, he has overseen the domination of many worlds, Edenia and Zaterra among them, and their eventual merger with Outworld. He not only works tirelessly toward his goals, but is also shown to be sufficiently powerful to achieve them, and the threat of his conquest was great enough for the Thunder God Raiden to intervene personally in the defense of Earthrealm. Perhaps as a result of his godlike power, Shao Kahn is also quite arrogant, often taking his defeated foes as living trophies rather than killing them outright, such as when he forced Queen Sindel to marry him after slaying her husband. Indeed Kahn seems to desire not only control over the realms, but also the utter obedience of all its inhabitants. As a result, appealing to his vanity is often very effective, as the Emperor has been known to spare those willing to grovel before him. This might be Kahn's only true weakness, as his desire to force even his foes into servitude has led to many defections over the years.
Shao Kahn's most noticeable attribute is his commanding physical presence. In most of the games in which he appears, he towers over the rest of the cast. The magnitude of his frame is matched by his titanic strength, with Kahn being able to lift his opponent off the ground by their neck before swatting them away. Kahn's favored weapon is a maul of incredible size known as the Wrath Hammer. The force of his swing can daze an opponent in a single blow, setting them up for further punishment. As if his physical superiority was not enough, Kahn is also one of the most powerful practitioners of black magic in the Mortal Kombat universe. He is able to steal souls as evidenced by his invasion of Earthrealm, and has sorcery enough to keep even the likes of powerful mages such as Shang Tsung subservient. So fearsome is his magic that the Deadly Alliance was formed in part out of Quan Chi and Shang Tsung's knowledge that they could not hope to defeat the Emperor individually.
In terms of appearance, Shao Kahn has changed little over the course of the series. He is usually depicted wearing spiked shoulder plates, gauntlets, and shin guards. He also possesses a special kabuto helmet and skull mempo which, when combined with his burning red eyes, lends him a demonic countenance. On the few instances he has been seen without this helmet, the crown of spikes which protrude from his brow make him no less frightening. Originally meant to be Tarkatan, it is unclear whether Shao Kahn belongs to a specific race, or should be taken as a unique being among the realms.
Prior to the Tournaments
Prior to the events detailed in the first Mortal Kombat, Shao Kahn was a subordinate of the Dragon King, who was a ruthless tyrant in his own right. Having become the most powerful force in the realms, Onaga became particularly interested in finding a means to achieve immortality. While he searched, Kahn, who secretly harbored a desire to overthrow his master, plotted a scheme of his own. Knowing he was no match for Onaga in a fair fight, Kahn plans to poison the Emperor in order to take control of his empire. The plan succeeds, and soon after the new Emperor begins his own bloody campaign to merge all the realms under the banner of Shao Kahn.
Kahn is quite successful for a time, claiming many realms as his own either through military might or Mortal Kombat. It is during this time that he conquers Edenia. Though they fought valiantly, the Edenians fail to protect their realm in Mortal Kombat, and shortly thereafter the ruler of Edenia, King Jerrod, is slain in battle by Kahn himself. Kahn then decides to take Jerrod's wife, Queen Sindel, as his own and adopt his daughter, Princess Kitana. Sindel kills herself in defiance of the Emperor, though with his dark magic Kahn prevents her soul from passing into the afterlife. Despite her mother's death, Kahn continues to raise Kitana as his own, training her in assassination to be one of his elite guards.
Eventually Shao Kahn will come to set his sights on Earthrealm. He sends two of his most trusted enforcers, the sorcerer Shang Tsung, and the four-armed Shokan warrior Prince Goro, to participate in the annual Shaolin Tournament. Under the supervision of Shang Tsung, Goro is able to wrest victory away from the Great Kung Lao, the tournament's previous champion, and goes undefeated for a period of 500 years. After nine consecutive wins in the tournament, only one more is needed for Shao Kahn to dissolve the borders between Earthrealm and Outworld. But for the first time in half a millennium, the Shaolin are able to win the tournament when Liu Kang defeats Goro and later Shang Tsung to prevent Kahn's invasion.
Finding himself now faced with the wrath of his Emperor, Shang Tsung pleads for his life. In his desperation, he details a plan to lure Earth's warriors to Outworld where they will be at the mercy of Shao Kahn himself. Kahn is sufficiently pleased with this plan, allowing the sorcerer to live as well as restoring his youth. To set his trap in motion, Shao Kahn sends Baraka and his hordes to raid the Shaolin temples, and holds Sonya and Kano as bait. The Earthrealm warriors are ensnared by the ploy, traveling to Outworld to do battle with Kahn. Despite his immense power, he is unable to best Liu Kang in Mortal Kombat, and in his rage he orders his army to attack. Earth's warriors retreat, however, and once more Kahn's invasion is stopped before it began.
Frustrated with his inability to overcome Earthrealm through Mortal Kombat, Kahn is now ready to enact a longstanding plan to circumvent the tournament entirely. Using the soul of Sindel, which the Emperor had prevented from passing into the afterlife, Shang Tsung resurrects her on Earth. This unholy act gives Kahn the power to invade Earthrealm without the need for the tournament, and allows him to begin the merger with Outworld uncontested. He enslaves the souls of the realms inhabitants, and for a time it would seem that Shao Kahn had won. Raiden, Earth's protector, is only able to shield a few souls from Shao Kahn's magic, but two of those souls belong to Liu Kang and Kung Lao. The two confront the Emperor, and in the ensuing battle Kung Lao is nearly killed, but in the end Shao Kahn is defeated and forced to retreat back to Outworld. In doing so, the Earth is restored, and Kahn's grasp on Edenia is also broken.
Losing and Regaining the Throne
His return to Outworld marks the beginning of a period of relative inactivity for Shao Kahn. The newly liberated Edenian forces, aided by the Shokan, stage an assault on his weakened empire. Kahn's decision to spare Kano's life proves to be a wise one, as the eventual retreat of the Edenians is due in no small part to his leadership, as well as the timely intervention of Noob Saibot, who defeats Goro. While coalescing in his palace, Shao Kahn is attacked by the Deadly Alliance of Quan Chi and Shang Tsung, leaving him dead. Or so they think. Sensing that hostile forces were closing in, Kahn used an artifact he had obtained long ago to create a diversionary clone while he escaped the palace. Kahn is alive but still weak, and as he leaves his fortress behind he revives the wounded Goro, promising to restore the status of his people in exchange for his aid.
Eventually Kahn's power returns. During the events of Armageddon, he storms his palace, now occupied by Mileena using her sister's guise, and bursts into his throne room. Though she initially tried to hold her ground, upon seeing the restored Emperor, she quickly swears fealty to him. He joins in the cataclysmic battle that envelops the Pyramid of Argus, and it would appear that he achieved victory. As he defeats Raiden, the last obstacle in his way, the Thunder God sends a message through the ether to his former self, warning of Shao Kahn's eventual victory and ascent to godhood in the hopes that it might be prevented.
In the altered timeline created by Raiden's message sent back in time, Shao Kahn once again comes very close to conquering Earthrealm and at the end briefly succeeds. In fact, Raiden's message, "He must win," is in the end revealed to mean that Shao Kahn himself must be allowed victory and merge Earthrealm with Outworld. The reasoning for this is that in doing so, Shao Kahn would violate the rules of Mortal Kombat and be subject to punishment by the Elder Gods. Just as Shao Kahn is about to finish Raiden, the gods grant their power to the Earthrealm thunder god. In the end, Shao Kahn is defeated by Raiden.
Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe
In the non-canon world of MK vs. DC, Shao Kahn inadvertently becomes the primary antagonist when Raiden knocks him into a portal that has been opened by Quan Chi. Rather than traveling through the portal, Kahn is apparently fused with it. At the same moment in Metropolis, Darkseid is knocked into and fused with a boom tube in a similar fashion by Superman. This process merges the two villains together to create Dark Kahn, whose power threatens to destroy both of their universes. When he is eventually separated from Darkseid, he is discovered by the heroes of the DC Universe. He tries to exert his influence over them, but his powers fail him. He is last seen imprisoned in the Phantom Zone, presumably never to be heard from again. In his ending, he is strengthened by the Phantom Zone, and breaks free. All those who were held prisoner there swear their allegiance to Shao Kahn in gratitude for their freedom.
As it would usually spell the utter defeat of Earthrealm, none of Shao Kahn's endings are considered canon. Even though he is stated to be victorious after the events of Armageddon, his ending for that game is still considered non-canonical, as it differs significantly from the events depicted in the lead up to Mortal Kombat.
Mortal Kombat Trilogy (non-canon)
Simply put, Shao Kahn wins.
Mortal Kombat: Deception (non-canon)
Having rejuvenated himself and regained Goro as his ally, Shao Kahn storms the throne room of the Dragon King. Knowing that he cannot best Onaga in single Kombat, Kahn once again proves his treacherous ingenuity. Striking him soundly with the Wrath Hammer, Onaga is knocked back into the poisoned blades of Goro. Finding himself poisoned yet again by his one-time advisor, the Dragon King is defeated. Now turning his sights outward, Kahn uses the Shokan to decimate the armies of Tarkatans and Edenians who might threaten his rule. Shao Kahn is the uncontested Emperor of Outworld once more.
Mortal Kombat: Armageddon (non-canon)
Even the powerful Blaze is no match for the Konqueror of Outworld. Upon winning, his power increases ten times over, and no one is able to stop him from merging all realms with his own. Achieving his goal proves to be his undoing, however. With no enemies left to defeat, Shao Kahn is driven to insanity.
Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe (non-canon)
Upon Dark Kahn's defeat, Shao Kahn is placed in the Phantom Zone, thinking that it will neutralize his power. This is not the case, as a renewed Emperor Kahn breaks free from the prison, releasing all those who have been trapped there over the millennia. In gratitude for their freedom, the criminals of the Phantom Zone aid Shao Kahn in his quest to become the Emperor of all the known universes.
- Green Spear: Shao Kahn kneels, creating a large spear/arrow of light, which he then throws at the player. (MKII & MK9)
- Shoulder Charge: Shao Kahn shoulder-rams his opponent, causing damage with the spikes on his armor. The visual effect is very similar to the Shadow Kick originally seen used by Johnny Cage. (MKII, MK3, UMK3, MKT, MK:D, MK:U, MK:SM, MK:A, MK9)
- Wrath Hammer Smash: Shao Kahn smashes his opponent over the head with his Wrath Hammer, dizzying them in the process. (MK3, UMK3, MKT) In MK9 he simply throws the hammer at the opponent.
- Green Fire: Shao Kahn shoots a green fireball that explodes on contact. (MK3, UMK3, MKT, MK:D, MK:U, MK:SM, MK:A)
- Rising Shoulder Charge: An anti-air version of the Shoulder Charge, with Shao Kahn rising at a forty-five degree angle from the ground. (MK3, UMK3, MKT, MK:D, MK:U, MK:SM, MK:A, MK9)
- Taunt: Shao Kahn mocks his opponent during battle. In MK: Deception, performing a Taunt recovered a slight amount of Kahn's health, but could only be performed three times per match before it was automatically disabled. (MKII, MK3, UMK3, MKT, MK:D, MK:U, MK:SM, MK:A, MK9)
- Grab and Punch: Shao Kahn grasps his opponent by the throat and punches them several times. In MK: Deception, this was combined into a throw attack that could knock opponents into nearby death traps. (MKT, MK:D, MK:U, MK:A)
- Shield: Shao Kahn puts up a short lived force field to deflect projectiles. If his opponent was too close, the shield also caused them damage. (MK:D, MK:U, MK:A)
Considering the number of games he's appeared in, Shao Kahn has relatively few fatalities. He has a clear preference for the Wrath Hammer in all of them, and even uses it in Deception for his Hara-Kiri. He also doesn't seem to have a problem taunting his opponent even as he kills them. Fatalities cannot be performed on him in the early games, but he always dies in dramatic fashion.
- Shao Kahn strikes his foe once with the Hammer, laughs, and then strikes them again, causing their body to explode. (MK Trilogy, N64)
- The Emperor turns to the crowd of his Arena for approval, giving the thumbs down before dealing out several strikes with the Hammer, the last one sending the recipient flying into his throne, where they slump over dead. ( MK: Shaolin Monks)
- Shao Kahn deals three blows to his opponent. The first two drive them into the ground, and the third violently separates their head from their body. (MK: Deception)
- Kahn uppercuts his foe high into the air, hammering them with such force upon their descent that their body explodes. (MK: Deception, Mortal Kombat)
- Shao Kahn tears into his opponent's chest with his bare hands and tears them in half, length-wise. ( Mortal Kombat)
- Though Shao Kahn is supposedly more than seven feet in height, Brian Glynn, the actor who portrayed him in Mortal Kombat II and Mortal Kombat 3, is not nearly as tall. In production photos his is shown to be shorter than Ed Boon, who is six feet. The illusion was created in-game simply by scaling his sprite to a more intimidating size.
- Raiden's MK vs. DC bio states that he and Shao Kahn are brothers. Given the game's non-canonical nature, however, this has been dismissed by many. This same relationship was suggested in the adaptation Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, though the movies are also seen as unofficial.
- Since his introduction in Mortal Kombat II, Kahn has been considered to be the announcer for most of the series. He acts as a color commentator of sorts, with his comments including exclamations of "Superb" or "Well Done" when a player fights well, or derisive laughter when they don't. He is also thought to be the one exorting players to "Finish" their opponents after the match. His most humorous quip by far occurs when he informs the player that "It's Official... You Suck!"
- At some point before the release of Mortal Kombat: Deception, Shao Kahn's backstory appears to have been retconned. In Mortal Kombat Trilogy it is stated that Kahn took control of Outworld after usurping it from Kitana's parents, which would mean that King Jerrod was the previous ruler. In Deception however it is revealed that Onaga was Kahn's immediate predecessor, whom he succeeded by poisoning. This makes more sense in terms of continuity, as the former explanation would have meant that Jerrod was simultaneously the ruler of both Edenia and Outworld.
- Shao Kahn's name is possibly derived from Yuan Shao, a powerful warlord of the Han Dynasty. Like Kahn, he is noted as being arrogant and callous, which led to his downfall. The second half of his name is likely a derivative of khan, a title often appended to the names of medieval Chinese rulers.