Pioneering games like Double Dragon and Final Fight really got the side-scrolling brawler genre off to a solid start, but Konami had a number of excellent beatemups in the early 1990’s that became some of the most popular quarter-collectors of the era. While their Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle arcade games were some of the most popular of Konami’s brawlers, the X-Men arcade game is an overlooked gem that is my personal favorite. X-Men’s gameplay, at its core, isn’t much different than any other beatemup, but, with support for up to six players, this puppy really had to be experienced in a busy arcade to really be appreciated.
The Machine: 10
There were two different variations of the X-Men arcade cabinet: a standard four-player machine or a six-player, widescreen machine. Since the six-player cabinet is what really made the game stand apart from the competitors (and is what I played on growing up), that’s what I will focus on for this review.
I first fell in love with the X-Men arcade machine at a large arcade at Cedar Point (a large roller coaster park in Ohio). Back in the mid 1990’s this machine was a hot item and it wasn’t unusual to see all six joysticks filled with rabid players. The ultra-wide cabinet allowed just enough elbow room for each player, but it could be a challenge if you wanted to squeeze into a busy game as one of the remaining characters.
X-Men is the only arcade game I know of that actually used two full CRT monitors to provide a nice wide-screen effect. As if the colorful graphic novel graphics and great sound effects weren’t enough, the widescreen allowed six heroes to battle wave after wave of baddies without the screen being too crowded.
As can be expected from a Konami arcade machine, the overall presentation is top-notch and is very good at attracting the passerby (see video clips for a sample). The opening intro had excellent illustrations and animations, with large, detailed sprites of all the evil villains and X-Men. It’s also worth mentioning that the attract mode’s intro had some nice audio and I was always peeved when a certain arcade had the sound turned off. (I’ll get more into detail in the audio section)
Considering its 1992 vintage, the gameplay graphics in this two-dimensional scroller are pretty decent, but won’t blow anybody away. Overall, the X-Men look true to their early 90’s comic book character designs and animate very fluidly too with two different kinds of walking animation present (forward and backwards).
Konami also rounded out a thorough set of animations with the mutant powers, attacking downed enemies (like Nightcralwer’s pouncing action), and many other moves. Colossus’s energy blast mutant power, in particular, had a sweet animation that would convince me to play as him, just so I could see it over and over. (They were simpler times back then). There were also some simple graphical effects used for some of the boss attacks such as Pyro’s flames and the multitude of explosions throughout the game.
X-Men’s backgrounds are beautifully illustrated in order to give the feeling that you are playing inside the Marvel comic world. In a way, it provided an extra rush of nostalgia that drained your pockets full of quarters much more frequently.
There are also some cut scenes in between levels that are somewhat similar to the intro scene, but they aren’t really animated quite as well or are still illustrations, but the artwork was still excellent.
From a performance standpoint, there was no slow down or flicker even when there were six players, and a whole horde of Sentinels throwing giant boulders at you.
Music/Sound Effects: 8
I know at least one person that will disagree with me on this, but I really enjoyed the audio on X-Men Arcade. Like I mentioned in my description of the attract mode’s intro, I was really disappointed if a particular X-Men machine had the sound turned down low of muted completely. I really felt that the music and sound effects were crucial to really enjoying the game and getting into the action.
From the moment the game finishes booting, the attract mode’s cinema opens with an increasingly dramatic sound to accompany a distant starship swooping in before an authoritative voice-over of the title, “X-MEN”. (I don’t know why, but it still give me shivers to this day). This is then followed by some Marvel-esque music to supplement the opening character animations.
As captivating as the introduction’s audio was, the sound effects and music within the actual game just as good. The music throughout the various stages demonstrated a good amount of variety and many had a high tempo in order to get you in mood for beatin’ the tar out of some Sentinels. The actual music wasn’t particularly great, but each track has some vocal or sound effect samples utilized for the main beats that seemed to give it a unique feel. The best example would be the animal sound effects that are tied to the beats in the third level’s jungle theme. X-Men arcade is one of the very few arcade soundtracks that made a solid impression on me, while most coin-op games have very forgettable tunes. (I wouldn’t listen to the music on my iPod, but it definitely fits the game)
In addition to the music, Konami also did a respectable job on the sound effects throughout the game. Naturally, there are many explosions throughout the adventure, but there are also a number of thumping attacks, laser beams, missiles, crashing rocks, and a number of other sounds that you would imagine in an X-Men comic.
The actual X-Men characters have slightly more voice samples than you would expect from a typical brawler. Among my favorites are the shouts of “Nooo!” when your character dies and Colossus’s roaring shout that accompanies his Mutant Power. The bosses also have some voice samples, although most of them are quite repetitious (“Nothing moves The Blob!”)
Gameplay: Single-Player = 8, Multiplayer = 10
Of course, the core gameplay is a standard side-scrolling beatemup like its Ninja Turtles siblings. And as with Konami’s other brawlers, the game starts out rather simple, but stronger and more plentiful enemies get introduced as the game progresses.
The biggest advantage X-Men Arcade has is the bit of strategy added with the Mutant Powers and its potential for 6-player cooperative multiplayer.
In both the four and six-player versions of the game, you have six characters to choose from including Cyclops, Wolverine, Colossus, Storm, Nightcrawler, and Dazzler. More recent X-Men fans may notice the absence of super popular characters like Gambit, but this is based on an older team roster. (Although, the choice of Dazzler is a puzzler)
While the basic attacks of the X-Men don’t vary much (Nightcrawler, probably being the most unique), the special Mutant attacks give each character their own unique advantages. The Mutant
Power attacks are triggered with a dedicated button on your controls and acts similar to a “bomb” on a 2D arcade shooter, wiping most of the enemies off the screen at once.
Of course, the powers aren’t quite that simple. First of all, not every character’s power has the same effect. For example, Wolverine and Cyclops’s attacks primarily take out enemies directly in front of them. Colossus’s energy burst blows away those that immediately surround him, while Nightcrawler quickly zig-zags across the screen taking out those in his path. Because of these attack patterns, some characters are more useful in certain situations than others (a direct attack would be better for bosses than Nightcrawler’s unpredictable attack).
Of course, there wouldn’t be much of a challenge if you could use these mutant powers as much as you wanted without consequences (even if it isn’t true to the comics). The catch is that each time you use your power, you lose three bars off of your eight-bar life gauge. The only exception is if you have an extra mutant power orb that you receive for finishing a level with more than three bars left.
As I mentioned before, the game is much more enjoyable when you have more players to fight alongside you. This isn’t only because there is more action going on, but because it requires you to cooperate and time your mutant powers appropriately if you want to make it very far without having to spend more quarters. It can be quite a waste of valuable health if more than one person uses their Mutant Power at once, and as mentioned above different characters’ powers may be more helpful than others in any given situation. Because of this Mutant Power dynamic, you’ll often find yourselves shouting out to one another to use certain powers or take out a certain group of enemies.
While most of my 6-player experiences were back in the early 90’s, I recently had the chance to go back to that same arcade in Cedar Point and try to find one of the old X-Men machines that I used to play on as a young teenager. Sure enough, there was still one of the two or three 6-player X-Men machines they used to have and there was surprisingly two other guys already playing it. Feeling like I was 13 again, I walked briskly over to it and tossed in a token. With only three people, we were still having a healthy dose of geek bonding, but soon three other guys joined in on the action halfway through. While not everyone played like a seasoned veteran, we were able to work together through a few levels with only a couple of us even having to put in another token. If only other arcades like that were still around.
Needless to say, cooperation inherent to these beatemups is a big part of the fun. You’ll find yourself playing with complete strangers and you’ll quickly appreciate the cooperative destruction that only a six-player widescreen X-Men machine can provide.
X-Men Arcade as a whole provides a satisfying experience for fans of the genre, whether they are comic book fans or not. While it is not without its flaws, it is another well-rounded package from Konami and is definitely more enjoyable with multiple players than playing by yourself.
On a side note, some X-Men purists will complain that some of the Mutant Powers and other little features don’t accurately match up to the comic books. For instance, instead of healing, Wolverine has these laser-like projectile blades or even the boss battle with Juggernaut has him caring a bazooka. But with a early 1990’s arcade game, some compromises have to be made.
I still regard the six-player, widescreen arcade cabinet as one of the most impressive arcade machines of that generation.
Ports & Emulation
Unfortunately, I’m not aware of a way to emulate the 6-player version of X-Men to accurately re-create the 6-player, widescreen experience (the 2 or 4-player, single screen version isn’t a problem). As far as I know, the only real way to pull this off is to track down the real machine.
So far, we still haven’t seen a home version of X-Men Arcade. There have been plenty of X-Men games along the way, but nothing even close to the arcade game.
In this modern age, X-Men Arcade would be best suited for an online service like XBox Live Arcade, which supports both widescreen and online multiplayer. While it wouldn’t be quite as fulfilling as having six guys playing on the real thing, it would be much more practical and affordable.