Back around the time when promotion was starting to ramp up for Activision’s X-Men: Mutant Academy, I failed to see why the world needed it. I understood why it was coming out as Fox’s first X-Men film was on the way and there was money to be made, but save that, it never felt like a game I needed. As I grew up with Nintendo, I initially scoffed at the original PlayStation and went with the N64, and by the time I came to my senses, it was very late into the generation, as in the PlayStation 2 had just been released. In the meantime though, my brother had a PlayStation and one of the game’s we spent hours playing was Capcom’s X-Men Vs. Street Fighter, an over-the-top 2-D fighting game featuring a lot of characters who also appeared in Mutant Academy, so what exactly could Activision’s game give me that Capcom’s game didn’t? Eventually I did mange to find Mutant Academy at a reasonably discounted price and with X-Men fever set in thanks to the movie, I impulse purchased it. What I found was a game I didn’t think I needed, but would up enjoying an awful lot and in replaying it, it still manages to hold up and actually feels quite modern.
Unlike a lot of fighting games today, like Netherrealm’s Injustice: Gods Among Us and Mortal Kombat X, Mutant Academy has no story to speak of, just a basic arcade mode where you go through the same roster of fighters, culminating in a final fight with Magneto. Don’t take this as a notch against the game, as I strongly feel that this game didn’t need a story and is better off without it. Besides, X-Men Vs. Street Fighter didn’t have a story mode either and it didn’t take away from my enjoyment of that game one bit. In a fighting game what matters most is the fight mechanics, and this game borrows tastefully from the best.
Though the game does have 3-D models and backgrounds it plays strictly on a 2-D plane. I think this decision was very wise on part of developer Paradox as had the game been completely 2-D, it would’ve been criticised for not looking up to par compared to Capcom’s flagship fighting series of which this game is heavily influenced by. Each fighter has six attacks, three punches as well as three kicks of the light, medium and heavy variety, and special moves pulled off by combinations of quarter circle motions or charging back and moving forward. I stated that this game feels modern despite being fifteen years old, and I made that statement because Mutant Academy has a lot of the complex simplicity found in fighters like Injustice: Gods Among Us. There are a lot of moves to remember for each character, but they’re never that advanced. You won’t have to pull off half or full-circle motions in the heat of battle and inputs for special are very responsive. Even countering and throwing are simple commands, defaulting to the left triggers on the controller.
Where this game breaks away from the Street Fighter mould a little is how it manages its super moves. You have to build up at least one-tier of a three-tier power meter like the post Super Street Fighter II Turbo games, but there’s a risk reward system implemented as well. Mid-fight you can transfer energy back and forth between the second and third-tier energy bars. You can choose to build up towards your devastating level three super move and deal heavy damage, but should you just need something to help turn the tides in your favour quickly, you can easily put all your built up power back into your second level super move to deal moderate damage in a pinch.
The roster in Mutant Academy is fairly small compared to other fighters released at a time, but they’ll be instantly recognizable to anyone who are fans of the film or the incredibly popular 90’s animated series. On the side of good you’ve got Cyclops, Wolverine, Gambit, Phoenix, Storm as well as Beast and for the bad guys you get Toad, Mystique, Sabretooth and Magneto. There’s a decent amount of variety among the bunch with characters like Wolverine and Sabretooth good choices for those who like to get up close and personal, while Cyclops and Gambit are good for those who favour long-range projectiles. What I really liked about one of the characters, Mystique, is that instead of being the Shang Tsung “morph into everyone character”, she has a gun that she brings to a fight. As Mystique can’t copy mutant abilities, just forms, it wouldn’t make sense for her character to play like that. It’s a little thing, but something that I remember being pleasantly surprised about when I first came up against her in arcade mode. One noticeable absence is Rogue, who was a fan-favourite character from the show as well as the comics and appeared in the film, however she did show up in the sequel that appeared a year later.
One disappointing thing about the roster is that there isn’t any bonus fighters to unlock, but there’s plenty of other things to unlock to keep you busy. The modes outside of arcade are few: A survival mode where you try to last as long as you can, a versus mode where you can make your own tournament and an academy mode where you can practice with your favourite character or learn their moves. Playing both modes unlock comic covers, concept art from the film, extra costumes and FMV videos, so while it can be tedious going over each and every character learning how to do a low-punch, there’s always a worthwhile reward, though the FMV’s even by 2000’s standards are pretty ugly.
Yeah, Tekken or Final Fantasy this game isn’t.
FMV’s aside however, X-Men: Mutant Academy is still a very good-looking game. Each character has a lot of detail, moves fluidly and are very faithfully adapted from their 2-D comic book counterpart into three-dimensions. The fighting arenas themselves also have a lot of detail and take place in a post-apocalyptic world, on top of the heli-carrier or in the Savage Land among others. Each area has an extra little bit of detail to it, like one level that features sentinels flying around in the background and all this occurs without a drop of performance or slow down.
While maybe not as feature rich or flush with characters as a lot of modern fighting games, there’s still a lot of fun to be had with X-Men: Mutant Academy, especially if you’re a fan of the X-Men. While not as easy to learn as say, Nintendo’s Super Smash Bros., you won’t have much difficulty learning each of the ten characters and when you eventually do, you’ll marvel (no pun intended) over how the game’s mechanics still hold up and feel great. Don’t make the same mistake I did a long time ago and dismiss this game because of all the other excellent Marvel fighters on the PSOne, there’s enough in here that make it well worth a look.