The X-Men have had a rocky transition into videogames. It’s relatively simple to put other iconic heroes’ core mechanics into a game: Hulk needs to smash, Superman needs to fly, Spider-Man needs to websling. The enduring appeal of the X-Men is that they take part in a byzantine personality-driven soap opera full of unrequited romances, sibling rivalry, betrayals, time travel and evil clones. The platonic ideal of an X-Men game would take after a Japanese dating sim, where you play a new mutant forced to romance as many of your favorites as possible while deducing who the X-Traitor is, losing only if you seduce your child from the future or an evil shapeshifter. Sadly, this game remains unproduced. Until that day, we cope with what has been provided. Here are eight memorable X-Games, the good and bad, with special attention paid to the deepest cuts they pulled from the X-Men’s labyrinthine history.
Arcade-goers of a certain age crammed countless quarters into Konami’s line of beat-em-ups, but X-Men was the first and only game with a doublewide cabinet to accept payment from six marks at once. The action was nearly identical to predecessors like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and The Simpsons, but now you could play with two more friends! There wasn’t much else to set this apart from its contemporaries, but in an era before massively multiplayer online play where even four simultaneous players were a rarity, the appeal of this cannot be overstated.
X-Men Deep Cut: Wendigo, a Canadian demon that possesses cannibals, appears as a level boss. He was the foe in Incredible Hulk #181, Wolverine’s first appearance. Tiny versions of Krakoa The Living Island also appear as grunts on the Island M level. Krakoa was the first enemy that the New X-Men faced in Giant Size X-Men #1.
2. X-Men: Mutant Apocaylpse
Though nowhere near as memorable or imaginative some of Capcom’s other platformers like Duck Tales or the Mega Man series, Mutant Apocalypse stands out as the first home videogame adaptation of the X-Men that wasn’t abjectly horrible. The graphics were impressive for the era, the controls were basic but responsive, and there was even a semblance of a coherent story driving you towards yet another confrontation with Magneto. You might expect Apocalypse to be the endboss of a game with his name on it, but that’s the twist! Not unlike the Super Star Wars franchise of the same era, this game imperfectly captured the spirit of its license while providing solid, simple gameplay.
X-Men Deep Cut: Tusk was a henchman of Apocalypse who could pop miniature versions of himself (the Tuskettes) out of his back, and literally the only X-Men character I encountered researching this article I had never heard of. He’s technically an Inhuman rather than a mutant, and has appeared in comics only once in the twenty years since this game was published. I offer no apologies for my ignorance of the Tuskettes.
3. X-Men vs. Street Fighter
Though neither the first Capcom fighting game to feature the X-Men, nor the most enduring game to pit Marvel characters against the combatants from Street Fighter, X-Men vs. Street Fighter was a strong addition to Capcom’s fighting game lineage that contributed two major aspects to the genre appropriate to the crossover-crazy X-Men franchise. “THE WILDEST CROSSOVER YOU HAVE NEVER DREAMT” built on the success of each respective series, and the tag-team mechanics and cross-branded marketing introduced in XMvSF have been used to great success by the publisher ever since.
X-Men Deep Cut: BIRDY! Sabretooth’s gun moll popped into a total of six comics before being killed off by his mutant-hating son. Unlike so many other X-Men, she has yet to return from the grave, making her assist in XMvSF her most enduring appearance.
4. X-Men Legends II: Rise of Apocalypse
Playstation 2 / Gamecube / Xbox / PC
Activision hit upon an effective use of the sprawling Marvel Universe with the series that comprised the X-Men Legends and Ultimate Alliance games. Gauntlet-inspired button mashers with large casts of playable characters and tons of cutscene exposition, these games captured the scope and impenetrability of the comics for non-fans, and offered endless Easter Eggs for the converted. Rise of Apocalypse gets the edge over the first installment for more characters, more plot devices to let you play as bad guys, and for incorporating characters, plot points and costumes from the comics’ alternate universe saga Age of Apocalypse without actually taking place in that world, faithfully translating the confusion of the comic line.
X-Men Deep Cut: A giant head with four arms and a prehensile tongue, Sugar Man was an evil geneticist in the Age of Apocalypse universe. He appears here with no real explanation but, come on, it’s Sugar Man!
On the next page, we look at the four worst X-Men videogames, ‘Nuff said, True Believers!
For every good X-Men videogame, there’s been a handful of bad ones. Here are the worst of that lot.
1. Uncanny X-Men
LJN made its bones in the 1980s by loosely translating beloved media properties (Friday the 13th, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, The Karate Kid) into unloved games for the NES. Uncanny X-Men was no exception, giving you two X-Men—regardless of whether or not there was a second player—to guide through top-down mazes to confront level bosses, at which point you have the option to turn around and run back through the maze before a timer expires. That’s right, boss battles were totally optional. In order to be able to run away from the final boss Magneto, you had to enter a secret code that is revealed through end-level screens and combined with text printed on the back of the cartridge. At least LJN retained one aspect of the X-Men franchise: needless complications.
X-Men Deep Cut: One of the level bosses is Boomerang, a low-level Marvel villain introduced in 1966 who has never appeared in any X-Men comic book. Boomerangs are pretty easy to program though, I guess.
2. X-Men: Ravages of Apocalypse
A buggy Quake mod that improbably got licensed and commercially released by Marvel (who, to be fair, were in the midst of bankruptcy), The Ravages of Apocalypse makes the bold move of forcing the player to endlessly slaughter their favorite X-Men. Apocalypse has taken over the world, and reskinned all of the bad guys from Quake to resemble Psylocke, Bishop, and other, more popular X-Men. You play as a guy onto whom Magneto has grafted gunhands. An exceedingly difficult and unimaginative series of levels await you!
X-Men Deep Cut: The teleportation pods in the game are replaced by Gateway, the mute aboriginal the X-Men met while faking their deaths and hiding out in Australia circa 1988.
3. X-Men: Destiny
Playstation 3 / Xbox 360
A mod in its own right, X-Men: Destiny was delisted and unsold copies were withdrawn and destroyed after a lawsuit revealed developer Silicon Knights had built it off unlicensed Unreal source code. Thus tomorrow’s gaming community is denied the opportunity to experience an underdeveloped beat-em-up action RPG where you steer the destiny of one of three generic new mutants down one of two poorly lit, narrowly prescribed, glitchy paths apparently written by X-Men writer Mike Carey. The game takes place is an alternate future San Francisco where the town is carved up amongst mutants and humans, though you wouldn’t ever guess this from the level design.
X-Men Deep Cut: Cameron Hodge, Angel’s college roommate turned anti-mutant militant and immortal cyberdemon, appears as the boss of the game’s main cannon fodder group the Purifiers.
The X-Men’s first appearance on the Sega Genesis console is a triumph of metanarrative and a failure in every other regard. The team’s battle simulating “Danger Room” is corrupted by Magneto, forcing the team to endure a series of unforgivingly difficult jumping puzzles and boss battles. The penultimate level contains the game’s masterstroke, both in metanarrative and difficulty, where in order to stop a self-destruct program you are instructed to “RESET THE COMPUTER”, something that can only be done by briefly pressing the physical reset button of your Sega Genesis. If you press it too long—or are playing it on later Sega models like the Nomad or Firecore—you’ll actually reset the game and never see the final level.
X-Men Deep Cut: Ahab, a spear-tossing peglegged mutant hunter, is one of the bosses generated by the Danger Room. Originally hinted to be (another) dark clone of Cable, he was later revealed to be Scottish psychologist Rory Campbell, who transforms himself into Ahab after being convinced by his future self that he was destined to do so.
Chris Eckert lives in Brooklyn and writes about Items of Potential Interest.