As we kick off our new Special Feature on Comicdom Wrecks, we go back to the very first appearance of the X-Men on console video games. I’m not sure, but Mayhem in Murderworld for the PC may have come out earlier in the year, but we’re going to be starting with this one, if nothing else than to get it out of the way.
In this edition, we will be looking at The Uncanny X-Men for the Nintendo Entertainment System.
Before I get started, I would like to mention that this game holds the Nintendo Seal of Approval. You can see it right there on the box. You might also notice that neither Cyclops nor Colossus seem to have any kind of lower body, but that’s what you get when you piece a picture together for a game featuring a hodgepodge of characters. This game was released in 1989 – that means the X-Men, in the comics, had closed down the Austrailan era of the team and were in the “floating around aimlessly” era before 1991’s Blue/Gold relaunch. Wolverine and Colossus? You are both fine. Storm would be too if she wasn’t sporting that god-awful mohawk. Cyclops had been with X-Factor for a few years at that point. If you look in the top corner of the box art, you can see his X-Factor stripe on his mask. And Iceman? He had been gone from the X-Men for well over a decade by that point. WTF, LJN?
But enough of making fun of the premise. Let’s get to the game itself. You press start and have your option of one of the six available characters. They are split between the physcial fighters (Wolverine, Colossus, Nightcrawler) or the energy weilders (Cyclops, Storm, Iceman) each with their own strengths and weaknesses. The physical fighters might be able to do more damage to enemies, though I’m not completely sure on that one because it is virtually impossible to connect a punch with the enemy without getting hit yourself. Power demonstrations were not in the game design for these guys, so you won’t see Wolverine’s claws or Colossus’s invulnerability. Nightcrawler’s teleportation is demonstrated by walking through solid walls, making him far more like Kitty Pryde than himself.
The strength of the physical characters comes with the demand that the game be played as a team. Since the X-Men function as a team, the game requires that two characters be on the field for the game. If you don’t have a friend willing to subject themselves to the torture of the game, you’re stuck playing with the computer AI controlling the second X-Man. And by “controlling”, I mean running around in a circle, punching nothing in particular until the enemies inevitably kill them in about a minute. The AI doesn’t register things such as on-screen traps, and will not only happily walk into them, but will happily stop right on top of them and quickly and mercifully end their own existence from the horrors of the game. So maybe they aren’t actually that stupid after all.
The energy weilders, on the other hand, shoot a beam across the stage at whatever enemies they can. And chances are you’ll need to do it a lot, because in the realm of 1989 Nintendo, accuracy was not a strong point of focus for the X-Men. Granted, they had been without the Danger Room for a while at this point, so can you really blame them? The game is quite stingy about what constitutes as a hit, so if you’re off by half an inch, that evil snake is going to hit you. It’s best not to waste your shooters to die horribly at the hands of the AI, though.
So the characters aren’t very good. How about other factors? Graphics, maybe?
In the screen shot above, the player is controlling Cyclops. Being that he is alone, it can safely be assumed that the AI led his teammate to the slaughter some time before. I commented that the box art showed Cyclops (or at least the upper half of him) in his classic X-Men outfit. His in-game graphic is even more old-school, decking him out in his original X-Men outfit from his debut in 1963. All of the other five characters, as well as the villains, are equally as horrible to look at, but at least their color schemes are correct. But it was 1989 NES – what were you expecting? (Actually, something like this would be nice.)
Speaking of villains, I suppose we could move on to the game’s epic plot. Video games of the era were very limited in plot in some cases. Why was Mario doing what he was doing in Super Mario Bros? Because the Princess had been kidnapped and he was looking for her. How about the Legend of Zelda? Because Ganon kidnapped Zelda and Link needed eight Triforce pieces to enter his lair. Perfectly acceptable, but in retrospect, pretty barebones due to the limitations of technology. X-Men took a minimalist approach to that concept, even for the time. The ultimate goal of the game was to defeat Magneto, since Magneto was the villain.
And this is the concept that would carry through many of the early X-Men games. The developers weren’t trying to make a game worthy of the comics. They were trying to make a game starring characters from the comics that fans would buy. So rather than knowing that by that point Magneto had been redeemed and served as headmaster in Professor X’s place, we get him as the generic boss fight of the final stage. And his team of minions? Would Magneto be teaming up with Emma Frost? Well, I suppose so – they were the White Queen and King of the Hellfire Club. But Sabretooth, a sadist who willingly murders mutants? Not so much. But that doesn’t matter -they’re all X-Men villains and thus they team up. Shut up about it.
The whole of this game is a mish-mosh of X-Men ideas, as if the creators were given a box of plot elements and characters to grab from and put togther for a game. “Future City Street Fight”, which I’m assuming is based on the Days of Future Past setting, yet features the Spider-Man villain Boomerang as the final boss. The second stage, “Subterranean Confrontation”, is a little better. From the name, it is implied that the X-Men are fighting through the Morlock Tunnels, and its fitting that the boss is Sabretooth, who was a critical factor in the Mutant Massacre. If you could tell that the all-red sprite wearing nothing but his underwear was Sabretooth, that is. Next up is “Search And Destroy The Robot Factory”. A raid on a Sentinel factory would be a good move for the X-Men, and it would play into their feud with the Hellfire Club, since Sebastian Shaw was funding their build. But of course, the boss of the stage is the Juggernaut. The White Queen, Emma Frost, does show up in the next stage, “Battle Through a Living Starship”, which is likely based upon the storyline in which the X-Men fought the Brood to save the Shi’ar. Guess who had nothing whatsoever to do with that?
And for many players, including myself at a far younger age, that’s where the game ended. The final stage could only be accessed with the use of a special code. But was the code found in the game or on the manual? Nope – it was on the cartridge label. This thing:
Being that I haven’t physically seen a copy of the actual cartridge in nearly two decades, I could not tell you where on the label it is. But from my knowledge of how the NES works, I can tell you that if you needed to get the code for it from the label, you would have to remove the cartridge from the system. And that means your game immediately shuts off. This wasn’t a time when a disc cover could be opened and closed, or a game could be saved to a memory card. The game required that you beat the other stages before using the code, so if you didn’t have it, you’d have to play through the game AGAIN to get back to that point once you did.
But even that wasn’t so easy. The message printed on the label reads “+B+Up together with Start”. If you do that, you will find that it does absolutely nothing. The printing was clipped, removing the world ‘Select’ from the front, and thus locking out frustrated X-Men fans who had already suffered through four stages of the game from the final stage. But once you finally had it, you could go through Magneto’s Stage and take on the Master of Magnetism himself!
To put it blutly, this game is terrible. The graphics are ugly, the music is painful and the gameplay is nearly impossible. Stages are stock action game bits including snakes and springs, all of which can easily shoot you while not dying themselves. The bosses are nearly impossible to beat, the main goals of the mission are not explained and near impossible to deduce (you have to escape the stage before a timer that starts upon encountering the boss runs out), and the final stage is locked behind a puzzle that the game itself does not want you to figure out. And what are you going through all this torture for? What is the end result of defeating Magneto?
On the bright side, it can only get better from here.