Maybe some of you remember a place called Funco Land if you were growing up in the late 90's; it was a used-game emporium that had the less-than-admirable knack for selling you cheap, steaming slag at tomorrow's prices. Parents everywhere were tricked on a consistent basis, thinking, “Oh, only $12? Must be a great deal.” No; no it was not, and it never was. When's the last time somebody parted with Zelda or Star Fox for that price? No good can come from peddling used, marked-up garbage, because more often than not, a poor kid like myself would fall into the death trap of whatever cruddy game I received from this chamber of horrors. One such example was Spider-Man and the X-Men: Arcade's Revenge.
Let me rephrase the previous paragraph: This game was the fucking bane of my childhood. For starters, I was goddamn crazy about Spider-Man, X-Men, and generally anything to do with Marvel Comics. When I saw the cover of the cartridge, I freaked out because of all the colorful characters displayed. I thought, “Spidey and the X-Men? Gee, what an all-star team! What could go wrong?” Evidently EVERYTHING could, and would, go wrong with this frustrating goddamned game. The source of all these woes doesn't just lie with its origin of sale, but its origin of development: LJN, an infamous shitfactory when it came to licensed games on the systems of the 90's. I'm not even going to bother elaborating on their multitude of failures, because we'd be here all day. Instead, I'm just going to dive headfirst into this game's eccentricities, thereby cracking my skull open and releasing a plethora of awful memories.
One of the worst things about Arcade's Revenge was the outright lie from the get-go: you couldn't play as the fucking X-Men until you solved a boring Hide-And-Seek segment with Spider-Man and sequential traffic lights. Yes, fucking traffic lights. I don't know what else to call them...alarms, maybe? Either way, you had to collect them all in this dingy, boring building which somehow hides a neo-noir laboratory filled with even more traffic lights. The worst part about it was that you couldn't even collect them all right away; you had to collect one, then backtrack to whichever stupid little alarm was ringing next. If a light wasn't lit up, it didn't do shit. Yes, Spider-Man essentially becomes a meter maid in this first segment of the game. And you have to complete this “intro” level every goddamn time you turn on this wretched abomination. Aside from the overall lack of any bad-guy busting, you'd also note that Spider-Man seems to be covered in sticky fucking glue, because he wants to wallcrawl on EVERYTHING. This creates some very, very frustrating, nonsensical battles with the game on where you want to land or stay, because just touching a flat surface will staple your ass to it.
If you somehow didn't break the SNES in half before this segment was over, you'd be rewarded with an actual character selection screen. You can be a masochist and select Spider-Man again, or select 3 of 4 playable X-men. I say 3 because Storm's level takes place underwater, which makes total sense for a superhero who is known for flying. Needless to say, don't pick Storm. I know that technically you have to beat every scenario to win the game, but don't worry. You won't be beating this game.
The difficulty in this game is legendary. Not quite the level of gutbusting you'd have to deal with in Dark Souls or even Battletoads, but it's there. Very little is explained to you; you just kind of figure things out after 2 or 3 excruciating playthroughs. There are about 5 different base scenarios, not counting the initial Banjo-Kazooie collect-a-thon, and you'll need to play as every goddamn character in order to reach Arcade (some b-list supervillain who was shoehorned into being the big bad, due to his “videogame” power/theme/fetish). Most of you will probably steer clear of Spider-Man like he's a blind date with bad halitosis and even worse swinging mechanics, and you'd be right. You'd also be right if you threw this game in the garbage. But, if you still want to slog through it, you'll be relieved to know there are no collectables; just the aforementioned bad swinging mechanics.
Spidey's swinging is pretty basic; you send out a webline and it can carry you over in an arc however high or low you want. However, the slightest touch from anything in this incredibly quick trajectory will be met with the ever-annoying “OOMPHPH” damage voiceclip and Spidey being dropped like hot garbage, likely into a bottomless abyss. You'll be glad to know that Spidey's scenarios depend mainly on this ever-so-reliable websling.
Spidey's first act takes place in some kind of fucked up construction site. There isn't much work being done because there are lots of weird robots dropping mines all over the place. The robots have also done a particularly shit job doing the electrical work, as you'll realize when you fall into a briar patch of livewires again and again. You'll swing around and get killed often, trying in vain to cling to some weird vomit-tinged foam lining. For some reason, Spider-Man cannot adhere to this vomit foam, making a few swing n' clings quite taxing. Equally confusing is why this construction site is littered with gems and diamonds. Perhaps they were purloined by the stage boss: the fucking Devil. That's right, Spider-Man's boss battle of Act One is against Satan himself in his winged heirophant form.
Things don't fare better in Act Two, where the game turns into a particularly awful platforming course. Besides your websling struggles, you'll also be contending with some bullshit Mega Man X2 weather patterns, fighting against the weight and slowdown of rain particles that occasionally damper your momentum. If you somehow make it to the end, you'll be rewarded with Boss Battle for Idiots: Maximum Carnage, starring ADHD Carnage and Horizontal Hatemachine Rhino.
I'm sure everyone and their moms didn't want to be Spider-Man again the first time they completed his terrible introduction level, so they did what everyone in the 90s was prone to do: pick Wolverine, quintessential Canuck badass. How do you counter such awesomeness, such brute strength and animal rage? You put this angry little man in an infuriating circus stage filled with jack-in-the-box machine gunners and barely-reachable platforms. Architecturally, things aren't anywhere near the what-the-fuck factor of Spider-Man's platformer perils, but it's not fun, either. It's a long, boring climb past various annoying explosives that you can just regenerate from, anyway. Retracting Wolvie's claws allows you to slowly but surely regain some of your health, so what's the point? (Un)fortunately, the game developers made sure to challenge this mechanic in the second act, which comes after your anticlimactic fight with an anorexic Apocalypse who suffers from the same debilitating syndrome as Cletus “Jump Around Listlessly” Kasady.
Act Two for Wolverine is one of the worst levels in any game, forever. You're being endlessly chased by the Juggernaut, who can only be stopped by slashing down every fucking 8-ton anvil suspended by ropes (why?) and running to the right. Since the Juggernaut is no slouch, you'll need to repeatedly halt your mad dash and cut down every weight you can to slow his steady march, all while clawing through walls and jumping over obstacles. This level sucks because if you miss a few weights, you won't kill Juggernaut in time before the bottomless pit that awaits you at the end. So, even if you outrun that bastard, you'll still die. The kicker of this race against time is that Juggernaut actually jumps into the fucking pit when he reaches it, too. Poor dumb fucker just can't wait to end it all. The first time I ever played this game and made it to the end, I was furious that it was just a red herring. Shit like this was just more evidence on the ever-mounting pile that LJN 1) hated us, and 2) hated us enough to promise freedom, only to let the ocean collapse in on us at the last second. LJN is demon Moses, and this game is the plague of locusts.
If being chased by rampaging roid-ragers isn't your thing, then being chased by a gigantic spiked ball while dodging attacks from possessed chess pieces might be more up your alley. Gambit's scenario consists of one constant truth: scrolling. The first level is a horizontal run across some sort of odd MC Escher LEGO set, throwing tons of bizarre shit at you so fast that you won't even be able to process it at first playthrough. All the while, a gargantuan bowling ball is rolling towards you from the left, its rumbling cacophony being the catalyst for sweaty palms and frequent swearing as you frantically try to break apart another Kraft macaroni-colored barrier. It's a freaking warzone.
Gambit is unique in that he relies upon a finite salvo of ammunition: his playing cards. If there's one thing LJN can be commended for, it's for being true to MOST of the heroic powers that be. Spidey swings, Wolverine can retract claws to heal, Cyclops can't ride roller coasters, and Gambit doesn't have a magic satchel of cards. To deal with this shortcoming, you can periodically collect “refunds” from used cards, picking up leftovers from attacks on enemies or breakable walls. If you run out of cards, you're fucked.
Gambit's level was the one I found myself playing the most, due to its incredibly insane premise and absolutely rockin' musical theme. I don't even remember beating the first Act as a kid, but that didn't stop me from trying over and over and over. Unlike the inane bullshit of the other scenarios, Gambit's just feels special, spectacular, and nerve-wracking. With Wolverine's stage, you felt like you'd been cheated if you missed one fucking anvil dropped on Juggernaut's noggin. With Gambit, it was all about being the master of your domain; it's just you and the game, dodging a veritable bullethell of projectiles while you made snap judgments on how best to use your ammunition. You need to strike a keen balance between taking out threats or keeping up the pace. You take too long eliminating chess pawns and weird globular drones, the ball will squash you. You ignore the enemies, and you get melted.
The boss of this stage is a giant fucking playing card with Clark Gable's face on it.
Act Two is a six-minute brigade of shit while you're on a platform that is vertically rising. Although this is significantly easier than the previous challenge of a god-sized wrecking ball racing you while Kasparov's chess set from hell wants you dead, there's still the offchance that you will fall asleep and get smushed by a random ceiling. Finally, you'll face off against a giant robot mannequin Black Queen from Battletoads; while you might be freaked out by the uncanny valley aspect of this, the battle itself isn't the most difficult thing in the world. By far, the real challenge was arriving at this juncture at all.
While Gambit's stage is a grueling yet intriguing adrenaline rush of pain, Cyclops' is a bog filled with explosions, molasses, and stupid minecart rides. For some reason, Cyclops is the only character with multiple attacks; he can punch or kick (which do the same fucking thing, as far as I know) or he can use his LASER BEAM. You might be thinking, “why would anyone punch or kick when you can shoot lasers out of your eyes?” Well, here's the thing: Cyclops' aim sucks, and you are up against a thousand Master Chief clones who can aim mortars with the expertise of a Vietnam vet.
You'll be “exploring” a stupid crystal cavern filled with asshole spacemen who want you dead, all the while avoiding an electrified rollercoaster track that lines the ground floor. You'll have to catch rides on passing minecarts to traverse a few of the level's areas, and if your timing is off by even a bit, it's an automatic death by electrocution. To make matters worse, tiny asshole drone spheres will fly in and try to kill you while darting in and out of your line of fire. Killing these things is a major pain in the ass, especially because they're so quick and relentless. They will literally never leave you alone until you kill them, at which point there's the added bonus of their self-destruction, which can knock you on your ass for a good chunk of health. It's easy to see why I hate this fucking level.
Cyclops' second Act consists of a fun new enemy: yellow MENSA trolls who are resistant to your eyebeams, forcing you to use your pathetic fucking kick against them. Other than that, you'll still be traversing the same goddamned boring caverns, jumping across the same crystalline spires, and riding the same stupid minecarts. Cyclops' level reflects upon his boring personality so much that we are given an additional Act to make up for his wooden personality. That's right: an additional Act! And guess what? It's a boring bullethell battle against a big stupid Sentinel. Maybe it's Master Mold? If it is, I'm past the point of caring about fanservice. It's just another big dumb robot in a game full of big dumb robots.
Storm's scenario will be the shortest description I have prepared because it sucks so, so much. What do you do with a superhero who primarily flies around and uses weather to assault her enemies? You sure as fuck don't put her underwater for a series of bullshit mazes and barely-visible battles, that's for sure—but that didn't stop Arcade's Revenge from going down this path. Storm's scenarios are so fucking baffling, so utterly terrible that it makes the Juggernaut stage look like a cakewalk. You are constantly left in confusion as to where you are supposed to be going, what anything is, and WHY THE FUCK STORM IS UNDERWATER. Storm does not have the ability to breathe underwater, and thus you are being constantly limited in how long you spend swimming. To make matters worse, your life gauge is directly connected to your oxygen; so, if you take a few hits from a nigh-invisible squid hiding from behind some fucking seaweed or metal garbage or whatever the fuck this thing is, you're that much closer to suffocating.
I've wracked my brain to come up with a reason why the developers though this concept was a good idea, and the only plausible one is a real fucking stretch by any means. If you're familiar with the comics, you'd know one of Storm's greatest fears is claustrophobia. Perhaps that's the challenge that LJN was posing for us? Drawing us into Storm's personal, secret fears, allowing us to feel the same type of dread as she? Was this a complex, cerebral decision meant to blur the line between player and character?
No, probably not, this stage just fucking sucks.
I know there are two Acts to this Storm scenario, but I can't even honestly tell you the differences between them. Both of them take place is a blurry miasma of indistinguishable cerulean shit. Valves and drain pipes litter the background; everything looks the same and there is no concept of passage or progression, leaving you scratching your head while Storm drowns. This is just unspeakably bad and unfun. You could have been an unstoppable force of nature, hailing down ice footballs and smiting dudes with lightning bolts. Instead, they took the TMNT NES game's crappy water level and mish-mashed it with The Lost Woods or something, creating one of the worst water levels of all time, and certainly the worst amalgam of potential powers v. level design.
If you somehow undermined your brain's death rattle as you approach the game's climax, you'll find yourself faced with a series of stupid mini-levels on the way to Arcade. Each character has a quick, boring area to get through—even Storm, who somehow gets out of the fucking water prison and gets totally new controls. It's not anything exciting, though; you still don't get to fucking fly and all you can do is fire off a generic projectile.
At world's end is Arcade, riding a big stupid robot head. The unique part of this boss battle is that you start with Spider-Man, but your 4 compatriots stand off to the side and occasionally help by throwing lasers or cards or whatever. After you defeat Arcade's big robot face and beat up his clones that pop out, you'll be rewarded with a nice big fat stupid ending wherein there is no closure for any of the X-Men.
Spider-Man and the X-Men: Arcade's Revenge isn't the worst game in the world, despite my stolid confusion and frustration with many gameplay decisions and cruddy levels. Graphically and sonically, it's a pretty cool experience; the art direction isn't too bad, especially when you gaze upon some of the weirder backgrounds—but it's the music that really comes out on top. Tim and Geoff Follin, superb game composers who also did work on Rock N' Roll Racing's soundtrack, created some truly awesome tracks that I still love dearly. The opening theme and Gambit's level in particular are excellent—and that level select tune is just catchy as hell.
In the long run, I suppose Arcade's Revenge is something worth remembering, even begrudgingly so. In a swarm of ridiculous SNES games (and there is a veritable ocean of underdog games for the system), this one stands out just because of how often it will fuck you over and defy your expectations. It's worth playing if only to experience Gambit's stages and to cry in agony over Wolverine's segment with the Juggernaut. If there were less bullshit elements and a save feature to absolve us from doing the tutorial AND previous stages repeatedly, the game could have been classic. Instead, it's a classic example of how to piss people off with a cool comic book license.
Amazing and topical!