Take on the NES Library

An 8-bit Extravaganza!



#174 – The Uncanny X-Men

The ‘X’ in X-Men is for crossing this game out.

Probably the best part of the game honestly.

To Beat: Clear all stages, including the final secret stage
Played: 4/27/21 – 5/14/21
Difficulty: 8/10
My Difficulty: 8/10
My Video: The Uncanny X-Men Longplay

I’ve been looking forward to writing this review.  Long time readers may know that I believe that most NES games are good.  Not just the popular ones or the hidden gems, but any ordinary NES game has something to offer me that I end up appreciating.  To put it another way, if I didn’t enjoy playing most of the games on the NES, I wouldn’t be doing this project.  But that’s not to say that there aren’t any bad NES games, oh no.  With over 70% of the library left to play, I feel comfortable saying that The Uncanny X-Men is a contender for worst NES game ever.  Let’s find out exactly what went wrong.

For me to try and describe the X-Men series and its far reach into all things media would do it a great disservice, but we’re gonna briefly try anyway.  The X-Men comics were created in 1963 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.  The series initially didn’t catch on well and was cancelled in 1970, though it was later revived in 1975 under writer Chris Claremont.  New characters were introduced, and Claremont steered some of the biggest story arcs in the comics for over 25 years.  The X-Men really took off in popularity, spawning more comic series, TV shows, books, films, and of course video games, way too many to mention.  The first X-Men video games were released in 1989, including our game here, The Uncanny X-Men.  The NES game released only in North America in December 1989.  It was published by LJN but the developer is unknown, possibly either Bothtec or Pixel.  Of those two, through cross referencing development credits of other NES and Famicom games from what I could find online, I personally suspect that Bothtec is the more likely developer.  I can also see why no one would want to take credit for developing this game.

The Uncanny X-Men has a basic story.  Magneto and his henchmen and planning to take over the world.  It is up to you and the X-Men to go after them!  The group of X-Men accepting this mission are Wolverine, Cyclops, Nightcrawler, Iceman, Colossus, and Storm.  You must clear each of the five stages to stop Magneto’s plans for world domination and win the game, but it won’t be easy.

Fighting for justice in the ruined city or something

At the start of the game, you’ll first choose from either a 1 player or 2 player game, which is simultaneous cooperative play.  Then you’ll choose your starting level.  There is a practice stage where you can get your bearings, or you can select from one of four regular stages.  Next, you’ll be presented with the character screens.  There is a screen for each character and you can toggle between them with Select.  Each screen shows the character’s relative stats in one of four categories: Power, Endurance, Speed, and Willpower.  The manual doesn’t explain what these mean at all, but you can sort of figure it out as you play.  Each screen also displays a character portrait and a short bio.  In both 1 player and 2 player modes, you must select two characters.  In the single player game, you control the first character while the second is AI controlled.

The Uncanny X-Men is a top-down action game.  Use the D-pad to walk around in four directions.  The A button attacks, and each character only has one kind of attack.  The B button can either jump or fly.  The Select button toggles between the two characters in a single player game letting you swap control at any time.  The Start button brings up a status screen.  For each character you can see their name, score, and remaining health.  You also see how many keys have been collected as well as any key items.  This is a vertically scrolling game, most often from bottom to top, though there are some single screen areas and some that go downward instead of up.

While all the X-Men play similarly, there are several distinguishing factors between them.  The most obvious difference is the way they attack.  Wolverine, Nightcrawler, and Colossus have short range punch attacks, just a quick thrust forward.  Cyclops, Iceman, and Storm have beam attacks that can hurt enemies from across the screen.  Iceman and Storm can fly around the levels by holding down B.  You can coast through the levels much faster and can fly over damaging floor tiles, however, your health gets drained while you take flight, all the way to your death if you fly too long.   There are a couple of other special abilities.  Nightcrawler has the ability to walk through solid walls, though this also drains his health.  I don’t know if this counts as a special ability or not, but I found that Colossus was quite the tank, and he can get bopped around by the enemies pretty good and barely take any damage.  I used him a lot when I was learning the stages in spite of his short-range attack.

The object of the game is to stop Magneto’s plans by recovering a floppy disk from each stage.  You’ll explore the stages to find them.  Every room has some sort of floor tile that acts as a door to a different screen, and often there are branching paths or a maze to sort out.  There are also physical door barriers that you need to open with a key that you find somewhere in the stage.  Other gates or barriers open and close at random but you need to be very careful here as getting stuck inside the closing door can both trap you and zap you of your health in a flash.  At the end of each stage is a boss encounter.  Defeat the boss to obtain the disk.  This causes a time bomb to start counting down, and you’ll need to backtrack all the way to the beginning of the stage to escape before time runs out.  Often enough there will be a door past the boss that brings you a good chunk of the way toward the exit.

Imagine what manages to live below

Defeated enemies will drop powerups at random and they are vital to your success.  The energy restore powerup has the letter E in it and collecting that powerup restores your health.  A similar looking powerup with the letter S in it is the statis bomb.  This freezes all enemies for a short time.  A powerup with a large lightning bolt on it is a smart bomb, which destroys all on-screen enemies.  The force shield has a weird look, sort of like a worm with a red circle at the bottom.  This makes you temporarily invincible.  The keys and disks I already mentioned, which show up in certain locations and are not random drops.  The final item is actually a power-down and is very dangerous.  The magnet item stuns you for quite a long time.  Enemies will continue to swarm you and knock you around, so many times this item ends up being fatal if you collect it accidentally.

The levels themselves have some differences, but at the end of the day they are all pretty much the same.  Some levels have shorter rooms with lots of doors, others have long stretches with few exits or long branching paths.  It’s up to you to navigate them to find the quickest way through.  All levels have some sort of floor tile that hurts you, as well the gates and barriers I mentioned earlier.  The walls and such are fairly obvious, but the damage tiles are not the clearest to make out, so you may die to them without realizing exactly what happened.  There’s no physical difference to the character upon taking damage, just a low droning sound effect, with some slight knockback if it’s a direct enemy attack.  There are plenty of other quality issues, and some major ones as well, that we’ll cover in the spoiler section shortly.

This was my first time playing The Uncanny X-Men.  I was not a comic book fan and never cared much about the X-Men so I ignored this game, definitely for my benefit.  I only learned of its reputation after I started seriously collecting.  I managed to pick up a loose copy locally for a few bucks.  Right now, it sells for around $10-$15 loose.

Where to begin with all the problems this game has? I guess we’ll start with the most obvious one from playing the game for any length of time: the AI controlled second player.  This game is almost completely unplayable in single player mode in part because the AI just doesn’t work well at all.  The AI has two modes.  When you switch control between characters, the AI goes into a defensive mode, wiggling back and forth and attacking in a tight space for 5 seconds.  Then it switches over to follow mode where it tries to find a path to keep up with you.  In either mode, the AI character is vulnerable to attack.  The hitboxes for collisions and attacks are imperfect, to say the least.  It is very easy to get juggled between two enemies and not be able to counterattack, for both yourself and the AI.  It isn’t very fun to try and swap control around constantly to attempt to defend both characters on your own and make progress, in fact it is harder to play that way.  I could only get as far as maybe two screens of any level with both characters still intact, so inevitably the AI character will die and that’s the end of that character.  Once a character is defeated, they are gone for good.  There are no continues in X-Men.  Since there are 5 stages, you’re pretty much guaranteed to lose a life in each stage, leaving you with only one of the X-Men for the rest of the game.  Of course, you’ll start completely over from the beginning if you fail.

Rare image of a surviving AI companion

Another problem is dealing with the gates.  These things are on most screens of the game and are just awful to deal with.  The AI characters will walk right into them with complete disregard, which is the source of many of their deaths (provided they live long enough to get that far in the first place).  If there’s a pattern to their opening and closing, I couldn’t figure it out.  They don’t seem to stay open long enough to pass through very often at all.  So how do you deal with them?  Thankfully the invincibility powerups keep you safe.  There are enough enemies out there that are easy to respawn that drop powerups most of the time.  But sometimes it takes minutes to get the invincibility drop, and sometimes you’ll end up grabbing a magnet power down by mistake putting yourself in severe danger of dying defenseless.  You will certainly want to play through the game as a character with a ranged attack to mitigate those risks.  It’s telling too how difficult the game is to beat in spite of the fact that there are basically unlimited invincibility and health upgrades as long as you’re willing to grind for them.

So, you’ve put up with all the headaches and the glitches and the AI killing off all your lives for you, and you manage to finish all four stages!  First of all, great job!  But now what?  The game unceremoniously drops you off back at the mission select screen.  Though you can still put your cursor on them, you can’t go back and play already completed stages.  The only thing you can do is to go back to the Practice stage.  There’s no ending to be found.  You might think this is a quirk of the game or perhaps it really is as unfinished as it plays.  It turns out there is indeed a final stage with a very unintuitive way of reaching it.  I went ahead and googled the answer, and well, I was left with as much confusion as when I started.  Here’s the deal.  There is a code printed on the label of the cart.  It’s in very tiny text, on the top row of the copyright text at the bottom of the label.  It reads “+ B + UP together with START.”  On the mission select screen I tried inputting this code, but it does nothing.  That is because the code is incomplete!  So, not only is there no indication about this code hidden in plain sight on the cart label, but also the code is wrong to begin with.  But it’s close, you also have to press Select along with B and Up, then press Start.

With all of this now in place, I was able to beat the game.  It took me a long while to get it done.  I ended up beating all the stages separately and I identified routes through each level that I had committed to memory.  It’s still pretty tricky to clear everything in one shot as it is pretty easy to die from all of the things already mentioned.  The final stage is no cakewalk either.  More than once, I died pretty quickly in the stage, and since you lose all of your lives through the bad AI, it was frustrating setback after frustrating setback.  That’s 20 to 30 minutes wasted on every failure.  The final stage is more cramped, has fewer good spots to grind enemies, and is confusing to navigate, but it’s not all that much harder than the rest of the game.  It took me close to 30 tries from start to beat this game, including a few quick resets, in about 12 hours total to finish the game.

Avoid the blobs and get out

That’s not all there is to this story, however.  I have inadvertently spread some misinformation about this game, including here in this very review to some degree.  Time to set the record straight.  The secret code on the label for the final stage is not incorrect, but intentionally incomplete.  Here’s the scoop.  The game maintains a hidden counter that increases when you defeat some special enemies.  I played the first stage on emulator watching this counter in RAM (located at $0513) to confirm this.  Some of the spawning enemies appear using a different color palette, and defeating these enemies advances the counter.  If you can defeat 30 of these enemies in the stage, the victory text after completing the stage will have some of the words highlighted in red.  What you need to do is complete all four stages with enough special kills, copy down the red text that appears, and piece all four stages together for the secret message.  Now one of the screens takes some liberty here, deliberately misspelling a word and combining it with part of another word elsewhere in the text.  When you combine everything properly, you get the following: “The last mission can be reached from the mission screen by pushing select and seek the advice of the label to make it to the final mission.”  So, there you have it.  I completely missed this in my own playthrough; I don’t recall seeing any red text during any of my attempts.  But indeed everything you need for the code is included on the cart.  Thanks to this article at The Cutting Room Floor for clearing this up for me.  This is extremely clever, but the problem is that it is too clever and gets in the way of an already troubled game.  The crazy thing is that this isn’t the only time something meta like this was done in an X-Men game.  The X-Men game on the Sega Genesis has a section that asks the player to “reset the computer,” which is done by physically pressing the reset button on the console to continue, without any indication that this is the necessary solution.  

The speedrun of this game is pretty quick.  The record is currently 5:54 by TooOrange.  The runner takes full advantage of Nightcrawler’s walking through walls ability to run straight through everything in each stage.  In retrospect, this makes a ton of sense, but I assumed it was impossible to play through the game this way.  Being inside of walls still drains health, and Nightcrawler has the lowest max health of any character.  I don’t remember seeing any intentional grinding of enemies for health drops, so it sounds like it’s the appropriate strategy.  I imagine you need to avoid any damage whatsoever along the way to actually pull it off.  There are only 3 runs on the board and one is from 14 years ago, so this is not a popular game.

Even though I did have something nice to say about this game at the very end, The Uncanny X-Men is truly a horrendous game.  The gameplay graphics are murky and dull, the music is uncomplicated and boring, the controls are both too touchy and also unresponsive at times, and the gameplay is frustrating and repetitive.  The character portraits are drawn well enough, and the hidden secret final stage is a clever, though poorly implemented, idea.  That’s about all the good I can find here.  Bad games are often made more challenging due to their poor design and bugs, which is absolutely the case here.  It’s not a pleasant experience at all, but hey, I took care of this one so you don’t have to!

You’ll notice some changes in the ending screenshot below.  In between games, I bought the Analogue NT Mini Noir and added it to my setup.  I had been thinking about getting one secondhand about the time the final batch of them arrived for sale, really just perfect timing on my part.  I wanted to get away from using the flat screen TV for playing games, both in not having to deal with input lag and having the ability to play Zapper games without compromised recording quality, so the Analogue system with its dual output capability just made the most sense for me.  The streaming and recording setup has moved back into my office room full time, just the way I want it.  The only thing remaining is getting around to playing better games on it!

#174 – The Uncanny X-Men