Friday, January 15, 2016

WELCOME TO DIE: X-Men (Arcade)

X-Men (Arcade, 1992)

For years, Konami's X-Men was, for me, something of a rare treat. Because of the size of its double-monitor, six-player cabinet, it wasn't often found at pizza joints, movie theaters, or laundromats - the kind of places you'd find greasy-knobbed TMNT and Final Fight machines (the smaller two or four player variant was much less common). No, given its size, it was much more commonly found at the bigger arcades - in the mall, or bowling game centers, or mini-golf arcades - the kind of places a young boy didn't get to visit every weekend, it might be said. It was a special kind of joy, to insert a quarter and start punching away at the endless waves of sentinels and accidentally using up all the mutant power because the button labels had faded and peeled - I didn't even care if I had to squeeze in the middle and play as Dazzler, because the game, with its massive widescreen action, had morphed into something special and unique in my mind.

Most of my other favorite arcade games, especially beat-em-ups, had been ported to consoles with varying degrees of success. But like Konami's The Simpsons, X-Men didn't. It's no secret why - a console port would have been a pale imitation of the real thing, even if Konami had experience successfully porting its other arcade hits to home consoles. By the time consoles caught up - I imagine the PS1 or Saturn would have handled it just fine - the license presumably was expired, and the genre had died a slow death to make way for fighters. Sure, in the early '00s, I could play it on MAME - but it was still the smaller four player variant (which is where these screenshots came from, actually), and so the game held that same mystique until Konami was able to re-release an HD port for PSN and Xbox Live - suitable markets that saw the revival of plenty of great arcade games, though most of them, including X-Men, have again suffered decreased availability due to license issues. The HD port did everything it should - it even offered the Japanese version, which uses a slightly different (but better) approach to how mutant power is consumed. Full six-player online play was just the icing; they even re-recorded the game's infamously mangled localization (see: this article title), including another personal favorite: "I AM MAGNETO, MASTER OF MAGNET!"

But that version also exposed the game's severe flaws, namely repetitive action and simplistic gameplay. As a big fan of the genre, believe me, I know - the same criticism could be applied to just about every game calling itself a beat-em-up. But it goes double for X-Men. The gameplay is designed around one of the most impressive and unique aspects of the game - its six-player capacity - which means it throws more enemies at you than most brawlers. And most of them are the same palette-swapped sentinels - over and over again. The jump kick is rather useless, and there isn't a proper grapple or throw function - which means it's the same combo, again and again. No environmental destruction, no objects to be thrown or weapons to pick up. Each character has a massive health-draining mutant power, and the game, with its endless waves of enemies, seems designed for one player to use their power every so often. I know, I know - I'm complaining about the game when it was really not designed for a single player. But a good brawler offers slightly more strategy - there's usually an element of keep away, of hitting and running, and crowd management. However you feel classics of the genre like Final Fight are limited and repetitive, X-Men is still more hollow and more simplistic than most.

And maybe that's fine, because it can still be a joy to play - just maybe not all the way through. Sprites are beautifully animated - I especially like the ability to finish an enemy off by pounding on him after you knock him down - and levels are bright, detailed, and dynamic. Enemies explode into robot limbs that bounce around the screen every time you beat them. The game, like the NES atrocity, is based on the cartoon pilot Pryde of the X-Men, and uses the same plot, set of villains, and character roster (with, I believe, the only time Dazzler has been a playable character, if we exclude the wretched pair of '80s DOS games). But that first aired nearly three years before this game, so it's a bit of a head-scratcher why the developers wouldn't have pushed for the more modern style - Jim Lee's classic blue/gold costumes (remember that X-Men issue 1, which launched a year previous to this game, was and still is the greatest selling comic issue of all time). But hey, X-Men is still X-Men, and while the game's scarcity for the better part of two decades may have contributed to its overblown reputation, it still remains a decent brawler and one of Konami's most impressive arcade hits.

All screenshots are my own.

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