When I was growing up and starting my seemingly life long love of video games, I started with the NES, which didn’t have the best track record when it came to licensed games, at least starting out. When I became aware of the X-Men through comics, the animated series, Marvel trading cards and the Toy Biz action figures, I wanted to play as the characters in a video game, but could only do so in really one way: LJN’s awful The Uncanny X-Men. As Uncanny X-Men is a game I haven’t really discussed here, in summary it’s an overhead game where blobs of colours disguised as your favourite mutant flail about and shoot “beams” against odd shapes. It’s one of the worst comic book games ever, and one of the reasons why people tend to shy away from licensed games. On the rare occasion when I got to travel to the city, St. John’s,NL in my case, one of my favourite things to do was to visit the arcade, Electric Avenue (commence having that stuck in your head), and stand in awe of all the amazing arcade games. These things were leaps and bounds ahead of what I had plugged into my TV at home, and one game stood above the rest: Konami’s X-Men The Arcade Game.
I mean, c’mon, check out that attract screen. How would you not want to start pumping quarters into that game? It wasn’t just the attract screen, but the cabinet itself that stuck out. X-Men came in one of two varieties: a single screen model that had capacity for four players, and a two-screen unit that allowed six-players to play at once. The cabinet Electric Avenue had was the deluxe model, and to a kid of seven, it was mind-blowing. My NES only had two controller ports, and this machine allowed six players to play at once! Even with six available X-Men to choose from: Wolverine, Storm, Cyclops, Colossus, Nightcrawler and Dazzler, I rarely got to play because the machine always had the maximum number of people surrounding it. That was okay to me though, as I was content to watch people play and besides, the console port would be just around the corner, right? TMNT 2: The Arcade Game came out on NES and the SNES would get TMNT IV: Turtles in Time as well as Capcom’s coin-op darlings Street Fighter II and Final Fight, so it was just a matter of time before they got to X-Men, right?
Years passed, issues of Nintendo Power came and went, but there was no magazine cover or interior story proclaiming the port of Konami’s X-Men. Soon the arcade lost the machine in favour of newer titles like Mortal Kombat, and console technology caught up with arcade’s making them go the way of the dodo. It looked like X-Men would only be a game that would exist in my memory, that is until in 2010 when Konami made the announcement that they would be bringing the game to both the PlayStation Network and Xbox Live Arcade. Finally, after eighteen years I could own X-Men and play it whenever I wanted. Side note: do you remember when Konami did things that made people happy? In 2015 they cancelled Silent Hills and made the life of Hideo Kojima a living nightmare. Five short years before that, they must’ve had to figure out a lot of complicated licensing issues just to be allowed to put out X-Men, let alone convert it to modern machines.
So what was it about X-Men that made it such a desired experience, as when you really boil it down to its base elements, it’s just another beat-em of which there are dozens. Well, for one it was a Konami beat-em-up and whether it was the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Simpsons, Batman or the X-Men, Konami just knew how to make games that were incredibly simple in design yet at the same time infinitely replayable. In the case of the X-Men arcade game, what made it so great was a sum of all its parts: The act of punching enemies, a mixture of the tight controls and great sound effects, always felt satisfying. Combine this with each characters mutant powers, like Cyclops’ optic blasts; Colossus roaring energy spark and Nightcrawler’s teleport attack that made him zip around the screen attacking everything in sight and you’ve got a game that you either want to keep hitting continue on or keep pumping quarters into.
It also didn’t hurt that X-Men was and still is a very beautiful game. The six core casts members are vibrant and colourful in their trademark outfits, as our the opposition in the form of green, purple and red Sentinels, lizard and mud monsters, and classic evil mutants like the unmovable Blob, the unstoppable Juggernaut and the Master of Magnet himself, Magneto. Not only does each sprite look great, but they also move and animate spectacularly as well. Cyclops stands firm and tall as a leader should; Wolverine is in position and ready for a fight, and Nightcrawler is ready to pounce on hapless robots and monsters.
What also makes it a pleasure returning to any of Konami’s early 90’s catalog of games is the soundtrack. I strongly feel that Turtles in Time has been butchered in ports, extras, and HD rereleases because the music is never quite as magical as the SNES game. X-Men too is another game I can’t imagine playing without the constantly repeated X-X-X-X-X-Men to a beat that just makes me want to run around and punch evil-doers. Of course who could forget the superbly voice acted lines that like “WELCOME TO DIE!” and “NOTHING MOVES THE BLOB!”. At the time I didn’t even realize how bad those lines were, because I was just amazed that a game could talk, and now that I know better it’s just part of the charm of the game that makes it a product of its time but never in a bad way.
There’s plenty of beat-em-ups featuring Marvel characters, and you might ask “what is it that makes X-Men: The Arcade Game” a candidate for best Marvel game ever? It’s because at the day, after all the technological advances, more powerful consoles and advances in story telling, X-Men, as simple as it is, gets the property in ways that other developers haven’t. Whether at an arcade or playing locally or online on a console, you’re teaming up with your friends or strangers as the X-Men to stop evil mutants from wreaking havoc and really, what more do you want from a game carrying the X-Men license?