In October 1992, an X-Men cartoon was launched as part of the Saturday morning Fox Kids lineup, and mutant mania went mainstream. X-Men was unquestionably the most popular comic book at the time, thanks in large part to Chris Claremont’s excellent writing for the series throughout the 80’s. One issue in particular, 1991's X-Men #1–the debut of a second X-Men series, a spinoff of the long-running Uncanny X-Men–remains the best-selling comic book of all-time, according to the Guinness Book of World Records. But while the X-Men might have been well known to comic book aficionados, they were not yet regarded as the pop-culture force of nature they were destined to become. Once animated, the X-Men were put on the map for kids across the country and characters like Storm and Wolverine became household names for everyone.
I’ll go ahead and claim that I was an X-Men fan before they were cool. I did enjoy reading my brother Mike’s copies of Uncanny X-Men and X-Factor back in the day, especially those issues drawn by my favorite comic book artist, Jim Lee. But if I’m honest, it was the cartoon that really captured my imagination. Striking a slightly darker tone than your usual Saturday morning series, the opening two-part episode, “Night of the Sentinels”, masterfully set the stage for a kid’s show done right. Filled with surprisingly sophisticated themes, such as prejudice and discrimination, fear and bigotry, and the isolation being an outsider, the show didn’t talk down to its audience. It even featured legitimately strong female characters. Despite some mediocre animation and occasionally stilted 90’s dialogue, the X-Men cartoon was cool, stylish, and—most importantly—smart. Plus that theme song… They just nailed it.
While pretty much everyone liked X-Men, I got a little too into it. Inexplicably, I became obsessed with Gambit, the card throwing, staff wielding, lady charming “Ragin’ Cajun”. Something about his roguish charm and laidback attitude struck a chord with my 10-year-old self, and I came to admire the master thief so much that I literally wanted to be him. Emulating everything from his style of dress to his accent, I started playing Gambit everywhere, first to the amusement—and eventually the ire—of everyone around me. Taking my hero-worship a bit too far, I even adopted Gambit’s long hairstyle, and there was a period of about a year in which I asked everyone to call me “Remy” as a nickname. It was a serious obsession.
We kids of the early 90’s were dying to play a good X-Men videogame. A lucky few would find Konami’s massive X-Men arcade game in pool halls and game centers. This behemoth arcade cabinet housed a six-player beat ’em up game to rival Konami’s similar coin-gobbling efforts, like the TMNT games and The Simpsons. But fans of the 90’s cartoon were a bit confused by the game’s lineup of playable characters, which more resembled the 80’s comic book. Wolverine, Storm, Cyclops were familiar even in their older costumes, but Colossus, Nightcrawler, and Dazzler—while classic X-Men characters—weren’t well known to people who had only seen the show.
As it turns out, Konami’s X-Men arcade game was actually meant to be a tie-in with an older X-Men cartoon, a 1989 animated pilot called “Pryde of the X-Men” that was never picked up as a series. You can find Pryde of the X-Men on YouTube, and it’s really pretty interesting. The quality of animation is fairly good, looking very reminiscent of the G.I. Joe cartoon of the same era. The more sophisticated themes of the comic book and later 90’s cartoon were dumbed down, if present at all. But most puzzling, Canadian wild man Wolverine was given an Australian accent! It would be eleven years before Aussie Hugh Jackman would portray Wolverine on the big screen and turn this glaring oversight into a bizarre coincidence.
But while arcade games are great, young kids don’t often get to play them. Where was the X-Men game for home consoles? Well, the infamous LJN also made a Pryde of the X-Men tie-in game for NES in 1989, entitled Uncanny X-Men. True to LJN's reputation, it was utterly terrible and quickly forgotten. Then in the summer of 1992, just before the debut of the 90’s cartoon in October, LJN also released an X-Men game for the competing 16-bit consoles of the era, the Super NES and Sega Genesis. “Spider-Man and the X-Men in Arcade's Revenge” gave players a game in which the mutants team up with Spider-Man to defeat Arcade, a fairly lame supervillain just begging to become the antagonist of a lazy videogame. While it featured both of my favorite comic book heroes—Spider-Man and Gambit—as playable characters, this game was also a colossal disappointment. Believe me, it is best left forgotten.
In 1993, we finally got an X-Men game for a home console that wasn’t LJN shovelware. Simply titled “X-Men”, the first game to truly capitalize on the cartoon’s appeal debuted on the Sega Genesis. It featured Gambit, Wolverine, Cyclops, and Nightcrawler as four playable characters, along with supporting appearances by Jean Grey, Archangel, Storm, Iceman, and Rogue. As a Gambit-obsessed third grader, there were few things capable of getting me as psyched up as this game. But as a Nintendo kid, I didn’t have a Sega Genesis, so I could only play the game at friends’ houses in after school gaming sessions. In hindsight, this probably enhanced the game’s overall appeal.
To put it bluntly, X-Men for the Sega Genesis is not a good game. The visuals aren’t particularly impressive and the sound effects—featuring bleeps and blips that are characteristically Genesis—are even worse. Platforming segments are both unimaginative and poorly executed. Regular enemies are bland and uninteresting, while most boss fights are just plain unfair. It did allow two-player cooperative play, which was a major plus, but working with a partner only made the platforming portions even more of a chore.
Like most comic book adaptations up to this point, the game made the classic mistake of limiting the player’s use of each X-Man’s mutant abilities. This is unforgiveable. The superpowers are what make these characters cool, so restricting their use just weakens the impact of the game. It should be a red flag anytime developers map a button to the extraction/retraction of Wolverine’s claws. Why would I ever want Wolverine to put his claws away? Is there a mini-game where he sits down to do his taxes? The claws are what make him the Wolverine!
Implemented as a means of keeping the game challenging, superpower limitation is just irritating. Seeing as how the game is already hard as hell, it’s also wholly unnecessary. While you are given the choice of three difficulty settings, choosing the easy option will limit you to playing only the first four levels. (After which Magneto mocks you and the credits roll.) It’s no surprise then that a level-select cheat code, as well as a level-skipping glitch (using Gambit), were religiously used by players.
Already limited in their use, most of the X-Men’s powers are represented questionably within the game. The portrayal of Cyclops’ optic blasts is visually underwhelming and Gambit’s charged cards magically fly about the screen like hungry insects. Wolverine can hack and slash with his claws, but the animations fail to capture the stylized action of the comic. The real standout here is Nightcrawler, whose teleport looks decent and is exceptionally useful. A well planned ‘port can actually take Nightcrawler through walls, sometimes skipping entire sections of a level.
Surprisingly, what X-Men does fairly well is create a compelling atmosphere. Despite lackluster sound and visuals, the game environment feels very consistent throughout. Adequately crafted stage backgrounds, along with overall good music, create a world with an appropriately stylized sci-fi feel. Information from the comic book is not only referenced, but actually thrust upon the player at the beginning as they select their character. What, you didn’t know Wolverine’s height and eye color? You do now!
Even with a decent atmosphere, the plot of this game is downright terrible. Magneto has used a computer virus to trap the X-Men in the Danger Room, turning their holographic training arena against them. That’s right; one of the most powerful mutants in the world, a divisive political figure—seen as savior to some and megalomaniacal terrorist to others—also dabbles in software development. So all that fighting in the Savage Land or the Shi’ar Empire way off in space, that was just a simulation. The multiple times you had to defeat the Juggernaut, those were simulations too. Essentially, you are playing a videogame of the X-Men playing a videogame. It’s like Inception, only stupid.
There is even a fourth wall-breaking moment at the end of the Mojo stage, where you are supposed to reset your Genesis to complete the level and move onto the final stage. The player is expected to manually hit the RESET button on the console, a bizarre move that I’ve never heard of a game trying before or since. An exceptionally bad idea that might appear like a glaring, game-breaking bug, this console-resetting nonsense was actually put into the game intentionally. Of course, few people were ever patient enough to legitimately play through the game up to that point anyway, so it probably didn’t scar too many childhoods.
In the end, X-Men for the Sega Genesis is remembered fondly by Genesis owning X-Men fans out of sheer nostalgia alone. An overrated game in the 90’s, its many shortcomings have become more obvious with time. And considering the whole RESET button fiasco, I would go so far as to call the game broken by today’s standards. However, it was the best home console game the X-Men had seen up until that point in ‘93, and that fact has left the game with a lingering positive legacy. Just after the cartoon had catapulted the X-Men’s popularity beyond comic book culture, this game was simply in the right place at the right time. At least it had some legitimately badass box art.