If you grew up close to a comic book shop in the 90’s chances are you got a decent enough education of comic book characters across multiple publishing brands. If, like me however, the closest comic book shop was an hour-and-a-half away, you probably were lucky to get a scattered issue here or there at a drugstore to the point where you were missing huge chunks of story and things didn’t really make sense. Without a reliable access to steady comics, you then turned to other ways to fill in your gaps of comic book knowledge and lore through movies, cartoons, and video games. This in the 90’s meant that you were intimately familiar with Batman, Superman, Spider-Man and of course, the X-Men. Nowadays the Marvel super-group you see everywhere is the Avengers, but two short decades ago, they were nothing compared to the phenomena that was the X-Men.
It’s only fairly recently that I’ve gotten seriously into comics, as in the last six years or so, due in part to being a poor university student/ transitioning into a not that much better off adult finally living in close proximity to a local comic book store. I like comics of all types, but my tastes generally lead me to buying Marvel books, mainly Spider-Man, and one area where I still feel I need to be educated in is the X-Men. I know of stories like the Dark Phoenix Saga for example, but have never read them myself. I’ve seen Dark Phoenix retold in the X-Men cartoon, as well as butchered in X-Men: The Last Stand, but whenever I think about tracking it down, I normally don’t know where to start nor know how readily available X-Men comics are now given Marvel’s recent indifference to the brand, though that is hopefully set to change over the coming months.
It’s still even today that I’m reminded about the X-Men brand through multimedia, more recently being through the newly released Logan, the FX televisions series Legion, and numerous websites and YouTube channels bringing up the underrated X-Men Origins: Wolverine Uncaged Edition. In thinking about X-Men video games, a series I feel isn’t talked about much, even maybe more so than Origins, is the X-Men Legends franchise, which could be perhaps about it being over taken by the universe spanning Marvel Ultimate Alliance series that was preserved digitally as recently as last year. Before MUA though, there was Legends, and it really deserves to be reiterated just how important that game is, not just from a gameplay perspective, but from a story development and accessibility stand point as well.
In 2004 the X-Men brand was still building steam with a relaunched New X-Men comic series in the regular 616 Marvel Universe as well as the Ultimate brand. More importantly though, X-Men, joined by Blade and Spider-Man, was one of the biggest film franchises of that time that reinvigorated the comic book movie as we know it today. For those like myself who had a renewed interest in the property but were still daunted by the sheer volume of comics on the stands as well as lacking the necessary funds to buy them, video games were the next best thing, leading me to games like X-Men: Mutant Academy, X2: Wolverine’s Revenge and a game I missed at launch, X-Men Legends. The first X-Men Legends starts off with a conflict between the X-Men and the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants meant to introduce you to the game’s mechanics. More importantly than that though, it offers an introduction to the character caught in between the two warring groups: Magma, a character designed to stand in for the player in that they’re just as new to this world as the person holding the controller.
Straight after the opening, a confused Magma is brought to the Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters where as the player, you’re free to explore and talk to its students and staff. While this may seem like it slows down the game from the opening action-pact moments, it’s really brilliant how developer Raven uses this character to introduce players to the world of the X-Men. Magma is new to this world, something I’m sure more than a few people were who only ever saw the X-Men in films, so it’s natural for her to be inquisitive to this new world in which they’ve found themselves in as they ask questions about where they are of the people around her. If this was say, Wolverine, it wouldn’t really make that much sense for him to be asking where he is or who Jean Grey is and what her powers are, but to a new student, it works perfectly not only from a narrative standpoint, but as a way to make players new to the X-Men universe more convinced to start picking up comics. A mechanic carried over into the Marvel Ultimate Alliance series, there’s a computer complete with a trivia game you can access at any time that awards experience points for those who want to boast about their knowledge of the X-Men, making this lore tutorial a bit more bearable. Getting Patrick Stewart to voice Professor X was also wise as it never hurts to be able to sell a game with an attached celebrity, let alone one fans associate with a character in nearly the same way they do with Hugh Jackman and Wolverine. You hear his voice coming from the character very early on in the opening minutes of the game.
I’ve gone on record as stating that one of the features that I love about X-Men Legends 2 is that it immediately gives you the option to switch into costumes more in line with the comics, but for the first game, the choice to make each character’s uniform standardized was also smart. Fans of the X-Men films were used to the team having similar uniforms, and the designs also are in line with those from the Ultimate universe, which equally satisfies comic fans while also marketing a line of comics with a much lower barrier to entry than that of the original series. Before the age of Wikipedia, familiarizing yourself with lore going all the way back to the 60’s featuring time-travel, cosmic portions and multiple dimensions among other confusing things was a fairly daunting task. This was not the case with the Ultimate brand which at that point was only a few years old.
X-Men Legends game design also lent itself well to the theme of the franchise. While far from the first X-Men game to feature co-op, X-Men Legends was the first game to make it matter. Whether you played with other people or by yourself, sticking to one character in your party of four was never a good idea. Certain enemies are more susceptible to up-close melee brawlers like Wolverine, but then there’s also those that have defenses to physical attacks and thus require the use of a Cyclops or a Storm who have ranged powers. This isn’t just limited to combat though, but also how you get around the world. Those who need to uncover every corner of the map had a much easier time doing so by having a character who could fly or craft bridges such that those locked to the ground were not left without back up.
At its core X-Men Legends is a glorified beat-em-up, a genre associated with the X-Men since the mega-popular, two-screen arcade game from 90’s. This made the game fairly easy to pick up and understand, but added depth came through the inclusion of RPG elements in the form of loot drops, equippable gear and customizable powers that made it such that things never got repetitive as you always had a reason to fight and explore. The RPG elements are also deep enough for those who want to get into them, but also simple enough to understand for those who don’t usually play games with such trappings.
Apart from being a good time to launch a X-Men game coming off of the popularity of the first and second films, the year in which the original X-Men Legends arrived was a period in which players were hungry for a new, big-budget X-Men game. After the 16-bit era, the X-Men cast were mostly sharing the spotlight with Capcom characters in 2-D fighting games and when they finally got their own game late in the PSOne’s life cycle, it too was a fighting game. The likes of Marvel Comics X-Men Vs. Street Fighter and X-Men: Mutant Academy are all still great games mind you, but coming out of even the original X-Men, I craved a true 3-D X-Men action game and I’m sure I wasn’t alone. With the advent of consoles like the PS2, GameCube and original Xbox and the release of X2: X-Men United, that craving still wasn’t satisfied with yet another fighting game in X-Men: Next Dimension and the best forgotten Wolverine’s Revenge.
Given the almost saturation of the larger Marvel Universe today and where the X-Men film rights lie, it’s difficult to say if or when we’ll get another game, or even a remaster, on consoles with the word “X-Men” in the title. Just because Marvel Ultimate Alliance perhaps does with X-Men Legends does only better, you should never forget where the roots of that series started. X-Men Legends is a series of games that not only exist as a time capsule in which they were released that still are a joy to play, but also are a great way for those who love video games to learn about the X-Men world that exists beyond the films and animated series. The best comic book games are those that serve as an entry point to someone transitioning into a comic book reader, and no series quite does that as well as X-Men Legends.