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25 Years of Turtle Power; A Teenage Mutant Anniversary

Adrian Hatwell
Adrian Hatwell

25 years ago a couple of struggling artists created a weird black and white comic book with no ambition beyond earning enough money that they didn’t have to work at Pizza Hut; little did they know that their creation would become a globe-spanning multigenerational phenomenon. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles celebrate a quarter century this year and I thought a retrospective of their gaming achievements might be in order.
Though many of us might have lost touch with the brothers green having graduated from childhood, I’m not the only one, ahem, shell-ebrating their cultural proliferation this year. As the Turtle’s home town, New York City will be turning the Empire State Building green for a night later this month and the Tribeca Film festival will be screening the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film (which was the highest grossing independent film ever at the time, dontcha know?) Check out the official 25th anniversary website for other fun stuff.

I know most people’s love of the Turtles isn’t quite as rabid as my own (I almost financially crippled myself bidding on an auction for the original Mirage Studios comic books) so this article might be a little self-indulgent, but for those that dig their digital heroes fresh from the sewer, well, cowabunga I guess.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for the NES (1989)

Like many of the Turtle’s games to come, their first interactive appearance wasn’t set in single version of TMNT cannon but was rather a mix of several. In this case the original comic books and the early episodes of the animated show.

The game was a basic platformer in which players chose one of the Turtles to play as (who can be swapped on the fly) as they mash through NYC dealing to Foot soldiers, Mousers, and various other video game-specific goons.

The game sold incredibly well of the back of the cartoon’s popularity, and is remembered to this day by aging geeks as being a notoriously difficult game to beat.

If you care to give this beloved title a whirl you can download it for the Wii’s Virtual Console.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game (1989)

This is the one etched most clearly in my memories; it was many a 20 cent piece I surrender to this seductive slot machine while loitering at the movie complex.  

Again set in a pastiche of the darker themed comics and wacky animated series, this side-scrolling brawler allowed up to four people to play as each of the turtles, with their signature weapon's speed, range, and damage making each a unique character.

Again the foursome threw down with a veritable army of Foot soldiers, colour coded by which weapon they wielded, and level bosses like Rocksteady, Bebop, Baxter Stockman, Krang, and the Shredder.  

I think it was the machine’s siren call that made this game so popular, it would bleat out a portion of the cartoon’s theme song (also known as the best theme song ever), supernaturally lifting the spare change right from pockets.
This bad boy lives on as TMNT 1989 Classic Arcade on Xbox Live Arcade if you fancy a stroll down memory lane.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III: Project Manhattan for the NES (1991)

Sticking with the arcade style beat ‘em up action of the original arcade game, Project Manhattan sees the Turtles return to the home console in a very faithful sequel.

While the Turtles are off vacationing in Florida Keys, Shredder is up to his old shenanigans, this time using Dimension X technology to raise the entire island of Manhattan into the air. As if kidnapping that much prime real estate weren’t motivation enough he also holds perennially endangered reporter April O’Neil hostage.

The game sticks so closely to the one before that it’s almost not worthy as a title in itself, but it does throw in some welcome scenery changes, so it’s not entirely without purpose. In fact EGM named it the best NES game of 1992 (must have been a slow year).

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Manhattan Missions for PC (1991)

Most mysterious of all Turtles titles is this hard-to-find MS-DOS game, known by few and played by fewer.

A side-scroller of some description, the game featured the most liberal mash-up of all Turtle-verses, including the cartoon series, both Mirage and Archie comic book series, and the popular films.

While it's fairly easy to download the long out-of-production game on the Internet, if you happen across a legitimate copy you’ll have found one of the most rare pieces of Ninja Turtles junk around, collectors will happily offer up a small fortune for that artefact.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV: Turtles in Time for the SNES (1992)

While the original arcade game holds the dearest place in my heart, Turtles in Time is unequivocally the half-shelled heroes' finest gaming hour.

Again delivering the same side-scrolling brawler action as previous titles, rather than spinning its wheel this game takes things in exciting new directions. After hunting down Shredder for the umpteenth time the Turtles get hurled into a time warp, forcing them to battle through the past and future to rescue the once again captive April O’Neil.

The step up from the Nintendo Entertainment System to the Super Nintendo was a dazzling one indeed, leading many commentators of the time to liken Turtles in Time to playing through an actual episode of the cartoon.

There was also a sort of bastard stepchild version of the game released for the Sega Mega Drive titled the Hyperstone Heist. It did away with the time travelling plot but still retained many of the time-displaced levels, explaining away incongruities with minor (often idiotic) adjustments like calling the 1530s Pirate Ship a Ghost Ship instead.

The game is an unlockable bonus on a much later title, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 3: Mutant Nightmare for the PlayStation 2, GameCube, and Xbox.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Tournament Fighters for the NES/SNES/SMD (1993)

At this point long-time Turtles developer Konami ditched the successful beat ‘em up style of play in favour of a straight up fighter in the vein of Street Fighter II.

All three versions of this game across different systems contained slightly altered storylines in order to explain why the Turtles were entered into some sort of illegal ultimate fighting tournament against their enemies and friends. Most involve rescuing Master Splinter (who must have been relieving April that shift) and/or defeating Shredder.

The game plays out like a fairly generic fighter of the time, garnering most of its appeal by featuring many somewhat obscure characters from both the television show and comic books.

In a neat bit of packaging each version of the game featured a different turtle and combatant on the box – NES had Leonardo fighting Hothead, SNES had Donatello fighting Armaggon, SMD has Rapheal fighting Triceraton, no love for Michelangelo – so hardcore collectors had to catch ‘em all.   

Tournament Fighters was the last game to feature either the original comic book or animated series versions of the Turtles, and that being my area of expertise is where I will leave this overview. There have been many Turtles games released since, Konami continued to adapt the new animated series (beginning 2003) over subsequent generations, and with the release of the excellent CGI film in 2007 Ubisoft took the reigns.

Some time this year a new title is due to drop called Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Smash Up, co-developed by Game Arts and Team Ninja for the Nintendo Wii. With elements of the creative teams behind Super Smash Bros. Brawl and Ninja Gaiden 2 the game has an excellent chance at rising above the disappointing standard set by recent Turtle games.

Right, well that’s my Turtle swooning over for this anniversary (publically anyhow) so I will leave you with the inimitable Vanilla Ice from the second TMNT film, performing the sacred Ninja Rap.  

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