Let’s be real for a second here, there was nothing in the late 80s and early 90s bigger than the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. My entire childhood, from kindergarten until about 4th grade, revolved around getting my next fix of Turtles. Even to this day, I’m something of a mark for Ninja Turtle related news and merchandise, if funding allows. In the last few years, a made-for-TV movie, entitled “Turtles Forever,” was released in an attempt to bridge the now defunct show TMNT with the cartoon of my youth (the one that might as well have been a half-hour long Playmates commercial). This TV movie featured the original Mirage Studios source material by Eastman and Laird—rest assured I bit down and loved it. Loved it hard.
As a child, this need for Turtles merch was an impetus more powerful than food or sunlight. I remember my elementary school even had Donatello on some home handouts for parents around the time of the movie coming out. Even schools were trying to get in the damn Ninja Turtle market. The toys, from Playmates, were insanely popular, to the extent that particular figures, such as The Shredder or items like the Turtle Van, might be so hard to come by that parents might have to sell their child to actually get their hands on these items come Christmas. As such, it only stands to reason that this marketing “tour de force” would inevitably butt heads with another unstoppable phenomenon of my childhood: video games. And boy, are there ever enough Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles games out there.
I remember as a child going to the semi-regular birthday party at the local skating rink (Hot Skates). There were three arcade cabinets that I could always count on to be prominently illuminated by the bathrooms on the far end of the disco-lit wood rink. Located to the left of the booths where many ice cream cakes were devoured were The Simpsons, Lethal Enforcers, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Each a great game in their own right, Lethal Enforcers was never really my speed (also I could never stand high enough. even in roller skates. to shoot the enemies), but The Simpsons and TMNT were right up my alley. Besides the fact that these games are similar side-scrolling bashers released by Konami, a formula the company would perfect with the massive multi-screen six-player X-Men cabinet, they also were both high-interest merchandise. In 1989, 1990, and 1991 you’d be hard pressed to find a kid who didn’t want to be as badass as Bart Simpson or as cool as Michelangelo. Between these two games, I must have pumped enough of my parent’s quarters to do all of my college laundry and then some. These two games are the only reason why I preferred my friends to have their parties at the rink, seeing as how I could never manage to figure out how to stop on roller skates beyond just slamming into the wall.
The Turtles game was a sight to behold. Something about recalling its visage, even now, conjures fond olfactory reminiscences of cheap pizza, shoe disinfectant, and auditory delusions of the DJ playing Technotronic’s Pump Up The Jam no less than seven times in the same hour. It was, in its dimensions, neither as imposing as X-Men nor as unique as more modern machines like Guitar Hero or DDR. It wasn’t even as commanding as its contemporary driving game counterparts. What it did have, however, was the strangest cabinet art they could have produced. It was adorned with a photograph of a woman in an April O’Neil outfit holding the smallest camcorder available at the time coupled with out-of-stylization Ninja Turtles eating pizza and popping out of the sewers in what appears to be the San Francisco area of Universal Studios Florida. The woman posing as April seemed happy enough, with her New Jersey hair, though a little heavy for the role, and her banana yellow jumpsuit was as accurate as it was poorly made. This always bothered me as a child because it was non-canon. Also, by the time this game was developed the TMNT cartoon had overtaken its source material in the general consciousness and understanding of the public. The game was based reasonably religiously on that cartoon, so the weird choices of the machine’s art are mostly confusing, if not hilarious.
The game itself is fairly straightforward, save April from the Shredder and his goons. The style was consistent with the cartoon, and featured four-person simultaneous play. Not to mention that it was difficult enough to eat all the tokens, quarters, or souls you had available to feed the machine. Each Turtle’s weapon provided a certain balance to the character—though I have to admit that Leonardo and Donatello were my preferred players because their attacks seemed to defend away from your hit zone. As the Turtles, you and 3 friends, or total strangers, work your way through a number of touristy Big Apple stages including a burning building, a city street, a sewer, and the Technodrome—all scenes germane to my New York upbringing. The game even boasted occasional cut screens of awesome 16-bit renderings of the cast in action.
The game is held in high esteem, even by today’s standard, and most of the adult gamers I know today are willing to admit that it’s probably one of the best cabinets ever created (ridiculous art aside). I remember being so amazingly excited when I heard that there was an NES version of the Turtles coming out that I could barely contain my young self. As a child of about five, I knew very little about video game publishing companies, technology, or the world, so it didn’t really matter to me that the game had totally different box art than anything I had seen in the arcade before. The cabinet art was ludicrous anyway. However, it irked me to no end that all of the Turtles had red bandanas on the box art though. As I previously mentioned, the cartoon’s stylization and premises had far overshadowed that of the source material where the turtles did actually all wear red, so this bothered me. I simply brushed it off, blaming the ignorance of grown-ups.
Once inserted into the Nintendo Entertainment System, the game was a total shock. It was nothing like the arcade game, but in all fairness it never claimed to be. This game, produced by Ultra (a Konami subsidiary), was vastly different and could have never have had any hope as an arcade game. It featured an over world, a primary side-scrolling map system, and a version of New York that actually doesn’t resemble any kind of city anywhere on Earth, ever. I was shocked to recently find out that the first stage is actually supposed to be Greenwich Village and 5th Avenue—mostly because as of my last voyage into the City there was no river separating the two, nor are there any lumber mills or buildings full of hay stacks (or futuristic pagoda things that always made me wonder why there were so many doctor’s offices).
The game is almost universally panned in today’s day and age for a slew of reasons, most of which being the traumatic shock that many of us endured when we realized that this was:
A) Not the arcade game
B) Based more on the comics that we never read or were even aware of
C) Hard as fuck
Yes. Without a doubt, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for the NES is one of the hardest games ever devised by man or beast. I have never beaten it, and I have made a point to beat most of the games I never beat as a child–including Adventure of Link and Ninja Gaiden. TMNT was nuts. The hit zones were square, some of the jumps were soul crushing, the turtles couldn’t swim, there were no continues, and there were no passwords. Additionally, most of the mainstream enemies were just pulled from the ether. There are obvious characters like Rat King, Bebop, Rocksteady, Shedder (duh), and some things that look like Mousers and Foot Soldiers…but then there were others. Like Flying Tan Space-Monkey, and Giant Flying Bug, and Man-o-Fire, and who could forget my all-time favorite, Chainsaw Dude. Yes, who could forget the saga of Chainsaw Dude who didn’t appear in either the comic or the TV show? The most villainous villain of all! He was too evil to be contained anywhere in any merchandise of product except for this game.
The negative aside, the game did have a badass opening montage. The music is appropriate, though not the TMNT theme, and the images of the Turtles are pretty good. Also, while the game does become insanely difficult, the underwater stage–the only water that doesn’t kill you in the game–is pretty fun. I never understood why the pink seaweed kills you, but it made for a challenge especially when diffusing bombs under a time limit. I remember the Saturday morning I first beat that level after what seemed like eons of losing. It was an ecstatic childhood joy I can never hope to replicate. There was a similar level on Konami’s hand-held version of the game, but it was difficult beyond measure. Also, a cool feature of the NES game was being able to switch between Turtles on the spot. This was interesting for a variety of reasons, some functional and some imaginary. As a function, it meant that if one of your Turtles was close to dying, or not suited for a particular task, you could switch to a healthier or better-equipped player. As a young player this was a great way for me to avoid starting over. In the realm of the imagination it also meant that, though they weren’t on screen, the turtles were in fact roaming through this game as a group—or at least they did in my head.
It wasn’t long before there was enough demand for the arcade version to move to the NES. Ah, the joyous praise that did come forth from the release of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game for NES. Though it was somewhat watered down, it featured the same advertisements for Pizza Hut embedded as the original did. It also featured some levels created specifically for the game, which if memory serves, includes a winter level for absolutely no reason. All other NES games (and Gameboy as well) in the franchise following this were in the style of the arcade game, though none were quite as good. That is until…
In 1991, a second Ninja Turtles Arcade game, “Turtles in Time,” was released. Even though the plot is stolen straight out of “Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego,” “Turtles in Time” does everything its predecessor did, and does it better. It’s a great game that borrows from the cartoon flawlessly, has a giant Krang’s Body attacking you on a bridge to nowhere, features Metal Head, Spike, Baxter Stockman, and allows you to throw Foot Soldiers at the screen. In fact, some parts of the game require it. Between that and the moving levels on “Cheap Skates,” this game was an instant classic. The SNES port of this game is, to my knowledge, perfect, and even holds a special place in my life as being the game that first introduced me to the mutli-tap—a peripheral that allowed 1-5 players to play a game simultaneously.
Of course, these aren’t all the TMNT games that have been made. Hell, that’s not even the last of them. Maybe someday I’ll talk about Tournament Fighters, but I doubt I’ll have the strength. However, deserving honorable mention is the port of the original arcade game to Xbox 360. It has given me no small joy to play this game in all its original arcade glory at home in front of my two children. I will brainwash them to love what I love. Undeserving of honorable mention is the semi-decent remake of “Turtles in Time,” also for Xbox 360. I wasn’t expecting it to be a remake when I bought it…its ok, but I want the real thing.
In the end, there’s no way to close this post. I’m still a mark for Ninja Turtles; the franchise is still getting my money, although that may change soon with the upcoming Michael Bay produced film. It’s a lifelong addiction. Something about anthropomorphic Turtles that kill people, or Turtles that use deadly weapons to serve pizza, is just a perfect idea. Even with Ninja Rap, a touring musical, a Christmas special, and Peter Stuyvesant accounted for. Turtle Power!