As I write this at the end of August 2014, there’s a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie playing in theaters. This amuses me, as the 1980s cartoon incarnation of the World’s Most Fearsome Fighting Team was something all my friends and I watched growing up, so it’s cool to see the franchise still going strong with a new generation (On an intellectual level, I know this newest version of the franchise is probably not for me, and I’m fine with that).
One thing I had growing up that kids today don’t for the most part, is the concept of “arcades” that have anything besides deer hunting and dancing games. In the late 80s and early 90s, the TMNT arcade game was a staple, and I have a distinct memory of myself, my cousin, and my uncle going to one of these arcades, and my uncle generously giving us what seemed like $1000 worth of quarters (In reality, it was more like $20) as my cousin and I eventually beat the game.
Released in 1989 by Konami, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is, like many games of its time, a beat-em-up. The game begins with a fire in April O’Neil’s apartment building, as the Turtles rush to save her. From there, you’ll take to the streets of New York City before a final showdown with Shredder inside the Technodrome. In all, there are 8 stages, spread out across 5 Scenes.
To total the Technodrome, you’ll face a number of baddies from the 1980s cartoon, including Foot Soldiers, Roadkill Rodneys, and Mousers. Bosses come in the form of Shredder’s henchmen, Rocksteady, Bebop, and people who reluctantly worked with Shredder, including Baxter Stockman, to name some of them. You can do this as any of the four Turtles, Leonardo, Raphael, Michaelangelo, or Donatello. The Turtles do have distinct differences (Donatello’s range is a bit longer; Raph’s both-buttons-at-the-same-time special attack is different than that of the other Turtles’), but those differences aren’t enough to unbalance the game in favor of one Turtle like the NES version.
Make no mistake, this is an arcade game, which means you’ll find a lot of cheapness and situations designed to make you put more quarters into the game. This can become frustrating when playing at home, since the game gives you plenty of lives to make it through–possibly an unlimited amount, depending on the version you play and whether the game is online or not–but takes them away just as easily, minus the financial incentive to continue–instead, you just hit a button to select your Turtle.
Despite the sometimes cheap difficulty, once the “pay or Game Over” mechanic of the arcade is removed, what you’re left with is a shockingly short game. When Mrs. Emptyeye and I played through for the first time a few years back, one thing I was struck by was how quickly the Technodrome level came up, and I said “Wow, last level already?” After we had gotten to Shredder, I then remarked “Wow, Shredder already?”. When you continue in this version of the game, it puts you right back where you were. This made sense in the arcade, but it doesn’t make much sense when playing the game at home, especially since your score is retained through lives, with no “penalty digit” a la Final Fight (Which would increment your ones digit each time you used a credit).
One note is that the way the game allows you to make forward progress presents intriguing possibilities for speedrunning. From the little bit of research I’ve done, the game lets you progress to a certain point, then stops you until you kill a certain number of enemies. The game doesn’t seem to care which enemies you kill, however, which means routing the game would be a bigger deal than in most other beat-em-ups, which give you hard stops until all enemies have been cleared from the screen. Even when not speedrunning, though, the game is about a half hour long, if that.
This version of the game is a nostalgia bomb for myself and people my age who remember it, and new fans of the Turtles in whatever incarnation will probably enjoy it “because TMNT”, even if what “TMNT” is has changed in the intervening years. Without the context of the arcade experience, though, people playing it for the first time today will be left wondering what all the fuss was about. If you’d like to find out for yourself, the game is MAMEable. An imperfect port was also included within Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2: Battle Nexus. Finally, it was available on XBox Live Arcade (This is how I played it most recently), but it’s since been removed if Wikipedia can be trusted. There’s also the NES port, which is more of a Metroid: Zero Mission-style expansion than a straight port.