Well, this was a long time coming!
Way back in October, I wrote what was to be the beginning of a series of articles covering the 16-bit Spider-Man games of my youth. The first of those games, Spider-Man vs. The Kingpin, received a lengthy and glowing reminiscence about a week later. Feeling good, I planned the next one … and it never happened. Well, until now, that is.
Like I mentioned in the previous articles, 1993 was a big year for me as a nerd. That was the year I first began to read comics and play video games, and naturally the two hobbies would intersect many times in the years to follow. After renting Spider-Man vs. The Kingpin a few times, we finally bought our first non-Sonic video game that summer. Simply titled X-Men, this game was developed by Western Technologies and published by Sega in the spring of 1993.
This game is a classic. It remains, in my mind, the gold standard of X-Men video games because of its simple but challenging gameplay, crisp graphics, fantastic music, and adherence to the source material. It’s a fun, challenging title that engages both your skills as a gamer and your mind. Most game nerds that haven’t played the game are probably familiar with it because of the now-legendary “game reset” puzzle at the end of the Mojoworld level. Before starting the level, Professor Xavier instructs you to reset the Danger Room computer (the first five levels are simulations) to prevent the spread of Magneto’s virus. Most kids were stumped because nothing you could do at the end would complete the level. Instead, the timer ran down until you lost. You see, you had to actually reset the Genesis itself in order to complete the level – a literal “reset the computer” that cleverly makes the game appear to go into a hard reboot and then continue on with the story. Figuring that out as a kid without strategy guides or the Internet was one of my finest moments as a gamer.
As you can tell, I’m quite fond of this game, and it remains one of my all-time superhero favorites. Back in 1993, this game blew my socks off. Between X-Men and Spider-Man vs. The Kingpin, I was on cloud nine as a budding comic book and gaming fan. 1994 would prove to be an even bigger year for me. The Spider-Man animated series debuted, Star Trek: The Next Generation ended with the greatest finale ever, and my game library began to expand with a bigger variety of titles.
Then, one day, we saw a short commercial. This is the earliest video game commercial that I remember, and it got me pretty excited for the game. Of course, I should have seen right through the smokescreen, because there was very little gameplay shown. But still, what kid wouldn’t want to play this game after seeing that?
When my sister and I first spotted Spider-Man/X-Men: Arcade’s Revenge on the shelf that summer, we were incredibly excited. I can vividly remember flipping through the manual on the way home in the backseat of the car and eagerly anticipating playing this game. The manual itself is pretty cool. There’s a ton of artwork pulled from the comics of the late 80s and early 90s, including some Todd McFarlane, Erik Larsen, Mark Bagley, Sal Buscema, and Jim Lee artwork. The manual also includes some pretty detailed descriptions of the levels and short bios of all the characters in the game. It’s a nice “hype manual” to get kids excited. The cover art is a fairly standard painting by Dave Devries, but the Super Nintendo version actually has an awesome cover drawn by John Romita Sr.!
Pretty cool, huh?
I mean, the Spider-Man and X-Men games were great on their own – so, in my mind, I was extrapolating how awesome it would be to slam those two games together.
Oh, little Gerard, how wrong you were.
Although I played the game after X-Men, Spider-Man/X-Men: Arcade’s Revenge actually predates that game on some systems. The version I played was co-developed by Software Creations and Unexpected Development, published by LJN under their Flying Edge label, and released for Sega Genesis in North America on June 24, 1994. Unlike Spider-Man vs. The Kingpin and X-Men, this game was published by a third party, allowing it to be released on Nintendo systems as well as Sega ones. The Super Nintendo and Game Boy versions actually came out as far back as 1992.
Right off the bat, something’s off. Despite the cover art depicting the X-Men in their then-current costumes, the game actually features them in different uniforms. Cyclops is wearing the blue-and-white variant of his X-Factor uniform instead of his early 90s costume, Wolverine is in his Earth tones rather than his classic yellow-and-blues, and Gambit is … well, we’ll discuss Gambit later.
After hitting start, the first thing you see is a brief story presented in a comic-book style. Gambit is kidnapped right before Spider-Man’s eyes, and Spidey somehow manages to deduce that Arcade is behind it by recognizing the truck. (For those of you readers unfamiliar with Arcade, he’s a rather campy X-Men villain from the 1970s. His gimmick is that he’s an assassin that likes to trap heroes in his amusement-park-like funhouse of death called Murderworld and watch them struggle with his traps and robots.) Spider-Man, determined to save the X-Men from Arcade, swings off to begin his quest.
Following the story cutscene, the player is dropped into a prologue level of sorts in which Spider-Man has to defuse a sequence of bombs and enter through what is essentially the back door to Murderworld. The first thing you might notice is … just …
… THIS GAME IS PUG-UGLY.
Wow. This might shock you, but the screenshot above supposedly depicts Spider-Man jumping in the air in front of a backdrop of the night sky, coming just short of a building’s ledge. On the other hand, you might notice that the game’s graphics are so poor that it looks like none of the above. Spidey looks like a dumpy fat guy in an ill-fitting spandex suit, the sky looks like a close-up of a human brain dyed blue, and the building looks like an unimaginative assemblage of grey and green blocks unlike any building that actually exists in the real world. Remember, this game actually came out AFTER both Spider-Man vs. The Kingpin and X-Men on the Sega Genesis, but it actually looks much worse.
Anyway, after navigating your way through the brief level, Spider-Man encounters the captured X-Men. Arcade appears on a viewscreen to exposit the hell out of what you’re about to play. Long story short, he wants to pit the X-Men (and now, Spider-Man as well) against his latest version of Murderworld.
After this, the game drops you into a selection screen to begin the game proper. To break it down, you have to complete two levels as each of the five characters – Spider-Man, Wolverine, Cyclops, Storm, and Gambit – before moving on to the final act. Each character’s screen consists of a picture and file talking about their powers. This is worth mentioning because Gambit’s screen erroneously gives his real name as Remy Beaudreaux, which is a bizarre combination of his first name and Belladonna’s last name. ”Boudreaux” is also spelled incorrectly. (I guess they were pretty confused.) You can play the levels in any order you want, and each character’s two levels are built around a unique theme.
Since most of you are here for Spider-Man, I’ll discuss his levels first. Despite the fact that this game is very difficult – one of the most difficult I’ve ever played, in fact – Spider-Man’s levels actually go in the opposite direction. They’re too easy!
Spidey’s levels are built to resemble construction zones. Although his web is supposed to stick to practically anything, they only adhere to certain surfaces in these levels. The same goes for his wall-crawling abilities as well. Neither work on the globs of odd peach-colored cement that dominate the level design. In general, it’s frustrating to navigate these levels because of how poorly the controls are designed. Unlike Spider-Man vs. The Kingpin and practically every incarnation of the character you have ever seen on the page or on the screen, Spider-Man cannot jump and swing on a web – he can only swing on a web that is fired while he’s standing on the ground. Coupled with the web’s inability to actually connect with about 50% of the stuff in the level and the finicky control accuracy, this bit of counter-intuitive nonsense means that you’ll spend a lot of time firing weblines without success and misaiming your swings.
You see that bluish-silver fellow squatting with his arms above his head up there? That’s a spider-slayer. These are the primary enemies of Spider-Man’s levels. Basically, they fire an exploding gob of something at you every 2-3 seconds and then stand there, waiting for you to punch them in the face. Actually, that’s not true at all because Spider-Man can’t punch in this game – his only attack is to fire unlimited supplies of web-nets that act similar to the wads from Spider-Man vs. The Kingpin. Thankfully, you can fire these things on the ground, in the air, and on walls. Even though they only fire in one direction, hitting enemies is fairly simple and it only takes a couple of shots to defeat the regular mooks.
Bosses are another matter. Spider-Man encounters no less than five bosses in his two levels. You fight robotic duplicates of the Shocker (twice), N’Astirh, Carnage, and the Rhino. The Shocker is an embarrassment. He basically jumps around and occasionally fires a blast at you, though only if you’re dumb enough to stand there and watch him jump around. I mean really, since when is JUMPING a major part of Shocker’s attack strategy?
That’s also an odd choice of enemies for Spider-Man. N’Astirh? Really? Where’s Doctor Octopus? Is there a Goblin in the house? (Actually, N’Astirh is a sort of goblin, right? I guess that counts.) This could be explained away as part of Arcade’s plan, since these guys are all robotic duplicates – like all of the enemies in this game – but the selection is still a bit odd. I still can’t get over the fact that N’Astirh, of all possible choices, is somehow the boss in a Spider-Man level. I can understand putting him in the game, since he is an X-universe character, but why would they stick him in a Spider-Man level? All of the other bosses Spidey faces are at least from Spider-Man comics, but why N’Artirh? And if you think I’m lying, here’s the evidence:
The second Spider-Man stage is a bit tougher than the first, but only because it incorporates wind effects a la Ninja Gaiden 2 that force you to time your jumps. Once you reach the end, you get to fight a dual boss of Carnage and the Rhino. Carnage was practically brand-new at the time the game was made, and the game does a pretty poor job translating him into the 16-bit realm. He shoots little wads of red stuff at you like a web and jumps around like a palette-swapped clone of Spider-Man, but the fact that he’s off-camera half the time makes him tough to fight. Here’s a tip for those out there that might track this game down and play it: if you hit Carnage, he flies up a little, so it’s possible to simply trap him in the upper-right corner and whale on him until he’s dead.
The Rhino can only be hurt by kick-swinging into his face. I don’t know if I’ve been playing this game the wrong way all these years, but I was never able to do this without being hurt. The strategy basically boils down to “don’t lose health in the rest of the level,” because it takes nearly the full health bar to kill Rhino. Beating Carnage restores a portion of your health, and if you manage to max out your bar with that pickup, Rhino is easy pickins.
Almost every time I played this game as a kid, I did Spider-Man’s levels first. They’re the easiest by far, so I could beat them reliably without losing any lives. After that, though, I always jumped around. This was always the point at which the game became a bit of a chore, because the X-Men stages aren’t nearly as forgiving as the Spider-Man ones. Spidey’s levels are mediocre at best, but the X-Men levels are just awful. For the sake of the discussion, I’ll follow along in the order of the select screen, though I jumped around on my recent playthrough as well.
Wolverine’s levels take place in a circus-like environment themed around Obnoxio the Clown. Again, the development team felt the need to pull out a weird, obscure X-Men character to fill the enemy roster. (And even then, he didn’t start as an X-Men character … he was the mascot for Crazy, Marvel’s humor magazine from the 1970s.) Believe it or not, though, the bosses are straight-up classic X – Apocalypse and Juggernaut.
The first Wolverine stage isn’t terrible, but the flaws in the game’s design really begin to become overwhelming. For one thing, there’s an irritating imbalance in the hit detection. It’s relatively standard in video games to have a short “cooldown” period for the player character to ensure that the player doesn’t take a ton of damage based on one mistake – a mechanic built into most engines to make it fair for the player. A good example is Sonic the Hedgehog and its 16-bit sequels: when you get hit, you have a few seconds of invulnerability to try to collect your rings again or avoid the hazard that damaged you. Spider-Man/X-Men: Arcade’s Revenge doesn’t have this cooldown effect, making it possible for enemies to tee off on you mercilessly until you lose a life. Even worse than that, the enemies actually have cooldown themselves, meaning that you have to wait for their temporary invincibility to wear off before you can hit them again. That includes the bosses, too. Aargh!
“But Gerard,” you might be thinking to yourself, “surely Wolverine’s healing factor can help, right?” Well, not exactly. Wolverine can heal some health in this game by sheathing his claws and standing still for a while. This is more or less standard for X-Men games. However, it doesn’t always work. Sometimes, I was able to heal back his full health bar, but other times it never refilled a millimeter. I don’t quite understand the conditions, but the game appears to be selective about it.
Despite all of this, Wolverine’s first stage is a cakewalk compared to his second. In this one, Juggernaut chases Wolverine across a stage full of death pits and hanging weights. You have a choice to either cut down the weights to slow Juggy down or to time it so that the weights drop onto his head – either way, the goal of this stage is to hit Juggernaut’s head until he blows up. To further complicate things, there are barriers that need to be cut down in order to proceed, and the level is still occupied by standard enemies that can deal damage. If Juggernaut passes you, you die instantly. I think you can see how this is a problem.
The game gives you absolutely no indication of how much damage Juggernaut has taken, so you’re left to guessing as to whether or not your approach is even working. Like all the bosses in this game, Juggernaut has no health bar. The game also gives you no indication of your progress through the stage, so at any given time, you have no idea how much real estate you have left before the end of the level, which is an unavoidable bottomless pit. If you reach the end of the stage without beating Juggernaut, you die. This is an exercise in frustration that led to many a controller toss in my day.
By the way, your eyes aren’t deceiving you – Wolverine’s sprite only has two claws on each hand.
Before I continue, I should briefly touch on the sound of the game. In a word, it’s awful. The sound effects are terribly designed, especially the weird scream that all the characters make when they take damage. The characters’ powers just sound weak – the worst, Cyclops’ optic blasts, sound like a water gun. The music isn’t terrible, but it’s pretty mediocre. Compared to the far superior soundtracks of superhero games like Spider-Man vs. The Kingpin, X-Men (which I still hear in my head when I think of the X-Men to this day), X-Men 2: Clone Wars, and The Adventures of Batman and Robin, this just sounds stale. There are a couple of memorable themes, especially the awesome main title theme and Spider-Man’s theme, but the rest is pretty lousy. I can’t speak for the other versions, of course, but I’ve heard on a few occasions that the SNES version has better music (which isn’t surprising given the technical superiority of Nintendo’s Sony-designed sound chipset).
Anyway, back to the game. Cyclops’ stages take place in an underground mine setting. These levels highlight the hellish nature of the platforming design in the game more than any others. There are plenty of unforgiving platforming games out there, but this one take it one step further by placing the platforms at the absolute farthest reaches of the player’s jumping abilities. Missing a jump becomes an exercise in frustration, because it either results in instant death (via electrified tracks, pits, spikes, etc.) or necessitates repeating a section of the level, complete with respawning enemies. These jumps are not only over very large distances, but they also often require you to jump blind or hit an obnoxiously small window of opportunity.
The screenshot above is a perfect example. The mine cart shows is barreling down the track towards Cyclops, who needs to jump into the cart in order to proceed. Magically, the cart will bounce off of the end of the track there and accelerate back uphill in about a second. If you jump too early, Cyclops falls on the track and dies. If you jump too late, Cyclops falls on the track and dies. If you step too close to try to give yourself a better chance, Cyclops dies. You have a window of opportunity of about half a second here to make that jump. Even if you make it into the cart, you will almost certainly be hit by the stalactite on the ceiling above the “SCORE” text there as it falls towards you as you ride in the speeding cart. Oh yeah, and the track is littered with bombs that will kill you instantly. Also, there are Genosian magistrates that can shoot you like the sitting duck you are.
By the way, have I mentioned that this game has no checkpoints? Yeah, this game has no checkpoints. If you die anywhere in a level, you must repeat the entire thing (should you choose to select it again).
Cyclops’ second stage mixes it up by including dead tracks as well as live ones, but it’s pretty much the same as the first. There are a ton of enemies everywhere, blind jumps galore, and Cyclops can only defend himself with his slow-firing optic blasts and an embarrassing kick move. If you survive that onslaught, you fight a strangely undersized version of Master Mold as the level boss.
Next up is Storm. Unlike the other characters, Storm’s stages are not platforming levels. Instead, she’s trapped underwater in a network of tunnels, and she needs to destroy levers to raise the water enough to escape without drowning.
I actually enjoy these levels to an extent as a change of pace. They’re not too difficult if you know what to expect, but these levels have several frustrating tics of their own. For starters, Storm doesn’t have a health bar – instead, the game gauges her level of air. You air runs out over time unless you replenish it by surfacing or breathing in bubbles (which occur rarely). Unfortunately, this means that taking damage also reduces your air. Put this together with the lack of cooldown, and Storm can die more quickly than any other character.
Other than that, there’s not much to discuss with Storm. Unlike the others, there’s a recurring sense of urgency to everything. These levels are actually pretty thrilling at times – I found myself weighing my options often and trying to determine what was possible, all under a time limit. The controls are a little stiff, but you get an option of shooting lightning (out of her face, apparently, as shown above), using whirlwinds to block projectiles, or unleashing a lightning storm to shoot in multiple directions. The latter two attacks require powerups, but they aren’t hard to find. I also found it rather amusing that despite having the largest sprite in the game, Storm has no face.
Finally, there’s Gambit. To put it mildly, I hate Gambit’s stages with the fury of a thousand erupting volcanoes.
These levels are based around a card theme. This may be the only theme in the game that actually makes sense, for obvious reasons. However, the developers screwed up practically everything else. First of all, Gambit’s sprite is abysmal. He has no detail whatsoever, and they appear to have dressed him in those foot pajamas that four-year-olds wear in the winter. Secondly, Gambit is the only character that possesses limited ammunition – he gets a standard deck of cards. That means that you have 52 cards for your normal attack and two jokers that act as more powerful attacks to use in desperate measures (and an instructions card that he probably throws away like everybody else does). The enemies liberally drop cards to replenish your supply, but the ammo still runs out very quickly. To make matters worse, there’s the matter of enemy cooldown, making it easy to waste ammunition firing at an enemy that can’t be damaged. This will happen often, because the enemies come in waves that require you to shoot quickly. Gambit has no secondary attack, either, so once you burn through your supply of cards, he’s defenseless until he picks up another powerup. Plus, look at the above screenshot. You may notice that Gambit has two bars instead of one. The top bar is for health, like all the other characters. The second bar represents his ammo. Now, I may not be a game designer or programmer, but allow me to ask a simple question: if you have a discrete number of shots (52), why in the heck is the ammo represented by a BAR instead of a NUMBER? Wouldn’t it be more useful to know that you have 37 shots left instead of having to decipher some Byzantine system of measurement that makes it impossibly vague to determine your remaining ammo? Gambit’s levels also have the highest number of enemies, too, so of COURSE he’s the only character with limited ammo. Ugh.
I haven’t even gotten to the worst part yet. You see, both of Gambit’s levels are a race against an advancing wall of doom. In the first, he’s being chased by a giant spiked ball that causes instant death. In the second, the floor is continuously rising, forcing Gambit to advance quickly to avoid being crushed.
If you can somehow avoid the mental scars caused by those horrifying faces in the background, good luck navigating the blind passages in this second stage. The level often branches into multiple paths, and all but one of these paths will lead to instant death.
Once you reach the end of the stage, you have to fight OH MY GOD WHAT IS THAT?!
According to the manual, this is a robot duplicate of Selene, the Black Queen of the Hellfire Club. According to my eyes, this is a giant drag queen with monochromatic peeled bananas for hands.
This is the point at which Gambit’s limited ammo can bite you in the butt, because Selene will require a ton of ammo to beat. As you can see, there are two packs of cards there for powerups, but it’s still possible to run out too quickly (i.e. by picking up the powerups by accident before you need them). In my playthrough for this article, I defeated Selene with only about a quarter of my ammo remaining, even after only using the powerups when my supply was completely drained.
Once you complete all of the character levels, the game continues with the X-Men attempting to escape. Each one has a short level (two of which scroll from right-to-left instead of the standard left-to-right) that presumably takes place in the bowels of Murderworld. None of these levels are particularly difficult, except for a single jump in Gambit’s stage (OF COURSE), and they are composed entirely of enemies from the character levels. For example, Cyclops is still facing off against the grey-suited Genosian magistrates and Wolverine is still fighting clowns and toy soldiers. At the end of each of these levels, the character is incapacitated and captured again.
The only thing worth noting about these short levels is that Storm actually gets a platforming stage. This level is an odd Frankenstein-like creation using reskinned versions of Cyclops’ enemies, Gambit’s controls (including two uses of a whirlwind attack that is identical to Gambit’s jokers), and Spider-Man’s animations. Storm can’t fly, but she can jump a comically high distance into the air, as shown below (I jumped from THE LOWEST PLATFORM there).
After all of the X-Men are captured, Spider-Man has a similar level to complete. However, Spidey is not captured and arrives at the final boss. This boss has four forms, each one as creepy-looking as the last. First, you fight a tank …
… then a smaller tank bouncing on a pogo stick …
… then an even smaller tank …
… and finally, a series of robot duplicates of Arcade leaping out of the ruins of the tank.
This is actually a fairly easy boss considering the unforgiving difficulty of the game. After beating him, Arcade shows up on screen to point out that he never left the control room and let them know about the self-destruct sequence he’s initiated. They all barely manage to escape the fiery blast.
And that’s the end of Spider-Man/X-Men: Arcade’s Revenge.
Is it a good game? Hell no! The gameplay and graphics are terrible, the sound is well below par, and it’s frustratingly cheap. It’s a pretty lousy game by all standards, but one of those games that I obsessed over as a kid. Back then, when games were much more challenging, kids had a pathological need to beat any game they came across, and I was no exception. I played the hell out of this game, determined to best it. Indeed, this is one of the toughest games that I’ve ever played. One Saturday afternoon, I finally managed the feat – perhaps the finest moment in my juvenile gaming career. I threw my arms up into the air like Rocky Balboa and bragged to my late, dear sister Claudine that I had finally beaten it. She wasn’t too impressed, of course, but she let me have my moment.
Without a doubt, this game is a tough mother, and to this day I’ve never met another person that was able to beat it despite coming across many that have played it. You really have no idea how hard this is unless you’ve struggled with it like many disappointed children of the mid 90s. As a follow-up to Spider-Man vs. The Kingpin and X-Men, this game was a huge disappointment. If you’re looking for a great 16-bit X game, stick to X-Men and its sequel X-Men 2: Clone Wars on the Sega Genesis. If you’re looking for a classic Spidey game to play, check out Spider-Man vs. The Kingpin … or the game I’ll be covering next time, when we go PAINT THE TOWN RED.