X-Men (NES) review
"Then there are the enemy formations, always designed so that you're cornered and bounced around from foe to foe, or into the lethal toilets or lava pits. And sometimes, when all you need is an invulnerability icon to proceed, the game will give you nothing for minutes at a time. Then it will shower you with them once you die and resume your mission as a new mutant. I can almost hear the bitter developers laughing at me from beyond the television screen whenever I play this game."
Tonight I was browsing some great reviews on GameFAQs, and I happened to read a review for Castlevania III. In that review, the author made the observation that 'Alucard' is actually 'Dracula' spelled backwards. That struck me as pretty cool. From there, I started looking through my own reviews. I came to the realization that my X-Men review really needed some work. Then it was time to consider what sort of approach to take. Yet as I worked on that issue, my mind kept drifting back to the whole Alucard thing. I wondered why that might be and suddenly it hit me: just thinking about X-Men is such a mind-numbingly dull experience that it's only natural for one's brain to revert to the last interesting thought it processed, then cling to it as if sanity depends on it. And maybe... just maybe it does. The game is that bad.
Some of you must think I'm mistaken, or that I have no taste. How can a game based on everyone's favorite mutants be anything less than spectacular? I wondered the same thing myself. After all, it's a killer franchise loaded with cool characters, great plots, and a general personality so full of energy it practically needs a Ritalin prescription. How can a developer take all that good stuff and mess it up? Easy. The developer behind X-Men was none other than LJN.
You likely remember the name if you've played many crappy games on the NES. The company produced Back to the Future, Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street and any other number of stinkers. They have a track record worse than any one company deserves, particularly when it came down to games developed around a franchise. The people at LJN were masters at botching a sure thing. So just how did they do it this time? Through terrible play control, poor hit detection, bland visuals, awful sound, redundant gameplay and cheap challenge. The best thing I can say about X-Men is that it won't hop out of the NES control deck, sneak into your sister's room, and sleep with her. Pretty sure about that one. Otherwise, it's all bad news.
Let's start with the presentation. When the title screen appears, you'll see the proud X-Men logo and the head of one of the mutants. From there, the game will cycle through the six featured in the game: Wolverine, Cyclops, Nightcrawler, Iceman, Colossus and Storm. Below the roulette of awesomeness, there's some white lettering that tells you to 'Push Start Button.' Know that the minute you do, you've just made your first mistake and your opinion of the game has dropped radically.
Why has it dropped so much? Because the next screen is no more than a lavender(!) background with white lettering telling who all was involved in the making of the game, then a screen where you can choose whether one or two people will be experiencing this rite of passage. From there, the game lists five areas. One is a practice arena, then the others refer to different locations you must clear. That's how ghetto the game is. There aren't even any small little windows to remind you which blob of text leads to where. You just pick one, grit your teeth, and hope for the best.
For the sake of simplicity, let's say you pick 'Search&Destroy the Robofactory.' Maybe the name sounds uber-cool, or maybe you're just crazy like that. Once you've made your selection, you'll then see a profile of Wolverine. The screen will rate him on four stats (power, endurance, speed and willpower) and also give various details about his name, height, weight and birthplace. Also, there's a description of his mutant powers, but that doesn't really matter. It's just there for the fans, and has no real impact on how the game plays. What does matter is what you do here. If he sounds like a buff guy you want to drag along, you can press the 'start' button. If not and you think you'd prefer someone like Storm or Cyclops (they fire projectiles), you can press 'Select' to cycle through the listings. You must confirm for two of the X-Men before you get to enter the level. One you will control; the other is controlled by the computer (or the human you've chosen to alienate).
With your characters chosen, you can finally tackle the level itself. You will appear in an overhead level. While you stand there trying to get your bearings, enemies will immediately swarm the screen. Your computer-controlled buddy will dash out to do some damage, and may very well die within a matter of a few seconds. As you wonder what sort of luck this leaves behind for you, another enemy will bump against you, and suddenly you'll bounce a few strides before going down in a wall of flames. That fast. But the game isn't over, or it would be even suckier than it is. You're then flashed back to the menu, where you now have a remainder of four mutants to choose from. So you pick two more, and then it's back to the level where you died so swiftly before. This time, your teammate again dies with the speed of a salad at a dieter's convention, but you manage to dodge enemy fire and mount a counter-attack.
Or do you? It turns out only about half the X-Men have any sort of useful attacks at all. They can fire projectiles from their eyes or wherever, striking down enemies from a safe distance. However, they have shorter life meters. No doubt LJN's attempt to balance things out. Soon, you're bound to find yourself stuck with one of the lumbering monstrosities unable to snipe from a distance. These guys waddle around the screen and can punch or kick when you press the 'A' button, but it's here that the game's awful hit detection rears its ugly head.
There are many enemies in the game, and they move around every bit as quickly as you do. From bouncing coils to spiders to everything in between, you'll face a list of enemies both ludicrous and deadly. And most of the time you're fighting them, you also have to watch out for shots from gun towers, which deplete your life so quickly that you hardly know what hit you. Not only that, but there are small areas on the ground that look like blue toilets or lava. These drain your meter quickly, as well. Also, there are electric gates that spell instant death if you even brush against them. Of all of these, though, nothing is worse than the springs. You can be standing right next to one, punch it, and then watch it bounce past your blows and smack you in the face. It's nearly impossible to tell just how to approach so that your punches do damage, as the developers weren't kind enough to include so much as a shadow.
But let's suppose you get lucky and manage to land a few hits. Your nearby enemy bursts into flame. At this point, there's around a twenty percent chance it will leave behind something for you to grab. Most of the time, this will be a positive item, such as an icon that freezes your opponents, refills your health, makes you invincible for a short time, or obliterates all on-screen enemies. However, you sometimes will instead find yourself grabbing the Magnet of Doom, which will freeze you in place for a moment so your enemies can shave down your dwindling life meter. Even if you see that such an item was left behind, it's all too easy to find yourself bumped into it and then of course killed. Progression through the game becomes a matter of slaughtering the (literally endless) hordes of opponents until they leave behind just the right combination of life refills and invulnerability icons that you can make a mad dash through the next gate. Then you get to repeat it again. And again.
The only real variety from what I've described above comes when you find that you need mysterious keys in order to proceed through the compound of choice. This is true even when you're controlling Nightcrawler, who is different from the other five characters in that he can walk through walls (however, his life meter seems to be the shortest of all). Keys, keys, keys. Without them, you'll never get anywhere. And because the levels are so similar, it becomes far too simple to wind up lost in a circle through the level, trying to find the one key you've missed so you can open up a hidden door and fight the area boss (who will quite likely slaughter you just because).
If somehow you manage to navigate a stage and even defeat its boss, your reward is a trip back to the level selection screen. With one stage down, there are three others to choose from. You can take a trip to the 'Practice' arena to restore the health of any mutants who may have died in the previous area, too. Then it's off to the next stage for more of the same tedium you just experienced. If you manage the Herculean task of completing those first four areas, you then get to explore a final stage in hopes of defeating Magneto. Are you having fun yet?
Of course you're not. Playing through X-Men, it's easy to see why LJN got such a bad reputation: its developers almost never cared. How else can you explain the absolutely putrid visuals that adorn every inch of the game but its title screen? Every single one of the levels is spartan in its presentation. Though you may see several different textures in any one of the introductory stages, not a one of them has half the detail the NES was able to provide when the game was released. Prepare for a lack of color variety and repeated tiles the artists likely created when they skipped lunch one day at the office.
As a matter of fact, the game in some ways makes me think someone behind the scenes actually wanted it to suck. For example, the default setup is such that if you pick the X-Men in the order they appear, you'll constantly play a game where your projectile-firing teammate dies instantly and you're left behind with the slow ox to clear the level. Then there are the enemy formations, always designed so that you're cornered and bounced around from foe to foe, or into the lethal toilets or lava pits. And sometimes, when all you need is an invulnerability icon to proceed, the game will give you nothing for minutes at a time. Then it will shower you with them once you die and resume your mission as a new mutant. I can almost hear the bitter developers laughing at me from beyond the television screen whenever I play this game.
From what I can tell, others who play this game experience something quite similar. In fact, let me finish this review with a little bit of information you may also find interesting. Though I own this game, I didn't actually buy it. Years ago my neighbors got it for Christmas. They played it a week or two, let me borrow it, then told me I should keep it each of the several times I tried to return it. I'm not making that up. They simply didn't want the game. Odds are you won't either.
Staff review by Jason Venter (Date unavailable)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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