Retrogamer: Sell It to Me
Michael B. Tager
You find yourself on a street, controlling a small man in black leather. Claws extend from between his knuckles. Angry peons rush at you, to be taken down bloodlessly with your claws. It is bloodless. There are fires in the background and trash cans explode when punched with your claws. It is mindlessly appealing; it is vibrantly colorful. When you reach checkpoints, when you gain levels, there are flashes of light. You learn about healing factors, teammates that can shoot laser beams from their eyes or call down lightning. You know all of this from before.
When you were not-quite ten years old, your mother was buying medicine at the pharmacy. You’d finished your book already and saw a rotating rack of comic books. You grabbed two at random. You pawed through them to kill boredom. Unprompted, your mother said you could buy them. One was Silver Surfer #35. The other was X-Men #261. Your fascination with the Surfer didn’t last long; even at nine, you thought a guy literally surfing through the galaxy was hokey. But the other?
You read X-Men comics for the next six years. You familiarized yourself with lore, memorizing the roster, the expansions. It came out in 1963 as Uncanny X-Men, the first roster All-American and lily-white: Cyclops, Iceman, Angel, Beast, Marvel Girl, (and then Havok and Polaris). They were from a different era and relatively unsuccessful. A reboot in ’75 and a different lineup, international, skin shade in different tones: Banshee, Colossus, Nightcrawler, Storm, Sunfire, Thunderbird, Wolverine. Much like Good Times, an unexpected breakout character emerged (Wolverine) and sales picked up. The original X-Men left, then the second lineup left, to be replaced with the ‘90s wave: Gambit and Jubilee and Forge and all these others to replace those that died, left, came back. Villains became heroes, heroes morphed to villains. At first, the complexity overwhelmed you.
You eventually understood that your own lineup will constantly change, that your favorites might die or leave or just fade away, much like Dazzler faded after the death of disco. Your middle school friends don’t last and neither do most of your high school friends and you rarely see people from college anymore. Your jobs have short team-ups and your powers combine, to fade away. Your relationships end and start and end.
But all that knowledge is late-arriving. You needed to get there.
Much like Good Times came from Maude, Uncanny X-Men birthed X-Factor, X-Force (nee New Mutants), Wolverine, Excalibur, Generation X, , and more. Due to crossover events, you read them all, or as many as you could. You never much cared for the psychopathic Canadian Wolverine, so you gave his own comic a pass. In the same respect, you skipped the Brits. That still left a solid four comics for you to read monthly. Only later would you understand that crossovers were not intended for story purposes—they were intended to get you to buy more comics. At the time, it was a puzzle to be solved, mysteries to be delved into. Same with the resurrections and clones and secret love children (from alternate futures or from clones—take your pick).
You argued with your mother: “No, X-Men isn’t a soap opera,” You argued with friends: “X-Men is better than wrestling.” You eventually realized that of course X-Men is a soap opera, what with comas and long-lost siblings and amnesia and everyone screwing everyone. And you eventually realized that of course X-Men is just like wrestling, because everyone has a heel turn and everyone becomes a good guy and it’s just as scripted and intricate, if not more.
It’s your first inkling of how convoluted life is, your endless explaining away of that which didn’t suit your world view. You started to understand how easily people come, how easily they go, through the pages of comic books. It was your first foray into a sanitized racial metaphor—the X-men as African Americans, humanity as the white majority—and your first inkling of disability and homosexuality. You realized that in this metaphor, you’re humanity. Confusing, yes, but ultimately, you were grateful.
In 1992, you played your first X-Man video game titled, appropriately enough, X-Men. It was an arcade game featuring the unprecedented ability for six players to play at once, as different X-Men (each with their own roll of quarters). A side-scrolling beat-‘em-up, you, you played it whenever you could. You liked to play as Dazzler, relieved when you sidled up to strangers in the arcade that she was always available. The strangers were almost always older than you, caricatures of who you will grow to be.
In ’93, you finally bought your own X-Man game: Arcade’s Revenge for the Super Nintendo. It was a remarkably disappointing game, clunky and unresponsive and why was Spider-Man in it, anyway? Why not Dazzler or Angel (especially Angel) or anyone else you liked? It’s just like the comics, you realized, even if you didn’t like it: one day a team might be Dazzler and Colossus and Wolverine, the next it’s Wolverine and Storm and Nightcrawler. You might wish that Wolverine was replaced, but he never will be because you were in the minority on that one. You played Arcade’s Revenge only a little before wishing you’d saved your $50 and spent it on just about anything better.
On your first date, at the age of fourteen, you realized that you have very little to talk about your date, Tiesa. She was interested in Boyz-II-Men and in movies you haden’thadn’t seen and hadehad no comprehension of, like >The Santa Clause. At the mall, you saw X-Men: Children of the Atom, in the arcade. It was in the Street Fighter mold, pitting you against an opponent in best-of-three. You ignored Tiesa for the rest of the date and focused on this gift.
Somewhere in your sixteenth year, about the time that the X-Men’s leader, a paragon of virtue himself, underwent a heel turn himself and attempted to destroy the world, you tapped out of X-Men. You did it both on purpose and by accident. You found yourself surprisingly unengaged by the storylines (you’d started reading Hugo and Nebula Award-winners, though you didn’t connect the dots at the time). You were very irritated at the crossover, this time with The Avengers and the Hulk, neither of which you gave two shits about.
You stopped buying comics. Most of your money went toward video games and pot, anyway, money earned at your first job at a pizza place. For the next few years, you didn’t purchase comics, though you kept apprised as best you could. Friends told you about events and news. You were still vaguely interested.
In 2000, the movie version of X-Menarrived and you saw it along with everyone else you knew. You were surprised by how boring, how stifling, how missing in joy it was. You found it dark and dreary and … boring, just plain boring. When everyone told you how much they loved it, you mouthed similar words. You never commented that it felt so unnecessarily stream-lined and that you wished there had been some work to do.
You didn’t have the words to explain it, but you wanted to see something en media res. You wanted backstories only hinted at, a world left unexplained and unsolved. You wanted to connect dots like you used to.
More movies follow, some better than others and soon, the franchise is rebooted, the cast replaced with younger, cuter models. You quite enjoyed it, though you did wonder why the reboot was vaguely racist (all the white men save the day against the ethnically-and-gender-diverse baddies), but you let it go. It was what it was: a big blockbuster. Reboots at least made sense considering X-Men’s labyrinthine history. You loved how the world is retconned, how there are subtle contradictions wherever you looked. You enjoy explaining these away, either pointing out flaws or justifying: “Of course Alex Summers is the older brother in this continuity. It’s not important who’s older between Havok and Cyclops, the sibling rivalry is what’s important, which is present.”
You picked up a copy of an X-Men compilation hours before your wedding. You didn’t comprehend much. Evidently your favorite X-man, Angel, had evil time-travelling children. You didn’t pretend to care. You leafed through the pages while sitting in sunlight. You looked at pictures, remembered what it was like to be young. You vaguely remembered that there was a video game that came out a few years back that was supposed to be good. You weren’t sure where the recollection came from, but you think that maybe you should check it out. Later, of course.
After the wedding, you went online and found the game: X-Men Legends. You also found its sequel,Rise of Apocalypse. You purchased both for the Xbox, which you still have hooked up in the basement. Together, they cost ten dollars, used. You planned on playing them, but forgot for two years. When you wandered into the basement to find it, you had to pull out boxes of video games that you’d stuffed in a cupboard. Eventually, there it is (sounds of bells and choir).
You play Legends, assuming the role of a deep-cut, B-list X-Man, Magma, a New Mutant you know from the canon (but this is not canon, nothing is canon, not even canon). You are slowly introduced to the X-Men, through tutorials and early, simple missions. You discover how to use your powers, through an input of buttons and levelling. New characters join the party, a bastardized mixing of time periods: Cyclops, Iceman, Beast and Jean Grey from the original series (but no Angel, of course not, Angel is never playable in video games), Wolverine, Colossus, Nightcrawler and Storm from the first reboot; Rogue, Jubilee, Psylocke and Gambit from later iterations; even the White Queen. It’s not as comprehensive as you’d have liked, but it’s still lovely.
Legends doesn’t take the comprehensive approach that is so terrifying to the initiate, the backlog of information that is nearly impossible to wade through. Instead, it forges a simplified version of X-history that is comfortingly familiar but bulldozes its way through contradictions. There are flashback missions of early history with the original X-Men, there are levels of wandering around talking to NPCs and fleshing out history, there are monologues of exposition. You enjoy much of it, finding yourself enamored of the trivia mini-game and discovering that there is not a single question you don’t know.
You wonder why Legends is so satisfying to you. It’s not a particularly amazing game. Oh, it’s well done, you think. The battles are clean and frenetic; there’s satisfying destruction when walls and chairs explode. There’s micromanagement of level raising and power adjustment and item equipping and collection that appeals to the role playing fan inside of you. But it’s nothing new, nothing unique, just a well-assembled amalgamation of other video games.
Playing through Legends as Magma, fighting the Brotherhood of Mutants, destroying Sentinels, slowly unlocking bonuses and cut scenes, finding hidden comic books and art work, you find two parts of your brain reacting and awaking. The nostalgic part which adores unquestioningly is moderately active, enjoying the pandering of the child. That part of your brain would not play very long. It’s the other part that you notice, the part that drew you to X-Men in the first place.
X-Men, for all its faults, was the first hint to you that the world is endlessly complicated, that no one knows what they’re doing, that every success is only because there was an earlier failure. The X-Men are endlessly losing and learning from their mistakes. They are always underappreciated and put upon. They are the ultimate in self-correction.
Even the lineups of the X-Men are in flux, much like the world’s lineup. They’re every baseball team after free agency, every friend group after a break up, every new job and new neighborhood. People come and people go in your life and while some rosters stay for long periods, sooner or later, everyone is replaced. The only constant in your life has been the rogue’s gallery of villains, the team-ups of people you weren’t expecting to be friends with. The brief marriages of convenience. The deaths and resurrections, if not of life, then of friendship.
X-Men Legends becomes your favorite X-Man game, not because it’s particularly good (it’s solid), but because it’s the first to understand that complication is the point, not the roadblock. Anyone who tells you that simplification is bliss is selling you something. You know to embrace the complicating factors of life, because that’s all life is. And that’s all you’re willing to accept. The X-Men were the first glimpses of complication. A child’s life is simple. X-Men are overwhelming. Life never simplifies, not really, but it does at least become digestible.