No, you’re not reading that title wrong and yes, it is indeed a thing.
I like to think I know a lot about comic book video games, but sometimes even I stumble across something that makes me say “How did I now know about this?”. I didn’t know about the existence of Ex-Mutants, either the video game or the comic book it’s based on, until I read Chris Baker’s WRONG! Retro Games, You Messed Up Our Comic Book Heroes! (read my review of the book HERE and then go buy it HERE, you’ll thank me) and then as if by fate, I stumbled across it at a local flea market for very cheap. I’m very glad I did find out about Ex-Mutants because it’s a really fun, tough, and challenging side-scroller that has a few problems that prevent it from being a lost classic, but still worth checking out.
Ex-Mutants was initially published by Amazing Comics in 1986 but then the property was bought and retooled by Malibu Comics and it is the reboot that serves as the inspiration for the game. After chemical warfare destroys the earth and turns everyone into horrifying mutants, a robotic scientist named Professor Kildare succeeds in turning six mutants, three female and three male, back to regular human beings with the idea of saving the entire human race using similar methods. These plans are opposed by the villainous Sluggo who captures four of the Ex-Mutants, forcing the remaining two teammates, Ackroyd and Shannon, to rescue them.
I did a 90’s month last summer and boy, I wish I would have known about Ex-Mutants then because it’s as about as 90’s as it comes. From the title alone that’s trying to sell itself like a poor man’s X-Men even though it’s not, robotic scientists and a villain named “Sluggo”, this reeks of the 90’s in all the wrong ways, but at the same time is kinda hilarious. The game is also surprisingly sexist, especially when you play as the female character, Shannon. Not only is there no reason to play as her because she’s weaker in nearly every way as Ackroyd, but when you save the first member of your team, they suggest taking a break from saving the world to hook up. This isn’t just limited to Shannon though, but in when you play as Ackroyd and you save your first female teammate only to have them throw themself at you. I would like to think we’ve come a long way since those days, but we’re still very much playing catch up.
Putting the characterization aside though, Ex-Mutants is a solid side-scrolling action game that I’m actually quite surprised isn’t brought up more. It doesn’t really do anything special, but it is really well put together and challenging in all the right ways. Despite the fact that you have a life meter and your primary form of attack is a melee weapon, Ackroyd uses a battle-axe and Shannon uses nunchucks because of COURSE they do, it reminded me a little of Capcom’s Ghouls N’ Ghosts and Ghosts N’Goblins. The levels are linear but have a lot of verticality and exploration like in Capcom’s series, there’s a map between stages that shows the layout of the world also like that series and there’s even an annoying red-winged demon enemy that swoops down and attacks you. You can also gather power-ups that add projectiles with consumable ammunition to your attack like a knife and axe that travel in similar arcs to the main weapons in the Ghouls N’Ghosts/Ghosts N’Goblins so while Ex-Mutants isn’t an exact rip-off of that series, its developers were definitely inspired by it.
Though the world in Ex-Mutants is one that’s been said to have been ravaged by chemical war, there’s a lot of welcome variation among the brief six stages of the game. Ex-Mutants doesn’t exactly have graphics that will stand out, the same goes for the soundtrack, but you’ll go from factories, to river rapids, lave filled caves and even lush jungles in your quest to liberate your friends from Sluggo. On top of getting from the beginning of a level to the end, you’re also charged with finding a power cell for Kildare who states he needs them because without them he will cease to function. Getting these are a minor inconvenience and they’re also never hidden in places you wouldn’t normally look for them as well as disguised in boxes that also carry items that you normally are always keeping an eye out for. Overall the levels are also very well designed on top of looking pretty good, though things do take a bit of a turn for the worse towards the middle.
Ex-Mutants is a game that will requires you to memorize a lot of its levels in order to finish it, and that’s because of some poor design choices in areas. At around level three the stages start off with you riding on something: first a mine cart, then a raft and finally on top of a subway. These non-traditional levels help break up the pace of the traditional but still solid action plat-forming stages, but they also eat up your limited continues until you learn precisely where enemies will come from. With the mine cart stage it’s a simple matter of just learning when the obstacles will come up so you can dodge them accordingly, but for the other stages it’s because the colours of the enemies and the bullets blend into the colour of the backgrounds. During the raft stage, sea monsters will jump up and fire blue bullets that nearly match the colour of the water you’re on, making it hard to distinguish one from the other. The same goes for the subway, and for that matter the stage before the subway, that introduces tiny, hard to see bats that are not only hard to see, but also tough to kill because the range of your weapons is so limited.
Those are minor problems though in an otherwise well put together game that are made up for in the excellent boss encounters. Though they unfortunately carry names like Sluggo and…sigh…Beefcake, they’re all of the learn their pattern and then execute variety that were the hallmark of great 8-16 bit era boss design. One was so difficult that I had to seek an online strategy video, the above mentioned red flying demon inspired mini-boss, but even when I learned exactly how to best beat it, I still had to then do it which was a lot of fun. This is true for all the bosses, leading up the final encounter with not a bad one in the bunch at all.
A word to those who track down this game, Ex-Mutants is a game that I get rather annoyed with: One that doesn’t communicate that it has limited continues and also one that when you try it on easy, tells you to play on a higher difficulty. Fortunately though it is a game that at least doesn’t force you to play on hard to see it through to the end, but those who want the challenge are certainly welcome to it. I actually wish they would have done away with difficulties all together and just made it so Ackroyd as “normal” and Shannon was “hard”. I started out playing as Shannon but immediately stopped when her only saving grace, the fact that her range is high to Ackroyd’s average, was her only better stat. No matter what character you choose to play as though, the controls are very tight and simple to learn with just a jump, attack, and a bomb weapon that only comes into play during some of the boss fights.
Though it’s based on a very obscure property that isn’t exactly timeless, Ex-Mutants is still a great side-scrolling action game that’s challenging but fair with some very excellent boss design. Minor grievances aside like enemies and bullets blending into the backgrounds, this is still a game that I would encourage people to actively seek out if you’re a sucker for games of this type from the 8-16 bit days of old like I am and still have your Genesis kicking around. Don’t let the weird license fool you, Ex-Mutants is better than some X-Men games I’ve played over the years.