The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles rose to fame in the late 80s, attaining the height of their popularity in the early 90s. Together with the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, adjectives thrived during this time. The kids–myself included–just couldn’t get enough color-themed monster-fighting super-heroes, yet the forces of consumerism, which conquered both good and evil, happily tried to give us just that. In 1989, a new cabinet started appearing in arcades. Just another beat-em-up game at heart, to find the true beauty of Teenage Mutant Ninja turtles, you only had to dive skin-deep. (Hey, kids are allowed to be shallow!)
The popularity of the Turtles arcade game sent many people into stores to pick up the NES Ninja Turtle game released the very same year. Many rushed home after hounding their parents for this game, ripped open the box, shoved the cartridge into their NES, bent their connector pins ever so minutely toward total system shutdown and hit the start button…
…only to be miserably disappointed by the game they found.
While the internet raves about the 1989 NES game’s good reception and commercial success, I can’t help but wonder if it would have the same reputation if people hadn’t thought they could own a copy of the arcade game. Everyone I remember who enjoyed TMNT video games had fonder memories of the beat-em-up than the NES game. But memory doesn’t record like a camera, I know, and as my mother proves every time she tells people how I’d wet my pants playing video games because I refused to pause for bathroom breaks, sometimes people can completely fabricate memories. Now if I only had evidence of this disappointment…say, a port of the arcade game to home systems immediately after the first game’s release…or even future games returning to the beat-em-up genre…
Still, I’d like to get at–in a roundabout way–the fact that the 1989 NES version of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles actually surpasses the arcade game in a few ways…several ways…most…eh…well, let me ask you this; have you ever seen the 1978 animated “Lord of the Rings,” then compared it to Peter Jackson’s films? For the arcade release, Konami simply slapped a green, amphibious skin on the same game that’s been released over and over for what by now has got to be close to 25 years. But the NES release blended side-scrolling action with a top-down sort of explorable map, while include an underwater swimming stage and a character select screen that let you switch between any turtle at any time.
I recently dug out the 1990 live-action film, which made me wonder…well, two things actually. One, who sat down and thought “You know who’d make a good Donatello? Corey Feldman!” What, did Woody Allen and George Burns turn down the role? And two, why does Hollywood feel the need to burn away everything popular with a series and then misinterpret the premise? That’s like saying, “You know what people love? Strippers! So let’s record two hours of grandpa Fred prepping for and receiving his colonoscopy and call it the same thing! He is naked, after all!” People enjoy playing the Ninja Turtles game because they didn’t do that. They released a game because people watched the TV show, and when they bought the game it resembled the show. You fight Bebop and Rocksteady in the first level, save April, get a message from Shredder saying that he kidnapped Splinter, and then you chase him in the turtle van, then the blimp, and assault the Technodrome.
You get to do a lot of ninja-ey stuff like spin flips, grapple from building to building, and throw shurikens. Furthermore, the game employed animated cut scenes between levels, which have now become a standard tool in creating down time while maintaining interest in the game. When I looked up the release date, it shocked me how long ago they made this game, since it seemed well-developed even for a NES era game.
TMNT takes a few cues from Castlevania, including the detailed backgrounds, the secondary weapons, the enemy life display, and the brutal, unmerciful, harsh unforgivingness of the difficulty. Whereas Simon Belmont leapt through the ledges of Dracula’s castle with the agility and control of a horse-drawn golf cart, the turtles all feel remarkably easy to control. However, at times, dozens of enemies could criss-cross their way across the screen, and navigating safely around them reminded me of searching for a place to stand on the train during rush hour in Seoul (you’ve seen the videos of attendants pushing crowds of people into the metro? I’ve been in that crowd). I discovered that not all turtles are equal. Donatello’s staff has reach, but rather than handicap him in strength, he deals twice as much damage as any of the other characters. Meanwhile, Raphael and his sai provided a useful target any time I couldn’t avoid taking damage, since his attack pretty much required me to get close enough to the enemy to pull his beard and tell him what I wanted for Christmas.
Theoretically, you could finish Castlevania with nothing but patience. You may have to replay certain parts, but you had unlimited continues and only had to restart the level each time. TMNT isn’t quite as generous. It offers you two continues, and since each level involves a map full of explorable stages, getting knocked back to the start feels like more of a blow. I wanted to write about the game though, but needed to get through to the end, so I ended up using save states. I’d say though that it feels more manageable than Castlevania–except for two rooms of instant-death spikes and one long hall full of powerful enemies just before Shredder, it feels like a little practice would help reach more of the game just on the regular lives and continues.
Except for the afforementioned rooms of spikes, platforming elements remain mostly absent, so the player can concentrate on his ninjutsu. Falling into holes or water won’t kill you, but it will wipe you back to the beginning of the stage (one tricky jump kept me from finishing level 3 for YEARS).
Despite unrelenting difficulty cutting off access to the later levels without hours of practice, TMNT does a lot of the right things to tempt the player into coming back for more. Although it had the misfortune of not being the arcade game, it’s worth attention, as it provides countless replayable hours of Corey-free entertainment.
(Coming up soon, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. Most of the games I’ve written about so far have been those I’ve played in the past. Soon I’d like to move onto those that are completely new to me. I’m thinking of going through either a Sega or SNES RPG next. Any thoughts?)