X-Men Assemble! No, wait, that's the Avengers. Shit. What do the X-Men say when they all need to gather together, then? Actually, they all live in a school so they probably just ring a bell. One bell for the start of class, two bells for lunchtime, three bells for the appearance of a world-conquering evil. However they organise it, in today's game some of your favourite mutants (and Cyclops) have gathered together to save the world one punch at a time in Digital Eclipse's 2001 Game Boy Advance brawler X-Men: Reign of Apocalypse!
Well, that's definitely a contender for Ugliest Title Screen ever featured here at VGJunk. I've only just noticed that there is some character art faintly reflected in the word "X-MEN." It doesn't really improve the composition any.
I was never a massive fan of the X-Men comics as a kid so most of my knowledge about them comes from the Saturday morning cartoon, but I recognise the tyrannical villain Apocalypse in the background there. I mean, his name's in the title of the game, so he was bound to show up somewhere. He has recruited into his army Juggernaut, a Sentinel and a humanoid pterodactyl because sure, why not? I don't know who the pterodactyl is, but he must be a mutant judging by the way the Sentinel is trying to disintegrate him. The forces of evil couldn't even hold their alliance together long enough to take the promotional photos. Hopefully this lack of unity will give the X-Men a chance to thwart Apocalypse's plans.
Plans such as the murder of Cyclops, something the X-Men did not thwart, You can tell, because the game opens with the X-Men finding Cyclops' corpse in the ruins of Xavier's mansion.
Cyclops is understandably upset by this turn of events, and he vows revenge on those responsible for his death. Did I mention the plot of this game is all about an alternate dimension where Apocalypse has taken over most of the world, with four X-Men from the "real" world crossing over and then having to fight their way back to their original reality? Because that's what it's about, which is why Cyclops gets the rare opportunity to avenge his own murder. This is all presumably based on the "Age of Apocalypse" comics event, so we're all set for any character with even a loose affiliation to the X-Men coming together to knock the seven bells out of each other. But which of the mighty mutants does the player get to control?
There's Wolverine, because you can't have a game about the X-Men fighting things without the ol' Canucklehead. Fighting is what he does, and he's the best there is at what he do. Does. That sentence got away from me a little there, but I'm going to distract you from my lexical faux pas by pointing out that Wolverine's chin has passed from being a rugged lantern jaw to a full-on Desperate Dan protuberance. Wolverine's Ear-Flap Status: large, moth-like. With a decent run-up he could glide for a considerable distance on those things.
You can play as Storm! I don't have much to say about Storm. She's pretty cool, I guess. Whenever I think of her weather-controlling powers I always imagine whether they'd make it possible for her to corner the market in certain hard-to-grow agricultural crops, providing her with fabulous wealth. Don't pick me for you team of superpowered heroes, is what I'm saying.
Cyclops is the leader, so he gets to tag along. I know ragging on Cyclops for being lame and boring is something of a cliché, but he's just kind of lame and boring. His power is essentially that he can punch things by looking at them. Handy for turning the lights off without getting out of bed, but just not as interesting as other mutant abilities.
Finally there's Rogue. Rogue, Rogue, R-O-G-U-E. I've just got to practise that a bit, otherwise I'll spell it "Rouge" every goddamn time. A slightly surprising inclusion, given that there are many other X-Men better known for their fighting abilities and Rogue's power of stealing other mutant's powers doesn't really come into play, but I'm happy enough with her inclusion.
I decided to go with Wolverine for stage one because, well, he's Wolverine - I reckon he'll provide a decent baseline for learning the intricacies of Reign of Apocalypse's combat. It does have a few quirks, too: there's the usual beat-em-up controls of jumping, using the attack button to perform ground-based combos and pressing two buttons together to unleash a special that hits enemies surrounding you at the cost of some of your health, but there's also another button for heavy attacks that knock enemies to the ground and a special dashing move executing using a fireball motion on the d-pad followed by light attack. In Wolverine's case he launches himself at the bad guys with his claws extended. It'd be more useful it if did more than a pitiful amount of damage, but it's nice to have the option. The problem is that you can also dash by double-tapping left or right, but if you dash and then attack your character immediately stops dead and throws their punch, and the complete disregard for momentum feels a little odd. I was unable to shake the feeling that your dashing special should be towards, towards and attack instead of a fireball motion, and I spent the whole game being ever-so-slightly annoyed that this graceful solution wasn't implemented.
You can grapple and throw enemies, too. It hurts them, although in Wolverine's case I'm not sure why it hurts them because rather than slamming them into the ground he picks up the bad guys and then gently puts them back down in the manner of a mother laying her newborn child in a cot. Well, with the addition of razor-sharp claws sticking out of her hands. I suppose you would be gentle if that was the case.
So, the first stage of robot-punching action is brief and mostly uneventful - the combat works pretty well and the graphics are pleasingly comic-book-y in nature, although the lack of variety in the bad guys is already a worry and I haven't even cleared stage one yet. There are blue robots and red robots, and both kinds fight in exactly the same way. The red ones have slightly more health. It's not exactly a cavalcade of colourful characters, but maybe the boss fight will liven things up.
It's The Blob! The Incredibly Smug Blob, posing like the mascot for a company that sells plus-size swimming costumes. Nothing moves The Blob - he sat through Marley & Me without getting so much as a lump in his throat - but luckily I don't need him to move. I can just stand there while I whittle away at his health bar, and The Blob seems very reluctant to fight back. I had to purposefully stop attacking just to see what tricks The Blob had stuffed in his leotard, and I was rewarded with this.
It takes a lot to distract from the terror of The Blob's lycra-swaddled groin hurtling towards you, but that face just about manages it.
I switched to Rogue for stage two, although in this case "switched to" means "restarted the whole game and selected Rogue," because once you've chosen your X-Person you're stuck with them for the duration. This is probably because there's a a very minor levelling-up system in place that allows you to upgrade a couple of stats between stages, but I would have happily forgone the undercooked RPG elements if it meant I could change characters more freely.
Rogue's fighting style is not too disimilar from Wolverine's, with basic punching combos and a special that sees her flying forward with her fist extended, although unlike Wolverine said fist doesn't have cutlery sticking out of it. I prefer Rogue, though, for a couple of reasons. One is that she doesn't just walk across the screen, she struts.
Look at that pose - hand on hip, utterly confident whether facing robots or, erm, robots. There are a lot of robots to beat up in this game.
The other thing is that for her strong attack Rogue stops messing around and headbutts the enemy really, really hard. It's not that useful, because you'd do much more damage by comboing an enemy rather than knocking them to the ground, but that didn't stop me using the headbutt at every available opportunity.
X-Men: Reign of Apocalypse sure does have a way with faces.
The boss is Cable, Cyclop's son who's older than his dad (comics!) and who has lots of guns and a cybernetic arm thanks to infection by a techno-organic virus (again, comics!). Years of playing Marvel vs. Capcom 2 have left me utterly unprepared for a fight against Cable where he doesn't spend the whole affair spamming projectile attacks and shouting "Viper Beam! Viper Beam! Hyper Viper Beam!" but I quickly figured out that this version of Cable wasn't going to be much of a threat. For one thing, he's a giant lumbering ox of a man in this incarnation, like a Frankenstein's monster held together by brightly-coloured spandex instead of the surgical skills of a mad doctor. His guns also don't have much range, and Rogue had no trouble getting up close and smashing his face in with repeated headbutts like the good Glasgow girl she presumably is.
It's Storm's turn now, as the X-Men infiltrate the secret Canadian weapons program Department H. A Canadian bio-weapons program... it just doesn't sound right, does it? It's like a reliable Italian car or England having a good national football team.
The thing the sets Storm aside from the previous two characters is that she use an honest-to-god projectile attack instead of throwing herself at the bad guys. It's rather a familiar little whirlwind, too: between this attack, Rogue flying punches and the general aesthetic of the character sprites, it's clear that the developers were inspired by Capcom's Marvel fighting games. Only graphically, mind you, because in gameplay terms this feels a lot like an attempt to recreate Konami's famous X-Men arcade game. If it doesn't end with Magneto, Master of Magnet, calling me an X-Chicken, I'm going to be very disappointed.
These goons look kinda like Spider-Man,
All dressed up in red and white,
Like Polish flags that are skin-tight,
Look out, here comes the Poland-Man.
Hay look, it's Sabretooth! Sabretooth is Wolverine but evil. Yes. His bones aren't metal. I think that's why he's so grumpy all the time, he was stiffed out of a bitchin' metal skeleton. Sabretooth continues the game's pattern of all the bosses being laughably easy to defeat and even Storm - not known for her hand-to-hand combat skills - can comfortably pummel Sabretooth into unconsciousness.
But wait! Another boss quickly appears, and this time it's the Ragin' Cajun Gambit, mon ami, zut alors and other such French phrases. Gambit fights mostly with a stick, which is a damn sight more effective than Sabretooth's claws or even Cable's guns, and he can also throw exploding playing cards at you like the world's worst croupier. Congratulations, Gambit - you're the first boss I had to pay attention to in order to beat. Not much attention, granted, but a non-zero amount.
Before I move on to the next stage, here's a quick look at Cyclops in action. He's got a projectile too, naturally. The best thing about Cyclops is that when you fire his optic blast his body language suggests he's taken aback by the sudden explosion of kinetic force emanating from his eyes. I'd like to believe that Cyclops forgets about his freakish powers every time he goes to bed, and the first thing he does each morning is open his eyes and rip the ceiling off his bedroom.
Stage four takes place on the back of the X-Men's private jet. The engines are firing out plumes of flame but the plane remains stationary, so whoever's in the cockpit is just wasting fuel because, what, they're a dick? C'mon, X-Man, fossil fuels are a non-renewable source of energy. I know the world has been conquered and enslaved by an evil super-mutant, but that's no reason to further damage an already strained ecosystem.
Look, now you've upset powerful psychic and frequent death sufferer Jean Grey. How come all the other X-Men get code names except Jean Grey? Is telekinesis not cool enough for a code name? Actually, that might be how it works, you only get a code name if your powers aren't mind-based. That's why he's called Professor Xavier and not The Brain or Bald Wheelsman.
Oh, right, Jean Grey. She might be Phoenix, actually. She's got some fire-based attacks, but the real challenge in the fight comes from trying to dispatch all the robo-thugs before they can surround you, all while Jean Grey is trying to set you alight. Make sure you level up your strength at the expense of the other stats, because otherwise at this point in the game enemies start taking too long to defeat. Not in an interesting way, like because you have to fight cautiously against them, but because their health bars are too long.
Now I'm fighting Sentinels while I ride an elevator past a really big Sentinel. You can't have an X-Men game without Sentinels, it'd be like a Metal Gear Solid without over-long cutscenes or a Resident Evil game with a sensible, restrained plot. A little-known fact about Sentinels: if you punch them in the knee, they're programmed to throw up some jazz hands, a remnant of code left over from their original purpose of providing cheap, robotic chorus-line dancers for off-Broadway musicals.
Oh cool, it's Juggernaut. I've always liked Juggernaut. I appreciate the simplicity of his skill set. It's a pretty effective skill set, too, as you can tell by the way he's pounded Wolverine into the ground in the screenshot above. You might think Wolverine's famous healing factor might help him to recover from this setback, but that particular aspect of Wolverine's superpowers is not included in the game and he has to restore his health by collecting big, floating first aid symbols like the rest of us. One thing Wolverine has got, and which I only figured out how to use at around this point, is a special Mutant Power move that you can activate by pressing L when the blue bar under your health is full. I assume all the other characters have a Mutant Power, too, but I forgot to check. Wolverine's is a more-damaging-than-usual barrage of claw slashes inflicted with the raw ferocity of a berserker. Hmm. It definitely helped to see Juggernaut off, but he was never going to win anyway. I refuse to be defeated by a 'roided-out maniac with a bucket on his head.
As I punch my way through stage six and its legions of colourful troops that look like rejected designs for He-Man toys - an impressive feat considering Mattel once released a He-Man toy with the gimmick that it smelled bad - I feel I should point out I'm not even halfway through the game yet. Don't worry, though, things will speed up from here because there's nothing new to say. Each short stage (some are only two or three screens long) sees you fighting some nondescript thugs before taking on an X-Men character regardless of whether they're usually a good guy or not. The fighting is serviceable, although there are problems with it. It can be difficult to tell when attacks are connecting, and sometime when you are performing a combo on an enemy they'll suddenly start ignoring your punches and either hit you or simply walk away. That can be a bit disheartening.
Magneto did not once call me an X-Chicken. Nor did he even welcome me to die. He did produce an exploding Sentinel head from under the floor which softened the blow a little, but I'm still disappointed.
I can pretty much stop describe the levels themselves at this point because there's almost no variation between them other than background. Here, I have been led to what is supposedly Paris thanks to some plot nonsense about finding a Warp Gate to send the X-Men back to their world. Guarding this Warp Gate is Nightcrawler. His superpower is teleportation, and he's using it to teleport his foot up my ass. Having to fight a boss who can dematerialise at will might have been a real challenge, if only Nightcrawler was intelligent enough to not repeatedly rematerialise right on top of the spiky booby-trap on the left of the battlefield. Looks like the devil, dumb as a bag of rocks and a name that makes him sound like a sex offender - life has not been kind to Nightcrawler.
Oh, and you have to fight Psylocke, too. She's only a screen away from the previous fight, so she must have watched Nightcrawler repeatedly impale himself without wandering over to lend a hand. That's why the good guys always triumph - because the antagonists are too selfish to aid their comrades even when they're having obvious trouble with the concept of not having pointy wooden stakes jabbed into them.
What stage are we up to now? Eight? Nine? I've lost count, and I'm not far off losing the will to continue. Reign of Apocalypse is one of those games that somehow manages to feel really short and far too long at the same time, and not even the appearance of the pterodactyl man from the intro can perk things up. His name is Sauron. In the comics, Sauron named himself after the character from Lord of the Ring because he is a huge nerd. Sauron at least has the decency to cover his pterodactyl wang with a rudimentary loincloth. Thanks, Sauron.
You also have to fight Beast, who's looking more gorilla-like than I remember him being. As his fighting style is "kinda like Wolverine but not as good," I didn't have any trouble beating him.
Do you want your audience to know that your work of fiction is taking place post-apocalypse (pun intended) rather than pre- or even mid-apocalypse? Then show them a busted-up Statue of Liberty, it never fails. That thing is like a magnet for Really Bad Times, ending of Ghostbusters 2 notwithstanding. Shit, did I just spoil the ending of Ghostbusters 2? I'm sorry, I really am.
There's Russian metal-man Colossus, hanging around until Wolverine has defeated all his minions before engaging our hero in battle. You see what I mean about the villains needing to spend more time working on their unity? There's no I in team, and there's no I in "group of super-powered bad guys bent on world conquest" either. Get it together, guys.
Oh, and it took me a while to figure out what Colossus' face reminded me of, but I eventually came to the conclusion that the answer is "blue Homestar Runner."
I know I said we were heading to a warp gate, like, three stages ago, but Cyclops decided that before we do that we have to destroy some of the smaller cogs in Apocalypse's machinery of brutal oppression before we assault the big man, with the goal of drawing away some of the troops protecting his headquarters. It doesn't seem to be working, because that's a lot of guys who look a bit like Spider-Man that I have to fight my way through.
Here's a thing about the enemies in this game: take a look at that clump of enemies on the right. You see how there's three of them just overlapping each other? Well, Reign of Apocalypse does this weird thing where an enemy will be standing there before another, identical enemy appears behind it. I don't know if the multiple enemies are always there and just standing right behind each other so you can't see them or if they spontaneously reproduce through full-body mitosis, but it doesn't feel right, especially when you think you've got one enemy to fight and you walk up to it only for it to suddenly turn into identical triplets.
Guarding this stage is the Silver Samurai, a samurai who is silver. I'm sorry, it's late and I'm tired.
The penultimate stage sees our heroes traversing the Golden Gate bridge, but wait! The bridge is guarded by Archangel, the former X-Man with the incredible power of flight! A power that roughly 50% of superheroes seem to have in addition to their other powers. As you can see, Archangel's primary attack is a rock 'n' roll knee slide, which probably explains why I didn't have any problems beating him up.
Then you have to go up against time-travelling mutant Bishop, so named because he's a fairly high-ranking member of the Catholic church. You'd think the shotgun he uses would be more effective than Archangel's knee-slides, but somehow it manages to have even less range than that attack. Always coming into these boss fights with a full bar of Mutant Power is extremely helpful, by the way. Being able to take a third of a boss' health right at the start of the fight just by walking up to them and pressing L is truly the most useful superpower.
At long last, or short last because X-Men: Reign of Apocalypse really doesn't take that long to complete, the X-Men have reached Apocalypse's moon base, and the final guardian of this installation (aside from Apocalypse himself) is... Pyro. Pyro. I've sliced my way through every super-powered individual who's so much as been in the same post code as an X-Man, and Apocalypse has chosen a guy who can shoot fire to protect his inner sanctum? The job of guardian Apocalypse's chamber must be on a rotating schedule and it just happened to be Pyro's turn today, surely. You might as well hire one of those people who juggles fire at carnivals to defend the heart of your lair.
The best part of this fight, this stage and possibly of the entire game is that Pyro can and frequently does get set on fire by the flame jets in the floor. There's being hoisted by your own petard, then there's having your own petard kill you by setting you on fire.
Apocalypse is kinda underwhelming. Yes, he can create buzzsaws to attack you with and yes, he has an annoying special attack where he summons the ghostly image of his four horsemen and it covers the whole screen so there's no way you can avoid it, but... is that it? How did the power to manifest lumber-cutting tools allow you to conquer the Earth, Apocalypse? Also, he's constantly leaking a green liquid during this fight. Like I said, I was never a huge fan of the X-Men comics, so if you can tell me whether or not it's Marvel canon that Apocalypse has what looks like Mountain Dew constantly seeping from his pores, that'd be great.
It's a weirdly easy fight, even with Apocalypse's screen-covering special attack. I think it's because, unlike the more human-sized bosses, Apocalypse doesn't move around much. He just stands there while Wolverine pokes holes in him. I'd make sure you wash your claws afterwards, Wolverine. Whatever that green stuff is, it'll probably take the shine off your claws at the very least.
Yes, Cyclops, let's go home, back to a different dimension where your lives are nothing but endless fighting. Or, maybe you should just stay here and rule as gods now that you've killed anyone who could have opposed you? There's a free moon base going spare here! You can't just turn down something like that. Free moon base!
Cyclops makes everyone go home, the boring sod, and Professor Xavier deduces from their tattered appearance and the way they fell out of a glowing energy portal right in front of him that "there's quite a story behind this." Didn't need your psychic powers for that one, huh, Chuck?
"You don't know the half of it," says Wolverine, everyone laughs like it's the end of an episode of a Seventies sitcom and that's it, X-Men: Reign of Apocalypse is over.
I can't really get the balance right when I try to describe this one: I feel like I'm either being unnecessarily harsh or giving it more credit than it deserves, which probably means it's a very average game. The combat is fun if occasionally unpredictable - grabbing enemies when you're trying to punch them can be a problem, and any enemy projectiles are a nightmare to avoid because they hurt you if they touch any part of your sprite, regardless of whether you're on the same horizontal plane or not. It's got a nice X-Men flavour, with plenty of characters to see, and I rather like the graphics. It's not perfect, but for an early GBA game it's pretty playable.
Then I found some GameShark codes that let you play as any of the other characters. Here, I'm playing as Juggernaut and I've got to say this increased my enjoyment of Reign of Apocalypse ten-fold. Having access to a move where I just stomp around like a demented toddler will do that. I tried out some of the other characters and they all seem to have a fully fleshed-out set of moves, including specials and Mutant Powers. Were these characters intended to be playable at some point in development? I don't know, but I can tell you that this discovery has pushed Cyclops down from 4th on the "characters I'd like to play as in this game" list to about 30th.