X-Men: Mutant Academy 2

The whole reason of my playing X-Men: Mutant Academy was to get to this game. This game was absolutely my childhood; countless hours were spent with this game as a youngster, mastering each and every character and combo. While I’ve never claimed to be a great fighting game enthusiast, there’s a few games that I got into in a really serious way, and this one was definitely one of them. The questions for us today are both whether this now-ancient PS1 fighting game stands up to the test of time, but also whether it managed to improve on its lacking predecessor. 


X-Men Mutant Academy 2 (PS1)

Released Sep 2001 | Developed: Paradox | Published: Activision

Genre: Fighting | HLTB: 2.5 hours

That latter question might be more pertinent than you think. At first glance you might question precisely what development has happened between the first Mutant Academy and this game, given the opening menu is identical, right down to the same irritating thrumming sound in the background and the obnoxious sound effect as you switch options. It would be perfectly reasonable to, at this point, give the game before you a bit of the old distrustful side-eye. But this game does actually have new content – it’s just hidden a tiny bit under the hood.  

For a start, there’s a bunch of new characters, some of which are slightly more niche choices, which I respect. The entire roster returns from the first game, but now it’s supplemented by both some fan-favourites like Nightcrawler and Rogue, and ones I remember only learning of thanks to this game, such as Cyclops’ laser shooting brother Havok and the unstoppable inventor-mechanist Forge. It also has a handful of bonus unlockable characters so the total complete roster is almost double the size of Mutant Academy; a couple of them are, as far as I’m concerned, X-Men mainstays and should’ve always been represented, like finally getting to beat people up with Professor X and his combination of telekinesis and a fighting style that I can only describe as wheelchair-fu. Perhaps the most notable addition is Spider-Man, who actually shows up largely only as an advert for what was then an upcoming release, Spider-Man 2: Enter Electro (itself another absolute banger of a game from my childhood), but at least his inclusion hasn’t been half-arsed. 


Another returning feature is all of the stages from the first game but this time the developers bothered to link them with more appropriate characters; what I mean by that is stuff like the fact that the sewer stage is now Toad’s stage, rather than the apocalyptic skyline that he had in the previous game, or Magneto has a more suitable moon base as opposed to inexplicably appearing in some lava-strewn prehistoric landscape. There’s also loads of new costumes now as well, with almost every character having at least 3 to cycle through, and some getting up to 4. It’s almost like culture shock going back to games like this where the game is stuffed with unlockable content rather than having to buy it all in some external marketplace. 

The gameplay has thankfully been tweaked from the first game’s clunky performance, and done so in such a way as to feel like an almost drastically different game. The animations are significantly smoother and combos are actually possible this time around, as attacks string together beautifully. Characters have more special moves to access, giving them more unique personality, and a small but surprisingly meaningful change is the addition of splash screens while fights load which detail how to pull off all 3 of each characters’ super moves so you don’t need to have the manual (or a handy internet page) open between fights to scour for inputs. In what is undoubtedly my favourite change, you can now also launch your opponent into the air and follow them up for lengthy and devastating air combo strings, which serve to drag Mutant Academy back into line with the expectations players might have of the genre. 


Other than that, the fighting gameplay is as you’d expect. Each character has a mix of light and heavy punches and kicks, many of which can be very quickly chained together. Their special moves also have levels based on whether you’re using light, medium, or heavy inputs; for example, Cyclops has an optical blast uppercut that merely knocks enemies back when using the light input, but if you use the heavy input it becomes a launch. The changing properties of the specials gives a little more nuance and strategy to fights, as does the returning counter system in which fighters get 3 counterattacks to deploy and break an opponent’s attack per round. Once again, as before, characters have 3 bars, each of which corresponds to one of their super moves; they begin each round with their weakest super ready to go, but have to land and take hits to power the others up. 

My other gripes about the first game have also been addressed. We finally have a proper level of control over the difficulty and fight settings, things that should have been here from the get-go. The practice mode is also much improved as it has a proper training mode that takes you through moves and combos for each character, as well as a decent free training mode which, unlike the first game, actually has a move list to consult (another one of the baffling omissions from Mutant Academy). Additionally, the Arcade mode is now a random ladder instead of a set path through the characters in order. Beating a character’s ladder unlocks a little FMV just like in the first game but this time there’s often an actual narrative to them, and many of them connect together to form a little quick story, such as Cyclops blasting targets in a drill to impress Phoenix, before Havok pops out and pops him with a blast to the back in some high-spirited brotherly bants. 


So where does that leave us with Mutant Academy 2? I think it would be reasonable to look at this game, after the first, as being little more than a mere quick rehash of Mutant Academy, a kind of mission-pack sequel. It certainly can see that way since it reuses so many of the same assets; many of the characters are the same and use the same models (or the same with some very minor improvements), there’s definitely a lot of the same movelists being used at the core of these characters, all of the stages from the first game are used again, and many of the same menu assets are reused. With that in mind, it’s not unfair to ask what was the point of this as a sequel if you’re not providing a fully upgraded new experience. I suppose in some respects that is an apt descriptor of Mutant Academy 2; it seems far more like it was intended to replace Mutant Academy rather than act as a sequel to it. 

And yet, it wasn’t really made that quickly, or rushed out. It was released over a year after the first, a development time which suggests some real care and attention; I doubt it took them all that time just because they were modeling a few extra stages and a couple more characters. In fact, once you play it, it quickly becomes clear that much of the year of development must’ve been spent on work under the hood, so to speak, as if the developers finally were given the time they needed for the first game in order to turn what was a rushed-feeling movie tie-in to a fully-fledged and worthwhile fighting game that could compete against the well-established scene of PS1 fighting greats like Tekken and Soul Edge


For my money, it genuinely does succeed in that lofty goal. It was perhaps a little unfortunate that Mutant Academy 2 came out so late in the PS1’s lifecycle – for context, it came out even after Tekken 4 had begun to make the rounds in arcade cabinets, so the next generation of fighting games were already rearing their heads. And yet, Mutant Academy 2 remains one of my picks for among the best of the PS1’s fighters, and I don’t think it’s solely nostalgia talking; I genuinely think the improvements made in the transition from the first game to this elevate the experience to sublime. It’s a remarkably playable fighter, and one that I think transcends the sometimes suffocating grip of being part of an extant franchise and random – even though this is an X-Men title, I think you could safely play this even without knowing anything about Marvel’s premier mutant franchise. 


Games with a touch of brilliance. It might only just miss out on being an absolute favourite, but you should definitely play this.


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