The late Eighties/early Nineties were a pretty good time to be the sort of kid who read encyclopedias for fun, grew crystal gardens in an old fish tank, and thought stargazing was a cool hobby: Kids like tha- OK, kids like me, could see a little something of ourselves in the most popular cartoons of the time, as the likes of Donatello (and a certain Spengler) managed to be both undeniably as well as proudly nerdy while still holding a well-deserved place in what were then some of the most beloved and marketable groups of animated heroes on the planet. And so for that reason and many others when I saw the NES Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game displayed in home shopping catalogues alongside Nintendo’s too-late-for-Europe console I just knew I had to have it – Turtles! Games! Could there be a better combination?
Well, um, yes. Now I never did get to play that particular NES version of the game but I did unfortunately have the “pleasure” of spending some time with the Amiga port back then and it was a fantastic example of the reasoning behind parental purchasing decisions: Sometimes parents don’t buy kids games because they’re mean and evil and think you’d be better off spending more time outside in the fresh air riding a bike you don’t really like around a local park covered in low-grade graffiti… and sometimes parents don’t buy kids games because the game they’re asking for is a great big stinky ball of rubbish. There’s really no point pretending otherwise – Konami’s 1989 home outing was a terrible game. I knew it back then, when I was young and loved buying Turtles merchandise, and it’s even more painfully obvious today, now I’m old and still love buying Turtles merchandise. It wasn’t fun, and perhaps worst of all it wasn’t Turtles.
Luckily for everyone an adorably ambitious downgraded arcade port – confusingly titled Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on the Famicom and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game just about everywhere else turned out to be exactly was that first sorry attempt should have been. The genre choice? Perfection. All four Turtles present and correct? Brilliant. Co-op play? Naturally. All the Turtles most iconic enemies and more on top? Absolutely.
I love that it hovers around sort of Golden Axe level of complexity (not all that surprising, considering they both debuted in arcades in 1989), which is to say it’s not really complicated at all but there’s enough in there that it’s worth making and effort with as playing well will definitely take you further than randomly mashing buttons. Jump-kick for life? Sure! But it’s so satisfying to kick a Foot ninja or three so hard they explode when they hit the floor nobody can really mind. This is all after carefully noting their colours anyway, as those red ones lugging around massive hammers don’t move or try to hit you in the same way the dark blue ones with the throwing knives or the purple ones with the spears do (and more besides). The game rarely lapses into straightforward hit-or-be-hit anyway: You know that bit in the second stage, where the Foot grunt leaps out of the sewer holding a manhole cover over their head and then throws it at you? I just knew this was a special moment, that if the game was really good I could attack that incoming metal disc and something other than poor Donatello receiving a face full of iron would happen – and as I’m sure you know hitting flying objects in this game sends them right back at whoever threw them, knocking them off their feet. I was so happy with the result I let out a happy little squeak, the sort usually reserved for unlikely eBay wins and squirrels scampering across the garden. Ohhh I love games that let you do things like that, like deflecting arrows in Tenchu or every single second of Metal Gear Rising. And once you know that’s possible you start to notice all the other clever tricks and traps strewn throughout Turtles seven pleasantly lengthy stages, from traffic cones and parking meters to whack towards an enemy or oversized classic American cars to avoid, inexplicably driven by even more evil masked ninjas. Best of all these little incidents are funny. Not wiping-away-tears funny, but a perfect fit for the cartoon that inspired them: The exaggerated zapped-skeleton sprite when electrocuted, the blinking “I’ve just been burned to a crisp” turn to camera like a million Wile E Coyote accidents, or a fall down a hole prompting a “Who put the lights out?” speech bubble.
Foot ninjas throwing snowballs.
Oh and don’t forget the hoverboards! What isn’t made better with a fighting on hoverboards segment? And of course from those glorious grin-inducing scenes you go on to rescue Splinter (Splinter needing rescuing – in any situation – never sat right with me, even less so than April getting kidnapped so often she may as well ask Shredder for a schedule so she can plan her week around it. The guy’s always given off “I could kill everyone in any room at any time and not spill the tea I’m currently drinking” vibes to me.) before heading off to the SECRET NINJA BASE because WHERE ELSE DO NINJAS COME FROM.
Goodness me this is fun.
For all this absurd mayhem Turtles is never in any danger of descending into brainless confusion as the underlying quality of the fast-paced action always takes priority: This is got to be a solidly-built and entertainingly varied game first, then all this business with half-shelled heroes gets worked into the mix after those solid foundations have been laid. Having said that the turtle power’s far from a decorative afterthought – from the clever enemy choices to a little cameo from the ridiculous Turtle Blimp it really does feel like the old cartoon brought to life, and because of that it not only captures the look of the Turtles at the inescapable height of their popularity but my younger self’s fond feelings for it too. I play this and I’m ten years old again, looking through the home shopping catalogue and wishing I could have a NES for my birthday because that game starring the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has just got to be good.