(Review archived from April 13, 2023)
The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles arcade title was hot in arcades during the time in my life when I was the exact target demographic for arcade patronage. Coupled with the fact that it tapped into the cultural zeitgeist of rampant turtle-mania at the very pinnacle of the phenomenon, it’s not a huge exaggeration to say that this game was a bit of a big deal. Or at least it was in Aladdin’s Castle which was the closest arcade to my hometown growing up … a mere 1.5 hour road trip, 120 miles away across one state line. So going to the arcade was already a bit of an event for the young null, in that it represented a purpose driven destination rather than somewhere I might drop by on a whim. And during the year of its release, TMNT really seemed to take center stage in the heady carnival-like atmosphere of Aladdin’s Castle. There was almost always a line for the machine, and being as it was a 4-player cab, my memory is telling me that there was usually more than one line. It sat right next to an X-Men machine (another Konami release interestingly enough) which usually seemed to draw similar queues.
I didn’t have four friends with which to play TMNT this time around, nor was I standing at that super wide 4-player arcade CP. No, in this review we’re talking about how Donatello took on the entirety of Shredder and the Foot Clan as a fully solo mission. That’s a whole lot of preface to say … take anything I say here with a grain of salt because this play-through is just about as far as one could get from the experience the developers actually intended. Bearing all that in mind though … hey Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles really retains some of that radical ol’ Turtle magic! What we have here is a belt scroller beat’em up featuring the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in what I would argue was the first game recognizably patterned on the 80’s cartoon. The NES TMNT title pre-dates this one but … it’s kind of all over the place with the license – the cover was from the original (and fantastic) Eastman & Laird comic book, the enemies are a mix of (barely recognizable) licensed characters and (wholly unrecognizable) original characters, but perhaps most damningly … it doesn’t even feature the iconic song!! No, the NES title (while arguably still decent) could have stood in for just about any licensed property. The Arcade game is unmistakably Saturday morning Turtle Power from (sword) tip to (turtle) tail. The presentation here really is the secret to the game’s success, and I think is a large part of why it stands out so clearly in people’s memory. This really is a near perfect pixel adaptation of the look, feel and visual humor of the show. It also goes without saying of course that the legendary theme music makes several appearances throughout the game, and you’ll likely find yourself humming it for several days after having played the game (okay maybe that’s just me).
The gameplay is … good, though I think this may be one area where the game’s legend overshadows the reality actually. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a respectably well constructed beat’em up that doesn’t do anything terribly wrong, but nor does it rise to level of legendary gameplay. Your move set is fairly simple – one basic strike, one throw, and two flavors of jump kick (one of which is fairly useless if we’re being honest). So in some ways we’re getting towards button masher territory here since the extremely simple move set doesn’t allow for much in the way of strategy or planned power moves. That’s all fine, but in addition to this your strikes all feel fairly floaty and/or soft? I actually had to load up the game again to clarify my thoughts on this point, and it might sound kind of dumb, but my issue is that there’s no sound when you land an attack on an enemy. There’s no satisfying smack upon landing a well placed strike. Sure there’s a slight bit of knock back, but without an audio component to a successful attack, it feels like you’re just lightly tapping them. A small nitpick to be sure but a noticeable omission if even on a subliminal level. Maybe it’s an issue with the emulation? Let me know if that is the case. Ultimately though the game play is good, if a bit unremarkable for this era.
The part that really started jumping out at me as I progressed through the game though was the enemy variety … or the lack thereof. Not including bosses (which are all pretty great really), and if we exclude palette swaps, there are a grand total of three standard enemy sprites in the entire game. I mean … I get that the Turtles fought the Foot clan and it does make sense to have them as the most common opponent. It doesn’t make the endless repetition of Foot Clan soldiers any less tedious in terms of game play … but it does make sense. So yeah … playing single player in the relative silence of my computer room, the fact that 90% of the enemies that you fight are pretty much exactly the same does start to get slightly boring. But this is where some of that old school arcade energy would go along way towards alleviating this particular issue. All told when everything looks and sounds as good as it does it’s not a huge issue, but it is something that’s hard to unsee once you notice it.
I’m always slightly nervous to return to something I’ve held on the pedestal of good memories for so long, but I’m happy to report that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles largely lives up to the legacy I had attributed to it. Is it absolutely unassailable in the warm glow of nostalgic excellence? No. Few things ever are. But it’s worth checking out, and absolutely worth a token or two if you happen to run across it in an arcade. Recommended for beat’em up fans and aspiring heroes in a half shell of all ages.