Chasing Ghosts: One Quarter at a Time

The Arcade Evolves (sort of): Konami brings us the X-Men

By sheer logic alone, I should have never been a fan of Marvel’s X-Men.

While I wasn’t diligently reading comic books in the 1980s, save for Archie’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Adventures and a random assortment of Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch FTW) comics from 1984, I at least knew who the main superheroes were. I loved Superman thanks to the excellent 1988 cartoon. I knew Spider-Man, Batman, etc. But I had never heard of the X-Men.
Until I decided to rent The Uncanny X-Men for the Nintendo Entertainment System.

The quality of my weekends as a kid hinged upon how good the video game we rented was, as I was stuck with that game (we didn’t have a lot of money for video games, so I only owned 5-6 games or so) for the entire weekend. The weekend I rented Mega Man 2 was fantastic. Ditto for Master Blaster, Double Dragon 2 and Super Mario Bros. 3.

This is the worst NES game ever made.

This is the worst NES game ever made.

But the weekend we rented The Uncanny X-Men was a bad weekend. It made Renegade look like Super Mario 64. Half the time I didn’t know what I was doing. Wolverine didn’t even use his claws. He just twitched forward, like he was having a strange back spasm. Cyclops, Iceman and Storm could shoot…but what were they shooting? Ice beams? Leftover Tetris pieces? The world may never know.

I couldn’t wait to return the game. I wouldn’t hear of the X-Men for another three years.

We moved to Virginia Beach, and I met a kid who would turn out to be an ass. His name was Christopher. And while I despise almost everything about this young man, one thing he introduced me to was the world of comic books. And for that, I am ever grateful.

Apparently, the X-Men were fantastic, unlike their NES game. He gave me a few issues of the comic book and I was hooked. It was full of fantastic warriors, men and women who could do amazing feats with abilities they were born with. They all had their own vibrant personalities that made reading the stuff in between the fight scenes just as much fun.

And then, one fateful day, my parents took us to see a movie (I forget which one), and I saw something beautiful: The 6-player X-Men arcade cabinet from Konami.

Dear reader, this was no ordinary arcade cabinet. Six people could play this 1992 side-scrolling beat-em-up. SIX! I had never seen such a thing in my life, and have yet to see anything with more than four players. It even had two screens through a bit of trickery: the second screen was under the first screen but mirrored to create the second screen. Even so, this two screen machine with six players made it a massive machine that took up a lot of floor space in the arcade.

The flyer doesn't really sell the machine IMO. Konami's PR department should have really emphasized how much money a six-player game would have made arcade owners.

The flyer doesn’t really sell the machine IMO. Konami’s PR department should have really emphasized how much money a six-player game would have made arcade owners.

And while most arcade owners would probably be weary of a machine taking up that much space and possibly cutting into profits (why have one machine when you could have two machines in that space making money?), this was the early 90s and the popularity of the X-Men was surging (X-Men #1, released in 1991, had 8.1 million preorders, a world record per Guinness).

Everyone who read Marvel comics wanted to play this game. I think the glut of comic book movies and then general acceptance of nerd culture by mainstream America makes us forget that quality comic adaptations were few and far between during the late 80s and early 90s. You weren’t getting comic book movies on a regular basis, and we were just starting to get great TV shows based on comic books (Batman: The Animated Series would premiere in 1992 as well). Now when I see a video game based on a comic book, I don’t even think twice. As a kid? Oh my soul, this was huge.

And while the game was based on the 1980s team (playable character Dazzler wasn’t a part of the early 1990s X-Men and Nightcrawler had joined Excalibur by this point) instead of the early 90s team that was gaining in popularity, I didn’t care. Once at a bowling alley before my fateful defeat in Street Fighter 2, I spent nearly $5 on this game and maybe got through the second level. I like to think that I’m better at it now, but I’m pretty sure that even if you gave me 20 credits, I’d still be unable to finish this game.

Was the game great? No, it’s just your average beat-em-up done fairly well, while taking huge liberties with the source material. Even as a kid, I thought it was weird that all the Sentinels were shrunk down to human size and were part of Magneto’s army (The Sentinels were enemies of both Magneto and the X-Men in the comics and were giant machines). Aside from boss characters and a few dinosaurs, plants and robots, all you see are different colored Sentinels.

And Wolverine’s mutant power was strange too. I guess they wanted all characters to have a screen-clearing mutant power, so they gave Wolverine a laserbeam that he fired from his claws instead just letting his healing factor refill his life (and in the process, robbing arcade owners of another quarter).

But it’s a very well-crafted beat-em up that you’d expect Konami to make. Very colorful, and it did things that past brawlers didn’t let you do, such as the screen-clearing super attacks and being able to attack an enemy while they were laying on the ground. That last feature really added a little more depth to the game and broke up the monotony of “walk right, punch stuff.” The music is OK (it’s got great tunes but I hate hearing someone say X-X-X-X-X-X-Men over and over again) and the controls are very precise. The grammar, however, leaves something to be desired.

My go-to characters were always Wolverine and Dazzler. Wolverine was my favorite character at the time, but I liked the fighting style that Dazzler had (she looks like she’s doing Ric Flair’s knife chops). Despite it’s flaws, this game really did put you into the comic book and finally gave you a good X-Men game to play.

Eventually I stopped seeing this arcade machine in arcades, and the game faded away into my memory banks. Without a home console release for this and the Simpsons arcade game, you were relegated to playing it in an actual arcade, likely due to licensing issues. Which is a shame too, as the absolute worst port of this would have been much better than the filth that LJN gave us on the NES.

Playing it in MAME

The only obstacle you’ll have with this game is the controls. If you get the ROM with six players and you don’t have a six player machine, you’re jipped, as there isn’t a character select. The two and four player versions are easily available, so pay attention before you download.

Of course, you could just buy the actual arcade machine. I’d always recommend doing that if you have the money, but this bulky brawler is a let down once you beat it. If playing in MAME, discipline yourself and only give yourself 4-6 quarters to play on. If you have unlimited credits, there is no challenge to this game. Less is more in this case.

My wife plays X-Men

In an effort to get my wife Allicia Faber to play more video games, I’ve given her a space in this article to share her thoughts on the game and anything else that comes to mind. You can find her on Twitter @alliwait.

X-Men: The Arcade Game is definitely better than Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  The Turtles game didn’t have a lot of variety. This had a mutant power ability, and you could attack enemies while they were on the ground. I like that it took more effort in this game to kill them. And I felt like there was a better variety of villains, including challenging boss characters.

I didn’t like that I couldn’t punch enemies above me, just the ones to my left and right. Come to think of it, that’s an issue in all of these old arcade beat-em-ups. That’s lame.

The graphics and art style are pretty good. Not too boring. I liked the different level stages.

I’d play with you again if you asked me to.