Franchise Feature: Children of the Atom (X-Men)
Marvel’s Mutants and Their Digital History
Welcome back to our in-depth look at the graphic design and evolution of games! Today we’ll be examining the scope and spread of the various video games based on Marvel’s X-Men universe, their graphics and gameplay, and how those interact.
One of the most popular comic book series of all time, X-Men was originally conceived as part social commentary regarding the treatment of black people in the U.S., and part sci-fi fantastical mutant powers. The struggle of mutants trying to fit into a world that hated and feared them, X-Men‘s message is powerful, and evokes something in anyone who has experienced being excluded or even reviled for being different. There is, of course, the other side of this coin, where the comic books show vivid images of powerful mutants bending the elements to their will, using telekinesis, blasting lasers from their eyes, or slashing through foes with metal claws. These larger-than-life powers are used to solve larger-than-life problems, and that is the primary element showcased in the various video games that have the X-Men brand on them.
These franchise games span across several platforms, and thus would draw upon many different game predecessors for inspiration as to how they should function. The Uncanny X-Men could be compared to Legend of Zelda in the sense of it having a top-down view with large maps and a multitude of foes to defeat, but the similarities end there (because the game is bad). Mutant Apocalypse is probably best compared to the Mega Man franchise. While it lacks the depth of those games, it follows a similar formula of side scrolling, collecting items, and defeating stage bosses. Children of the Atom is naturally evocative of Street Fighter, particularly because it was made by the same company. While it’s not particularly innovative, its incredible polish wouldn’t have been possible without all the experience that Capcom had gained through its main fighting game franchise. Clone Wars (not that one) plays more like a Metroidvania due to the scope of its level designs, though it doesn’t quite match up to those legendary titles. You could also compare it to legendarily difficult platformers like Pitfall, thanks to the level lengths and how vulnerable the characters generally are, but also to how much platforming you end up doing. These games on their own didn’t set any particular precedents for their respective genres, apart from Children of the Atom, which I’ll cover in that section. Still, these games fulfilled a desire for fans of the franchise to jump into the shoes of their favorite mutants and experience the thrill of their quite mythical lives.
The Uncanny X-Men (NES, 1989)
The first X-Men game to come to home console, The Uncanny X-Men comes to us from infamous game producers LJN, an Acclaim subsidiary [ 1 ]. LJN has drawn the ire of a certain popular video game reviewer, and not without reason. The majority of their games are frankly terrible. The Uncanny X-Men is no exception. The game follows a simple enough plot—the X-Men must stop Magneto and his mutants, who are on an undefined rampage [ 2 ].
The game start is unassuming enough: You hit start on the start screen, select one or two players—toggling with the Select button for some reason—you come to a mission select screen, pick a mission—again with the Select button and not the D-pad—then pick your two-mutant team. You may have already caught the first problem, and it’s not the Select button, it’s the fact that you have to pick two mutants even in single player mode. The second mutant is controlled by the AI, and it’s as awful as you might expect an NES cartridge AI to be. On top of this, when this AI controlled character eventually dies, you lose that X-Men member for the rest of the game. If you run out of X-Men, the game is over.
Being that this is the NES and LJN, you don’t get much in the way of variety when it comes to the X-Men themselves. You can pick Cyclops, Wolverine, Ice Man, Colossus, Storm, and Nightcrawler. Each character’s sprite is just a palette changed version of the single base sprite used, and worse, the melee characters are useless. Wolverine, Colossus, and Nightcrawler all do a simple lunge-forward melee attack, and it sucks, particularly because in this game, enemies endlessly spawn. This means that navigating forward is that much more difficult because you risk being damaged every time you get in range of an enemy, of which there is an endless supply. Of course, Cyclops, Storm, and Ice Man all have projectile attacks, making them the absolute best choices regardless of mission. So for single player progression through the five game missions, you always end up picking a ranged character for yourself and a melee character for the AI to control and ultimately lose. The biggest difference of note for these otherwise samey sprites is that Colossus can’t jump and Storm and Ice Man can hold the jump button to actually fly, or at least hover. As far as I can tell, however, the jumping or hovering serves no real purpose, as there is no platforming, and other hazards can be avoided by walking around them or picking up a temporary invulnerability power up.
There are serious problems with the interface design, namely that there is no interface! You have no idea how much health you have left, or how much you gain back from health pickups. You can press start and view your health bar, which is one of the worst design choices I’ve ever seen. Not to mention, some obstacles, like closing walls, kill you instantly, which is a cheap way to lose in a game no matter what we’re talking about. On top of this, the simplicity of the graphics and the attempt at isometric view makes it hard to tell what you can walk through and what you can’t. Apart from the obvious high walls that separate areas, there are some obstacles that look like you should be able to walk over them but are actually a low wall. This lack of design detail makes it very frustrating to navigate any of the game’s levels.
If you make it to the end of a level, you’ll face off against one of the evil mutants: Sabertooth in the Subterranean Confrontation, Juggernaut in the Robo-Factory, Emma Frost (called the White Queen) in the Living Starship, and—of course—Magneto in a final secret stage. There is also the non-mutant Boomerang in Future City; not sure why he’s included here. Anyway, the boss fighting strategies remain the same in each encounter: avoid getting hit and blast them until they die. Each of the regular bosses drop an item that looks like a floppy disk. You need each disk before you can face Magneto. In order to do so, you have to enter a secret code, which frustratingly enough was misprinted on the game label. The label says “+B+Up together with Start,” but the actual code is Select+B+Up, then press Start. Another job well done by LJN [ 3 ].
Listen, don’t play this game. Just don’t. If you have to see it, watch a YouTube play through.
X-Men: Mutant Apocalypse (SNES, 1994)
Let’s wash off the grime of that last game with something much better. This time, Capcom steps up to the plate with X-Men: Mutant Apocalypse. This game’s plot centers around the island of Genosha, where many mutants have been captured for sinister ends. Professor X sends his team of X-Men to the island to liberate these captured mutants and stop whatever nefarious schemes are being hatched on the island.
Each of the first five game stages is relatively simple: you take the selected character through a pre-defined mission—Wolverine must destroy the Sentinel factory, Cyclops destroys the army train transport, Psylocke provides a distraction for the Genoshan forces, Gambit attacks the harbor base, and Beast will extract information from the central computer [ 5 ]. Each stage features Genoshan army soldiers that are easily dispatched, some stages have mini bosses in the form of mechanized attack robots, and some have Sentinel final bosses. Each intro stage gives the player a chance to familiarize themselves with how each of the X-Men works, which helps them decide who to pick for the later stages. This transition isn’t really clearly explained, but once you are aware of it, it’s not so bad. The interface is simple, just showing your health bar and the game boss health bar when you face one. No need to be complex here.
The sprites for the game bosses are just as beautiful as the heroes in all their 16-bit glory. Capcom’s signature look for its SNES games closely mimics the graphic fidelity of their Street Fighter series, and that’s not a bad thing. Apart from the Sentinels, you’ll face a Brood Queen, Tusk, Apocalypse, a simulation of Omega Red and Juggernaut, Exodus, and finally Magneto. Now you’re probably wondering, as I did, why Apocalypse is not the final boss for a game titled “Mutant Apocalypse.” It’s quite the puzzling decision, to be honest. I would have expected Magneto to be a second-to-last boss, with Apocalypse being the final one. Instead, the fight with Apocalypse is many times easier than the fight with Magneto, which is so very far off established X-Men lore that I’m not sure what to make of it [ 5 ]. Putting that gripe aside, the boss fights are interesting, and certainly graphically pleasing, showing off the variety of mutant powers at the disposal of the villains (the exception being Juggernaut, who is just super strong and super tough). In particular, Apocalypse showcases his abilities to transform his body into various weapons like giant drills, and Magneto employs a magnetic shield that protects him while he hurls metallic projectiles at the player (and he is very annoying to fight).
This is a much better game, thankfully, than our first entry. Its presentation of the X-Men universe is fantastic, fully capturing the feel of the show and comic books. It’s very easy to get sucked into the game world thanks to its brightly colored graphics and special effects. It didn’t change the world of gameplay design, but it didn’t need to. It’s another solid title under the Capcom name.
X-Men: Children of the Atom (1994, Arcade)
Another X-Men title by Capcom, Children of the Atom is, quite simply, the best tournament fighter using solely the X-Men. You may enjoy Marvel vs Capcom or X-Men vs Street Fighter more, but for a fighting game that only features the X-Men characters, this is the one you want to play. The game’s plot loosely follows the Fatal Attractions storyline from the comics, where Magneto plans to unleash a giant electromagnetic pulse on the Earth, disrupting the worlds electrical systems and sending it into a new dark age. Naturally, the X-Men are out to stop him [ 6 ].
Any tournament fighter needs a solid character lineup, and Children of the Atom delivers. Colossus, Cyclops, Iceman, Psylocke, Storm, Wolverine, Omega Red, Sentinel, Silver Samurai, Spiral, and Juggernaut are all playable characters, with the addition of Akuma from Street Fighter as a secret character. Some prominent X-Men are missing, like Gambit, Rogue, and Jean Grey, but their absence does nothing to bring the game down.
The character sprites are gorgeous, which is a lot easier to achieve when you only have to focus on a few, and in fact, if they didn’t look this good I’d be disappointed in Capcom. The sprites have a pseudo-cartoon look to them, which Capcom would later adapt into its Street Fighter Alpha series. These hand-drawn sprites have an appearance that more closely matches the animated series, despite that the plot is more based on the comics. This is likely intentional, as Capcom would want to draw fans from both pools to this game. Regardless of who you choose, the game controls are tight and fluid, as one would expect from any fighter produced by Capcom. While you can sometimes just get by on button mashing, taking the time to learn a character’s move set does pay off, particularly in the higher difficulties, and obviously in Versus mode.
The interface is standard fare, showing health and energy bars for both fighters alongside a portrait, though notably the portrait reacts to what is happening during the battle. When a character takes a hit, the portrait will spin in place, and when a character is stunned, the default portrait changes into one displaying the pain of the character. There is also a countdown timer and a high score kept, which is based on remaining health and remaining time. Nothing overly complicated, just a simple interface that works well.
The level designs are the kind of high-quality work that has become synonymous with Capcom. Each stage has changing set pieces, which creates a living atmosphere in the game world that adds some nice flavor to what would otherwise be static backgrounds. Take for example Ice Man’s stage, Ice on the Beach. The player(s) start off on an iceberg (created by Iceman) in front of a tropical island. When round two begins, the iceberg breaks away from the land and proceeds to float out into the ocean, passing by surfers, boats, and splashing dolphins as it goes. Spiral’s stage, Mojo World, has breakable platforms that, when broken, drop the player(s) into a different portion of the stage. The Sentinel’s stage, Genosha, is inside a Sentinel factory. A giant Sentinel rises up in the background and is destroyed once Sentinel is defeated. These little details add quite a nice visual spectacle to the game.
Being a tournament fighter, the game is both story-lite and boss-lite, with the only real boss characters being Juggernaut and Magneto. The mutant master of magnetism brings some interesting powers to bear, including several shockwave-like blasts, and his signature magnetic shield that make him impervious to all damage for a short while. While this power set is annoying, it is not impossible to overcome, though obviously more difficult on higher settings. Magneto’s defeat triggers the destruction of his Avalon base, and he elects to stay as it explodes, though none can say for sure that Magneto died (it’s a comics universe, no one ever permanently dies).
I’m going to sound like a broken record when I say how beautiful this game looks. The sprite details, animations, special effects, and level design are simply top notch, and it’s all brought together with solid gameplay. This game has been re-released on the PC and Sony PlayStation, making it widely accessible to any fan of the X-Men. As mentioned, this game employed a cartoon-style of animated sprite that Capcom would later use in its Street Fighter Alpha series. While I can only speculate on this, it would appear that Children of the Atom was a testing grounds for this new art style, which allowed Capcom to take its main series game art into a different direction. It’s both a response to the external forces of anime and manga, and trend setter, as this art style has been imitated in many other fighting games, such as BlazBlue. It’s interesting to note how such a simple shift can influence other games in the same genre.
X-Men 2: Clone Wars (Sega Genesis, 1995)
Coming onto the Sega Genesis platform, we have X-Men 2: Clone Wars [ 7 ], developed by Head Games and published by Sega. No, it’s not related to the Star Wars prequels (thankfully). As you might have guessed from the title, this is the second game produced for the Sega Genesis, the first one being simply titled X-Men. I did not include that first title in these reviews because it’s just not as good as its sequel, and I felt it would be redundant to include them both when one would do just fine, so I chose the superior game. Anyway, X-Men 2’s plot is centered around an alien race called the Phalanx. These aliens have infected a Sentinel manufacturing facility with their techno-virus, as well as the space station Avalon, Magneto’s base. It will take the very best of the X-Men to stop these invaders from taking over the Earth.
This game has what is known as a cold open: when you start the game up, you are immediately put into an arctic level with a randomly chosen X-Man. No opening menus or title crawl, just right into the action. This can be good or bad, depending on who you are and what you like to see out of the games you play. Once you get through this cold opening, you are brought to the start screen proper.
The graphics in this game are fantastic, even for the time period. The 16-bit sprites are superbly detailed, matching the color palette of the ’90s X-Men to a T. The playable mutants are Wolverine, Beast, Nightcrawler, Cyclops, Gambit, Psylocke, and a hidden character in Magneto [ 8 ]. Each character sprite moves differently, reflecting the unique style that each mutant brings to the team. Cyclops stands tall in a sort of noble pose and runs forward at a determined pace. Nightcrawler creeps low to the ground, exhibiting a cat-like grace. Psylocke looks bad ass with her sword, and her hair blows in the wind when she stands still. It’s truly wonderful to see the level of detail put into each mutant.
The controls are simple and tight—you can jump, melee attack, and use your special mutant powers with the push of a button. While the control scheme is simple, it’s difficult to master the movements and powers of each mutant. Defensively, your only options are to avoid attacks, so having an innate understanding of how your character moves is key. This means the game has a bit of a learning curve to it, so one should expect to die often—I know I did.
The game consists of six areas, each of which is broken up into sub-sections, and are all together quite lengthy. The game isn’t so much a side-scroller beat-em-up as it is a platformer with beat-em-up elements, having many sections of jumping and moving between foreground and background set pieces to advance. Each stage’s detail is just as excellent as the player sprites, and while areas can be repetitive in their texture use, they never grow boring because of it. The regular enemy designs aren’t bad, a couple even manage to stand out, like the red ninjas in the opening stage, and the floating droids in the Sentinel complex that look like something out of Star Wars. Ultimately, most regular foes are just cannon fodder that allow the player to feel like a bad ass that blows shit up—and literally every regular enemy explodes to emphasize that. The bosses vary, with some being iconic and others being lackluster. There are 10 bosses overall: the Sentinel Core, Fabian Cortez, Exodus, Magneto, Tusk, Apocalypse, Master Brain, Super Mercenary, Deathbird, and the finale with the Alien Creature. While each boss presents its own challenges, the standout here is the final boss. It first chases you down a hallway, invincible to your attacks save for when it smashes through a wall and breaks its own armor, exposing its brain case for you to hit. Once it’s defeated here, the rest of its body breaks off into different areas of the map and turns into clones of the X-Men (it’s in the title, there have to be clones at some point). Thankfully you only must face each mutant’s clone alone, otherwise this last battle would be much more hectic. Honorable mention goes to Fabian Cortez, who chases you outside the Avalon base, blasting at you from afar and just being a general pain in the ass.
While this game is quite fun and an excellent representation of the X-Men universe, it is also difficult in the classic long-stage-with-few-health-pickups way. There is an emphasis on moving quickly because of stage length, but also a need to take care in how the player moves forward because of the unknown nature of what comes next and the need to preserve health. Graphically speaking, it’s a standout title for the Genesis, easily ranking among its best-looking games.
While there are many more games launched under the X-Men brand, it’s this writer’s opinion that these are the games that mattered for the franchise. The first game was abysmal, but still important, as it showed what not to do when given a license in one of the biggest IPs of all time. The SNES and Genesis games hold a place as many gamers first good X-Men video game. The arcade style fighter, while quite different, is a true feast for the eyes and extremely enjoyable. The next gen games, like the movie tie-in, aren’t important in the grand scheme of gaming, and while some enjoy the team RPG style found in X-Men: Legends, I find that it lacks that certain spark needed to bring it into the fold as an equal to these classic titles (Uncanny X-Men aside). I do want to give an honorable mention to X-Men the Arcade game, which never saw release on home consoles, but is none the less a fantastic title, as well as X-Men vs Street Fighter, as it deserves a spot among the best X-Men related games, but as I am covering that in another article, I felt it would be redundant here.
I do hope you’ve enjoyed this look back into the varied X-Men games of the past. While they weren’t particularly innovative in their graphics, some of them none the less pushed the boundaries of graphic art in games, showing us how a dedication to detail with an established IP can make a game that much more enjoyable.
- “While humble, the Nintendo 8-bit outing was wildly popular.” Uncanny X-Men. LJN. 1989. NES.
- “With the 16-bit era, Marvel’s mutants were done a bit more justice. As seen here on SNES.” X-Men: Mutant Apocalypse. Capcom. 1994. Super Nintendo.
- “Modeled after the animated feature ‘Pride of the X-Men’, the Arcade game was a significant leap forward. The rare 6-player cabinet remains a rabidly sought-after collectible.” X-Men: Children of the Atom. Capcom. 1994. Arcade.
- “The Sega Genesis adaptations of the franchise were and remain sought-after and highly respected.” X-Men 2: Clone Wars. Activison. 1995. Sega Genesis.
A man of many talents, Clayton has worn several hats. His work focuses on visual mediums like film and gaming. A practiced martial artist and a graduate of Johnson and Wales University with a Bachelor’s in Graphic Design & New Media, he brings both tactile experience and academic credentials as measures of his considerable expertise. Clayton is both Manager of Steam-Funk’s core writing staff and part of the firm’s senior creative team, helping craft both The Living Multiverse and firm policy.
- Giantbomb Staff. “LJN Published Games.” Giant Bomb, CBS Interactive, giantbomb.com/ljn/3010-1870/published/. Accessed 9 January, 2020.
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- Black Rabite. “X-Men: Mutant Apocalypse FAQ/Walkthrough.” GameFAQs, CBS Interactive, 3 Mar. 2010, gamefaqs.gamespot.com/snes/588874-x-men-mutant-apocalypse/faqs/45161.
- International Arcade Museum Staff. “XMen Children Of The Atom – Videogame by Capcom.” The International Arcade Museum, WebMagic Ventures, LLC., arcade-museum.com/game_detail.php?game_id=10498. Accessed 9 January, 2020.
- Quizzley7. “X-Men 2: Clone Wars for Genesis (1995).” MobyGames, Blue Flame Labs, 21 Sept. 2002, mobygames.com/game/x-men-2-clone-wars.
- Kaizengamorra. “X-Men 2: Clone Wars FAQ/Walkthrough.” GameFAQs, CBS Interactive, 14 Mar. 1998, gamefaqs.gamespot.com/genesis/366867-x-men-2-clone-wars/faqs/2888.