In any X-Men video game, you can expect that Wolverine is going to be a playable character. He was the most popular X-Men character and is probably still is, today. He’s a character that fights via physicality, so he’s perfect for video games. Is a video game based on Wolverine alone going to work? Let’s take a look at Wolverine for the Nintendo Entertainment System to find out.
Wolverine is an action platformer developed by Software Creations and published by LJN. At the title screen, you can choose to play the game with one or two players. However, two player mode is really just two people taking turns at the game solo. In this game, you take on the role of the titular character. He’s been captured by his arch-enemy, Sabretooth, and has been imprisoned on a deserted island. Sabretooth has filled the island with various traps and enemies, hoping to push our hero to his limits before having one final confrontation with him.
In the game, you’ve got several stats that you need to keep your eye on. You have a Lives count, and you start with three lives. You also have one Continue, in case you run out of lives. The 1UP and Free Play power ups, which are hidden in the levels, will give you additional lives and continues, respectively.
You have a Health meter, which is missing a few bars at the start of every level. You also have a Berzerker meter, an Air counter, and a Havok counter as well. I’ll discuss each of these in their appropriate sections.
In order to refill the health meter, you’ll need to find Burger and Alcohol power ups. Both will replenish four bars of health, but the Alcohol power up also adds bars to the Berzerker meter. From my experience, there are enough of these in the game’s levels, but you’ll need to do some exploring to find some of them.
Basic Moves and Abilities
In the game, you can walk, jump, and crouch. In a weird design choice, Wolverine’s crouch is actually him on his hands and knees. He can crawl forward too. The only thing I hate about this is that he goes into a few animation frames so there’s a slight delay. If you’re trying to dodge enemy fire by kneeling, you might get hit if you don’t react quickly.
You can attack via punching, which you can do while standing, in the air, or while crouching. By default, he doesn’t have his claws out. In another weird design choice, you can press Select to toggle between having his claws out or retracted. Attacking with the claws extends Wolverine’s range a bit and does double damage, but each attack depletes your health whether you hit or miss.
It has been said that Wolverine experiences pain whenever he retracts or extends his claws, and maybe this is representing that. On a thematic accuracy perspective, Wolverine rarely fights with his claws retracted. In gameplay, this just adds another thing to worry about. You can’t use claws if your Health meter is in the red zone, by the way.
The Air Meter and Swimming Sections
There are also some water areas, so you also have the ability to swim. To swim, you’ll need to tap the attack button, so you can’t attack while in the water. I actually like the swimming mechanics, especially the way you stay on the surface of the water for a moment. It helps you jump out of the water easily.
While underwater, your Air meter will get depleted slowly. When it runs out, you’ll start taking damage until you’re able to refill it. The Air meter fills up at the surface, or when you jump out of the water. My only complaint about swimming is that it’s barely used in the game. Why add swimming and an Air meter if it only plays a factor in two stages?
Berserker Rage and the Berzerker Meter
In the comic books, Wolverine can go into a “Berserker Rage” mode wherein his animal instincts take over and his human side loses control. This mode is in this game too. To go into “Berserker Rage”, you need to fill up your Berzerker Meter. You can do this by killing enemies and by finding Alcohol power ups.
Once the Berzerker Meter is full, Wolverine starts flashing. He is impervious to enemy damage in this mode, but can still die from falling into pits and instant kill hazards. He’ll also attack at random frequently, so it’s hard to control him. In this mode, the Berzerker Meter will gradually deplete. You’ll snap out of your Berserker Rage once the meter has been fully depleted.
Depending on where you are in a stage when this happens, this can be beneficial or put you in a disadvantage. You’ll want this in sections where you won’t need to jump over gaps and with plenty of enemies. If you go into Berserker Rage in a platforming section, I suggest that you wait it out.
Guest Starring the X-Men
For some reason, Wolverine’s got a few X-Men teammates to help him. Early on, you can meet up with Psylocke if you can find her. She’s in a location that I wouldn’t have been able to find on my own, to be honest.
She’ll give you a device that’ll let you call Havok. That’s the only thing she does. Why bother putting her in, if you could have just met Havok himself? Anyway, when you get the device, you’ll start having numbers for your Havok meter. At any point, if your Health meter is in the red, press Select and Havok will appear.
You get to control Havok as Wolverine takes a nap to regenerate his health. Havok automatically attacks with energy bubbles that kills opponents within range. You can walk left or right with him, but you can’t jump. Havok stays until you press Select again or until your Havok counter runs out. So, you have the option to deplete the Havok counter and heal as much as you can, or save a bit for later.
Jubilee also appears in the game. You’ll also need to find her though. While she isn’t as well-hidden, you can miss her. I didn’t know she was in the game because I missed her in my first playthrough. She’ll give you a device that increases your Air meter. This isn’t required, but it will make the water level a lot easier to manage. My only complaint is, this device will only be useful in the same stage that you’ll find Jubilee in. It’s pretty irrelevant after that.
Unfair Level Design
Wolverine is known as a bad game, James Rolfe even talked about it. For me, there are two things that really break this game. The first one involves the level design. The developers put in obstacles that are guaranteed to kill you. For instance, the game has a lot of blind jumps where you really can’t see if there’s something at the end to land on.
These are literally leap of faith moments. I don’t know why they thought this would be a good idea. It’s tolerable early in the game because you can simply die and repeat. With limited continues, this gets frustrating when it happens in the later stages.
One stage has floors that collapse once you step on them. These look exactly like regular floors. And they fall down so fast, I have trouble reacting fast enough even though I knew I was stepping on one. Most of these will take you to your death. Here’s one particularly nasty sequence.
In the above, you’ll start at (1) and your goal is (4). That’s too high, so you’ll need to jump from the flaming ledge. That’s too far though. You can jump from (2), but that’s a “fake” floor that’ll start falling the moment you step on it. If you don’t jump right away, you’ll fall into a pit of fire and die. Mistime your jump and you’ll take damage from the fire. Land a pixel too far to the right and you die immediately. These sequences aren’t impossible, but they do require a lot of patience, level memorization, and trial and error.
Unforgiving Damage Mechanic
The second issue is much worse. When you get hit by an enemy, there are no recovery moments for you. In most games, when you get hit, you get pushed back a bit and you get brief moments of invulnerability. In this game, you just keep on taking damage for as long as you’re in contact with an enemy.
Slow reflexes will get your health down from full to red in no time. You already take damage unnecessarily from using your claws, and here you also get penalized heavily when you make mistakes. Following traditional game design and giving invincibility frames after taking a hit would have made this a vastly better experience.
Visuals, Sounds, and Presentation
For an NES game, I honestly think that Wolverine has really good looking sprites. Wolverine looks great, especially for a game released in 1991. You can clearly see it when he has his claws out or retracted, and his action animations are smooth enough. The X-Men guest stars also look really good, I was able to recognize them immediately.
Enemy sprites have sufficient detail to them so I could also tell what each one is. In terms of visuals, stages have enough variety in terms of colors and appearance so they all feel different. The only sprite that I didn’t like is Sabretooth’s; I think he should have been larger than he was in the game.
However, the enemies are simply generic characters and stages are generic locations. In my opinion, LJN could have taken more from the X-Men license, such as adding minor villains like the Marauders or the Reavers. I usually mention boss battles when talking about superhero games, but there are only two in this game.
I loved the tracks in this game too. The sound effects were decent and did their part in general. Unfortunately, there are only two stage themes and the title theme itself. So while the music is good, there’s not enough of it in the game.
Wolverine had some good things going for it, but it’s issues are game breaking. Honestly, it’s hard to put up with the punishing damage mechanic and obnoxious level design. Which is a shame, because I think this game would have been decent if it only had one of these issues.
I can only recommend this to someone who loves the challenge of old 8-bit games and has the patience and time needed to deal with the amount of trial and error required to beat this game. If you don’t mind not finishing games and are really into the X-Men or Wolverine, I guess you can give this one a try too.
For more video games based on X-Men characters, click here. If you want video games based on Marvel characters, click here. And click here to check out every NES video game that I’ve played.
A better and more thematic game mechanism would have been to give Wolverine auto healing whenever he stands still, and afterwards design the level for a mix of Contra and Sonic the Hedgehog so that the player would be hard pressed to take advantage.
Those are great ideas! Too bad LJN didn’t use the character wisely. Wolverine is another comic book character that adapts well to video games.