The ’80s may be the era of introduction for video games, specifically at-home consoles like the Atari 2600 and the Nintendo Entertainment System. But the ’90s pushed gaming further into the mainstream and further from the technological dark ages. While it’d be wild to imagine calling 16 and 32 bit systems (ask your parents what a bit is) “cutting edge,” in their time, systems like the Super Nintendo and Sega Master System certainly were, teaming with the Game Boy and Game Gear to drive the worldwide obsession. But hardware is far from the whole story, especially in a period of transition where home consoles weren’t as ubiquitous as they are now.
In the ’90s, within malls, at movie theaters, and in countless other spots, the arcade game still captivated thanks to games like Mortal Kombat II, NBA Jam, and the biggest one of all: Street Fighter II. But there was one game that deserves some props for not only being both fun and addictive but for expanding the mainstream public’s love affair with a group of characters who were key to the rise in popularity of comic books (and who would, a little while later, spark a revolution in comic book movies). That game was X-Men, which arrived at video arcades in 1992.
Since comic readers were introduced to the X-Men characters in 1963, readers have followed the adventures of superpowered humans called mutants who deal with hatred and prejudice from a world that some of them fight to protect from other mutants who would prefer to watch everything burn. Naturally, a want existed to adapt the comic into other forms of media, such as games. And Marvel didn’t miss the Nintendo gold rush, putting out an Uncanny X-Men game in 1989 from LJN. Unfortunately, this achievement left many gamers feeling cold. Essentially, the tech wasn’t there to capture the charm of the X-Men, not until a couple of years later when Konomi developed a side-scrolling action game that would allow readers to control some of their favorite characters. Suddenly, for a pocketful of quarters, you could play as Cyclops, Colossus, Dazzler, Nightcrawler, Storm, and Wolverine as they went up against such familiar faces as Blob, Juggernaut, Emma Frost, the Sentinels, Pyro, and the Master of Magnetism himself, Magneto. Sure, some of the X-Men’s special moves didn’t make much sense as characters relied on abilities they didn’t have (Wolverine firing a blast of concussive energy from his claws; Colossus releasing a gigantic ball of electricity from his entire body), but when you were playing with five other people to take down swarms of enemies, you didn’t care.
As if the arcade game wasn’t enough to push the X-Men’s popularity to untold pop culture heights, the hugely influential and revered X-Men: The Animated Series also debuted in 1992 on FOX Saturday mornings. It had beautifully drawn animation, spot-on voice work, and layered storytelling in every episode. It also had one of the best themes composed for any superhero property.
The show satisfied established fans who loved reading about the X-Men and wanted more, and also whetted the appetites of those who would step into a comic-book store for the first time, opening up a world of X-Men stories.
Some of those were rooted in its sci-fi/fantasy roots, with Professor X and Magneto’s friendship-turned-rivalry, Wolverine and Sabretooth’s seething hatred for each other, Gambit and Rogue’s relationship (which makes physical touch between the two impossible), and the Phoenix Force, which transformed Jean Grey into a malevolent and powerful entity willing and able to destroy entire planets. Still, other stories delved deeper into themes that resonated directly with our own world.
Unlike the Justice League, the Avengers, or even the Fantastic Four, who were all respected and admired for their heroics and their impressive physical appearance, the X-Men have always been misunderstood outcasts who are constantly reminded that they would never be respected and never be allowed to fit in with the rest of the world. And for kids of all ages whose looks, interests, personalities, and sexual orientations made them into literal and figurative punching bags among their peers and even among their own families, the X-Men were a team that reflected who they were, how they felt, and gave them all characters they could relate to. They were mutants who were hated and rejected by everyone around them, but their powers made them unique, and gave them abilities that ordinary humans didn’t have. Whether it was the ability to read or control minds, to shape-shift so that you can look like someone else, or to be so strong and so powerful that nothing and no one can stop you or get in your way once you’re in motion.
That’s the world blown open by a simple arcade game, a Saturday Morning Cartoon, and the comics that inspired all of the above. One that has continued to grow off the storytelling might of comic writers like Mark Millar, Grant Morrison, and Jonathan Hickman, additional games, a trilogy of films that helped erase the superhero movie fatigue of the late ’90s, and a reinvention that saw the X-Men: First Class films, Logan, and Deadpool. What’s next is anyone’s guess, but the foundation is doubtlessly strong across every platform.