Friday, January 8, 2016

Magneto Was Right: The Uncanny X-Men (NES)

The Uncanny X-Men (NES, 1989)

In his New X-Men run back in the mid '00s, Grant Morrison introduced the character of Quintin Quire, a troublemaking student at Xavier's School for the Gifted. It was a clever and natural (and long overdue, really) way of injecting some teenage rebellious youth to the otherwise staid student body; though later writers never did anything interesting with the character, it at least gave us this fun little panel that evolved into a clever little meme/t-shirt:

Magneto was right. It's a sentiment that rings especially true in light of the X-Men game for NES, released in late 1989 (it's sometimes styled as Marvel's X-Men or The Uncanny X-Men, who knows). Again, if we exclude those odd home computer releases and the barely-a-game Spider-Man (Atari 2600, 1982), it's the first time the X-Men or any Marvel character has been seen on home consoles. It also marks LJN's reign of terror during our beloved 8- and 16-bit eras. With a few exceptions from Data East, Konami, and Sega, all of whom developed and/or published a select few Marvel games themselves, the bulk of Marvel games from the late '80s to the mid '90s were done by LJN/Acclaim, until Capcom managed to secure the license. Around that time, the '90s comic bubble had popped, and the properties didn't have much value, it seems, outside of being featured in Capcom's excellent string of fighters.

It would be easy to imagine the sort of blackmail and extortion that LJN (which was later sold to the equally shoddy Acclaim) surely used to get the Marvel license; but the truth is, despite record-breaking comic sales in the early '90s, the rest of Marvel wasn't doing so hot, in the midst of changing ownership, poor public stocks, and more that eventually led to bankruptcy in 1996. And apparently protecting the value of a brand wasn't so important; so who cares if LJN and Acclaim took a dump on the license, so long as they sold well?

In 1989, Marvel had tested the waters for more animation projects, resulting in the failed X-Men pilot, Pryde of the X-Men. Maybe they had big hopes for it, because this NES game, while not a direct adaptation, takes quite a few cues from it. In this light, maybe it's easy - I'm not saying forgivable - to understand how such a shoddy game could be released to the public. Then again, Konami's famous 6-player X-Men arcade game was most definitely adapted from Pryde of the X-Men, and that game was released in 1992 - 3 years after the pilot first aired.

You already know how terrible this game is. Every time a new X-Men game is released, and lazy game sites do their tired "best and worst" X-Men games, this one tops the list (of the latter, duh). It goes beyond that - much like Superman for Nintendo 64, this game is not only considered the worst of its license - it's not just considered one of the worst comic book games ever - it's also considered one of the worst games ever made, regardless of license. And yeah, it really is that bad.

You might have seen AVGN's review, you might have memories of renting it when you were young, or maybe you just gave it a spin when you randomly came across it in your ROM list. The thing is, you might be a little familiar with how terrible this game is, but you probably don't know the half of it - because any initial attempt to play is invariably going to be brief.

The first and perhaps only notable thing the game offers is that you can choose two X-Men and swap out any time, your off-character being AI-controlled. You'll then notice how terrible this game looks. No really - bland, often monochromatic environments that look haphazard, cluttered, and difficult to parse. To make it worse, they're woefully inconsistent - like, say, Silver Surfer, but worse - because some tiles are passable, and identical tiles are not. Character models appear to be palette-swapped versions of the same sprite. I could recognize about half the villains even though I was aware they were all ripped from the cartoon pilot; but in all honesty, they look better than the X-Men. The rest of the enemies - which respawn infinitely, I might add - are mostly mechanical-looking blobs and caterpillars. Really, though, sprites are the same kind of abstraction that was used in Atari games - unacceptable, even for an NES game released in 1989.

Wait - it doesn't get any better - gameplay is similarly shoddy. Here the game really "shines." In short, it feels unfinished; this is not an exaggeration. Hell, "barely started" is maybe more appropriate. You really need to try it yourself to get a feel for how unplayable it is, but it suffices to say that the hit detection is disastrous. Getting hit means getting knocked back - which could then mean getting hit by another enemy, or getting cornered against a wall, or getting pushed back into an environmental hazard, or getting pushed through one of the many near-instant-death barriers. I'd say there's a 50% chance that any single hit could result in death - maybe even higher. Health drops are pretty common (here's another head-scratcher: you'll have to pause the game to view either character's health), but hidden amongst the power-ups is a magnet. Touching this will totally freeze your character for a few seconds - yep, that pretty much spells death.

Level progression is entirely vertical; they mostly consist of traversing rooms, finding a key, and backtracking. At the end you'll face a boss; killing him will start a timer, in which you must fight your way back to the beginning. It's very simple stuff, and if the gameplay weren't so terrible, it wouldn't be especially challenging. Needless to say I made it through the game using Game Genie cheats, but even those aren't sufficient to overcome poor design. The AI, for instance... it's one of the worst instances I've ever seen in a game. I found this little nugget in the manual, verbatim:

 Even they're aware of how terrible the AI is - no, not terrible, but a burden, an albatross, an obstacle in the way of progression. But the fact is, you actually need to eliminate one of them. In one particular level, after defeating the boss, new impassable barriers will form on your way out. Only Nightcrawler can go through them (this drains his health, I might add). If you picked other characters - SOL, pal. Your partner cannot progress, even if you take direct control; I actually had to turn off the cheat so I could kill Cyclops off, in order to progress with Nightcrawler alone.

You will constantly fight with the AI, because the screen won't scroll without him. Pathfinding is an atrocity. If you give the AI control of a ranged character - he goes absolutely nuts (though they do tend to follow you better than the melee characters). Even playing with cheats you will have to constantly switch characters to advance - especially with cheats, because he won't die off. Word of advice for any cheater out there: always use Nightcrawler as your secondary, as the computer will simply walk through all the walls to follow you. Of course, without cheats, this means that the AI will kill itself even more quickly.

Wait for it - it gets worse. Cheats or no cheats, if you somehow have the constitution and patience to play through the four selectable levels, the game will take you right back to the bland level select screen. How to proceed from here? Ah! There's a secret, final level. The game gives nearly no clue as how to access it, except on the cart label itself (which, naturally, is embedded deep in your console at the time...):

Take a closer look (bottom right):

This is not written or referenced anywhere else on the box or manual - yes, I checked. Beyond that - this code isn't even correct! You'll also need to push select in combination with the above - and doing so is still a little finicky. Now, Wikipedia tells me that the devs intended for the rest of this code to be included in the game - a terrible idea even if it worked. Regardless, it's not in the actual game.

Access the final level - what looks like Asteroid M, and the only level in the game that doesn't look like puke - and you'll find more of the same, though more maze-like than the rest. And when you defeat Magneto, you'll still have to fight your way back to the beginning, where you're awarded with the following:

Yeah, in hindsight, Magneto was right. Because whoever unleashed this monstrosity on X-Men fans, gamers, and the world at large, deserves to face extinction.

All screenshots are my own. Box art is from GameFAQs, while cart label is courtesy of Moby Games.

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